The Upper Room, Tongues, & The Point of the Story

Back in February, one of my friends tweeted, “I get a sort of eschatological excitement when I watch the Olympics.”  It was a sentiment I couldn’t help but agree with and with the World Cup a day away, I get that overwhelming feeling again.  Even though the whole event is centered around competition and there is bad blood between countries along with corruption of various sorts surrounding it all, the event itself causes a pride in humanity to rise within me.  As tears fill my eyes, I think and look forward to that ultimate regathering of every tongue, tribe, and nation at the the Throne of God the Father.

As evidenced by my friend’s tweet, I’m not the only one that feels this way about these type of events, but I wonder how many of us feel this way about the events of Pentecost in Acts 2.  It seems that event causes us to cringe more than it causes us to rejoice over the fact that we had the opportunity to peek into the Kingdom of Heaven for just a moment.

In the last post, I talked about the historical and biblical significance of this feast for the Jewish people and how much anticipation there would have been for the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Many of us know the story pretty well.  When the day of Shavuot (Pentecost) came, the disciples were together in “one place.”  Let me interject already.  Many Christians assume that the “place” was the upper room that Luke refers to earlier in chapter 1 verse 13.  However, I believe that there is a significant amount of evidence that indicates that the “one place” was in or near the Temple.  Some scholars believe they were near the southern side by the great staircase for reasons I’ll get to in a second.  Though it’s next to impossible to place the exact location, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that you should consider a name change if you are a part of some type of “Upper Room” ministry.

1) It’s Shavuot!  Attendance was required in the Temple for all Jews on this festival.  The disciples, who were “continually” in the temple courts (Luke 24:53), would have most certainly been in the Temple on that day at this time also.  Not only so, but Peter tells us that it was 9 am.  Without a doubt, the crowds at the very least would have been in the Temple because this is when the Shavuot rituals were performed.

1a) Some believe that 9 am was when the selected passages that I referred in my last post were read.  One passage from Exodus describing the appearance of God on Mount Sinai (i.e. thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke).  One passage from Ezekiel recounting his vision of God’s appearance (i.e. sound of wind and with fire).  Veddy eentedesting.

2) Great crowds heard their own tongue spoken and listened to Peter as he preached. Where would great crowds have been on a holy feast day at the time of Temple service?  The Temple was where crowds of foreign Jewish pilgrims would have been gathered on a feast day.

2a) One of the reasons scholars believe the location is the great staircase at the south entrance is because this is the way that many of the foreign pilgrims would have been entering the Temple and the miraculous event at this particular Shavuot is these pilgrims hearing Judeans speaking their language.


Either of these two locations fit the descriptions given in Acts 2 of a large foreign crowd. It was common for sojourners to enter from the south and go into Solomon’s Portico.

3) We have conflated the terms “upper room” (where the disciples and others are gathered in ch. 1) and “whole house” (the place where the Spirit falls in ch. 2).  “Upper room” is mentioned by Luke previously (and Mark in a parallel passage) when referring to the place where Jesus and the disciples shared the Passover meal (Luke 22:7-14, cf. Mark 14:12-17).  Outside of the Acts account, those are the only two other instances of the use of “upper room” in the New Testament.  Interestingly, each time it is used, the author makes it a point to tell us who is in the room including in the Acts account (Acts 1:13-14; Lk. 22:14; Mk. 14:17).  This couldn’t possibly be the place Peter preaches to great crowds with 3,000 saved.  Additionally, Luke makes it a point to call the Temple God’s “house” in both his Gospel (2:49, 6:4, 19:46) and in Acts (7:47).  It seems that these are two different places.

4) Not only were 3,000 saved, but they were baptized at Peter’s command in response to his teaching. Near the great staircase at the southern “pilgrim” entrance to the Temple, there were baths (mikvot) that were used by the Jews so they could be ceremonially clean before they entered the Temple.  As you know, Judea gets very little rainfall so there would not have been many places in the city of Jerusalem with enough water to baptize that many people.  They would have had to leave the city and make their way to the Jordan River.  But, if these events took place at the Temple (possibly even at the southern staircaise) these pools, which already symbolized the washing away of uncleanliness before God, would have been logical places to perform 3,000 baptisms.

