On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 3

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. – Acts 2:2

The context having been set in the previous verse, the events associated with the first Christian Pentecost begin in Acts 2:2. Given the significance of the event which he is recording, Luke is surprisingly economical in his account of the Day of Pentecost.[1] However, the few details that he does provide grant the narrative more than merely a measure of colour and realism. The pyrotechnics of verses 2-4 should alert us to the character of the event that is taking place. Roger Stronstrad observes:

In the light of Israel’s history the meaning of the first two signs, the metaphorical wind and fire would be self-evident signposts, both to the disciples and to the assembled crowd, that a theophany was happening.[2]

Theophany and Prophetic Call
Jeffrey Niehaus defines a theophany as ‘an actual manifestation of God’s presence’.[3] Theophanies can take many forms and are found in a variety of different biblical contexts.[4] Theophanies generally occur at critical junctures in the biblical narrative, for instance, in the context of covenant formation (Genesis 15:12-21; Exodus 19), or in the context of the dedication of buildings for future worship (Exodus 29:42-43; 1 Kings 9:3).

Looking at the account of Acts 2, we can see that it displays many of the characteristic features of an OT theophany. The divine initiation of the event, an important characteristic of theophanies, is quite clear.[5] The sound as of a mighty rushing wind recalls accounts such as Ezekiel 1:4, where the sound heralds the arrival of YHWH’s ‘wind-driven cloud-chariot’.[6] The appearance of tongues of fire is also associated with the appearance of YHWH.[7]

The event of Pentecost is presented as ‘a momentous and epochal episode in the forward movement of the history of salvation.’[8] It involves the impartation of holiness, consecrating the community of the disciples for future service. An adumbrated eschatology is also present, as a number of authors have recognized, and Peter’s use of the prophet Joel makes clear.

Luke’s account of Pentecost bears a number of immediate similarities to various theophany narratives that we find elsewhere in the Scriptures. The elliptical and metaphorical language in which the account is framed is similar to that which characterizes accounts such as those of Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 1, the visions of the prophets being shrouded in simile. In Acts 2 the sound from heaven is as of a rushing mighty wind; the divided tongues of the following verse are as of fire.

The simile-laden style that one finds in such theophany accounts almost seems to be designed to frustrate any attempt on our part to gain anything more than the most impressionistic image of the phenomena in question. The language serves as a veil, preventing our vision from fully penetrating to the divine reality that it simultaneously attests to.

Theophany and Call
Cecil Staton observes that theophanies are often associated with prophetic calling narratives,[9] and Savran argues that such call narratives should in fact be classified as a subset of theophany narratives.[10]

The connection between the setting apart of prophets and the witnessing of theophanies may be closer than we might originally think. Savran’s suggestion that call narratives must be read as a subset of the initial theophany narrative is significant, based as it is upon the recognition that the theme of theophany is never mere window-dressing in the context of call narratives.[11] It is the experience of the theophany itself that serves to set the prophet apart.

The theophany is an event that specially privileges its witnesses and distinguishes them from others, giving them a sign of peculiar divine favour. Even when others are present, as in the case of Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus, they are seen as somehow excluded from the full experience that the intended witness of the theophany is having (Acts 9:7; 22:9). The event of the theophany constitutes someone as a witness of YHWH, one who can then proceed to ‘externalize’ the vision in the form of prophetic testimony.

The incapacity of mundane vision to perceive accurately or safely the divine self-manifestation of theophany sets the one with the capacity to witness it apart from others.[12] As YHWH makes himself known to someone in a theophany, that person is given to know YHWH in a manner that most will not. The theophany marks a definitive change in the character of their relationship to YHWH, the ‘singular experience’ becoming ‘the basis of a continuing relationship.’[13] Even were the recipient of the theophany never to witness one again, it would nonetheless mark him out from all of his contemporaries from that moment forward as one specially privileged by YHWH.

Within Luke-Acts there are at least three major theophany call narratives—Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Day of Pentecost and Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Particularly significant for our purposes is the theophany that occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.[14]

The importance of John’s baptism as a basis for Jesus’ vocation should not be underestimated. The voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s beloved Son and he is empowered by the Holy Spirit that descends and rests upon him.[15] The fundamental significance of the experience of Jesus at his baptism can be seen in the prominence that the event is given in all of the gospels, by the role that it plays in Jesus’ defence of his authority (Luke 20:1-8),[16] and by the place that it is given within the apostolic kerygma (Acts 1:21-22; 10:36-38).

