Acts (Part 03) - Pentecost

10/27/2010 10:28

The sound of the mighty rushing wind surely connected immediately in the apostles’ minds with the illustration Christ gave in a post resurrection appearance by blowing and telling them to receive the Spirit (John 20:22-23). But, in addition to the sound, tongues or flickering flames of fire appear, resting on each of them. This certainly should recall, at least for us, the words of John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 3, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:11). Of course, both the sound and the flames are symbolic of the same thing—the Holy Spirit, who has come to live with and empower them (and us). As they received the Spirit, they began speaking in tongues (the Greek word transliterated is glossa, which means either the actual tongue—organ of the body—or language). Here we find the apostles speaking other languages—languages in which they had not been schooled.


The Pentecost celebration was in progress in Jerusalem. As one of the seven main feasts, Jews (and others) from around the known world had returned to Jerusalem for the celebration. Therefore, when the noise of the mighty wind (probably a sound of hurricane proportions) coupled with the 120 all speaking at once in different languages, being excited in both what they were seeing and knowing what it meant of the Holy Spirit’s presence, those in Jerusalem were attracted by the commotion and came to see what was going on. Doubtless many of the 120 had spilled out of the upper room and house where they had been meeting. So the street was filled with people (we’re told later that there were thousands there).


The people crowding the streets were amazed at what they found. It was not just that they heard the wind and commotion; they heard these common Jews, who had never traveled farther than the length of the Jordan River, speaking in the languages of the world. Those from as far away as Rome to the west and Mesopotamia or Media to the east heard these untaught commoners speaking the things of God in their distant tongues. Of course, there were also Jerusalem inhabitants there who, not knowing the other languages and therefore hearing only what to them amounted to gibberish from a large group all speaking at once, claimed they were simply drunk (2:13).


We will leave this scene for a moment to discuss a related issue. We have still in our day a phenomenon called “speaking in tongues.” This is claimed to be the same gift as we find discussed in Scripture (most notably here in Acts and in 1 Corinthians). Others claim, however, that the gift of tongues ceased with the end of the apostolic age. Let’s take a closer look. I’m going to discuss both tongues and prophecy because they are in some aspects similar and both are said by many to have ceased.


From what we’ve seen in Acts 2, we could define tongues as speaking direct revelation from God in a foreign language without prior knowledge of or training in that language. This definition is broad enough to include the claim of modern tongues speakers that their language is the language of angels (1 Cor 13:1). (Of course, the Bible doesn’t ever tell us elsewhere that angels have a different language from any on earth, making Paul’s statement seem more one of hyperbole than revealing some fact gained through special instant revelation. And the limited number of syllables used in modern tongues speaking AND the differences of the ecstatic utterances of some individuals or groups from others (especially those of different national and cultural backgrounds) would also seem to argue against the claim of angel speech.) 


Who would benefit from the sign of tongues? Or, in other words, since all signs are intended to be received by someone who can understand the significance, who are meant to be the recipients of this sign of tongues? Paul gives us the answer clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:22a. He says, “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers, but for unbelievers.”


Now that we have identified definition and recipient, what is the purpose for this sign of tongues? What we have seen so far in Acts gives a definite implication. These foreigners (who are also unbelievers) gathered around the commotion are amazed to hear the things of God spoken in languages from around the world. We see, then, in Acts 2 a mini-fulfillment of the Great Commission in Acts 1—witnessing in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. The purpose for tongues as a sign, then, is to show that the gospel is not just for the Jews, but extends for the whole world.


Paul also gives us another purpose in 1 Corinthians. In urging them to be mature in their thinking about tongues (14:20), he argues in verse 21, “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” Paul is quoting from Isaiah 28:11-12. Isaiah 28 is a chapter describing judgment on Israel. This fits in well with Paul’s ministry in the apostolic age. Although from the words of Christ in the Gospels, we recognize that the first or old covenant with Israel as a nation was passing away, its final end came with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. However, with the beginning of Christ’s ministry, through his death, resurrection, and ascension, and on into the apostolic age, the New Covenant began. Therefore, there is somewhat of an overlap as the old covenant period ends and the New Covenant period begins. The purposes for the sign of tongues, then, fit both these covenant occurrences. Paul says that foreign tongues speak of judgment against Israel (ending of the old covenant), while the purpose implied by Luke in Acts is that tongues demonstrate that the gospel is for the whole world (beginning of the New Covenant).


Prophecy is, in a way, related to tongues. We find through the OT examples and even in the Gospels (Matthew 26:67-68 and John 4:19) that prophecy is knowledge gained apart from the five senses. Specifically, the sign gift of prophecy could be defined as speaking direct revelation from God. Notice the similarity with tongues. Both gifts speak direct revelation from God. One gift is speaking revelation in a foreign tongue while the other gift is speaking revelation in known tongue.


