Acts 2: Understanding Pentecost and the Covenant Connections

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Acts 2 is one of those big chapters in Churches of Christ but how familiar are we with what is going on in that chapter? We go to it for what it takes to be converted (repentance and baptism in particular), even for the receipt of the Holy Spirit and let us not leave out the founding of the church. Remember that picture on the post that introduced this month’s theme? Acts 2 is a big deal.33AD

Are we familiar with a few verses or the whole story? When I say the whole story I don’t even mean Acts 2. I mean all that Acts 2 points us to and reminds us of in the story of God’s people as we find it in scripture.

So let me ask you this for starters, how familiar are you with Pentecost?

Let’s start with the name. Pentecost is a transliteration (changing the Greek word into the same sounding word in English) of the Greek name of the feast meaning fiftieth, as it was celebrated on the 50th day after Passover and was one of the required feasts for Jewish men. In Hebrew it is called the Feast of Weeks because it was to be taken after 7 weeks after Passover (7 weeks = 49 days). In Exodus 23:16 it is called the Festival of the Harvest as it marked the end of the barley harvest. When Passover was completed a priest would take the first of the barley harvest and wave it before the Lord. From that point they counted 50 days to Pentecost. At Pentecost, the priests would take the firstfruits of the wheat harvest and make two loaves of bread that were given as an offering (See Lev 23:15-21 for more information).

Why the 7 weeks after Passover? Think back to the story of Israel. When they escaped being slaves in Egypt through the first Passover meal and crossing the Red sea, what was the next major event in the life of Israel? It was the giving of the Law at Sinai. Pentecost was just as much an annual reminder and retelling of the Sinai story as Passover was the exodus story. The emphasis at the Pentecost was divine revelation in general and God’s divine revelation in giving the Law and instituting the Mosaic covenant at Sinai in particular. There would be no more appropriate time for God to reveal a New covenant than at this festival. By the way, the readings in the synagogue at this festival included Exodus 19-20 (God giving the Torah at Sinai) among other things (Ruth was even read pointing to reaching out to the Gentiles at harvest time – some people point to Acts 10 as being like a second Pentecost because of its similarities in reaching the first Gentiles converts through speaking in tongues).

Now, picture Sinai when Israel was encamped around it. What was the mountain like? What was its appearance?

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” – Exodus 19:16-19

Does that remind you of anything?

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” – Acts 2:1-4

The similarities are purposeful. When the Holy Spirit comes on them in the appearance of tongues of fire this is a Sinai experience. This is such an experience because it is the establishment of the new covenant with echoes and reminders of the Mosaic covenant. Before Acts was written, Philo said this about the Sinai experience,

“(33) but as it seems to me, he at that time wrought a most conspicuous and evidently holy miracle, commanding an invisible sound to be created in the air, more marvellous than all the instruments that ever existed, attuned to perfect harmonies; and that not an inanimate one, nor yet, on the other hand, one that at all resembled any nature composed of soul and body; but rather it was a rational soul filled with clearness and distinctness, which fashioned the air and stretched it out and changed it into a kind of flaming fire, and so sounded forth so loud and articulate a voice like a breath passing through a trumpet, so that those who were at a great distance appeared to hear equally with those who were nearest to it…”

XI. (44) And, moreover, as was natural, he filled the whole place with miraculous signs and works, with noises of thunder too great for the hearing to support, and with the most radiant brilliancy of flashes of lightning, and with the sound of an invisible trumpet extending to a great distance, and with the march of a cloud, which, like a pillar, had its foundation fixed firmly on the earth, but raised the rest of its body even to the height of heaven; and, last of all, by the impetuosity of a heavenly fire, which overshadowed everything around with a dense smoke. For it was fitting that, when the power of God came among them, none of the parts of the world should be quiet, but that everything should be put in motion to minister to his service….

(46) And a voice sounded forth from out of the midst of the fire which had flowed from heaven, a most marvellous and awful voice, the flame being endowed with articulate speech in a language familiar to the hearers, which expressed its words with such clearness and distinctness that the people seemed rather to be seeing than hearing it. (47) And the law testifies to the accuracy of my statement, where it is written, “And all the people beheld the voice most evidently.” For the truth is that the voice of men is calculated to be heard; but that of God to be really and truly seen. Why is this? Because all that God says are not words, but actions which the eyes determine on before the ears.
(48) It is, therefore, with great beauty, and also with a proper sense of what is consistent with the dignity of God, that the voice is said to have come forth out of the fire; for the oracles of God are accurately understood and tested like gold by the fire. ” – Philo, Decalogue 33, 44, 46-48

God is purposefully using images from the Old Testament (which was the only Scripture they had at this point) to convey meaning of inaugurating the New. Another image that seems to have been reversed here is the Babel story in Genesis 11, which is preceded by the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 that has some parallels to the nations mentioned being present in Acts 2. The obvious connection being the Spirit allows the Gospel to be preached in people’s native language, which is a temporary undoing of the Babel punishment. It secondarily “undoes” Babel because Babel scattered but these people are gathered and the scattering was to keep them from a unified purpose but now they have been gathered specifically to participate in a unified purpose.

When you read Acts 2, realize that the story that was being told and celebrated every single year that day and specifically that day in Jerusalem was the story of the giving of the Law at Sinai. Knowing that, go back and read the Sinai experience and the establishment of the Mosaic covenant particularly in Exodus 19-24. Have the same story in your mind as the story they were telling that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came audibly and visibly and in power. You will begin to appreciate the bigger story, which is just as much our story as any story in the New Testament could be. God is purposeful in how He moves the story forward and I hope to always have an eye and an ear to see and hear how God goes about revealing these things to us. It takes practice but it is worth it!


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