Acts 2:1-21

Text Comment


Pentecost from the Greek word for “50” because this feast occurred fifty days after Passover. It was the OT’s Feast of Weeks, a late Spring harvest festival.


You know that the Greek word pneuma can be translated either spirit or wind.


Remember John the Baptist’s prophecy of Christ’s baptizing his disciples with the spirit and with fire (the fire an emblem of both cleansing and judgment).


“Filled with the Spirit” here = baptized with the Spirit, cf. 1:5, different ways of speaking of the influence of the Holy Spirit in and upon a man.

“other tongues” vv. 6,8, 11 indicate that the word “tongues” means simply other languages. This is, after all, the ordinary Greek word for “language.” It is something of a failure of nerve for translators to keep the old translation “tongue” as if this is something else than simply a human language, like French or German or Hebrew. Similarly, the word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians translated “interpretation” is simply the ordinary word for “translation.” It is, of course, theoretically possible that the “tongues” in 1 Corinthians are not human languages that a person, who does not know that language, speaks by the power of the Holy Spirit, but there is no evidence to indicate that these are two different phenomena. The simple meaning of the text is that this was a miracle precisely because it could not be explained in natural terms. I am preaching the gospel in Swahili, not knowing Swahili, though any Swahili speaker knows exactly what I am saying and not by any supernatural gift, but simply because he knows Swahili. Every claim that has ever been made in the modern charismatic movement to this kind of “tongues speaking” has either been simply that, an anecdote impossible to verify, or has been falsified. Modern tongues speaking such as occurs every day in American Christianity is not the speaking of known languages. So, whatever you say or believe about “tongues” today, they are not these tongues of Acts 2.


Interestingly, in connection with the meaning of Pentecost, apparently the experience of this filling led the disciples out of the room where they had been and into contact with the crowds. A sign of the significance of the Spirit’s descent.


The list contains nations east and west, north and south of Judea and is clearly meant to indicate the people from all the known world were there and heard the message in their own vernacular languages.


Of course there were plenty of folk in the crowd who knew none of the languages spoken; it would have sounded like gibberish to them.


Peter begins by telling them that what they were witnessing was, in fact, the fulfillment of prophecy. “Last Days” in the language of biblical prophetic writing means simply “the prophetic future” and the prophecy seems to be one of those that combines within itself events separated by large stretches of time: the pouring out of the Spirit on all people, here at Pentecost, leading, eventually, to the events of vv. 19ff., culminating in the great and glorious day of the Lord. In Joel this is a prophecy of the eventual vindication of the people of God in the world and Peter clearly sees Pentecost as a next decisive step toward that consummation.

The Christian Gospel is the proclamation of events in history! Unlike the other religions and philosophies of the world, Christianity is not so much a “way,” a “program,” as it is the record of events that have happened in space and time and the explanation of the meaning of those historical events.

Our message, our faith does not so much concern what we are to do as what God has already done for us in the world. Now these great events at the center of our faith are all bunched together in a period of some 35 years, and all the other events recorded in Holy Scripture either look forward or backward to these: the birth, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

It is perhaps not surprising, given the fact that Christians are not in agreement, for example, concerning the meaning of Christ’s death, that they disagree as well, in some respects, over the significance of this last of the great events of salvation history, the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.

What does this event mean? What was its result? What is the message that we are to proclaim concerning this event?

There are broadly three different views.

  1. There is the view that Pentecost represents the inauguration of a second ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people, a filling them with spiritual power (1:8) that is marked or evidenced by speaking in tongues.

It is generally held that Pentecost signals the availability of this ministry, not its universality. Christians may live without this second ministry of the Spirit if they fail to seek it and, it is often alleged that most Christians through the ages have, in fact, lived without this ministry of spiritual power. In this case, Pentecost, while it certainly has implications for the evangelization of the world, has first and foremost to do with the character, the measure of the Holy Spirit’s work within Christians.

Speaking in tongues, is introduced at Pentecost precisely because it is to be the characteristic sign of this second step or stage or level of Christian experience.

We are familiar with this view as characteristic of the pentecostal or charismatic churches, though, to be sure, it is found in many variations.

  1. There is a view of Pentecost that sees it likewise as both the equipment of the church for its evangelistic ministry in the world and as the inauguration of a deeper, more intimate, more powerful working of the Holy Spirit within the believer, an elevation of spiritual experience above and beyond that which was known in the ancient epoch, or, perhaps beyond that which most believers experienced in the ancient epoch.

This is the common Christian view and certainly the majority view of most evangelical Protestants. Pentecost is a number of things: a great sign miracle demonstrating the exaltation of Christ, an equipment of the church for world-wide ministry, but it is also the inauguration of something new in the way in which God the Spirit dwells in and works within believers.

It is often said by folk who understand Pentecost this way that while the Spirit was “with” believers in the OT, he is now “in” believers, and this change from “with” to “in” is regarded as representing a deepening effect of the Spirit’s presence. There is, as a result, a more intense, more personal, more spiritual religious life produced than was possible before. The law, it is often said, that was written on stone in the ancient epoch, is now to be written on the heart, and so on.

