The Holy Spirit 5: the eschatological significance of Pentecost

Sat, 10/03/2012 - 18:09

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.

Comments

A discussion of sorts on Andrew’s interpretation of Acts 2:17-21 can be found at Andrew’s commentary on the same here. In particular, it should be noted that Andrew uses the phrase “Spirit of prophecy” uncritically, assuming (incorrectly) it to mean something like “Spirit of prediction” - in this case, the particular eschatology which Andrew is promoting. Prophecy, and spirit of prophecy, are terms not restricted to predicting the future, which is only a very small part of their function.

The fallacy in the whole eschatological proposition here becomes apparent in Andrew’s final paragraph. There is, in fact, no connnection between Pentecost then, according to this eschatological proposition, and the experience of the Spirit now. We are abandoned to discover the significance of our experience of the Spirit (if such we have), and much else, existentially, or even gnostically. There is in fact no reason for us to have any on-going experience of the Spirit according to this paradigm, as there is no biblical anchorage to which it can be secured.

In view of these problems, we should seek better ways of understanding the biblical narrative which Jesus came to fulfil. Fortunately, this is close to hand.

Peter -

Whom are you informing about Andrew’s position? Are you warning us?

I honestly don’t see why you have a problem with the phrase “Spirit of prophecy”. Joel warns of a coming judgment. Peter warns of a coming judgment. So, for that matter, do Jesus, Paul, and probably all the other writers of the New Testament. There is predictive prophecy everywhere. Moreover, according to Joel, when the Spirit is poured out, the sons of daughters of the Jews “shall prophesy”, young men shall see visions, old men shall dream dreams, and even their servants “shall prophesy“—all with reference to a coming “day of Lord”. In light of this, “Spirit of prophecy” seems entirely apposite.

The issue isn’t whether there is predictive prophecy - of course there is. Ths issue is the primary purpose of the giving of the ‘spirit of prophecy’, and what that term means. It is an intertestamental term. If you wish to use it in the way you do, you should show awareness of its provenance. The larger question is whether ‘the (intertestamental) spirit of prophecy’ is the same as the Spirit poured out at Pentecost. These questions are explored at length in Max Turner / Power from on High, and The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts. Because of this provenance of the term, we should also be wary, in my view, of then importing it uncritically into biblical interpretation. It is only used once in the bible, and there may not mean exactly the same as in the intertestamental literature. The biblical use may be redefining the term - “the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus” - Revelation 19:10 - marturia - witness, account.

Was the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost primarily to predict judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70? The question answers itself - of course not! Yet this is what you are saying, and try to reinforce the idea by an uncritical use of the term ‘spirit of prophecy’, which doen’t even occur there. Further, a biblical study of the meaning of ‘prophecy’ illustrates that its predictive function, though important, was not its primary function. A ‘prophet’ was not primarily one who foresaw the future, but one who was ‘a man of God’, and one who called people back to God. This was the primary function of prophets in the OT - to call people back to loyalty to YHWH and to the covenant in particular.

It also emerges through the OT prophets that being called back to the covenant would involve a major shift in the way the covenant operated - a new covenant, which was the covenant of the Spirit. Quite how Israel understood this is difficult to know, but it is undoubtedly what happened at Pentecost and at each subsequent Spirit outpouring, which Peter affirms with his Joel quotation. You are making something extraordinarily different of Pentecost. You overlook the wider significance of Pentecost as biblical fulfilment, and fundamenally misread the role of prophecy to reinforce your viewpoint.

I use the term “Spirit of prophecy” polemically, or at least to highlight the emphasis on prophecy that is found in Acts 2. I’m not sure what your point is—or what Max’s point is—about the intertestamental “spirit of prophecy”. But it seems to me that this is simply a confusion of terms. He uses it in one way; I use it in another. So what?

Was the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost primarily to predict judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70?

My argument is simply that as Peter interprets the event in Acts 2, the emphasis is on the prophetic aspect of the outpouring of the Spirit in light of the coming judgment on Jerusalem. It is a sign that judgment is coming; the proper response is to repent and be saved from destruction. That is what the text says. It is quite clearly his overriding concern. That is not to say, obviously, that there are not other consequences or implications of the giving of the Spirit to the church.

A ‘prophet’ was not primarily one who foresaw the future, but one who was ‘a man of God’, and one who called people back to God.

I would have thought that in pretty much every instance in the Old Testament prophets the people are called back to God in the face of impending judgment. That is what we have in Joel 2 and it is what we have in Acts 2. You cannot separate prophecy from eschatology in the Old Testament. It is nearly always spoken in the light of coming events—either judgment or restoration.

I do not at all overlook the wider significance of Pentecost. I haven’t got to those passages yet. But Peter makes nothing of the new covenant theme in his address to the Jews. Nothing at all. What he emphasizes is that a disparate community is now prophesying what John the Baptist and Jesus prophesied—that is the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

“Spirit of prophecy” - the term is loaded, and should be avoided unless some of the freight it is carrying woven into the discussion. I suggest, respectfully, that you stop using it.

Acts 2:2 - we disagree, and there’s much more to it than the couple of verses from Joel quoted by Peter, as the commentary discussion shows.

I’m completely surprised at your misunderstanding of the role of prophet/prophecy. The terms cannot simply be deduced from judgment prophecies in the OT. Abraham and the patriarchs were prophets. The collection of books from Joshua to 2 Kings were ‘the former prophets’. Jesus was called a prophet when he had insight into the life of the woman at the well.

If you take the wider purpose of the (latter) Isaiah-Malachi prophets into account, it is the renewal of the covenant which is their overarching focus, or at least it becomes that. This is rather more important at Pentecost, and all the other mini-Pentecosts in Acts, than the judgment theme you seek to isolate.

