Commentary on Acts 2: Call and Response

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.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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.”

Jesus Introduced

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.

Commentary on Acts 1: Old Characters, New Roles

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 2, and that follows in a later post.

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Old characters, new roles

Commentary by Andrew Shinn

1 – 3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Previously, in Luke

Luke is setting the scene here. He’s very efficiently summing up what has happened before and bringing the reader (the now-familiar Theophilus, or “Lover of God”) up to date. He references the people who will be the main characters of the book (the Apostles Jesus had chosen), and drives home the point that Jesus’ friends believed him to be alive. He also gives a timeline, 40 days. The number 40 is often used in Hebrew culture symbolically to mean A Long Time. As in, “Gary, I haven’t seen you in 40 days!” Luke makes clear that the kingdom of God was their main topic of conversation. Watch for that – the 120 disciples (including the 12 apostles) will be primed to think about this matter of the Kingdom of God.

4 – 8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with (or in) water, but in a few days you will be baptized with (or in) the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus outlines Acts

Luke relates the most important teaching that Jesus gave after his resurrection. He’s beginning the hand-off from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he references all three members of the Godhead. Note that the doctrine of the Trinity is never explicitly taught in the Bible. We infer it from passages like this, and from the co-appearing of the Triune Three at the baptism of Jesus. (Luke 3:21-22) In this way, the co-appearing kicks off both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples are asking about the restoration of the Kingdom. Remember, this had been the chief topic of conversation, in Luke’s re-telling (though John makes it clear that Jesus did and talked about so many things that any re-telling is a necessary distillation). Jesus steers the conversation to marching orders for the apostles, and Luke puts the outline for the rest of the book in Jesus’s mouth.

9 – 11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus Ascends

Again we see Luke’s economy of words. In two sentences, he gives an entire Christ-ian eschatology (from the Greek meaning “last” and “study of”). This scene is almost humorous in its pithiness. These men, presumably angels or other heavenly messengers, break the apostles’ sacred reverie with a kick in the pants toward Jerusalem and a message about the Second Coming of Christ. This is almost the exact same scenario that played out after Jesus’ death in Luke 24:4-7.

12 – 14 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk (That is, about 5/8 mile or about 1 kilometer from the city.) When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Roll call

For now, the apostles are being tracked minute by minute. The church is being born, and Luke passes us all the details. This includes exactly who was in the room. The eleven apostles were explicitly named. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen from Bethsaida. Philip grew up with them, and was probably also a fisherman. James and John were brothers, also fisherman from Bethsaida. The younger James (son of Alphaeus) and Judas were probably Jesus’s biological brothers. Note that there were two Jameses, two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot), and two Judases (one who betrayed Jesus and one who was his brother). Luke doesn’t name the women, but he refers to Jesus’s mother and, presumably, an unspecified number of Jesus’s other brothers.

Interestingly, Luke finishes the book of Luke with Jesus referring to this group as disciples, and starts the book of Acts referring to them as apostles. This is just one of the many shifts we’ll see at the beginning of Acts.

15 – 26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters (or believers), the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 69:25): “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and (Psalm 109:8), “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

A new apostle

Peter takes on a new role here. He goes from enthusiastic (if bumbling) to being a serious leader and Biblical scholar. Luke records someone, probably Peter, lopping off a guy’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and claiming that he’ll go to prison and die for Jesus (Luke 22). Later in the same chapter, Peter denies Jesus. What explains the change from denier to leader/scholar? In Luke 24:45, we’re told that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.

The believers here are numbered at 120 total. This means that there are about 10 times as many in the community as there were in the inner circle of disciples (who became apostles).

There’s a rather gross section wherein Judas (the betrayer) buys a field. Scholars think that this matter of bursting intestines was because Judas hung himself and everyone left the body alone. In this scenario, his body burst open when it fell down after rotting enough to slip out of the rope.