Now, it seems to me — and, as many of you know, this question has been a matter of special interest and importance to me since my days as a graduate student — that neither of these views can be sustained by the evidence.

Certain things may be said concerning which there is perhaps little disagreement.

  1. Pentecost was certainly a great sign miracle pointing to Christ. This can scarcely be doubted as it is the main point of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. His sermon is about Jesus Christ (vv. 22ff.) and the Pentecost event is a climactic demonstration of Christ’s exaltation (vv. 33-36)! That is, after all, what we would expect, for Jesus said that the Spirit would speak not about himself but about the Lord Christ.

  2. It was also the inauguration of the church’s gospel witness to the world. This is what Christ had told his disciples it would be — 1:8 — the effect of the Spirit’s coming would be that they would be his witnesses to the end of the earth. This is clearly demonstrated to be the meaning of Pentecost in the event itself both by the gift of tongues (people from other places in the world heard the gospel in their own language — the Spirit here showing the church what its task would be and proving himself able to take the gospel and send it into foreign hearts as he had into local) and the extraordinary power of Peter’s sermon (3,000 converted by that single message (v. 41).

The question concerns whether we ought to find as well in Pentecost the inauguration of some new kind of ministry within the believer, some intensification of spiritual experience, some deepening of spiritual insight, some heightening of spiritual power, as so many Christians have supposed. That is, does Pentecost change the quality of the Spirit’s ministry within the believer as well as the quantity of that ministry in the world?

After all, there is a natural predisposition to think that Pentecost should have this effect, is there not? Shouldn’t we who live on this side of the cross have advantages that believers before did not? Shouldn’t we live our Christian life on a higher plane?

But, fact is, there is very little to commend the idea, however widely held, that Pentecost has something to do with what would be the characteristic spiritual experience of believers in the new epoch or that it has anything to do with the nature or character of the Spirit’s ministry within believers. We do not doubt that it has everything to do with the Spirit’s ministry through believers to the world, with the quantity of believing life in the world, if you will; but does it have anything to do with the quality of believing life? That is the question.

And, once you frame the question in those terms, the problems with the common view surface immediately.

  1. The NT never teaches that Pentecost has such an effect upon the spiritual experience of believers. Even Acts does not teach this elevation of spiritual life, or this second work of grace by the Spirit. Surely we would expect that were this the significance of Pentecost the Bible would somewhere say so. We have the narrative of the cross, but we also have many texts that explain what the cross meant and means. We have texts that explain the outpouring of the Spirit in terms of the church’s extension into the world, of the ingathering of the nations, but never anywhere does the NT even hint that the Spirit works in believers today in a way that he did not work in them before Pentecost. In fact, the striking fact is that the NT never says anything to distinguish the spiritual experience of believers before Christ with that of believers after Christ. Several texts are alleged to teach this, but they do not.

    1. John 14:16-17. First the textual problem. A very powerful combination of witnesses read “is” [estin] which is clearly the more difficult reading, which is virtually always to be preferred because scribes were far more likely to smooth over difficulties than create them. But, even if one reads “will be” nothing here describes a different type or measure of the Spirit’s work within believers. Jesus says they already have the Spirit and shall have him and the only specific result that he mentions in the text is in v. 12: “you shall do greater works than I did”? What are these works? Greater miracles? No, they didn’t. But, greater effect in preaching — yes, certainly that. Peter won as many with one sermon as Christ may have won in three years!

    2. John 7:37-39. Clearly a reference to Pentecost. And the result? Not what happens in a believer, but what happens through him. The image is taken from Zech. 14:8 where we are given a picture of world wide salvation through the reign of Jesus Christ: “On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The Lord will be king over the whole earth.”

    Still less does the NT ever teach the charismatic doctrine of a second blessing, a second stage or level of the Spirit’s ministry within the soul, demonstrated by tongues. The Bible shows us believers having crises of illumination or repentance or ecstasy, it shows us the Spirit drawing near to believers and leaving them again with smaller measures of his presence, it warns us against grieving the Spirit, tells us to be filled with the Spirit, but it never teaches the doctrine of the second blessing as the charismatics teach it. They derive that doctrine from the history of Acts. But that history can only be made a pattern for us if we know that it is supposed to be a pattern. But the miraculous is not “normal” in the Bible and never taught to be the ordinary experience of believers. The charismatic view fundamentally misconstrues the purpose of miracles in the Bible (cf. v. 22 — remember the OT had a “Pentecost” as well, when Moses and the elders “prophesied” Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25, and there as well it had to do with equipment for ministry; these men were to aid Moses in the work of judging the people, but it was described as putting the Spirit on them that was also on Moses) and requires its advocates to accept as miraculous phenomena that do not meet the biblical criteria of self-authentication (cf. vv. 6-12). Most “tongues” movements begin with this claim, only quickly to abandon it for “angelic language” soon thereafter. Other religions produce exactly the same thing that charismatic Christianity produces.

