For readers looking simply for a finished ecclesiology the events of the day of Pentecost simply kick off the institution of the church in dramatic fashion. They are proof that the church is something special—a Spirit-filled community, a new covenant people, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a body in which gifted people cooperate, and so on. All of that is good and true and no doubt worthy to be preached, but it misses the whole point of the story. The outpouring of the Spirit on a small number of Jews meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem a few weeks after the death of Jesus has very little to do with ecclesiology and everything to do with eschatology.
In the first place, we should make note of the continuity with the argument about the Spirit in the Gospels. The disciples are told that whereas John baptised with water, they will be baptised with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). I suggested earlier that when John told his audience that Jesus would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, he meant that Jesus would bring upon Israel an eschatological crisis that would entail both the destruction of the wicked and the refining and restoration of the penitent. Those connotations remain active.
Jesus’ own baptism with the Spirit identified him as the servant in whom YHWH delights, in whom God put his Spirit—the embodiment of restored Israel, who would bring judgment or justice to the nations, in whom the Gentiles would come to hope. The relevance of Isaiah 42:1-4 for understanding the narrative-historical significance of the Spirit in the synoptic Gospels is underlined by its quotation in Matthew 12:18-21.
Because Isaiah’s servant very easily assumes corporate dimensions, it is a simple interpretive step to suppose that the baptism of Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit would incorporate them into his prophetic and messianic mission. They would be anointed and empowered to share in his vocation as the one through whom God would “save” and transform his people. They simply picked up where he left off. It has often been observed that Pentecost mirrors the baptism of Jesus in Luke’s first volume.
This is what Pentecost was all about. It marked the beginning of the church as a charismatic body, but in a specific sense: through the power of the Spirit—evidenced especially as worship, prophecy and glossolalia—the Jewish believing communities, and later the Jewish-Gentile believing communities, became agents of eschatological transformation. There may have been connotations of covenant renewal and celebration of the giving of the Law attached to the event (cf. 2 Chron. 15:10-12; Jub. 6:17-21; 1QS 1.16-2.18), but these aspects are not highlighted by Luke.1 His focus is elsewhere.
The decisive interpretive framework is given in Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:28-32. I have made the case at length in a commentary on this passage so I will only summarize the argument here. In the build-up to a “great and awesome day of the Lord”, the Spirit of prophecy will be poured out on many in Israel. What they will foresee is a day of judgment against Jerusalem, the terrible significance of which is indicated by the symbolic language of heavenly disorder and collapse. In this time of great danger some will escape and survive destruction by calling on the name of the Lord.
Peter relocates this account in the “last days” (Acts 2:17), but he is basically telling the same story: the Spirit of prophecy has been poured out on many in Israel, who now foresee what John the Baptist and Jesus foresaw before them—that Jerusalem faced war and destruction, and that only those who called on the name of the Lord at this time would be saved.
Many of the Jews are persuaded by this argument and ask what they should do. They are to “repent and be baptized” for the forgiveness of the sins that had brought judgment on the nation. They will receive the Holy Spirit; and they will be saved from the destruction that is coming upon this “crooked generation” of unrighteous Israel. As Peter will later say to the Council, there is “no other name under heaven given among men” by which first century Jews might be saved (Acts 4:12).
If we have to ask, finally, what Pentecost now means for us, I would say that we continue to exist as prophetic communities, called to be agents of eschatological transformation in some sense of other, in some context or other. Our eschatological horizon is not the same, but if we are to be authentically “Pentecostals”, I think we have to recover something of the corporate prophetic dynamic that was so powerfully unleashed in Jerusalem prior to the great and awesome day of God’s judgment on his people.
- 1. Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, Beginning From Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009), 163-64.