On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 2

Part 1

Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. – Acts 2:1

In setting the scene for the events of Pentecost, Luke immediately draws our attention to the fact that all of the disciples are assembled together in one place. Remarking on the ‘togetherness’ of the disciples, Richard Thompson observes:

Although Luke does not explicitly state why this corporate quality is important or how these believers concretely demonstrate such a quality, such an emphasis suggests that this characteristic is critical both to the narrative and potentially to what follows.[1]

What are we to make of the corporate character of the events of Pentecost?

A Community of Prophets
Pentecost (re)constitutes the community of the early church in a powerful way, representing an event of decisive importance for its formation and identity. For this reason it is perhaps significant that we find a number of possible echoes of the events of Sinai in the immediate context. Sinai was an event of immense importance for Israel in its life as a nation, being the occasion of a group theophany, their reception of the Torah and their entrance into a covenant with YHWH. Kenneth Litwak writes:

There are several striking elements which suggest that Luke shaped his account on the basis of the Sinai tradition. Acts 2 opens with a theophany, which includes fire and a loud sound (Acts 2.1-4; cf. Exod. 19:16 [sound of a trumpet] and Exod. 19.18 [YHWH descended upon Sinai in fire]). At Sinai God spoke to Moses, and in Acts 2.11 the people hear the disciples speaking of the mighty works of God. On a broader level, the theophanic event in Acts 2.1-4 is formative for the first followers of the Way, just as the Sinai theophany was formative for God’s people in Exodus.[2]

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, where, after a few days of preparation, they received the Law. As the feast of Pentecost occurred 49 days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-16), which took place in the latter half of the first month, the possibility of a chronological connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law and forming of the covenant in Sinai is raised.[3] This connection did not go unnoticed by the rabbis, who identified Pentecost as the feast celebrating the gift of the Law. Whether such a connection was established by the time that Luke wrote the account of Acts 2 is uncertain and continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Taken by itself this connection between Pentecost and Sinai may appear rather slight, but it is given more weight when we consider it alongside the presence of the other echoes of the Sinai account in the early chapters of Acts.[4] At Sinai Israel was set apart as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, giving the children of Israel a special role to play within God’s purposes for the wider creation. The parallels to the event of Sinai are important chiefly on account of the way in which they frame the event as one through which the disciples are set apart as a people with a new vocation.

In contrast to the examples of prophetic succession that we previously observed, the example of Sinai involves the reconstitution and setting apart of a whole people and not just of one person. The events of Pentecost are not of mere private significance to those involved, but herald the establishing of a new reality in the realm of history. Sinai inaugurates a new era and not merely a period of leadership limited by one man’s lifespan. Consequently, the event of Sinai has much light to shed on Luke’s account of Pentecost. Stronstad writes:

…[W]hat is happening on the day of Pentecost is not only as dramatic as, but also as significant as what happened at Mt Sinai. In other words, the creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.[5]

The Distribution of the Spirit of Jesus
A number of commentators have argued for some form of connection between the narrative of Numbers 11 and that of Acts 2, a connection that can illuminate certain dimensions of the church’s prophetic character.

In Numbers 11 Moses appeals to YHWH to ease the burden of leadership that he is bearing. Responding to his plea, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them to the tabernacle of meeting. There God will take of the Spirit that is on Moses and give it to the elders, so that they can share the task of leading the people with him.

Following a day of preparation, the elders are gathered together and the Spirit rests on them. They then begin to prophesy, although they never do so again (Numbers 11:25).[6] Two of the seventy elders—Eldad and Medad—were not present at the tabernacle of meeting at the time, but received the Holy Spirit nonetheless and began to prophesy in the middle of the camp. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, concerned by this, asks Moses to instruct them to stop. Moses, however, was unconcerned: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ (verse 29).

There are a number of echoes of the theophany at Sinai in the account of Numbers 11, including: (1) the granting of a new vocation to a body of people (Exodus 19:5-6; Numbers 11:16-17); (2) the command for the people to sanctify themselves for the coming day when YHWH will act decisively (Number 11:18; cf. Exodus 19:10); (3) the gathering of the people around a particular location, Mt Sinai in the Exodus account and the tabernacle in that of Numbers (Numbers 11:24);[7] (4) a theophany in which God comes down in the cloud and speaks with Moses (Exodus 19:9; Numbers 11:25).

Although some might argue that the ‘spirit’ given to the seventy elders is Moses own spirit, rather than YHWH’s, a reading of Numbers 11 that understands the ‘spirit’ as YHWH’s own Spirit seems far more satisfactory (cf. verse 29). Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the Spirit that is given to the seventy elders is spoken of as the Spirit that is upon Moses himself (Numbers 11:17, 25). Although we are not here dealing with a ‘sacramental transfer’ in which Moses is active, Moses is seen as the one who mediates the elders’ reception of the Spirit. The elders do not receive the Spirit as a direct bestowal from God, but with ‘Moses as the intermediary’.[8]

Williams contrasts this with the case of leadership succession that occurs when Joshua receives authority to lead and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ through the imposition of Moses’ hands (Deuteronomy 34:9). In Numbers 11 Moses does not abandon certain aspects of his leadership to others. The elders are rather empowered to help fulfil Moses’ task of leading the people. Their ministry does not displace that of Moses, but involves a partaking in Moses’ ministry.[9]

At Pentecost Jesus mediates the gift of the Spirit to the church (Acts 2:33), and, much as the elders’ reception of the Spirit in Numbers 11 gave them a share in the Spirit of prophetic leadership that belonged to Moses, so Pentecost brings the church to participate in the prophetic authority of Jesus, an authority that never ceases to be the exclusive possession of Jesus himself.