    As a matter of fact, what the Bible does teach about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, is that whatever the baptism of the Holy Spirit is, all Christians have it (1 Cor. 12:13). He may work more mightily in some than in others, give some gifts to some that he does not give to others, work more powerfully at some times than at others in the same Christian’s life, but that his work is composed of two dimensions or stages or levels, that there is an “ordinary” Christian life and a “high test” Christian life separated by “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” the Bible never teaches and certainly never connects any such idea to Pentecost. What is more, the view requires us to believe that virtually every Christian we know anything about from Pentecost to the present day, every great hero of the faith, every great missionary pioneer, reformer, every leader of a great revivals, every author of great spiritual works, etc. lived without this baptism and below this second stage of spiritual life.

  2. The problem of identifying this “improvement” brought by the Holy Spirit.

    The church in the NT is not freed of the problems faced in the old epoch; it has the same sins, faces the same danger of apostasy and of grieving the Holy Spirit; it is not obvious that Christian history shows a different, higher state of spiritual affairs today than in the days of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, or Jeremiah. [Peter will struggle with cowardice after Pentecost as before; Ananias and Sapphira will deceive; false doctrine will trouble the church; Corinthians, Revelation 3 in the NT and Christian history since!] What is more, the law on the heart was an OT idea and reality; so was the Spirit within the people of God [comment on these prepositions and the idea of distinguishing between them; e.g. “with” vs. “in.”] The Bible does not allow us to make the typical distinctions Christians have made between believing life in the OT and that in the NT. And, when we try to make them, the result is, though no one ever admits this, that we reduce the effect of the Spirit’s coming to zero! For if this is what Pentecost brought, well, it isn’t much! Same problems, same apostasy, same worldliness, and, on the other hand, nothing on the positive side that seems different from what we can find among the godly in the ancient epoch — for reverence, for the fear of God, for the love of God and devotion to him, for delight and joy in the Lord and salvation –. Dick Gaffin’s book, Perspectives on Pentecost, is an excellent example of the problem. He is too good an exegete to think that the texts that are sometimes brought forward to prove this doctrine of a greater measure of the Spirit or the Spirit’s work in the new epoch prove any such thing, but he is, by tradition, committed to the assumption that there must be some such difference as a result of Pentecost. He writes simply, “But what are…the experiential implications of the difference…? Here Scripture is elusive.” [p. 36] He’s right! The Bible tells us nothing of such a difference or distinction. And that seems to be to be a truly thunderous silence.

    Why does the NT never say, “If believers in the OT could live faithfully with less of the Holy Spirit, then how much more must we.” Why does the NT always say, instead, live as those ancient men and women of faith lived, if, in fact, they lived on an inferior level of spiritual experience? And why do we go straight to the Psalms when we are in trouble if, in fact, those folk didn’t even have the Holy Spirit in the measure we have him and so lived an inferior spiritual existence.

    I have often challenged ministers and seminary teachers to explain this to me, to give a textual and theological account of their position that avoids these objections and what I regard as these crippling problems for this view of Pentecost. I’m still waiting for an explanation.

    No doubt we know a great deal more about the ministry of the Holy Spirit because of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, just as we know a great deal more about the triune nature of God as a result of the incarnation and the teaching concerning it and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. That is by no means the same thing as saying that God began to be triune in the NT or that the Holy Spirit’s ministry began in the new epoch.

So, what was Pentecost?

  1. What Peter said it was: a great sign miracle authenticating the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

  2. The equipment and empowerment of the church for its work of bearing witness to Christ in the world. Think of it: this is a work the church had never before been summoned to do. There is a great difference between the epochs!

    And now we are prepared to see what an epoch Pentecost was in the history of the world. Until Pentecost the church was largely confined to one people, one nation, and it was small, very small, as a proportion of the total population of the world. Today it is a very large part of the world’s population and can be found in every nation on earth, among every people, speaking every language. There is a difference and all possible words cannot tell what a great difference that is, especially for a church full of Gentiles, as this church is, all of whom would stand outside of the church of God and the company of the saints were it not for Pentecost.

Finally, why make so much of this issue?

  1. The other view of Pentecost cannot help but diminish the view of the first 39 books of the Bible in the mind and heart of the church. It has had such an effect! Most American evangelicals think of the OT as an inferior revelation, even if the NT does not. It was an epoch in my life when I got rid of this view of Pentecost as a change in the quality of a believer’s spiritual life precisely because it opened the way to see the entire Bible as the living Word of God to be believed and obeyed! The first 39 books describe the same spiritual world, the same principles, the same faith, the same obedience, the same struggles, the same opportunities, the same blessings as the last 27 books describe!

  2. The other view of Pentecost creates inevitably a superficial understanding of spiritual experience and a false sense of confidence. Because we live after Pentecost, people suppose that they are the more spiritual, the more godly for that. It is not so. People suppose that they live above the OT saint, in love, in access to God, in spiritual insight. It is not necessarily so. And, people suppose that they are safer — the gospel is more a matter of love and less a matter of obedience; so many Christians think this — and that is definitely not so! (Hebrews 10 – 12: It is still a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.)