Another look at the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2

Evert Van de Poll, 3 November 2020

Text based on the Bible Study given during the biannual conference of FEET, the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians, 26 August 2020

One of the most famous chapters in the Bible is Acts 2, the account of what happened in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus-Christ.

There is so much in this chapter to develop. What can I say in the short space of this article? 

Let me take another approach than usual to understand what Luke is saying in this chapter. Let us look at the text from the angle of the rules of theatre in antiquity, that were also adopted in the Renaissance and early modern theatre in Europe. Theatre plays had to obey three limitative rules, to give them coherence and allow the public to follow the plot. 

Unity of place, unity of time, unity of action.

Interestingly, Luke’s narrative in Acts 2.1-41 corresponds to these rules.

Unity of time – the day of Pentecost

First, the unity of time. The story of a theatre play should be set within a short time frame, ideally one day. The original text of Acts is an ongoing narrative, not divided in chapters and verses, but we can discern certain units. One of them is Acts 2, until verse 41. We can see that because everything happens in one day. Luke brings this out in a skilled literal way, by means of an inclusion. The first words are: ‘when the day came…’ and the last sentence in verse 41 finishes with the same key word, ‘three thousand were added that day’.

This was a first day of the week – what we call the Lord’s Day, Domingo, Dimanche, or Sunday. But this particular ‘day one’ was an annual high holiday, the Feast of Weeks, the great pilgrim festival to celebrate God’s goodness in providing the harvest of the fields. Jews from all over Judea and Jewish pilgrims from all over the world would flock to Jerusalem, making the population swell to hundreds of thousands of people. 

Luke uses the Greek name, pentekosta, which indicates that the festival took place exactly fifty days after the Feast of the First Fruit, on the first day in the week of Pesach, when the first sheave of the harvest was presented in thanksgiving to the Lord. 

Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, was also associated with the Covenant and the giving of the Torah through Moses, because the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai about fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt.

Unity of place – the Temple

During the feast and the week before there were large gatherings around the Temple. This brings us to the second unity, of place. According to a widespread Christian tradition, the Spirit descended on the disciples in the upper room, the same room where they the last supper had taken place, just before the crucifixion.[1]I will leave aside the reasons why this idea was introduced in the 4th century. In any case, it does not quite correspond to the story as Luke tells it.

Verse 1 says, ‘when the day of Pentecost came, they were all together on the same.’ On the same what? Most Bible translators have changed the last words and added another one: ‘in (not on) one (not the same) place’. The text does not say that they were ‘in’ somewhere, a room or a courtyard, but ‘on’ somewhere, which rather indicates a larger space, such as the temple esplanade.

Moreover, Peter says, ‘these people are not drunk, as you suppose, because it’s only the third hour, that is to say 9 am, the time for the morning service. At this time, the disciples must have been with all the other faithful in one of the several courtyards in the temple area. 

While the priests were leading the liturgy and the sacrifices, ‘the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. Which house? A private house?

Luke elsewhere describes the Temple, in the words of Jesus, as the ‘House of prayer’.[2]This would excellently fit the context.[3]Their presence at this time in the Temple would explain how such a large group of over one hundred and twenty disciples[4]could be together ‘on’ the same place, and how a large crowd of many thousands could witness the ‘sound’ and gather so easily and so quickly around the disciples.

All of this is difficult to explain in case the disciples had been in the traditional upper room, situated quite far from the Temple area.

The new temple within the old one

This unity of place reveals a striking symbolism. The presence of the Lord was connected with the Holy of holiest, the inner sanctuary. But on this day, the Spirit of God descended on an assembly somewhere else in the Temple area. It is as if God’s focus is shifting from the sacrifices of the priests to the worship of the body of believers in Jesus the Messiah. At a later stage, Peter as well as the apostle Paul would write in their epistles that the church is like a temple, a spiritual house, where the Holy Spirit dwells and where believers offer spiritual sacrifices.

This does not mean that the church supersedes or takes the place of the people of Israel. We should beware of such replacement theology. Don’t forget that Acts 2 takes places within the context of Israel. The gathered church at 9 o’clock in the morning was completely Jewish. Peter addresses those that crowded together as ‘ye Israelites’. The three thousand that were added towards the end of the day were all Jews or proselytes.[5]

However, one could indeed say that the worship of the church supersedes the sacrificial Temple service, because the sacrifices have come to an end with the supreme sacrifice of Jesus’ life. 

Unity of action – the transforming work of the Holy Spirit

Thirdly, there is the unity of action. Every part of the story should fit with the rest and be related, somehow, to the other elements. In Acts 2, there clearly is such a coherence. Everything is part of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. The narrative uniquely illustrates the theme of our conference: the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the church.

At first, he works inthe church.

There is a widespread belief that Spirit constituted the church. In other words, that the church was born on Pentecost, but we have to contradict this. When we describe the church as the community of Jesus-followers, or the Body of Christ, then, clearly, it was already in existence long before that morning on which the Spirit filled them. We can situate the beginning on the day of Jesus’ resurrection – that is indeed the starting point of the book of Acts. That is why, in the Christian church year, Pentecost is the completion of Easter, even as Pentecost or the feast of Weeks on the Jewish calendar is the ‘last day of Pesach’.

We think that the church started even earlier, on the day Jesus called his first disciples and gathered them around him. 

Acts 2 is not a birth story but a transformation story. The Spirit filled the disciples, set them aflame, gave them new words to speak of the great things that God has done, even in other languages.

As he works in the believers, the Spirit also transforms them in a witnessing community, and so he starts working throughthe church to speak to people outside. Notice how this corresponds to the promise of Jesus as Luke has phrased it: When you receive the Spirit, you shall be my witnesses, to begin in Jerusalem…’ (1:8). This is often called a mandate to witness, but the wording rather points to a promise: you will surely become my witnesses as a result of receiving the Spirit.[6]You shall be

Notice, that they are first witnesses through the way in which they worship and praise God, by being church before the watching world (Newbigin), and then through the verbal communication, or rather explanation of the message concerning Jesus the Messiah. 

By those means, the Spirit speakstoand works inthe hearts and minds of people convincing them of the truth of the message and of their need of salvation. Three thousand people accepted the message of Peter. They were all baptised. Where? It is reasonable to think that they were immersed in one of the many mikvot or ritual baths along the southern slope of the Temple area and along the road down to the Pool of Siloam. 

And so, on that very day of Pentecost in the Temple, on that harvest festival, the Spirit brought about a spiritual harvest, the beginning of much more to come.


Notes

[1]Traditionally this Caenaculum is situated in the remains of a building on Mount Sion, to the west of the old city.

[2]Luke 19:46, compare Luke 6:4.

[3]In the Temple area, apart from the Holy Place and the court of the priests, there was a courtyard for the men of Israel, a further courtyard which women also could enter, and an outer court for Gentiles (non-Jews). It was partly because this latter was a place for prayer that Jesus was so angry at the noisy trading taking place there (John 2:13-16). Each courtyard was surrounded by walls in which were large porticoes, where people regularly met for prayer, and these later were a general meeting place for disciples (Acts 3:1; Acts 3:10-11; Acts 5:12).

[4]According to Acts 1:15.

[5]See Acts 2:12 and 2:11. Proselyte is the technical term for a Gentile who has become a Jew.

[6]This point is made by Gabriel Monet, Vous serez mes témoins (Dammaris-les-Lys, Editions Vie & Santé, 2015).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.