Acts chapter two characterizes the birth of the church, and identity of the Christian witness through the coming of the Holy Spirit (the day of Pentecost). Pentecost has a history connected to the Passover in Old Testament history. “As Passover was the celebration of the exodus from Egypt, Pentecost became the celebration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and its annual observance pointed to the renewal of the covenant.”[i] Luke suggests, not explicitly, that the “birth of the church comes on the day associated with God giving the law and making the covenant with Israel.” [ii]
The early church was founded on the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit. It was not founded on “good advice, ethics, personal piety, or social justice, but on the good news of God’s acts in history. Something happened that made the difference.[iii] In this opening passage, they were all together, and on one accord. The text does not allude to the “they” being the one hundred and twenty who were together in Chapter One or the twelve Apostles. What is important is that they were together and unified in their faith.
The Holy Spirit comes as the sound of a rushing mighty wind, with divided tongues of fire that rested on each of those who were present in the community. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. Devout Jews questioned the meaning, as they heard them speak in their own native languages. Boring and Craddock, points us to the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel (Gen.11:1-9), where God confused the languages and scattered the people, because of humanity’s sin. Luke constructs the nature of the church as a reconciling act, reversing the judgment of the Babel story “founding a community that transcends race, language, and culture.”[iv] It is important to remember that Jesus, the apostles, and all the earliest Christians were Jews. The gospel was extended to the gentile nation, as we will see later in Acts. Luke sets a precedent by including all languages and native tongues as a reflection of what the church would become. The church was poised from its birth to become a universal, inclusive community.
Some asked, “What does this mean?” Others mocked them and said, “they are drunk.” Peter rose to the occasion and began to interpret the meaning of what they were hearing. He is the first preacher of the Christian movement, giving his first sermon that “proclaims the central elements of the Christian faith to people who are not Christian, calling them to repentance and faith.”[v] Peter quotes the book of Joel 2:28-32, to explicate the pouring out of God’s spirit on all flesh. “Joel had predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit in the last day, i.e., as part of the eschatological events of the “day of the Lord.”[vi]
I need to linger here a bit. Peters’ sermon can be considered missionary and evangelistic! It was a proclamation of what God had done in Jesus Christ. “The proclamation of the word calls for a decision that separates those who respond from those who do not. What shall we do? God’s saving act calls for human response. The followers of Jesus are called to declare clearly what this response should be.”[vii]
During biblical times, some believed that the Holy Spirit had been active in previous generations. “The earliest Christians viewed they were living in the final generation of history and that the presence of the Spirit was testimony that they were living in the last days.”[viii] For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit did not represent the end, it was the beginning of something new that God was doing in their historical context. It represented that the gospel would be proclaimed to all nations in anticipation of the end of times, not that the end had come and there was nothing else to proclaim!
Many of us today may have the same thoughts and struggles with the church – that we are living in end times, as previous generations. Each generation has its own struggle with its identity and witness as followers of Jesus Christ, and questions about the future of the church. Our witness is no different. Today, we have different and new vantage points with which to share the good news of how God acted in history.
Luke wanted us to understand that this model of the early church would diminish, that the church would separate from the synagogue. But Luke put before us an ideal of what could be realized. “Jesus’ followers need not simply assume that the call to discipleship is an unrealizable ideal,”[ix] but something to be grasped and experienced through the power of the Holy Spirit. The call is believers is to continue this kind of “evangelistic preaching, in word and deed, formally and informally, that calls forth the response of faith.”[x] Our challenge is to have all things in common, strive for Koinonia and true community, exemplified by the early Christians in Acts.
Prayer: Dear God: This passage causes us to reflect on where we are as a church. Thank you for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Thank you that the Holy Spirit was sent, and remains active and present for all of us. We thank you that proclaiming your name calls for a faith response in the way we live, what we say, how we follow after you, and how we love and serve others. In Jesus’ Name, We Pray, Amen.
[i] Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, pg. 369.
[iii] Ibid., pg. 370.
[vi] Ibid., pg. 371.
[vii] Ibid., pg. 373
[viii] Ibid., pg. 371.
[x] Ibid, pg. 373.