Last week when we examined Acts 1, we noted how this story is ultimately the continuation of Luke's gospel. Jesus lived, died, rose again, and then set his followers up for a mission that they admittedly still didn't quite understand. But as this group of eleven followers worked to piece themselves back together to twelve (with the addition of Matthias as a replacement for Judas), the disciples of Christ were getting closer and closer to being ready to take on the challenge Jesus had for them.
Now in Acts chapter 2, we witness the public launch of the church. Following Jesus' instructions, the disciples remain in Jerusalem and pray for guidance and empowerment from God. God fills them with the Holy Spirit, which in this instance gives them the ability to speak in languages they had previously not known. The commotion that this causes draws the attention of a large international crowd of diasporic Jews who have travelled to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, known in Hebrew as Shavuot and in Greek as Pentecost. Because of their gifting in new languages, they are able to speak to this captivated audience and share the message of Jesus with fellow Jews who have been eagerly awaiting their Messiah. A staggering 3000 people believe their message, and the book of Acts gets off to an energetic and radical start.
The Historical, Cultural, and Biblical Context
- In 2:1 the feast of Pentecost is mentioned without explanation. The biblical background for this feast can be found in Exodus 23:16, Exodus 34:21-24, Numbers 28:26-31, and Deuteronomy 16:10. The festival is known in the Hebrew Bible sometimes by the name "feast of weeks" since it takes place 7 weeks after a specific offering that is made during Passover. The Greek name Pentecost reflects this as well - pentekoste is just the number 50 in Greek, and denotes the 50 days between the Passover offering and Shavuot. This is an agricultural festival celebrating the start of wheat harvesting season.
- In verses 2:2-4, we witness the first display of the Gift of Tongues following the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been active before in numerous other parts of the Bible, but here he is fulfilling a new and very specific function: empowering the newly formed church to grow exponentially. The rest of the book of Acts will be defined heavily by the actions of the Holy Spirit (and by extension, Christ) through the Apostles.
- The word tongues here in verse 4 is γλώσσαις (glossais), whose root form (glossa, γλῶσσα), can mean the literal human tongue, or a language, or in some cases a nation (in such an instance where a nation is distinctive or recognizable because of its language). This is to say, the verse means "They began speaking in other languages." This is an example of what theologians would call xenoglossy, the ability to speak a foreign human language. Other parts of the New Testament have passages that may be debatably about a phenomenon called glossolalia - an ecstatic experience where someone presumably speaks in a "heavenly" language that isn't known on earth, as an act of personal devotion and praise to God. This practice of glossolalia is what many people today associate with Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians. However, it is fairly certain that this is not what is happening in Acts 2.
- Because of verses 5-8, it is not entirely clear either if the gift of tongues is more a miracle of speech - the disciples suddenly learning to speak new languages - or a miracle of hearing - in which case the disciples were merely speaking as they normally would while all the foreigners present would be hearing them in their own native language, as if it were being automatically translated for them. The accusation in verse 13 from some in the crowd that the people are drunk is equally unclear, in terms of whether they are referring to the disciples speaking, or to the crowd hearing them.
- This chapter raises the interesting question of who the Jews are in terms of nationality and where they are coming from. Recall that in the Hebrew Bible, Israelite and Jewish people had been captured and/or scattered abroad by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Southern Jewish exiles were only allowed to return to the land under the later rule of the Medo-Persians. And then, only a small remnant of these Jews actually chose to come home to Judea, rebuild Jerusalem, and reestablish their lives in the Promised Land. As a result of this, there was a large Jewish diaspora living abroad and becoming accustomed to foreign cultures and languages. These Jews would periodically make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for religious festivals and observances, and then go back home to wherever they were from.
- The list in 2:8-11 gives us a look into many of the places where Jewish people were coming from at this point in the first century. The fact that Jewish people from these regions were present for Peter's sermon foreshadows the arrival of the gospel in many of these places and the conversion of many people in these local cultures to Christianity. For example, today Assyrian Christians still speak a version of the Aramaic language that Jesus and the disciples would have known:
- The list in Acts 2:8-11 includes the following people groups and places:
- Central and West Asia:
- Parthians, Medes, Elamites (these names generally refer to various parts of what would be Iran today). More specifically, a Parthian would be "an inhabitant of the country beyond the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf." (https://biblehub.com/greek/3934.htm). A Mede would have been "from east of Assyria" (https://biblehub.com/greek/3370.htm), and an Elamite would have been "one of a people living to the north of the Persian Gulf in the southern part of Persia" (https://biblehub.com/greek/1639.htm).
- Mesopotamians, or in the language of the text residents of Mesopotamia, since this particular part of the world was home to several historic people groups. The word Mesopotamia refers to "the Country between the (two) Rivers, i.e. the Euphrates and the Tigris." (https://biblehub.com/greek/3318.htm). This region was home to historic people groups such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Parthians, and Arameans. Today we associate this land mostly with the nation of Iraq.
- Judea is a bit of an obvious one, since this is where Jerusalem is located. This is, of course, located today in the territory of Palestine and Israel.
- Cappadocia will become an important region throughout the book of Acts, the rest of the New Testament, and early post-Biblical Christian history. Cappadocia was "a large Roman province in the central eastern part of Asia Minor" (https://biblehub.com/greek/2587.htm), located in what we woud know today as Turkey. Pontus was also nearby, located "in the north of Asia Minor, bordering on the Black Sea, governed along with Bithynia." The use of the word "Asia" should be read with the western third of Turkey in mind (https://biblehub.com/greek/773.htm), rather than modern east Asian countries like China or Japan. Together, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia were all part of what would be called "Asia Minor."
