On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

The following is the first in a series of several posts, exploring the prophetic role of the church and the meaning of the Baptism of the Spirit.

The first chapter of the book of Acts presents us with both an ending and a beginning. Bringing to a close the period of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ascent into heaven also marks the beginning of a new act in the drama of the NT, that of the public mission of the church.

The exact nature of the relationship between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his church is a matter that I will explore in some depth in the posts that will follow this one. In particular, I will be attempting to demonstrate that the events of Pentecost set the church apart as a prophetic community. Bringing the text of the opening chapters of the book of Acts into conversation with particular texts within the OT, I hope to explore the manner in which accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession can provide a helpful lens through which to view the events of Pentecost. In making this case I will be devoting considerable attention to a closer analysis of Acts 2:1-4. Having established this exegetical groundwork, I hope to proceed to make some observations about the way in which I believe that the event of Pentecost should shape the Church’s self-understanding. While my focus will be on constructing a positive account of the significance of this event, I will also be entering into critical dialogue with alternative understandings.

A number of writers have explored the subject of prophetic anointing in Acts 2. In The Prophethood of All Believers, Roger Stronstad devotes a chapter to the event of Pentecost, which he claims inaugurates ‘the prophethood of all believers.’[1] The theme is also highlighted by some commentators in the course of their treatment of the passage, and in wider treatments of Luke-Acts. Within Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, Kenneth Litwak identifies a number of the OT passages that the narrative of the early chapters of Acts evokes, unearthing some neglected allusions to prophetic call and succession narratives in the process.

Building upon the foundation that these writers have established, and entering into constructive conversation with them, I hope to probe deeper into the OT background for the prophetic themes that surface in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Attempting an intertextual reading of Acts 2, I want to prove the theological and exegetical value of understanding the account in terms of OT accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession.

Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts
For Luke the ministry of the church is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own ministry, something highlighted by the resumptive character of his introduction to the book of Acts. As Ben Witherington argues, Luke situates his account of Jesus within a ‘wider historical framework’, giving considerable prominence to the events preceding the birth of John the Baptist at the very outset of his narrative and closely following the subsequent growth of the church in the second volume of his work.[2] Remarking on the limited attention that Luke gives to Peter’s confession in his gospel, in contrast to the accent placed on the accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy between which it is sandwiched, Witherington writes:

Nowhere is it made more apparent than in this sequence that Jesus is the initiator of a series of events and proclamations that his disciples undertake during and then after his time. The focus is not just on Jesus but on the historical Jesus movement of which he was the catalyst and focal point.[3]

In adopting a narrow focus on the identity and personal ministry of Jesus we are in danger of failing to appreciate the degree to which the Lukan treatment of the early church is driven by more than a merely biographical or historical interest. For Luke the church plays a key role in the drama of God’s salvation, both as the place where that salvation is realized and as the agency through whom it is borne witness to and spread.

Baptism, Ascension, and Elijah Typology
Immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift for which they must wait in Jerusalem. Recalling the contrast drawn by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16, Jesus speaks of the reception of the Spirit in terms of the language of baptism. By describing the church’s forthcoming reception of the Holy Spirit in such a manner, Jesus presents the event that is about to occur to the church as somehow analogous to the type of event that John’s baptism represented. The baptism with water administered by John the Baptist will now be followed by a baptism with the Spirit that Jesus will perform on his disciples.

Within Lukan theology, John’s baptism is presented as playing a preparatory role (cf. Acts 19:1-6). It prepared the people for the coming kingdom of God and also served as the ‘launching-pad’ for Jesus’ own work. In Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 3:20-22), a detail that is given significance in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:21-22). In the narrative of Luke’s gospel, John’s baptism of Jesus also marks the end of John’s place in the foreground of the gospel narrative. Once the ministry of Jesus has got off the ground, the purpose of John’s ministry has more or less been accomplished.[4]

Within the gospels John the Baptist is presented ‘as in some sense Elijah redivivus.’[5] In an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, the angel Gabriel declares to Zecharias that his son John will go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elsewhere, Jesus declares that John was the Elijah that was promised to come (Matthew 17:10-13). The description and narrative of John the Baptist is also replete with allusions to the description and narrative of the prophet Elijah.[6]

Perhaps it is significant that John’s baptism of Jesus takes place on the far side of the Jordan: this was the place where Elisha succeeded Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Joshua took over from Moses (Joshua 1). In all cases the succession involves a crossing or coming out of the river and a reception of the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 1:10-18; 2 Kings 2:9-15; Luke 3:21-22).