A theophanic vision of God is foundational to the ministry of many of the major biblical prophets. The vision prepares them for their mission in a number of ways, granting them the strength and resources for their task (Exodus 4:15-17; 1 Kings 19:16; Isaiah 6:5-7; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:8-9; Acts 26:17), giving them a firm awareness of their personal vocation (Exodus 3:12; Ezekiel 3:16-21; Acts 26:16) and loosely sketching the contours of their mission (Exodus 3:10; 1 Kings 19:15-18; Isaiah 6:9-13; Ezekiel 3:4-9; Acts 26:17-18).

At Pentecost the disciples are granted such a theophanic vision. The vision does not involve divine speech, but its significance was already articulated by Jesus prior to his ascension (Acts 1:4-8). At Pentecost the disciples are empowered for their mission, and given an authenticating sign assuring them of their vocation (as witnesses of the Risen Christ), having already been informed of the basic shape that their subsequent mission will take. The event of Pentecost will subsequently be foundational for the church’s self-understanding, in much the same way as the Sinai theophany was for the children ofIsrael. The Pentecost theophany is the seal that God places upon the church, granting the church, like its master, a theophanic call as a firm assurance of divine approbation and its vocation. Its future ministry will spring out of this encounter.

The Filling of the House
There are differences among the commentators regarding the location where the disciples met on the Day of Pentecost. Marshall remarks: “some scholars think that they were in the temple, in view of the word ‘house’ in verse 2, but ‘house’, used on its own like this, cannot mean the temple.”[17]

In the surrounding context of the Pentecost account, the temple seems to be the location on which most of the action is focused. As Stronstad observes

In adjacent contexts both before and after his Pentecost narrative (Acts 2.1-41) Luke reports that the disciples were continually in the temple (Lk. 24.53), and met in the temple day by day (Acts 2.46).[18]

Within the early chapters of the book of Acts the temple has a central narrative function, providing a location for many of the church’s activities (e.g. Acts 3:1-10; 5:42). Acts 5:12 suggests that the early church were accustomed to meeting in Solomon’s portico, which ‘lay along the eastern wall of the temple precincts across the Court of the Gentiles’ (cf. Acts 3:11).

Josep Rius-Camps and Jenny Read-Heimerdinger, provide a possible way to harmonize Luke 24:53 and Acts 1:13, suggesting that the upper room is the place where the disciples ‘stayed waiting’.[19] They argue that the ‘upper room’ should be understood as ‘a room in the Temple as a place of meeting for the community,’[20] drawing attention to the use of the term υπερωον to refer to certain rooms in the temple within the lxx.[21] B.B. Thurston suggests that this upper room would probably have been built into the walls of the temple’s outer court, and may possibly have been located to the east of the court of the women.[22] Such a theory would serve to illuminate certain features of Luke’s narrative that might otherwise remain confusing, such as the public impression made by the sound of the disciples’ tongues-speaking.[23] As Bruce observes, the temple is the most likely place for the disciples to have gathered on the day of a pilgrim feast and would also be the most appropriate location for a gathering of 3000 people.[24] Such a reading would also dispense with the need for the assumption of a shift in location part way through the narrative.

In Acts 2:2, Luke declares that house was filled with the sound as of wind. Similar language is used in a number of places in the OT to refer to the glory cloud, variously described, filling the temple or tabernacle (Exodus 40:35; 1 Kings 8:11; 2 Chronicles 7:1; Isaiah 6:4; Ezekiel 10:4).

In light of this background, and the association of the phenomena of the sound of a rushing wind with the glory cloud, echoes of such accounts would not seem to be far from the surface of Acts 2:2.[25]

Acts 2:2 is reminiscent of Isaiah 6:4. There are a number of levels at which the text of Isaiah 6 relates to Acts. Both texts involve a theophany which sets people apart for a prophetic mission. The panoramic view that Isaiah is given of his mission in that passage is presented in a defining citation at the end of Acts (28:26-27) as congruent with the shape that the church’s own mission has taken to that point. If the οικος of Acts 2 is indeed the temple we have a further significant connection with the account of Isaiah 6.

The connection between a glory cloud theophany and the temple follows from the fact that the tabernacle/temple was regarded as the connection point between God’s dwelling place in heaven and the earth (Exodus 25:21-22; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 9:18-23; 1 Kings 8:10-13; Ezekiel 10). The presumption that any manifestation of YHWH’s glory would begin from the temple or tabernacle was thus quite natural, particularly in light of the widely held belief that God continued to dwell in the temple (a belief articulated by Christ himself—Matthew 23:21).[26] The disciples’ gathering in the vicinity of the temple to receive the Spirit is reminiscent of Numbers 11:24. That these events should occur at the temple is also worthy of note in light of the connection that we find between prophecy and the temple elsewhere in Luke-Acts (e.g. Luke 2:27-38; Acts 22:17).