Peter explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit, indicating that he had some understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the church and in history. Peter references two scriptures from the Psalms and seems to cherry-pick two phrases out of their original context. This is the same way that Jesus often quoted scripture.

He says that another person is needed to bear witness to Jesus’s resurrection. This makes clear what Peter and friends understand the role of apostles to be: bearing witness to the resurrection. The Greek word for witness here is martyroi, from which we also get the word for martyr. They pick two men who were apparently around for the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, from his baptism until his death. Then they pray about it and draw straws (or roll dice, or the equivalent).

These apostles will be significant. In Revelation 21:14, John writes that the names of the 12 apostles will be written on the very foundations of the new city of Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul says that we as Christians are members of the house of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Interestingly, we’ll add a 13th (or, if you count Judas, a 14th) apostle in the figure of Saul/Paul. He calls himself an Apostle in Romans 1, though he’s the only apostle who didn’t know Jesus before his death. But that’s later in the story of Acts.

My theory of e-mail forwards

Mike Fast called me on the carpet for my recent lack of blogging. He’s absolutely right. Here’s a post I started and hadn’t finished:

I shared this in conversation with Lisa and my parents the other day, but I think it’s an original enough theory to blawhg. Here goes:

I think e-mail forwards are an internet newbie’s natural way of dealing with the huge amount of information now available. You don’t agree? Let me explain:

You, Shinnfans, are internet users from way back. You have experience: you send and receive emails, you read blogs, and you sell stuff online. Some of you even book airline tickets and hotel reservations online. But it wasn’t always that way. Remember back to your first e-mail account? Your first encounter with the internet? What was one of the first things you did? You checked your e-mail, right? Here’s the scenario:

This internet thing is new (to you: you’re not Al Gore). You know there’s a lot of information out there, but you really don’t know where to start. You mentally set aside the hugeness of the internet, because there’s only so much you can think about at once. You receive an e-mail. It’s funny! You laugh. What a clever, um, thing. It may be a story about a lady who paid way too much for a cookie recipe, or a clever little poem about friendship. You know the kind: the one with animated angels floating alongside. So you forward it to some friends. They respond. Their responses flow along a few lines:

“Haha, that’s a good one!” These friends are also internet newbies. They probably send you forwards back. Theirs is not the only response:

“Um, thanks for thinking of me, but please stop sending those.” These friends are internet teenagers. They’re not trying to cope with the huge amount of data available. But they have tired of receiving the same e-mail forward several times from different friends. Then there are the internet’s adults, mature e-mail users:

“…” These friends don’t send anything back. They either delete your e-mails without opening them or they have your messages filtered into their e-mail trash can because you don’t send enough worthwhile content. These people don’t just act differently: they think about information differently. They don’t just wait for new stuff to come their way: they seek out things they want to know. Their tools:

Search is a tool for people who deal effectively with information. They ask Google questions like: “Why is MySQL not working on my Mac?” and “How do you remove cat pee from a comforter?” What other tools do mature info-users employ? Try:

Gatekeepers. There are people out their whose whole job (or role, function, passion, whatever) is to arbitrate and aggregate information for you. Sound weird? It’s not. That’s the blogosphere, and you’re part of it right now. (I appreciate you reading this far. I know it’s a bit abstract. Are you just seeing how many times I can : ?) Try these blogs on for size: This one’s all about fashion trends and such. My favorite blog, these guys cover handy tips for all aspects of your life with a decidedly geeky slant.
Fooled you with this one, didn’t I? Yes, newspapers are a classic form of content aggregation. They collect stories so you don’t have to. Smart (forward-thinking, mostly big) newspapers have followed this digital trend hard. Others are trying to catch up. What’s your point, Andrew? Here it is:

Forwarding funny e-mails is just an internet newbie’s way of dealing with the vast amount of information newly available to him. I’ve outlined a few other ways of dealing with information, so if you send forwards, please consider both search and gatekeepers as alternate (maybe new) ways of dealing with information. And if you still receive lots of forwards (and no longer care to), every e-mail program has a way of dealing with that: