Promises, puzzles and Pentecost

Understanding Pentecost and confusing language in Acts 2

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Pentecost, a 50-day time span beginning Easter Sunday, celebrates culminated promises and a new beginning. The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 contains some singularly unique events in Christian history which are clearly significant for our faith and give us a lot to wonder about.

It’s not entirely clear what actually occurs. Things that I always thought happen don’t actually seem to happen. For example, what, if anything, is on fire? And, perhaps most significantly, the problem that I once thought is being “solved” in the passage isn’t and probably isn’t even a problem at all. Ironically, despite part of this story being about addressing the confusion of language, there’s some language in this story that confuses me. Like I said, much to wonder about.

Let me show you what I mean.

Promises and covenants

In the Old Testament Pentecost was one of the feast days. Only they didn’t call it Pentecost. That’s the Greek word. They called it Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks), and it commemorates the offering of the “first fruits” of the harvest and, in Rabbinic tradition, the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, traditionally 49 days after the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt at the first Passover.

Forty-nine is the Jubilee number, the number of years after which all debts were to be cancelled and slaves released. The Septuagint uses the word Pentecost to indicate the year of Jubilee in passages like Leviticus 25:10. Jubilee and the “first fruits” signal fresh beginnings. The giving of the Torah culminated the fresh beginning for the Hebrew people as well. Pentecost, occurring 49 days after the emancipation from slavery in Egypt (i.e., Passover) is the culmination of a promise and the establishment of the (now “old”) covenant in the gift of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. That’s Pentecost (Shavuot), a fresh beginning.

It’s no coincidence that God (and Luke) saw fit to draw thematic connections between what happened to the first Christians seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. During Pentecost, a “Jubilee’s worth” of days after God freed everyone from our slavery to sin (on Good Friday, during Passover), God culminates the church’s “new beginning” with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Jesus’ promises in Luke 3 and Acts 1 and the prophecies of Joel 2 and Jeremiah 31 – the outpouring of the Spirit and the culmination of a new covenant. But, that’s just the start.

Breezy and burning questions

For instance, have you ever noticed that there isn’t a “rush of a violent wind that fills the entire house” where the disciples are gathered? I’d always thought that they feel a “violent wind.” In Acts 2, they don’t feel a violent wind, but rather they hear a sound like a violent wind. Luke tells us exactly where it comes from—heaven. In the previous chapter, Jesus ascends from earth to heaven, now a sound comes down from heaven initiating the scene. Luke is “gluing” these two realms together.

Now after Jesus’ ascension, there’s a little bit of humanity in heaven, and, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, there’s a little bit of heaven in humanity. But where is the “pneumatos” (the Greek word for both “Spirit” and “wind,” i.e., the thing they heard) ultimately going? For attentive listeners, that may be a main theme of the rest of the Book of Acts.

Another enticing mystery is the meaning of the phrase in verse 3, “divided tongues like fire.” We probably each have imagined what the scene looks like, but perhaps Luke invites us to think more deeply. For starters, I’m inclined to think that “divided tongues” in this instance means something more like the tongues were “distributed,” rather than “bifurcated” tongues—as if these were “forked tongues”—which would raise other enticing questions. If “divided” means “distributed” then there’s a whole new question. Are the tongues “like fire” or is the distribution “like fire?”

Should we envision tongues which look like flames (or flames which look like tongues) thoroughly distributed amongst the disciples? Or are these tongues thoroughly distributed “like fire is distributed,” i.e., spreading quickly from a source and engulfing the room? Or maybe it’s both. Whatever the spectacle is, it does appear they “see/perceive” something related to tongues. Therefore verses 2 and 3 engage their abilities to both “listen” and “see”—and that extends to us, at least metaphorically, as we read along.

Confusing language

Despite all the dramatic sounds and burning questions, the real spectacle of the story is the explosion of spoken languages among the disciples. The languages catch the attention of passers-by, opening up Peter’s preaching opportunity. The languages are the part of the Pentecost event which solves a problem—just not the problem I always thought.

Whenever languages feature this prominently in a Bible story the connections to the Bible’s first language centric story seem obvious. That story is, of course, the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 when the world is divided into/by different languages. At Pentecost the Spirit brings reunification by bridging the language divide introduced in Genesis 11. The languages spoken by the disciples in Acts 2 represent the end of one facet of life and the beginning of another wherein all language-families will hear and give voice to the good news of Jesus.

So, on the surface then, it looks like the language conference in Acts 2 is a clear and direct refutation of the problem which began at Babel in Genesis 11. And it is, but then what is the problem at Babel in Genesis 11? Is the problem really the institution of languages?

No.

And—the problem isn’t even the division that languages brought about.

Languages and division are God’s solution to a problem, a problem which the Tower of Babel represents. The problem isn’t languages or division, the problem is the magnitude of what can be wrought when humans are united in sinfulness. Counter-intuitively, division (by means of confused languages) is God’s solution to that problem!

Here are some of the ramifications of this realization.

Division isn’t inherently sinful. What is sinful often involves what we do to those from whom we’re divided. Followers of Jesus are prohibited from treating those we’re divided from with anything but agape love, but division isn’t, of itself, sinful.

Acts 2 isn’t even mainly a solution to the problem of language division, although it does address that aspect of life. Acts 2 simply presents a new solution to the same old problem of cooperative human sinfulness which God was addressing through dividing languages in Genesis 11. With Jesus, God’s plan entered a new phase, one which now offers a new solution to the old problem of cooperative human sinfulness. The newly available solution is cooperative human faithfulness, further facilitated by the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In the same way that we could bring about horrible things by sinning together, we can bring about even more beautiful things by being faithful together.

Up until Christ, “togetherness” was too much of a risk for God, both between God and humanity and among us. Therefore, the pre-Christ plan involved keeping people separated from each other and, to some extent, from God. That’s why the early phases of God’s plan largely revolved around a single, representative community (Israel) who were to keep themselves “separate” (i.e., “holy”). And even from among Israel, only certain individuals (priest, prophets, kings, etc.) had access to God’s spirit.

This phase in God’s plan was largely to set up the time when Immanuel God could join with us and inaugurate, demonstrate and culminate the newest and final phase in God’s divine plan. This newest and final phase centers on reconciliation and reunification, with Christ as our example and unifier, through the Spirit. In this new covenant we’re called to unity, and because Christ is the perfect priest, prophet and king, we are able to unify with God directly through him. As long as we’re clear about that, maybe it’s ok that Pentecost can be confusing.

Trent Voth is a 2007 graduate of Tabor College and a 2012 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He is currently a doctoral candidate in New Testament studies at University of Toronto. Trent and his wife, Stephanie, are members of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, Calif., where Voth served on staff until moving to Toronto. Voth has also been on staff for Tabor’s FaithFront and FPU’s Ministry Quest programs, as well as adjunct faculty at FPU and FPBS. Before that, Voth served on staff at Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan.

Trent Voth
Trent Voth is a 2007 graduate of Tabor College and a 2012 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He is currently a doctoral candidate in New Testament studies at University of Toronto. Trent and his wife, Stephanie, are members of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, California, where Voth served on staff until moving to Toronto. Voth has also been on staff for Tabor’s FaithFront and FPU’s Ministry Quest programs, as well as adjunct faculty at FPU and FPBS. Before that, Voth served on staff at Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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