The recipients of this sign are the opposite group from the recipients of tongues. Whereas the gift of tongues was a sign to unbelievers, prophecy “is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (1 Cor 14:22b).


We note in the rest of 1 Corinthians (particularly verses 26 and 29-31) that prophecy should be used for the edification or building up of the church. Furthermore, we are told in Ephesians 2:19-20 and 3:4-5 that the very foundation of the church is built on the apostles AND the prophets. Why is this so? Why not just the apostles? What do the prophets have to do with it?


The early church (the one born in the apostolic age) did not have NT scripture to teach them of God’s revelation. Thus, the gift of prophecy was important in the same way as Scripture is important to us today. We know principles from the mind of God based on the NT. Without those writings, that early church knew principles from the mind of God based on the direct revelation of God spoken through those with the prophetic gift.


As we look at both tongues and prophecy now, we find that the purposes for these two gifts (for tongues—judgment on old covenant and to show gospel is not an exclusive religion for the Jews; for prophecy—to provide the doctrine on which the Church rests) have been completely satisfied in the world. Therefore, it would appear that the gifts themselves are no longer necessary. Could some scenario be imagined that required tongues or prophecy to fulfill the purposes in a unique setting? Possibly. And possibly then God may still use the gifts for that unique scenario. However, the direct revelation from God would not be new revelation, that is, revelation not already revealed in the New Testament.


As we turn back to the scene in Acts 2, we find that Peter stands to take advantage of this first gospel opportunity as a witness of the resurrection. He begins with a call for attention: “Men of Judea and all who dwell (or, are right now staying) in Jerusalem…” (2:14). Why does Peter call out to only the men? Were women there? We know women were among the disciple group gathered in the upper room who received the Holy Spirit. Surely many of those in the street were women as well. But Peter addresses only men. Perhaps this word is a generic word for people. But a look at the Greek tells us that this word is aner, a word that is distinctively male.


Some (including the NIVI – inclusive version of the NIV) try to make this word more generic, like anthropos, which does generaically mean humans or people. But in the about 215 uses of aner in the NT, fewer than a handful of instances may be questioned as to whether only males are meant. l

 In Matthew 14:34-35 the men (aner) of the place recognize Jesus arriving and send around to gather the sick for healing. Surely some women recognized him as well, right? But in this instance, it may very well have been the men who organized the gathering.


In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul lists several roles used for the building up of the body of Christ to “attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood (aner), to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Again, although we expect women Christians also to grow in unity of faith and knowledge, the picture of manhood or (as the KJV has it) the perfect man could be speaking of matching the maturity of Christ who was a man.


Only two other verses are really questionable and these two are not so easily dismissed. James 1:20 states: “For the anger of man (aner) does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” In Romans 4:8, Paul quotes from the Psalms: “Blessed is the man (aner) against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Both these verses apply to women as well. So why the male implication? Surely we should not modify all 213 other uses of aner to understand them as people rather than male because of these two verses, should we? I think we should not. We have to remember that we are dealing with a time of high cultural bias. This does not mean that God is subject to culture. Over and over Jesus demonstrated the opposite, particularly with the woman at the well and Mary of Bethany. Likewise we should never dismiss a principle from the Word of God because we believe it to be only culturally motivated. The principles of the Bible are God’s principles and therefore absolutely authoritative.


However, the wording, especially in cases such as we find in James and Romans, may be there because of cultural habit. Paul’s quote from Psalm 32 is particularly noteworthy in that regard. Paul is not quoting from the Hebrew OT, but rather from its Greek translation, the Septuagint. The Septuagint has aner in Psalm 32:2. However, the Hebrew has adam, which is a term more like anthropos that is very often used for mankind (including women). Why did the Septuagint translators use aner here instead of anthropos, especially since women did indeed fit in with the meaning of the passage? It would seem the only logical answer is that culture influenced them. They weren’t hardheartedly inserting a male noun to prove a point. They probably didn’t even think much about it in the male-dominated society in which they lived.


And it was probably the same for Peter. He stood up and, in his mindset fashioned in large part by his culture, addressed the men—the males, although no doubt women were both present and among the three thousand to be saved.


This should also give some support to the reason why Jesus chose only males as his twelve disciples/apostles. Though the gospel intent was ultimately to break through cultural barriers of gender and ethnicity, Jesus did not want culture to be an obstacle as the gospel first went out in this apostolic period. For the same reason, he chose only Jews as disciples, although surely Gentiles could have witnessed to his resurrection.