representation in stained glass of apostles Peter and Paul

Studying Acts 2 1-42

Our second of five lessons on Acts looks at the familiar [FAMILIAR!] story of The Church’s first Day of Pentecost, as told in Acts 2:1-42. Familiar, and important [IMPORTANT!! Not that any of the stories in the Bible are exactly UNimportant.] Our curriculum focuses on verses 1-8, 14-24, and 37-39, but points us towards the larger context of the entire passage. [There are a lot of “names” in verses 9-10, but that doesn’t explain why we’re skipping all the other verses. Which, of course, we’re not required to do.] Some questions are here. Here are a few [a very few, considering the familiarity and importance, and belated, too – sorry! about that] notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Acts is Part II of Luke-Acts, a work with a single author, writing to a sophisticated Gentile audience we think roughly in the last quarter of the first century CE. It’s an account of events in its own recent past. Things we know generally about Luke and Acts all apply: literary sophistication; solicitude for Gentiles; focus on the role and activity of the Holy Spirit; attention to issues of money, poverty and wealth, class, as well as what we might call the machinery of administration.

We are still in the opening scenes of the narrative. By the beginning of chapter 2, there’s been an introduction to Part II, a reprise with some elaboration of Jesus’ ascension, and an election to fill the vacant office of “active apostle.” The group (see Acts 1:14) is waiting in Jerusalem until they receive the promise of the Father, the baptism of the Holy Spirt, per the Lord’s instructions (see Acts 1:4-5). We pick up the story on “the day of Pentecost,” when “they” are “all together-in-place-and-time in-the-same-place.” The redundancy seems to be in the text.

The Day of Pentecost was already a special day, a religious holiday for the larger Jewish community: the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot, one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. (See Exodus 23:16, Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16-17. There’s more on contemporary Shavuot here, here, and around the internet.) The already-existing holiday is about to acquire a specific, vital significance for The Church.

[N.B., as One of The Reformed, I feel constrained to point out that We do not believe The Church “began” on the Day of Pentecost described in Acts 2. What with The Church being “all the elect of every time and place,” We believe there has been a The Church from the dawn of creation. Adam and Eve belonged to The Church. So We do not sing Happy Birthday to The Church when we celebrate Pentecost. Furthermore, We are clear that the Holy Spirit, being a Person of the Trinity, does not “first” show up on the Day of Pentecost. Not even on earth, or in human affairs, what with having been present and active at the time of Creation, and having been present and active throughout human history, and in intimate fellowship with individual human beings, as mentioned at various points in the Scriptures. So We will not be having any of this nonsense about “now we have the Holy Spirit,” as if no one “had” or could have “had the Holy Spirit” before the Day of Pentecost described in Acts 2. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, maybe. The Holy Spirit, no. “The wind blows where it wills.” There, now that’s out of the way.]

The place/nationality names in Acts 2:9-10 seem to be a mixed bag of Roman provinces (superimposed on existing nationalities) as well as some other non-Roman-Empire points of national origin, spanning a fairly wide geographical range. It does not seem to represent the entire span of “the known world” of the time. There are not even any Ethiopians or Macedonians in the group, let alone Gauls or Britons. Maybe the span of the Judean diaspora? [Some maps here (Elam), here (Pontus, elsewhere), here (the Roman provinces)]

Acts 2:15 is one of the best comic lines in the Bible! [Because no one ever stayed up all night drinking.]

Peter’s sermon incorporates references to Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11, and Psalm 110:1. Someone has been reading the Septuagint. And attributes the Psalms to David, considered a prophet.

Acts 2:39 is one of the proof-texts for the defenders of the practice of infant baptism. Not going to get into that.

Acts 2:1-21 is a lectionary reading for the Day of Pentecost every year. No surprise. Verses 22-32 and 36-47 are secondary readings during the Easter season in year A (this year). In other words, this is most likely a FAMILIAR text from having been heard in church, in our own language.

CLOSER READING: In vv2-3, we have sound and sight, wind and fire. The fire will show up again in v19, and perhaps the wind, too, if we count Joel’s “smoky mist” as wind.

We think of the wind and fire as privileged symbols of the Holy Spirit. But we might want to notice how central the theme of communication is to this story: tongues, speaking, language, the interpretation of Scripture, and proclamation. Also, emotional experience: amazement – something like “being beside oneself,” astonishment or “marveling,” perplexity or “being thrown into disorder” or confusion, feeling “cut to the heart.” We probably also think of communication, of information and of meaning and of feeling, as a privileged activity of the Holy Spirit.

In the context of the story’s first century setting, against the backdrop of then-existing Scripture, the phenomenon of the group being filled with the Holy Spirit seems to make the group of Jesus’ followers analogous to “the company of the prophets” of Samuel’s or Elijah’s day.

Peter addresses the audience specifically as “Men, [specific identity label]” three separate times, rhetorically structuring his address. (vv14, 22, 29; much more obvious in Greek than in NRSV English) There is something progressive about the identity attributed to the “men,” from “Judeans” (or, “Jews”) to “Israelites” to “brothers.” How we read that progression seems, possibly, to depend on how we translate that first term, and also what we think is the underlying idea about Jewish identity in this text. And that’s complicated, as we know.

[To me, it appears that the speech is meant to proceed from “far” to “near,” “other” to “us.” Making it seem, here on “Day 1,” that this group already has an identity distinct from that of “Judeans” or “Jews” or even “Israelites.” At least, distinct from those folks in general. A reminder, possibly, that Luke is writing after the fact, and to Gentiles, maybe one in particular. And that securing the full legitimacy of Gentile inclusion is a main point of Luke’s testimony.]

The success of Peter’s proclamation seems to be registered rhetorically in the audience’s response of “Men, brothers” – echoing Peter’s last address – in v37. Narratively, it’s registered in the baptism of 3,000 people in v41.

There’s so much more in this text.

A painting of the scene of Pentecost showing dove, rays, disciples including a woman, perhaps Mary, in dramatic poses

Images: “Stained Glass St Blaise Church Dubrovnik” (cropped), Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; An image by “a follower of Bernard Van Orley” ca 1530, “The Pentecost,” North Carolina Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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