Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 1 in a previous post.
Call and Response
Commentary by Andrew Shinn
1 – 13 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
The Holy Spirit Arrives
Pentecost was an already-existing Jewish holiday, known as the Feast of Weeks (or the Feast of 50 Days – Pentekoste meant 50th in Greek). It was the 50th day after the Passover, when God released the Hebrews from Egypt and the Angel of Death passed over the people who had smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts. As Christians, we celebrate this repurposed holiday 49 days (or 7 Sundays) after Easter. If Jesus taught for a literal 40 days after his resurrection (which is not at all clear), then the 120 followers had to wait about 10 days until the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t important, but it’s interesting.
In Luke 3:21-22, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit appeared in bodily form like a dove. Here the Holy Spirit comes amidst a violent wind and what seemed to be tongues of fire. We don’t know if the wind and the fire were representations of the Holy Spirit, or if they just appeared at the same time. And Luke doesn’t bother clarifying this for us, so it’s not worth spending a lot of time debating it.
Some people emphasize this matter of tongues rather heavily. This is one of those matters where Luke was writing descriptively, but not necessarily prescriptively. Paul, who wasn’t recorded as being here for this event, writes about tongues in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14). His writing seems to be addressing a separate matter than the one which shows up at Pentecost. He says in verse 2 that, “…anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people, but to God.” The people speaking in tongues at Pentecost seem to be speaking in other languages to Jews gathered from all over the known world. These people are in town for the Jewish Feast of Weeks.
This gift of language at Pentecost seems to enable people to hear the glories of God in their own languages. It’s an attention-grabber that draws a crowd.
14 – 21 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:“ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Peter the Scholar
Peter jumps up and grabs the crowd’s attention. For the second time, this uneducated fisherman shows himself a scholar of the law, this time quoting the Prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32). Joel talks about the great and dreadful day of the Lord. This is at the end of a long, poetic chapter on destruction and God’s great salvation. Peter’s about the show how the Jewish scriptures are going to be fulfilled. He’s powerfully declaring that a new era has come, and he’ll call the Jews back to a salvation that’s familiar from their own scriptures.
22 – 36 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, (or of those not having the law (that is, Gentiles)) put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him: “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ Psalm 16:8-11
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” ’ (Psalm 110:1) Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
Peter introduces Jesus, appeals a bit to their Jewish pride (or racism), and links Jesus to the most admired of all Jewish heroes: King David. It’s clear, whether it’s Peter’s opinion or he just knows his audience, that he is calling Jews to a Jewish repentance.
He bears explicit witness to the resurrection of Jesus, in fulfillment of what he’s said is the role of the apostles. Peter says that Jesus has received the Holy Spirit from the Father. Again, we see an oblique reference to the Trinity and Peter’s understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 110, which Peter references, is well worth reading and it all seems to apply to Jesus. Luke doesn’t record Peter as reading the full militaristic scene from Psalm 110, though the rest of Peter’s recitation may have been cut for time (as we’ll see in verse 40). Interestingly, this military view of God’s redemption sounds like what Peter and company were waiting for ways back in Acts 1:6. But it’s not the way redemption unfolds, either in Jesus’s promises to the apostles or in the chapters of Acts that follow.
37 – 41 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The People Respond
Peter’s words apparently had quite an effect. 3,000 people believed in Jesus on that day!
The call to action here is worth looking at: Peter asks for repentance and baptism, both of which would have been familiar to the Jews. John the Baptist had been baptizing, and the Jews practiced baptism as something called Tvilah, a purification ritual used when converting to Judaism. Later in Acts (Acts 19:1-6), Paul would make a distinction between John’s baptism for repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus, which seemed to be accompanied by the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Peter doesn’t seem to make that distinction here, which probably means that the understanding of baptism evolved as the church grew. This is one of those head-scratching inconsistencies in Acts, and I’ll remind you again that Luke is writing descriptively, not prescriptively.
Also interesting is that Peter says the promise of redemption is for everyone: Jews, their children, and those who are far off. We know that Peter didn’t quite believe this yet. He still thought of salvation as being only for the Jews, as we’ll see later in Acts. But perhaps this is an example of the Holy Spirit inspiring Peter to say something that would make more sense to him later. Or maybe Luke wanted to be clearer about salvation than Peter had actually been, and hence edited Peter in the recording of this event.
42 – 47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Church Begins
As the camera zooms out after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see an idyllic picture of the early church. All 3,000 of these new believers (3,120, including the earliest believers) devote themselves to study, eating together, and praying. They start acting communally, with shared property and social services. While Christian groups throughout the ages have sought to replicate this model, I’ll point out again that Luke was describing, not prescribing.
Their reputation, for the moment, is sterling. Trouble is waiting just over the horizon. And salvation becomes a daily occurrence, which implies that salvation was either happening organically in the communities around these new believers as they went about their lives and work, or that the church met together daily. Either way, this is a description of an intense time for this community.
Though there’s been much discussion about the Holy Spirit, Luke uses the term ‘praising God’, and not ‘praising the Holy Spirit’. This Holy Spirit isn’t a God-replacement, but a God-addition. This indicates an understanding of the Holy Spirit that consistent with modern Protestant orthodoxy.