Pentecost • Acts 2:1–21 • May 19, 2013
By William Carr
What in the world is going on?
English versions seem so pedestrian, e.g., “When the day of Pentecost arrived” (ESV) or, simply, “came” (NIV and others). Though the verb συμπληροω occurs only three times (Lk 8:23; 9:51; and here), there is more to the arrival of Pentecost than flipping the calendar to a new page. Pentecost is more than a day; the day ushers in an era or an age. (Notice the variant in “D,” which makes this passage echo Luke 2.)
We cannot fully absorb or explain the phenomena; the descriptions of wind and fire are couched in similes (ὡσπερ, ὠσει). What happens in the house is only a prelude to what happens in the public square. Ἰουδαιοι (2:5, 11 and 14) has religious signification: “devout men” (ESV) are not simply “Judeans” (see 2:9–11; compare Ἰουδαια vs. Ἰουδαιος). Peter may ramp things up when he uses the phrase “Israelitish men” in 2:22, but “Jews” here signifies believers, and “dwellers in Jerusalem” signifies everybody else.
The arc from Parthia through Mesopotamia is the “Old (Testament) World;” the rest of the list (through verse 10) describes the “Mediterranean basin,” the “New (Testament) World” with Rome as its outermost part. “Jews and proselytes,” i.e., lifelong believers and converts, are religious not ethnic or national categories. Are “Cretans and Arabians” simply place/people names, or might they constitute a merism of seafarers and nomads? In any event, the “whole world” has converged in Jerusalem, and is hearing “the mighty works of God” (2:11, ESV).
What are these “mighty works”? It would be easy to say, “They were telling people about Jesus.” They might well have been doing that, but Luke doesn’t say so. In fact, Peter’s audience won’t hear the Jesus story until (according to the lectionary) next Sunday!
Peter goes along with the gibe of drunkenness, but quickly corrects the misunderstanding. He quotes Joel (2:28–32 in English; 3:1–5 in MT and LXX), though not verbatim. Some differences seem minor: He adds λεγει ὁ θεος; this clarifies that God was the speaker in the original passage. It may be rhetorically important that Peter says “God” (θεος) and not “Lord” (κυριος), because the latter, the LXX rendering of הוהי (reading adonai), might be too particular; what Peter has to say comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, but is for all to hear. He also adds the word “signs” (σημεια) (cf. Jl 2:30). And his inclusion of the adverbs “above” and “beneath” reflect the wording in, e.g., Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8; Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11; and 1 Kings 8:23. In short, Peter does more than “recite a memory verse.”
Of more significance, however, is that the apostle eschatologizes the prophetic utterance. God announces, in Joel, that he will pour out his Spirit “after this” (cf. MT, LXX), i.e., after he restores the “grain and wine and oil” (Jl 2:19) that locust and drought had destroyed; there is no explicit eschatological value. Now, however, under the influence of the poured-out Spirit, Peter perceives the promise in salvation-historical perspective. “The kingdom of God,” “the day of the LORD,” “the last days,” are now but also, still, not yet.
While Peter has added to the utterance of Joel, he has taken nothing away. The Spirit is being poured out “on all flesh,” and, at present, the apostle says more than he realizes—he will not grasp the referent of “all flesh” until later (Acts 10). But one particularity, with its “scandal,” is being erased. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the LORD is mentioned rather infrequently (mostly in the Former Prophets); Yahweh speaks of “my Spirit” slightly more often in the writing prophets, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel. This suggests that the Spirit’s “operation” is more particular than universal. Now, Peter declares, all that has changed. The Spirit’s work can no longer be seen as restricted—as if it ever, actually, could have been.
This text may be awkward for Lutheran preachers. There is no “law,” in our usual manner of speaking. Neither is there “gospel,” if we insist on the particular language of the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and the atoning sacrifice and active obedience of Christ. But it is gospel that God pours out, has poured out, his Spirit on all flesh, because this too signifies that God has come to his people—the people he made for himself in creation. We who believe in Jesus—the Spirit has called and gathered, is enlightening and sanctifying, and will keep. There are others, however, whom he is calling and desires to gather. No one is out of range of the Spirit’s work; he targets every human heart. We may encounter “closed doors,” our testimony may be rejected, but the Spirit of the LORD, the Holy Spirit, keeps going about his work and will continue to do so, unceasingly, until the very last day.
There is nothing in the texts we are expressly to do. There are mission implications and applications, but Peter gives us no “instructions.” To be sure, that doesn’t mean we are to do nothing. But we are reminded that the “mighty works” are God’s, not ours. Count on the poured-out Spirit. What he gives you to say, say. That’s always been the main work of a prophet. And Moses’s wish will come true: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Nm 11:29, ESV).