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).

A Blessing in the Confinement: Arise!

Evert Van de Poll, 4 April 2020

More than three billion people around the world in quarantine, locked up at home: this is absolutely unprecedented, both in its scale and in the light of history. There have always been epidemics, and in each case many people have died. Usually the outbreak was limited to a certain area, sometimes an infectious disease spread over a wider area, such as the pest in 1345-1349 that wiped out one third of the European population, and the Spanish flu in 1918 that killed 20 million people. But never before were so many people in so many countries hit in such an extremely short time as by this coronavirus pandemic.

Providence
This epidemic and the imposed quarantine raise all kinds of questions, not in the least among Christians. Some wonder if this is a judgment from God, a punishment for a certain wickedness. I do not think we should make God responsible for the pandemic in this way.
It makes more sense and it is more befitting a believer to ask ourselves what the current situation has to say to us in the light of God’s word. The Bible shows that God is not only the Creator but that He also maintains his creation and that He leads the history of mankind to the fulfilment of his purposes. We call that the Providence of God. He upholds what we call the laws of nature . He has created man in such a way that the vast majority of people affected by the virus survive. Even when a disaster hits and makes many victims, we should recall the words of Jesus: ‘there will be earthquakes, famines and infectious diseases, but that does not mean the end immediately’ (Luke 21:9-11). The end of all things is the end-goal (telos): not the collapse of humanity – as some pessimist scientists and ecologists predict – but a new creation where peace and justice reign.
The providence of God does not preclude bad things from happening, even on a large scale. Instead of looking for an explanation (why?), we’d better ask ourselves what such things have to say to us. What should we learn from what is happening? Then we will reflect and think: how could we end up in this situation? We now know that this virus, like other viruses, affects humans through the consumption of animal species which the Bible calls ‘unclean’, or through contact with animal blood, or through water contaminated by animals (e.g. rats). Humans have not kept the correct distance from the rest of nature. We also know that the corona pandemic has spread at lightning speed as people travel in hordes to the ends of the earth, often just for pleasure, and as products are being dragged all around the globe – with devastating consequences for the environment. This pandemic tells us something about the ‘transport addiction’ of modern consumerist man.

Standstill
We are not naturally inclined to dwell on fundamental questions like this. Sometimes you literally have to be brought to a standstill, before you’re ready to think. Now that is actually what is happening now. Public life and a large part of the economy are literally stalled, and people are kept indoors. In their confinement, some are grumbling about masks and what not, there is criticism of the government that should have organised this or that in a better way. Others look for amusement through social media. Many can hardly wait for the moment they can go outside again. They are just eager to resume their activities and make up for the ‘damage’ and the ‘loss’ as soon as possible. But in that case, you learn nothing from it. Then all the misery, including the human suffering and the loss of so many lives, will have been to no use of all. Meaningless. Pointless.

Desert first
We can also experience the forced seclusion of today as an occasion that God allows to help us listen to his voice. All of this comes to pass in the weeks before Easter, which this year almost coincides with the Biblical and Jewish Passover. A special combination of circumstances, which can shed a certain light on what we are going through.
These days we remember that the people of Israel were delivered from oppression in Egypt. But they were led straight to the promised land of milk and honey. Instead, they were first brought in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, where the Lord God would reveal himself to them, and where they would receive his word. God used this time of confinement in an unhospitable area to ‘test what was in their hearts’ (Exodus 20). Like in today’s lock-up homes, there was grumbling, people wanted to get on as soon as possible to the promised land. But there was a blessing for them in store in this desert of isolation. It was precisely there that they entered in a covenant relationship with God. It was there that they were instructed in his divine will as laid down in the Torah, the Law of Moses. How else would they know how to live in the promised land?
Jesus went a similar way. After his baptism, when the voice from heaven spoke, ‘This is my beloved Son,’ He could not begin his public ministry right away. The Spirit of God first ‘drove’ him into the desert, for a time of testing, temptation, prayer, meditation on the Word, and consecration to his heavenly Father.
We may experience our present confinement as a desert, either in a negative way (concentrating on what is lacking and what we are missing out on) or in an instructive way. We may take this as an opportunity that God gives us to reflect on how we live, what we spend our days on. What is most important to us? What do we pay most attention to? Are we grateful for what we have, or do we blindly follow an economy of ‘never enough’ and the pursuit of ‘always more’? Do we respect the limits God has installed in nature? Do we suffer with the people who are struggling with the viral disease, mourn with those who mourn the loss of a loved one, or are we above all, and perhaps only concerned with ourselves?

Arise
In the Christian tradition, the forty days before Easter are a time of repentance and prayer. A time of abstinence – eat less, consume less, fast. A time of dying to yourself, because the things that remove you from Christ must be put to death. Then, at Easter, you can really celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Firstly, as a historical event that has ushered in a new era. Secondly, the One who was Raised from the dead, also Raises from the dead those who believe in Him. The resurrection of Christ means an exodus from the domination of death; the door to an everlasting relationship with the Lord God has been opened for those who open their lives for the Risen One – including for those who now suffer from the coronavirus, and who will succumb. ‘The one who believes in me [Jesus] will live, even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die’ (John 11:26).
More than that, the Risen One gives us a share in the power of his resurrection in this life, here and now, so that we can overcome by his strength and his presence the ‘dead things’ of our existence. Even while we are in confinement! This is a time to recognise what we should change or set aside, to appreciate the good things we’ve overlooked, and to arise in a renewed way of life.
When we take this to heart, the pandemic will not only bring hardship, pain and sorrow, but also a blessing.

Nîmes, in the days before Easter 2020.