At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), fills him and leads him into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Within Lukan theology, there is a very close connection between filling with the Spirit and prophecy (Luke 1:15, 41-45, 67; Acts 2:4, 17-18; 4:8, 31; 7:55-56; 13:9-11).[7] Jesus’ characterization of himself as a prophet in Luke 4:24, in the context of his reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 is significant. It is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that sets him apart as a prophet. The connection between baptism and investiture is an important one for our purposes:[8] the church’s reception of the Spirit in the ‘baptism’ of Pentecost needs to be understood as an ordination for prophetic ministry.

Luke does not limit his deployment of Elijah imagery to his treatment of John the Baptist. As N.T. Wright observes, there is strong evidence to suggest that the synoptics also understand the work of Jesus in terms of Elijah typology.[9] It is at the point of Jesus’ ascension that this imagery assumes a greater prominence. Commenting on the ascension account in Luke 24:50-53, Kenneth Litwak writes:

If Luke’s audience encountered a story of someone approved by God ‘going up’ to heaven, they would surely have thought of Elijah’s ascension … since his is the only ascension account in the Scriptures of Israel. The statement in Lk. 24.49 that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit recalls Elijah’s bequest of his ‘spirit’ to Elisha (4 Kgdms 2.9-10). The use of ενδύσησθε in Lk. 24.49 may also be an allusion to Elijah’s mantle which was passed on to Elisha (2 Kgdms 2.13)…[10]

The OT speaks of the future return of the ascended Elijah to restore all things (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Sirach 48:10), a theme that also appears in the NT (Mark 9:12; Matthew 17:11). Significantly, Luke ascribes to the ascended Jesus that which was traditionally ascribed to Elijah: in Acts 3:21 he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21; cf. Acts 1:11).[11]

Given the dominance of such Elijah imagery in the context of the ascension, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit immediately prior to his rapture must take on an added significance. The Elijah imagery provides the typological adhesive binding together ascension, Pentecost and parousia. Within the frame provided by the Elijah typology, an intimate connection is seen to exist between the ascension and Pentecost narratives. Consequently, any attempt to understand the events of Pentecost must begin by giving attention to the Lukan ascension accounts.[12]

The Ascension and the Prophetic Anointing of the Church
Just as Jesus’ baptism by John marked the beginning of his prophetic ministry and his succession from John’s own ministry, so the ascension and Pentecost mark the time when the church is anointed for its prophetic ministry and the transition from Jesus’ public earthly ministry to that of the church.

The two most important prophetic succession narratives of the OT involve the transition from the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 27:12-23) and the transition from the prophetic ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).[13] In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor.[14] Moses’ mission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is only fulfilled in the ministry of his successor Joshua. Similarly, the mission that Elijah is charged with in 1 Kings 19:15-17 is only completed in the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1-3).[15]

Elisha is a new Elijah (2 Kings 2:15), just as Joshua is a new Moses (Numbers 27:20; Joshua 1:5). The parallel between the ministries of Joshua and Elisha and the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is worth highlighting. Both Joshua and Elisha serve as apprentices to prophets, whose ministries they inherit following the time of their masters’ departures. The same pattern holds in the case of Jesus’ disciples: having left their work to follow Jesus as disciples, they receive their master’s Spirit following his departure and continue his mission.

The relationship between the prophet and his apprentice is akin to the relationship between a father and his son. In Numbers 13:16 we see that Joshua’s name was given to him by Moses. Moses also lays his hands on Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) in a manner reminiscent of the patriarchs’ blessings on their sons (Genesis 48:13-20). A similar relationship exists between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha receives a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit, the inheritance appropriate to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17),[16] and, as Elijah is taken into heaven, Elisha addresses him as his ‘father’. Jesus’ farewell discourse and blessing of his disciples (Luke 24:51) belongs within this pattern of prophetic succession.