- Arabia (mentioned in verse 11) shares it's name with the modern Arabain peninsula, although the territory of "Arabia" at the time of the New Testament also came quite a bit further north.
- North Africa:
- Egypt is perhaps one of the most easily recognizable names in this list, and had a long and storied relationship to the nation of Israel. Jesus spent much of his childhood growing up in Egypt, and church tradition holds that Mark helped to establish the church in Egypt. The city of Alexandria would become one of the most important centers of Christianity in the first few centuries.
- Lybia is another recognizable name to modern readers, and becomes very important going on into early Christian history. The specific region of Cyrene is located on the northern coast of the country.
- While not many African locations are listed in Acts 2, we will later encounter an Ethiopian traveller in Acts 8 who also seems to be a follower of the Jewish religion. There are numerous traditional stories about how Ethiopia gained it's Jewish population, but we can observe that even in Isaiah 11:11 that during the exile many Israelites were scattered into the African continent, settling not only in Egypt but also in Cush, which was south of Egypt and probably referred to historic Nubia.
- Crete was and is a large island in the Mediterranean sea which has strong historical and culural ties to Greece.
- Rome probably needs no introduction, being one of the most famous cities in the world and the capital of both the ancient Roman Empire and of modern Italy.
- It's important to note that even today, the continental identity of Turkey/Asia Minor is mixed. While some parts are considered part of Asia, other parts are considered part of Europe.
- It is worth noting that this crowd in Acts 2 consists of both ethnically Jewish people and people who had converted to the Jewish religion (2:11). This is important because the distinction between who is Jewish and who is Gentile is not always clear in the book of Acts. Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Acts 10, is treated as a Gentile even though he clearly worships the God of Israel.
- There are many debates in the church today about the ethnic and racial identification of the ancient Israelites. While these questions are important and very interesting, we should also keep in mind that history is complex, and that people do tend to move around quite a bit, especially when facing as much conflict and persecution as the Israelites and Judeans did. Acts 2 shows us that in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, Jewish cultural identity was already complex, mixed, and diverse. Many people from many different parts of the world identified themselves as Jews. They were Africans, they were Asians, and they were Europeans, to use modern geographic designations.
- Peter's sermon is best experienced by reading it straight through on its own terms. A few important quotations from the Hebrew Bible pop up, and it's worth reading through them in their original context to see how Peter is using them.
- In Acts 2:16-21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-32. The wording between both passages is probably going to be different in your Bible because of the different manuscripts and ancient versions that the Bible is translated from, so carefully read both passages, observe the similarities and differences. The book of Joel is fairly short, so it may be worth reading through the whole thing at once to catch the main overarching themes. Also, take a look at this video from The Bible Project and consider how Joel's message might have applied in Peter's time.
- Acts 2:25-28 quotes from Psalm 16:8-11. The Psalm is originally by and about David, which is interesting from a typological perspective. (Typology is a kind of prophetic foreshadowing in the scriptures). Consider the parallels between David and Jesus as both being royal, kingly figures for Israel, albeit in different ways.
- In Acts 2:34-35, Peter quotes from Psalm 110:1. This is a royal Psalm about the king of Israel and the authority of God that accompanies his rule, as well as the role of this king as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. While this gets discussed later on in the book of Hebrews, this particular passage is interesting because Peter would have already heard Jesus himself teach on it in Luke 20:41-44. Read both Psalm 110 and the Luke 20 passage, and try to explain how Jesus and Peter are interpreting this verse.
Peter's speech to the crowd "cuts them to the heart." It seems that a big part of this - and hence, why Peter chose the material he did - is the fact that this sermon in particular spoke to the journey, sufferings, hopes, and expectations of the Jewish nation about the Messiah. Quoting from the Psalms about a royal, Messianic, kingly figure who suffers but does not see decay would have squared nicely with the report of a resurrected Jesus. What we see here is Peter connecting the death and resurrection of Jesus - which the church now understands as the fulfilment of promises in the Hebrew scriptures - to the present experience of the church receiving God's Holy Spirit. The crowd is hearing poor, average Galilean citizens speaking multiplicities of foreign languages because God has stepped into his people's history, fulfilled his promises, blotted out the sins that separated his people from him, and therefore has been able to fill them completely with his powerful divine presence.
The Culture & Economics of the Church
- This final section of Acts 2 demonstrates the radical, life-altering nature of the gospel message. The new converts do not simply say "oh that's nice, I agree," and then move on with their lives as normal. Instead, verse 42 strongly implies that many of these foreign travellers chose to remain in Jerusalem and devote themselves to being students of the apostles, in order to learn about Jesus.
- This community of spiritual learners also begins to redistribute their resources in order to ensure that everyone was taken care of. People sold their belongings and "had all things in common" (2:44).
- What do you suppose it would take for the modern to church to recapture and put into practice this lifestyle?
This is perhaps one of the most triumphant chapters in the book of Acts. It is a proud, bold, stunning launch for the expansion of the Kingdom. It foreshadows the growth of Christianity as a multicultural movement, not limited to one ethnicity or nationality. This, of course, will be explored in more detail later, but the ground work for that idea is already there. The Gospel is to be a unifying, culturally transcendent message. And, importantly, the Gospel is meant to reshape people's lifestyle in self-sacrificial ways. The Church functions best when it is made of mutually supportive, loving relationship of people who would give up everything for each other. That is the kind of church that is worth being a part of, that people would want to join. A community that redefines what it means for people to live together.