Last week, I wrote three blog posts about Pentecost. Be sure to check them all out.
Last week, I wrote three blog posts about Pentecost. Be sure to check them all out.
Some of my favorite movies are ones that leave you guessing until the end. Or ones that lull you into a false sense that leads you to believe you have it all figured out and then when the end comes you are blown away. What makes a truly great movie is when you can watch it again and still appreciate the amazing ride the story takes you on and catch tiny nuances that you missed the first, second, or third time you watched it. That’s a good movie.
If we have grown to expect something like that from The Nolan Brothers or Stephen King or Billy Wilder, why haven’t we expected something similar yet far greater from God, the Master Storyteller? Why do we treat Scripture as a disjointed, disconnected, boring, story that we’ve “heard already?” Maybe because you’re not really looking.
In the rest of this post, allow me the opportunity to reveal the connections in certain stories and events that have been there all along…that the author intended to put there…that you may have missed in the past.
Let me set this up by referring back to my two previous posts this week. Monday, I posted about the historical and Biblical significance of Shavuot (Pentecost). You can read that here. Wednesday, I posted about the importance of the location of the events recorded in Acts 2. You can read that here. Keeping in the same vein, I want to reveal the connections that Pentecost has to what God had been doing throughout Biblical history. While this event was unexpected, it wasn’t uncharacteristic. The set up was complete. This is just the brilliant “twist” ending that no one saw coming.
Connection 1 – Harvest
Shavuot was a celebration of the harvest. It was celebrated with grain.
“You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest,” (Ex. 34:22).
If you read the parables of Jesus, you can’t help but miss his frequent references to the “harvest” referencing people who were going to join the Kingdom (Matt. 9:37-38, 13:24-29, 36-43; Luke 10:1-2; John 4:34-38).
In Acts 2, the disciples were celebrating Shavuot, celebrating the harvest, and thousands believed and joined the Kingdom of God.
Connection 2 – Commission
As stated previously, the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that Shavuot was celebrated around the time God gave the gift of Torah to Moses. So, in the mind of the participant, the writer, and the reader, these two events would have already been linked. Look carefully at what Luke does in Acts.
The initial things are obvious. Both events involved similar sounds and symbols, such as wind, fire, and voices (Ex. 19:16-19; Acts 2:1-3). Both events involved the presence of God (Ex. 19:18, 20; Acts 2:4).
But there is one thing that may not seem as obvious. Recall for a moment what God is doing at Sinai. Recall what God is doing when he gives the Israelites the Torah. Recall the commandment that ties the commandments in the Torah together. “Be holy for I am holy,” (Leviticus 11:44, 45, 19:2, 20:7, 26, 21:8). God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai served to commission Israel into the world as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) charged with representing God as his people. He gives them the Law so that they can reflect his holiness showing the world what He is like.
(Sidebar: At Shavuot, it was a tradition established before Jesus’ time [and continued today] to read Ezekiel 1-2 during the service as well. Recall the events of Ezekiel’s vision in chapters 1-2.
“I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north — an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light… The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it.” (Ezekiel 1:4, 13)
Recall what God is doing when he calls Ezekiel. Ezekiel experienced these visions for a purpose. God is commissioning him as a prophet to proclaim his Word to a wayward people.)
On Shavuot in Acts 2, God was publicly commissioning Jesus’ disciples to take the Gospel to the world, to be his representative. And the very first thing that Peter does is to preach to the crowds and God saved thousands of people that day. On the first Shavuot at Sinai, God celebrated by shaking the earth with voice as he commissioned his people. In Acts 2, God was celebrating Shavuot again by shaking the earth with his voice, but this time he filled his people with his voice empowering them to preach the Gospel of redemption to the whole world.
Connection 3 – Death and Life, Law and Spirit
(I tell you this while affirming the inspiration of Scripture.)
Many of us have read Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians. “[O]ur sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” We may think Paul to be a little harsh here or, to be honest, we don’t really understand what he’s getting at or what the relationship is between death as a result of the Old Covenant or life that results from the New Covenant.
There is something very interesting that occurs in Luke’s recording of the Pentecost account. I think Luke is intentionally trying to draw our attention to the events at Sinai and if we were eastern thinkers and not western thinkers (a topic I’ll have to write about at a different time) we wouldn’t have needed Paul to tell us what he did in 2 Corinthians. We would have gotten it before the end of Acts 2. Luke uses language that would have immediately struck chords with his Jewish readers.
Let’s go back to Exodus 32. Moses is on the “mountain of God” (Sinai, Ex. 24:13) and has received the Torah from God. As he is descending the mountain, he hears singing in the camp. Joshua thinks it’s the sound of a war, so it must have been some type of thrasher death metal. Moses enters the camp, sees that they’re worshiping a golden calf and asks Aaron what is going on. Aaron says, “I dunno. I put all this gold into the fire and this calf came out. It was weird.” So, Moses calls all the priests (the sons of Levi) to himself and tells them to kill those responsible for this grievous idolatry. Look at verse 28. “And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.”
Acts 2. The disciples are on the “mountain of God” (Temple, Micah 4:2) celebrating the giving of the Law. Suddenly, the Spirit falls upon them sealing the New Covenant Jesus made with his blood. Peter rises to tell the people of the significance of these events and after revealing to them their sin and redemption made available in Christ…look at verse 41. “[A]nd there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
The Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Connection 4 – The Poor
The requirements for the celebration of Shavuot are given in 4 places around the Old Testament, but one of them has something that none of the others do.
In Leviticus 23, God gives Moses the specifics of this celebration with regards to the sacrifice, time of year, etc. All of that matches the other accounts. But before moving on to the Feast of Trumpets, there is a somewhat strange verse included with the requirements for Shavuot. Verse 22.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”
This is echoing a command God gave back in Leviticus 19:9. This is the “Love Your Neighbor” section of the commandment and verse 9 is the first example given of how that’s done.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
Now we know that this is a festival that celebrates the harvest, so this law isn’t completely out of place. And we know that this was adhered to by faithful Jews like Boaz. And we know that the poor took advantage like Ruth and Naomi. Also notice that there is no requirement for how far away from the edge you had to be. So, you could look out across the fields in Israel and know who was being obedient and generous and who was just being obedient.
So in the mind of a Jew, Shavuot is just as much about serving and helping the poor as it is about the Torah and the harvest.
Look again and Luke’s construction of the story in Acts 2.
The Spirit falls. Language barriers are broken down causing the Gospel to be heard by everyone. Peter preaches, people repent and the Kingdom expands. But that’s not where the story ends. Luke makes it a point to tie something else in (TWICE). I’m not suggesting it didn’t happen, but I’m suggesting that Luke’s inclusion of it should make you clearly see a line connecting the Old and New Testaments.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-46, 4:32-35)
The early believers, who were filled with the Spirit, held everything in common and shared with everyone who had need. These people who had experienced the bounty of God’s great “harvest” could not help but be concerned for others, who, in turn, learned about what God was like through the believers’ acts of generosity.
This was a true Pentecost. It wasn’t about tongues or an upper room or jumping and shouting. It was about breaking down ever possible human erected barrier with the Gospel. It was about caring for the poor because God has cared for them. It was about being commissioned by Him to show the world what He’s like. It was about reaping a great harvest, by His grace. And it’s still about all those things. But it’s also about recognizing that God has been orchestrating a masterful story since the beginning of time. Our responsibility, then, is to take our time to read it, know it, love it, and find our place in it.
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.
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 story. I 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.