In celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I will be exploring the Pentecost Narrative in the book of Acts (Acts 2:1-13, cf. also the article “The Sending of the Spirit”), with one of three central themes highlighted for each of the three days of Pentecost (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday):
- Tongues of Fire
- The Restoration of Israel
To see how these three themes fit together, it is important to look at the introductory verse (v. 1) of the Narrative. Here I break out the specific words of this short verse:
- kai\ (“and”)
- e)n tw=| sumplhrou=sqai (“in the being filled up” [su/n as intensive prefix, i.e. “filled completely”]—but here as a temporal clause = “when it was completely filled”)
- th\n h(me/ran th=$ pentekosth=$ (“the Fiftieth day”)
- h@san (“they [i.e. the Disciples] were”)
- pa/nte$ (“all”—all of them, together)
- o(mou= (“as one” or “at one”, i.e., together, the same; see the similar o(moqumado\n [“of one impulse”] in 1:14)
- e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (“upon the [same] thing”—this phrase occurs repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts, though somewhat obscured by conventional translations; it is indicative of the unity of the believers)
Here is the verse in literal translation:
“And in the Fiftieth day’s being filled completely, they were all at one upon the (same) thing [or, place]”
And in a more conventional translation:
“And when the Fiftieth day had been fufilled, they were all together in the same place.”
[As C. C. Torrey and other scholars have noted, the Greek may reflect an Aramaic expression “when the Weeks had been fulfilled” (e.g., aY`u^Wbv* <l^v=m!b=W), which is more intelligible]
The “Fiftieth” day (usually transliterated as “Pentecost”), is the festival of Weeks (toub%v*) in Israelite and Jewish tradition (cf. Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Fifty days (seven weeks) are counted from the offering of the firstfruit sheaf of grain at the time of Passover. Traditionally, it was also the time associated with the Sinai theophany and giving of the Law (Ex. 19:1ff). In the Exodus narrative, the entire camp of Israel was gathered together beneath the mountain “to meet God” (Ex. 19:17). Here, the disciples, too are gathered together in the same place and will “meet God”. Elements of the Sinai theophany also have their parallel in the manifestation of the Spirit, as we shall see. Indeed, this brings us specifically to the first theme of the narrative which I would emphasize, the subject of today’s note.
Here the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) is recorded in dramatic fashion, in the language and imagery of Theophany. A theophany is a manifestation (literally “shining [forth]”) of God—at the historical level of Scriptural narrative, of course, this means a manifestation in time and space, one which can be observed by God’s people. Within the Old Testament tradition, specific manifestations of God (YHWH), are typically described (and experienced) in terms of natural phenomena—light, wind, fire, thunder, earthquake, and so forth.
Since the manifestation of God at Sinai (occurring at Pentecost, by tradition) was mentioned above, and is perhaps the most prominent such manifestation recorded in Scripture, it is worth looking at elements of that theophany:
- Thunders (lit. “voices”) and lightnings (19:16)
- A thick cloud
- Fire went down upon the mountain; smoke (as of a furnace) went up from it (19:18), perhaps parallel to the cloud in v. 16.
- The mountain “trembled” (or “quaked”); in v. 16 it is said the people trembled (same verb, drj)
- The sound (lit. “voice”) of a horn (rp*ov, shofar) (19:19, also mentioned in v. 16), which sounded long and grew louder
Consider also the theophany to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12):
- A great and strong wind (or “breath”, “spirit” j^Wr = pneu=ma) which swept through and tore at the mountain
- An earthquake (“quaking”, “shaking” vu^r^)
- Fire (va@)
all of which occur as God (hwhy) is “passing over” (or “passing by” rb@u), but God Himself is not in (b) the wind, quaking or fire. Then comes a quiet, thin voice.
Here is the manifestation of the Spirit as recorded in Acts (note the theophanic details in italics, with specific parallels in bold):
- “And suddenly there came to be out of the heaven a sound as of a violent wind [pnoh/] being carried (along) and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting” (2:2)
- “And there was seen [i.e. appeared] unto them tongues as if of fire divided through(out), and it sat upon each one of them” (2:3)
- “And they all were filled of/by (the) holy Spirit [pneu=ma] and began to speak in other tongues even as the Spirit gave (to) them to utter forth” (2:4)
The parallels with the Sinai theophany, especially, make clear that, to the author of Acts at least (and/or the underlying tradition he inherited), the coming of the Spirit is meant to indicate the very power and presence of God Himself. In this respect, the Acts narrative is somewhat different from the account of the coming of the Spirit in the Gospel of John (Jn 20:19-23), which, in light of the earlier Paraclete passages of the Discourses of Jesus in Jn 13-17, emphasizes the Spirit as the continuing presence of Jesus in the hearts and lives of his disciples. This is just one of several fundamental differences between the Lukan and Johannine accounts; however, one important point of emphasis they hold in common is that the coming of the Spirit is central to the empowering and equipping of the disciples for the Christian mission. This mission is only touched upon briefly in Jn 20:19ff (and again in the ‘epilogue’ of Jn 21), but it encompasses almost the entirety of the book of Acts. As we shall see, the theme of the mission to the wider (Jewish and Gentile) world is a thread underlying the Pentecost Narrative.