June 16: Acts 2:4, 17-18ff (continued)

Acts 2:4, 17-18ff, continued

The central aspect of the Spirit’s role in the book of Acts is expressed by the citation of Joel 2:28-32 [Hebrew 3:1-5] in the Pentecost speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-40). This sermon-speech, discussed at length in an earlier two-part article, follows the Pentecost narrative of vv. 1-13 (on which, cf. my earlier set of notes). This use of the Joel oracle demonstrates how the coming of the Spirit upon the Jerusalem believers is seen as a fulfillment of the Prophetic tradition regarding the role of the Spirit in the restoration of Israel. I have discussed the association of the Spirit with this restoration-theme in earlier notes (see esp. the note on Joel 2:28-32); it is a theme which is prominent in the early chapters of Acts, as I have also discussed in previous notes.

While the Greek citation of Joel 2:28-32 differs somewhat from both the Hebrew and LXX versions (for the details, cf. my earlier article), it preserves the fundamental message. This message entails a promise that, in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, the Spirit will no longer come only upon specific chosen/gifted individuals, but instead will be “poured out” upon all the people. This point is driven home emphatically by the inclusive references to male and female (“sons and daughters”), young and old, slave/servant and free person alike. It is essentially a fulfillment of the ideal expressed in the episode of Numbers 11:10-30 (see esp. Moses’ words in v. 29)—that is to say, all the people would function as prophets (<ya!yb!n+).

As I have previously discussed, the ayb!n` is best understood as a spokesperson for God—one who communicates the word and will of God to the people. In the ancient Israelite (and Near Eastern) tradition, this meant a divinely-inspired position of leadership and prominence in society, reserved only for select chosen or gifted individuals. Moses was the supreme ayb!n` in the early period, but eventually, as the tradition in Num 11:16-30 suggests, the role came to be filled by many others over time. It was based on the principle of charismatic leadership—of the Spirit’s presence manifest by unusual (and ecstatic) phenomena. The early Israelite kings (Saul and David) shared in this form of Spirit-inspired leadership (cf. my earlier notes on 1 Sam 16:13-15, etc). Eventually, however, this aspect of the Prophetic experience waned, and was given less emphasis, as indicated by the disappearance of the use of the denominative verb ab^n` (in the passive-reflexive stem) to denote this charismatic/ecstatic form of prophecy.

Such Spirit-inspired activity, in the ancient mode, was manifest by unusual behavior and strange speech—an indication that the person was under the powerful influence of a divine spirit. The narratives in the book of Acts show that the reappearance  of this basic phenomenon marks the “pouring out” of the Spirit in the New Age. The disciples of Jesus, who represent and symbolize the restored Israel (cf. my note on Acts 1:15-26), are the firstfruits of this harvest of blessing from the Spirit. The men and women in Jerusalem, who are believers in Christ, mark the first instance of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh”. This coming of the Spirit will be repeated for others, as the Gospel is proclaimed and more people come to trust in Jesus. As Jesus’ words in 1:7-8 make clear, this dual dynamic of (a) the presence/work of the Spirit, and (b) the proclamation of the Gospel, is the essential means by which God’s Kingdom will be established in the New Age. The narratives in the book of Acts document this process in the earliest stages. The Spirit-filled believers serve as prophets/spokespersons for God (and Christ) and the proclamation of the Gospel, the message of Christ, is their “prophecy”.

This brings us to the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues”, which I regard as part of the same religious phenomenon as the ancient mode of ecstatic prophetic utterance (cf. above). What is thoroughly unique about this phenomenon among the early believers in Acts is the way that it is so closely tied to the specific (prophetic) mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to all the surrounding nations. As these nations speak many different languages (“tongues”), it would be necessary for the Christian missionaries to preach the message in these languages as well. This is the essence of what is described initially in 2:4:

“and they were all filled (with the) holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, even as the Spirit gave (it) to them to sound forth.”

These “other tongues” (e(te/rai glw/ssai) here unquestionably refer to ordinary foreign languages, as what follows in vv. 5-13 makes clear. As the disciples begin to speak out publicly, under this prophetic inspiration, the various Jews, who had come to Jerusalem (for the festival) from the surrounding nations, could understand the message in their own language (vv. 5-6). The experience was unusual and dramatic enough to cause surprise that local Galileans would be speaking in these other languages (vv. 7-8). Moreover, the claim that the believers were intoxicated (v. 13) suggests that there was an ecstatic quality to their speech and behavior, which, according to the ancient principle of inspiration (cf. above), was a striking sign of being in a prophetic state under the influence of a divine spirit. Some of the people mistake this for drunkenness (i.e. the influence of wine)—a misunderstanding that Peter addresses in the speech that follows. There is a bit of thematic wordplay here, as the claim that the believers are filled (“soaked full”, vb mesto/w) with sweet wine serves as an ironic contrast to the reality that they have been filled (vb plh/qw) with the Spirit.

In the next daily note, I will be turning from the Gospels and Acts to the remainder of the New Testament, focusing on how the traditions regarding God’s Spirit were developed by Paul in his letters.

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