At this juncture a further dimension of the ‘baptism’ imagery (cf. Acts 1:5) may come to the fore: baptism does not merely initiate into office, it can also fulfil an incorporative purpose, bringing people to participate in the life, authority, status or privileges of another (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2; Galatians 3:26-29). Just as Israel was led by Moses prior to being ‘baptized’ into a greater union with him,[10] so the disciples were led by Jesus prior to the baptism of Pentecost. What Pentecost effected was the disciples’ reconstitution as the church—the body of Christ—bringing them into a new relationship with their master. They now shared in the power of his Spirit, being bound to him by a bond of relationship far stronger than any they had previously enjoyed.[11]

The temporary and unrepeated character of the elders’ act of prophesying merits closer examination. While we have good reason to believe that the Spirit remained with the elders, enabling them to fulfil their role, the fact that they did not prophesy again suggests that prophesying was not necessary for this. The initial ecstatic manifestations were not normative for the ongoing performance of their duties. A similar occurrence can be found in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, where the Spirit comes upon Saul, causing him to prophesy. It is through this experience that Saul is set apart and personally prepared for leadership (1 Samuel 10:6). Apart from one other exceptional occasion,[12] we never read of Saul prophesying again. The prophecy was an effect and an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon him; the continuance of the Spirit with him did not necessitate repeated occurrences of prophetic manifestations.

There is a strong analogy to be observed between the prophesying of the elders and the glossolalia of the disciples, and a few writers (Gordon Wenham, for instance) have even suggested that we equate the two. As Dunn observes, Luke does not share Paul’s sharp distinction between speaking in tongues and prophesying. In his use of the passage from Joel in his sermon, Peter appears to equate the tongues-speaking of the disciples with the prophetic speech which the prophecy promises. In light of this OT background, it seems that the purpose of the glossolalia in the context of Acts 2 was primarily that of serving as an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. There is no reason for us to believe that glossolalia would continue to be practiced by all of the disciples present at Pentecost. Tongues-speaking primarily served as a temporary authenticating sign.

The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter uses in his sermon is strikingly parallel to the wish of Moses that all of the people were prophets (Acts 2:17-18; Numbers 11:29).[13] This connection between the prophecy of Joel and Numbers 11 is also found is rabbinic midrash texts. If, as Litwak maintains, the Joel prophecy provides a ‘programmatic text’ and lens for Luke’s understanding of Pentecost, it is also a lens through which passages such as Numbers 11 illuminate the text. The ‘prophethood of all believers’ that is desired in Numbers, is prophesied in Joel and receives a form of fulfilment in Acts.

Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Eldad and Medad when we read of the Gentiles who received the Spirit in Acts 10. Eldad and Medad were outside of the group of elders at the tabernacle. Nonetheless, they still receive the anointing of the Spirit just as the others. In a similar manner, the Gentiles may have appeared to be outside of the gathering to which the Spirit was specially promised, but they received the Spirit in much the same way, in a sort of aftershock of the original event. By giving Cornelius and his household the Spirit before they had become members of a Jewish church, God demonstrated the freedom of the Spirit and the fact that Jews and Gentiles were accepted on an equal footing.

[1] Richard P. Thompson, Keeping the Church in its Place: The Church as Narrative Character in Acts (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 38
[2] Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 165-166. Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58-59 highlights a number of further common features of the Sinai and Pentecost narratives, including the days of preparation and the occurrence of the theophany in the morning.
[3] A number of writers reference Jubilees 6:17-21 in this context. Others have observed the connection that Jubilees draws between Pentecost and covenant renewal.
[4] Besides those already mentioned, there are a number of further echoes of Sinai narrative in Acts 2. The ascension of Christ into the cloud (Acts 1:9) might be an echo of the ascension of Moses onto Mount Sinai. The number added to the church (‘cut to the heart’) in Acts 2:41 may also echo the number slain by the sword at Sinai (Exodus 32:28). Wedderburn argues for a connection between the events of Sinai and those of the Day of Pentecost as they are recorded in Acts, but claims that this connection was not made by Luke, but by some of his sources. Hovenden has a very helpful discussion of some further possible literary connections, including that of a Lukan allusion to Psalm 67:19 (LXX) in Acts 2:33, a verse applied to Moses at Mount Sinai by some of the rabbis. Johnson highlights the similarities between the statement concerning Moses in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 and that of Peter concerning Jesus in Acts 2:33.
[5] The Prophethood of All Believers, 59
[6] The meaning of the phrase ולא יספו is not entirely clear. In light of the similar phrase used in Deuteronomy 5:22, we have opted to understand it as a denial of their continuance in prophesying.
[7] The possibility of the disciples being gathered around the temple on the Day of Pentecost will be discussed in a later post.
[8] David T. Williams, ‘Old Testament Pentecost.’ Old Testament Essays, 16:130-1
[9] Ibid, 132
[10] As we shall later see, one dimension of this ‘baptism into Moses’ was Israel’s entry into Moses’ own experience.
[11] The incorporative purpose of the baptism of the Spirit is explored in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
[12] 1 Samuel 19:21-24. This incident occurs after the Spirit has departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
[13] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 95 relates Joel 2 and Numbers 11 together, claiming that Joel’s prophecy ‘reads almost as a fulfillment of Moses’ hope expressed in Num. 11:29.’

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.

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