Zwiep notes the parallel between the stress on the visibility of the master’s departure in both the account of Elijah’s rapture and that of Jesus’ ascension.[17] Seeing Elijah taken up was an indispensable condition for Elisha’s right to succeed him. Moberly explains the logic of the test: ‘…it is the responsibility of the prophet to be able to see God, and if Elisha cannot see God in this critical instance, then he is not able to take on the role of one who sees God in other instances; Elisha cannot be a prophet like Elijah unless he has the requisite spiritual capacity.’[18] The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.[19]

Elijah and Moses typology is multilayered within the Lukan literature. However, in the critical movement in the narrative with which we are concerned, the disciples are typologically related to Joshua and Elisha. As their master departs, they will inherit his Spirit and continue his mission. The Spirit that the disciples will receive is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that supervised and empowered his own mission.[20]

[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 70
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-24
[3] Ibid, 23-24
[4] A point made more explicitly in the fourth gospel (John 1:29-34; 3:27-30).
[5] N.T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 167
[6] John the Baptist is an ascetic and peripatetic prophet who, like Elijah, calls Israel to repentance in light of coming judgment. He dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and, like Elijah, is associated with the wilderness. Like Elijah, his ministry is opposed by a tyrant with a manipulative wife (Herod & Herodias / Ahab & Jezebel). Significantly, John the Baptist’s ministry begins at the geographical location where Elijah’s ministry ended (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4-5; cf. 2 Kings 2:4-11).
[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit: Volume 2 – Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 11-12
[8] Although its focus is on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination, much of Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 87ff is relevant to our case.
[9] Jesus and the Victory of God, 167
[10], Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 147
[11] A.W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 114-116
[12] There is also a sacrificial pattern to be observed in this movement. Leithart observes [1 & 2 Kings (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: London: SCM, 2006), 176]:

The story of Elijah’s departure into heaven follows the sequence of a sacrificial rite (Lev. 1). By their mutual journey around the land, Elijah and Elisha form a unit, a “two of them” (2 Kgs. 2:7). They cross the Jordan, as parts of a sacrificial animal will be washed before being place on the altar. Fire descends from heaven, dividing them in two, one ascending in fire to God, as the altar portions of the animal ascend in smoke to heaven. In the ascension (or “wholly burnt”) offering, the skin of the sacrificial animal is given to the priest, and the mantle-skin of Elijah, the hairy garment of the “baal of hair,” is left for Elisha. Through this human “sacrifice,” Elisha becomes a successor to Elijah, and a new phase of prophetic history begins. In this sense too the story is a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, who is washed in the Jordan, gives himself over to be cut in two, ascends into a cloud, and leaves his Spirit and his mantle with his disciples.

[13] Peter Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 170-171, and John I. Durham and J.R. Porter, Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies (London: SCM, 1970), 119-121n62 observe some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha.
[14] Joshua’s succession from Moses is presented as a prophetic succession in Sirach 46:1.
[15] 1 & 2 Kings, 213
[16] Elisha is thus given the pre-eminent position among the ‘sons of the prophets’.
[17] The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 116, 194. Observe the repeated use of verbs of visual perception in Acts 1:9-11.
[18] R.W.L. Moberly,
Prophecy and Discernment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135
[19] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31. The encounters with the risen Christ as recorded by the gospels might also be worth considering in this context. Delayed recognition of—or failure to recognize—the risen Christ is a recurring feature in the post-resurrection narratives (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:14-18; 21:12; cf. Mark 16:12). The liturgical structure followed by the Emmaus road account of Luke 24:13-35, accompanied by the disciples’ initial failure to recognize their companion on the road, might suggest that, although firmly embodied and visible as such, the identity of the body of the risen Christ is something that can elude mundane perception and is only truly accessible to those granted spiritual vision (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 218-219).
[20] Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 45.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in NT Theology, OT Theology, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

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