One of the reasons why we routinely miss the point of Peter’s explanation of what happened on the day of Pentecost is, I think, that the canonical arrangement of books encourages us to read Acts as the beginning of something new rather than as a direct continuation of what went before. The New Testament opens with four Gospels telling the story of the life of Jesus up to his death and resurrection. Then we have Acts as the first book dealing with the emergence of the early church and its spread, setting us up for all those letters and the book of Revelation. The ascension of Jesus brings one phase to an end; the outpouring of the Spirit inaugurates the age of the church with fireworks and great fanfare.
The rupture between the story of Jesus and the story of the church is made worse by the fact that the last of the Gospels is John, which has almost nothing of the pervasive apocalyptic outlook of the Synoptic Gospels. Even if we are not actually reading through the New Testament, starting at the beginning, at the back of our minds the thought is lurking that John’s elaborate theological reworking of the story of the historical Jesus has interrupted or reset the narrative. Now for something new. So when we start reading Acts, we make little effort to pick up where Matthew, Mark, and most importantly Luke left off. I think that is a mistake.
The fate of Jerusalem
Acts 2 begins, “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled (symplērousthai)….” The expression takes us back to Luke 9:51: “When the days were fulfilled (symplērousthai) for his ascension, he hardened his face to go to Jerusalem….” So let’s start there. This is now all about Jerusalem, and the hardening of Jesus’ face suggests a hostile or antagonistic state of mind.
Lots of things happen along the way—people are healed, stories are told, instructions are given. But what I will draw out here is a prominent and persistent theme that I think is crucial for understanding not only what will happen to Jesus when he gets to Jerusalem but also Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost a few weeks later.
- Jesus sends out 72 disciples to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God has come near. If they are not received in a town, they are to wipe the dust off their feet, saying, “Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus says, “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (Lk. 10:12). The prospect of a coming judgment on a corrupt and unjust society is unmistakable.
- Jesus casts out demons now, but a far greater madness will descend on the nation in the coming years: “And the last state of that person is worse than the first” (11:26).
- The queen of the South and the people of Nineveh will rise up against this generation of Judeans and condemn it (11:31-32).
- The blood of all the prophets will be “charged against this generation” (11:50).
- Jesus did not come to bring peace to the land of Israel; he brought a fire of judgment, the sword, and division (12:51).
- Jesus says to the crowds, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (12:56). He is not talking about some far off signs of the end-of-the-cosmos; he thinks that they should be able to look at the world around them and realise where things are heading.
- If they do not repent, they will suffer at the hands of Rome just like the Galileans killed by Pilate in the temple; if they do not repent, they will perish in the ruins of Jerusalem like the 18 people killed by the collapse of a tower in Siloam (13:1-5).
- If the fig tree of Israel does not bear fruit in the coming years, it will be cut down (13:6-9).
- Jesus laments over the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”; its “house is forsaken”—a reference most likely to the temple (13:34-35).
- The nobleman in the parable who is opposed by the citizens of his kingdom demands on his return that they be brought to him and slaughtered (19:27).
- Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because “the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (19:41–44)
- The wicked tenants in the parable of the vineyard suffer the same violent fate as the rebellious citizens in the parable of the talents: ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”’ (20:15–16).
- The stone rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone, but all who fall on it will be broken to pieces, and if it falls on anyone, it will crush him (20:17-18).
- Within the lifetime of this current generation of Judeans the temple will be destroyed (21:6, 32).
- When the disciples see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they should flee Judea because “its desolation has come near” (21:20). The suffering in these “days of vengeance” will be immense. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and the surrounding region “will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24).
So when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus say that they had hoped Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, we must understand it as redemption from the long history of rebellion and disobedience that now made war, devastation, and dispersion more or less inevitable. The question is resumed at the beginning of Acts when the disciples ask the risen Jesus whether at this time he will restore political independence to Israel (Acts 1:6). Presumably the timing of this restoration is something that not even the Son knows (cf. Matt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). But their responsibility in the meantime is clear enough. It is to bear witness to the exaltation of Jesus and his future rule, in the power of the Spirit, both in Jerusalem and among the nations (Lk. 24:45-49; Acts 1:8).
The day of Pentecost
Peter directly addresses the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem,” who had gathered to find out what all the commotion was about (Acts 2:14). He relates the outpouring of the Spirit to a passage in Joel, which speaks of God pouring out his Spirit on “all flesh” in Israel, so that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28-31). Non-Jews are not in view.
This is the Spirit of prophecy, and what this newly birthed prophetic community will “see” and proclaim is “wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day” (Acts 2:19–20).
This is the standard symbolic language of judgment against a city or nation, and the reader is reminded of Jesus’ own prophetic statement that at the time of the fall of Jerusalem there will be “signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25; cf. Matt. 24:29; Mk. 13:24-25).
So what is Peter getting at? He is saying that the Spirit of the prophet Jesus (cf. Lk. 24:49) has now been given indiscriminately to all in the band of disciples—men and women, young and old—so that they all now see with clarity what Jesus saw and can proclaim with boldness to Israel what Jesus proclaimed. This is specifically an empowering of Jewish followers of Jesus with the Spirit of Jesus to carry on the mission of Jesus to Israel.
The witness to the sufferings of the Christ and his resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:22-24; cf. Lk. 24:45-49) does not stand alone; it is not all that needs to be said. It is presented in Peter’s speech as an integral part of the apocalyptic narrative that I highlighted in Luke’s Gospel. The death and resurrection of Jesus mattered because a “day of the Lord” was coming that would spell disaster for Jerusalem. But also the resurrection is itself only a means to an end. God raised Jesus from the dead in order that he might be seated at his right hand, as Lord and Christ, to rule in the midst of his enemies (Acts 2:33-36).
In view of this, there is no other way to escape the catastrophe that will soon engulf this “wicked generation” of Judeans than to repent, call on the name of this risen Lord, be baptised for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the same Spirit of eschatological renewal.
The Pentecost experience was not the beginning of the church and its mission to bring personal salvation to the world. It was the continuation and expansion of Jesus’ prophetic mission to the current generation of Judeans and above all to the leadership in Jerusalem. What the apostles set in motion was a popular movement of repentance, a religiously inspired revolt against the “lawlessness” that defied the working of God and brought about the crucifixion of his servant Jesus (Acts 2:23). The Pentecost vision takes us up to the great and terrible day of God’s judgment against Israel—the decisive end of the second temple existence of his people. Peter does not attempt to describe the future life of the “survivors” who call upon the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32).
This is all evident in Luke’s telling of the story in Acts 2, but it helps to remember what went before.