The problems created by your interpretation are evident as soon as you start looking at where the interpretation takes you - which I have been suggesting previous comments. It’s telling to me that you don’t have a satisfactory answer, or sometimes any answer at all, to these wider questions.

Just trying to be helpful, as usual!

Of course I’m not going to stop using the term just because you don’t like me using it. Incidentally, the term I use is “Spirit of prophecy”, not “spirit of prophecy”. That may make all the difference.

Out of curiosity, though, what’s the argument about the “spirit of prophecy” in the intertestamental period?

No doubt the word “prophet” is used in a variety of ways. The question is which connotations are relevant in Acts 2, which is dominated by the lengthy quotation from Joel 2. The prophet speaks to the people from God more often than not in the light of a narrative of judgment and restoration, which appears to be the case here.

You keep saying things like “if you take the wider purpose… into account”, but the question is what is relevant for understanding Peter’s interpretation of the Pentecost event. Not mine. He does not take the wider purpose into account—at least, not as far as we can tell. He refers only to Joel 2, which sets the outpouring of the Spirit—manifested particularly as prophecy—in the context of a crisis from which only those who call on the name of the Lord shall escape. There is a strong emphasis in the passage on the call to repentance (eg. Joel 2:12-13, 17), which Peter picks up on in Acts 2:38. It lies behind the appeal to the Jews to save themselves from this crooked generation (2:30). And we have the statement “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” in 4:12, which echoes Joel 2:32.

I see no problems with this interpretation. Where does it take me? It takes me back to Jerusalem around 30 AD, where the leader of the fledgling Christian movement is calling his people to repent in the light of the foreseen catastrophe of a war against Rome and pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy as evidence that the Jews are indeed in the “last days” (Acts 2:17) before the end. Nothing problematic about that at all.

Now I’ll repeat myself, because you appear to have missed the point when I made it before: the church continued to live with the consequences of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. But Peter does not address those consequences in this context. His focus is on the eschatological significance of the event for the Jews. I think we should let him say what he wants to say, and then move on.

I don’t really get the point at all. You say that the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is tied to a particular event, which Peter is describing:

He does not take the wider purpose into account—at least, not as far as we can tell. He refers only to Joel 2, which sets the outpouring of the Spirit—manifested particularly as prophecy—in the context of a crisis from which only those who call on the name of the Lord shall escape.

(Incidentally, the outpouring of the Spirit was not manifested particularly as prophecy, but as “declaring the wonders (wondeful works) of God in our own languages” - Acts 2:11. This is not prophecy as judgment; more likely it is prophecy as psalmic praise).

Then you say that there is a wider purpose - or consequence:

the church continued to live with the consequences of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.

What were those consequences, as far as you are concerned, if Peter was not addressing anything beyond “Jerusalem around 30 AD, where the leader of the fledgling Christian movement is calling his people to repent in the light of the foreseen catastrophe of a war against Rome and pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy as evidence that the Jews are indeed in the “last days” (Acts 2:17) before the end.”?

This is where your whole argument is taking you. There is no biblical connection between what the church experienced before and up to that event, and what it experiences after that event, according to you. (If there is a single verse in the NT which does link Pentecost with the on-going experience of the church, according to you, what is it?).

According to your interpretation, the NT does not speak to any situation beyond Ad 70. Your whole argument rests on this assertion. We might as well choose whatever we like to govern our current belief and experience. I think this is more or less what you do.

Also, Joel does not once refer to the destruction of the temple, which is central to your extrapolation of NT prophecy as ‘the end’ of a particular Jewish era. (Joel does not refer to this kind of ‘end’ either). Don’t you think this is rather significant in Peter’s quotation of the narrative of Joel? Or is the destruction of the temple not an important part of what Peter has to say?

This is why a better interpretation of Acts 2, and the NT generally, is not to limit ‘the day of the Lord’ to AD 70, and to see the gift of the Spirit as the reverse side of the coin to eschatological judgment which is on-going and will have a final terminus which is yet to come.

This is where your whole argument is taking you. There is no biblical connection between what the church experienced before and up to that event, and what it experiences after that event, according to you. (If there is a single verse in the NT which does link Pentecost with the on-going experience of the church, according to you, what is it?).

I don’t see the problem. The whole story links Pentecost to the subsequent experience of the church. Why do we need a specific prooftext? The fact that Peter had a limited historical relevance in mind does not mean that the narrative impact of Pentecost was confined to that historical moment.

According to your interpretation, the NT does not speak to any situation beyond Ad 70. Your whole argument rests on this assertion.

I think I may have made the point before that the New Testament also addresses, crucially, the coming clash with Greek-Roman paganism, expressing the confident belief that Jesus will judge and rule the nations. That takes us well beyond AD 70. Then, of course, we have to reckon with the fact that even that “episode” is simply part of the ongoing narrative of the people of God stretching back to Abraham. We live with the consequences of the fact that Jesus has been made YHWH’s king. There is nothing arbitrary about that. It is a central theme of the New Testament.

Also, Joel does not once refer to the destruction of the temple, which is central to your extrapolation of NT prophecy as ‘the end’ of a particular Jewish era.

It’s true that Joel does not refer to the destruction of the temple; neither does Peter. But Joel does speak of a coming terrible day, when only those in Jerusalem who call on the name of the Lord will escape or be saved (Joel 2:30-32). Peter quotes this prophecy and applies it directly to the house of Israel: on a coming terrible day of the Lord only those in Jerusalem who call on the name of the Lord (that is, the Lord Jesus) will be saved and escape destruction.

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