So what’s the big deal?  Why does all this matter?  Who cares if they were in the upper room or at the Temple?  What’s the point?

First of all, I think we do an overwhelming disservice to the disciples when we put them alone and oftentimes scared in the upper room waiting for the Spirit to descend.  Certainly the Spirit gave them a boldness that they didn’t have prior.  Peter the perpetual “open mouth, insert foot” disciple gives a knockout sermon laced with a new kind of authority after he receives the Spirit and this boldness carries on into the rest of the Book of Acts.  But, we mustn’t assume that just because they weren’t boldly proclaiming the Gospel that they were scared or hiding or alone or afraid.  Jesus simply told them to wait (Acts 1:4).  Remember, he told them to wait just 10 days prior to the beginning of Shavuot.  Wait obviously would have meant, “Stay here and participate in the festival.”  Don’t wussify the disciples more than they deserve.

Secondly, and I believe most importantly, when we strand the disciples in an upper room away from everyone else all alone in their holy huddle, we miss the point of the storyI teach the Book of Acts to my 11th grade students and I ask them, “What’s the point of Acts 2?”  And the answer is overwhelming.  “Speaking in tongues.”  NO!  And the more we make it about that, the more we miss the point.  The point of the events in Acts 2 is that the disciples spoke in tongues praising God in the language of those around them.  That’s the miracle.  That’s the amazing part.  This is God’s Kingdom breaking through into ours.  He’s showing us what’s it’s like.  God isn’t limited by language or ethnicity or geopolitical boundaries or anything of the sort.  His Kingdom is wide and vast and expansive and includes all people of all tribes and all tongues and all nations.  

However, when we isolate the first Christians to an upper room all speaking in tongues to themselves, we have missed what God is doing.  Tongues becomes an exclusive thing that “we” have and “they” don’t and we feel sorry for them.  When we remove the disciples from the context of the crowds, who are major players in the story, then there is a sense of purposelessness or ambiguity when it comes to tongues.  When we take the disciples away from the crowds and put them in an upper room behind a locked door, the gift of tongues is now free to take on a new meaning outside of what God meant it for in Acts 2.  (Sidebar: Every time tongues is mentioned in Acts, it’s always about breaking down barriers and creating unity.  Every.  Time.)

Now, if you are a continuationist, which I am not, and believe that the supernatural revelatory gifts of the New Testament (including tongues) are still in operation today, which I don’t, you must come to terms with what is going on in Acts 2.  You mustn’t separate the disciples from the crowds.  And you cannot separate tongues from it’s purpose.  The purpose of tongues in Acts 2 is not to talk to God in a secret way that the Devil can’t understand.  It’s not to talk to God without using words because you “don’t know what to say.”  Notice that tongues here are human languages that are spoken and understood and, like traditional language, used as a tool to communicate the Gospel.  If you want to believe tongues is still a practice in the church today, great.  We’ll agree to disagree.  But if you do believe that, you have to be consistent and admit that if they are, they must be, according to Acts 2, human languages that are able to be understood with the purpose of drawing people together in unity around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whatever it is you believe about what happens regarding tongues today, I think it’s safe to say that what happened on that particular Shavuot morning surpassed all the disciples’ predictions. God’s Spirit filled them with boldness and gave them gifts and abilities they couldn’t have imagined.  Amazingly, that same Spirit regenerated the hearts of about 3,000 people so the newly founded Church of Jesus Christ grew.  Those 3,000 came from every nation of the known world and then returned as “missionaries” who didn’t have to spend time learning a new culture or language.  And all through the Book of Acts and through the annals of history up to and including today, the Holy Spirit has been building the Church one rescued heart at a time.

God had a plan for the children of the survivors of the fall of Israel (2 Kings 17) and Judah (2 Chron. 36).  It had been made before time began and revealed hundreds of years prior and this Shavuot was it.


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