Opening The Old Testament
The Offering of Which Gospel? Reflections on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21)
But not so fast! Such a transformation will not occur without serious obstacles. In the same way that all four of the gospels relate the fact that some who experienced the resurrection simply do not or cannot believe, so in the face of the miracle at Pentecost all that some can conclude is that these who are ecstatically hearing the gospel spoken to them are in fact three sheets to the wind, though it be only nine in the morning! And though Peter scoffs at this claim (Acts 2:15), the fact that he must defend the reality of the event suggests that opposition to the rise of the new messianic Jewish-Christian community has already begun. Peter's lengthy and potent sermon that follows (Acts 2:14-36) is not merely preaching to the choir; some who heard did not buy it, and the seeds of division were sown from the very start of the movement.
Peter laces his defense of the Pentecost experience with sharp connections to the story of Moses. The Jews of the first century almost certainly connected Pentecost with the giving of the Torah on Sinai. After all, fire was long seen as a symbol for Torah. Also, no reading of Exodus 19:16, relating the gift of Torah on the sacred mountain, can miss the emphasis on sound and fire. Then too, Johnson notes the words of Philo Judaeus in his treatise "On the Decalogue": "Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them." One can hardly miss the echoes here of Luke's portrait of the Pentecost happening.
Luke further connects Moses to these events in the speech of Stephen in Acts 7:38. Just as Moses "was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai," according to Stephen, so Peter preaches that "God raised Jesus up, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit (that) he has poured out what you now see and hear" (Acts 2:33). In other words, the witnesses at Pentecost have, like Moses, seen and heard the gift of God, first of Torah and now of the Holy Spirit.
And just who are these witnesses? They are an international assembly of Jews from the known world, in the Holy City to celebrate the gift of Torah at Pentecost. But, according to Luke, this Pentecost is like nothing they have ever seen. For now they have heard the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, spoken to them in their own languages, offering to them the chance to join the beloved community of their Messiah, that Messiah that they had just killed. They rejected him cruelly, but now they have been given a second chance to receive him. According to Luke, "three thousand" join as a result of hearing Peter speak of Jesus and God's gift of him to the world.
This event, of course, is deeply idealized. Oh, there surely were excitement and conviction and joy in coming to the early communities of Jesus. And just as surely, many of these converts did in fact devote themselves to "teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). But the scoffers and the unconvinced were many, we can be certain. After all the next stories will speak of Ananias and Sapphira, who join but hardly change their stingy ways (Acts 5). And later we will hear Paul preach on the Areopagus, and the result of his sermon will be two converts and many skeptics (Acts 17). We should never forget that in 2014 there are perhaps two billion Christians in the world, but those two billion are so diverse and often so distrusting of one another that we remain a first century church after all, with some joyfully announcing the good news of the love of Jesus for all while others announce hatred and anger toward those who do not experience the faith as they do.
Peter little knew what he was unleashing at that first Pentecost. Luke hoped for a worldwide church, and that has nearly happened. Yet, that church seems far from the one Luke's Peter had in mind. Perhaps that has always been so. The truth of the matter is that the church is populated by human beings, not pure saints; the result of that certain fact is that no beloved community will ever exist this side of the realm of God. Yet, we pray each week for God's "kingdom to come." What else can we do after we have experienced Pentecost and have heard the gospel spoken in our own language?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.