Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Looking at Acts 2:1-21, This Sunday's Bible Lesson (May 11, 2008)

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.

The Bible Lessons: Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-35
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21

John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

[We have many different optional Bible lessons for this coming Sunday, Pentecost Day. I'm going to focus solely on Acts 2:1-21, which gives the account of first Christian Pentecost.]

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Comments:
1. Pentecost already was a festival on calendar of pious Jews. It was a harvest festival, falling fifty days after the Sabbath of Passover week. For more, see here. On the Christian calendar, Pentecost is one of the three great festivals of the Church Year, along with Christmas and Easter. The first Christian Pentecost happened fifty days after the first Easter and ten days after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven.

2. The they mentioned in verse 1 are presumably the group of 120 Christ-Followers mentioned in 1:15.

3. The events of Pentecost fulfill the promise Jesus made in 1:8, that He would send the Holy Spirit, Who would make it possible for them to boldly witness for God in spite of their fears. The gift of the Spirit would also fulfill Old Testament prophecy, Peter points out. We'll discuss that more in the verse-by-verse comments.

4. The events of Pentecost also, in a way, reverse the conclusion of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. There, filled with arrogance, the people of a city called Babel, decided to build a tower which, they thought, would make them as great as God. To save from themselves, God confused them by causing them to speak different languages. Their inability to communicate made working together impossible and soon, worked stopped and the people moved in every direction, establishing their own countries and customs. (For more, see here.)

Through the events of the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for followers of Jesus Christ to communicate in ways that were understandable to the varied representatives of the Jewish disaspora gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Instead of using their communication skills to glorify themselves, the first believers went around, "speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

5. The first Christian Pentecost introduces what might be called "the era of the Holy Spirit." The Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity and has always been present from eternity. But in the era in which we live now, it's the Holy Spirit who makes faith possible and who gave birth to the community through which God speaks to the world today, the Church. (For more see here and here.)

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
(1) Were these first Christians afraid? Probably. Were they praying? No doubt. But they were also doing what the risen Jesus told them to do just before He ascended to heaven: waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Faith often involves patient waiting.

2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
(1) In Old Testament Hebrew, there is a word (ruach) which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. A similar word exists in New Testament Greek, pneuma. It's God's ruach that bears down upon the watery chaos in Genesis 1 and brings life into being. God also breathes ruach into Adam to give the first man life. Here, the very life-giving breath of God breathes His Church, the fellowship of believers committed to Christ's mission for it, into being.

(2) Luke, the writer of Acts, is at pains to point out that this wasn't some gentle little breeze. The Holy Spirit came into the place where the first Jesus-Followers were gathered "like the rush of a violent wind." The Spirit filled the entire house...there was no escaping God for the believers who were there!

3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
(1) This is different from the gift of tongues which the New Testament talks about elsewhere. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14, that's a worship language which God gives to some Christians as a means of building up the church internally. The Holy Spirit is given to every believer in Christ. It's the Spirit Who makes it possible for once-fearful followers of Christ like Peter to share the good news of new life for all with faith in Jesus with boldness and humility.

(2) The Holy Spirit has been referred to as the "shy member of the Trinity." (The Trinity describes one of God's many mysterious attributes: God is one and yet is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) And yet the Spirit's appearance on Pentecost was an occasion for sensory overload. First, He filled the house where the disciples were sitting with a roar. Then, He appeared visually in some way. Finally, He sent the disciples out onto the streets of Jerusalem, each telling the story of God's mighty deeds in various languages for all to hear.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
(1) They were in Jerusalem, the center of worship for God's ancient people, as explained here.

6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
(1) The crowds didn't hear a strange language, as would have been the case if the first Christians were speaking "in tongues." They heard intelligible accounts of God's mighty acts in their own native languages, the ones they spoke in their dispersed homelands.

7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
(1) How is it possible, the crowd wonders, for these Galileans to speak in their languages? This really is the miracle of Pentecost: God empowers the first Christians to share the Good News in accessible ways!

(2) Notice that the disciples weren't apparently confined to speaking of Jesus' death and resurrection. They were recalling for this international gathering of their fellow Jews "God's deeds of power."

This underscores Luke's emphasis, evidenced both in his Gospel and in Acts, on the unity and consistency between the God revealed in Old Testament times and the God seen in Jesus and now, in the Holy Spirit.

This, according to Luke, is exactly what the resurrected Jesus emphasized when He met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus back on the first Easter. Recalling the Law and the Prophets from the Old Testament, He demonstrated how His death and resurrection had been the plan for the Lord's Messiah always and that the means of salvation--trust or belief in the God ultimately revealed in Jesus--has always been the same.

We Christians tell the story of God's mighty deeds, especially Jesus' death and resurrection, the central event of human history, so that people will call upon the Lord and so, be saved from sin and death. As with the first Christians, it is the Holy Spirit Who gives us the ability to do this.

12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
(1) People always try to explain away the miraculous intervention of God in human life, including Jesus' resurrection. Even religious folks do that. In Old Testament times, a devout woman begged God for a child. Overcome with emotion, the priest thought she was drunk. But she wasn't drunk and God gave her a child destined to be one of the great figures in Israel's history, Samuel. (See here.)

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
(1) This demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit. Just seven-plus weeks before, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Now, in spite of the implicit danger of being associated with Jesus, Who was executed, Peter stands up to give witness to his faith in Christ.

15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning.
(1) Peter evidences having done the very first thing any witness for Christ must do. He listened. His words come in response to the questions and accusations of the crowd in Jerusalem.

(2) Peter is arguing that it's way too early for all these people to be drunk; the taverns aren't even open yet!

(3) These people aren't under the influence of spirits, but of the Spirit.

16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
(1) Another thing a witness for Christ must do is connect God's story with my story and your story. By knowing the Bible, Peter knows God's story.

(2) Peter is saying that there is a different explanation for this strange phenomenon. Simply, God's Holy Spirit has come to Jesus' believers, empowering them to witness for Christ.

(3) To prophesy, in Biblical terms, is to share God's truth.

21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
(1) In its way, this passage, lifted from the Old Testament prophet Joel, is "the Gospel in a nutshell." Gospel is the Old English translation of the New Testament Greek term, evangel, meaning good news. Christians have good news to share: God is for the human race. All who seek help and forgiveness from the God we meet in Jesus Christ will be saved from sin and death and have fellowship with God forever.

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