One established image of the eschatological gift of the Spirit within the OT is that of the water that flows from the temple in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8; Joel 3:18; Ezekiel 47:1-2).[27] The reception of the life-giving baptism of the Spirit in the context of the temple would have charged the event with greater significance, particularly when we consider the importance given to the east gate of the temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy.[28]

Water images for the Spirit are present at a few points in the narrative surrounding the account of Pentecost, not least in the image of ‘baptism’ itself (Acts 1:5; 2:17, 33). The connection between the eschatological flow of living water from the temple inJerusalemand Pentecost draws our attention to a further dimension of the event that we have not properly touched upon to this point. Unlike most of the OT events that we have already referred to, the significance of Pentecost is not to be found primarily in the event considered by itself, but in what it represents—the beginning of the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy.

In contrast to the events of Numbers 11, there is no stemming of the flow of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is not limited to those who immediately experienced the initial outpouring, but flows through them to others (Acts2:38). Pentecost is a pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, not merely on those who were assembled together in Acts 2:1.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson refers to it as ‘slender and spare’ (The Acts of the Apostles [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992], 45).
[2] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 55.
[3] Niehaus in Willem A. VanGemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997), 4:1247. George Savran (‘Theophany as Type Scene.’ Prooftexts, 23:120), speaks of the importance of ‘a visual component in addition to verbal interaction.’
[4] David Noel Freedman (ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 2000), 1298.
[5] “The designations of time (“suddenly”) and place (“from heaven”) highlight divine, not human, control of the Spirit’s action (Acts 1:2; cf. Acts 16:26; Luke 3:21-22).” William H. Shepherd, Jr., The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts (SBL Dissertation Series #147: Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1994), 160.
[6] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 100-102.
[7] Cf. Exodus 19:16-19; 1 Kings 19:11-12; Ezekiel 1; Hebrews 12:18-19. Jeffrey Niehaus (‘In the Wind of the Storm: Another Look at Genesis III 8’ [Vetus Testamentum, 44:263-267]) and Meredith Kline (Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006], 129) suggest the presence of a storm theophany in Genesis 3:8, Kline claiming that this event is the ‘prototypical mold in which subsequent pictures of other days of the Lord were cast’.
[8] Stronstad, Prophethood of All Believers, 70
[9] In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1298. Staton cites 1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6:1, 5; Ezekiel 1:1, 27-28; Amos 9:1 as examples. To Staton’s examples we should perhaps add Exodus 3-4: the theophany associated with the calling of Moses is perhaps one of the most significant in Scripture.
[10] Savran, ‘Theophany as Type Scene,’ 126.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Although there are gradations of perception among the prophets (Numbers 12:6-8; Moberly 2006, 137-138).
[13] Savran, ‘Theophany as Type Scene,’ 135.
[14] James Dunn (Jesus and the Spirit [London: SCM, 1975], 65) over-psychologizes the significance of this event, but he rightly appreciates its constitutive significance for Jesus’ vocation.
[15] The reference to the heavens being opened could be read as an echo of Ezekiel 1:1.
[16] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 495-497.
[17] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1980), 68. See Isaiah 6:1, 4 lxx for a counterexample. Haenchen 1971, 168n1 claims that Luke always refers to the Temple as το ιερον, never as οικος. However, there are a number of noteworthy exceptions to this, including Acts 7:47, Luke 6:4, 11:51, 13:35, and 19:46.
[18] Stronstad, Prophethood of All Believers, 55n2.
[19] Josep Rius-Camps and Jenny Read-Heimerdinger, The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae: A Comparison with the Alexandrian Tradition (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 100-101.
[20] Ibid. 101.
[21] They reference 1 Chronicles 28:11, 20 (some mss); 2 Chronicles 3:9; Jeremiah 20:2; Ezekiel 41:7.
[22] Cited in Rius-Camps & Read-Heimerdinger, The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae, 101n88.
[23] It is also unlikely that there would have been many private residences with rooms capable of seating 120 people.
[24] F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1965), 55-56.
[25] This imagery is also taken up in Revelation 15:8. Observe the lxx’s tendency to use the term οικος of the temple in these verses.
[26] Klaus Baltzer, ‘The Meaning of the Temple in the Lukan Writings,’ The Harvard Theological Review, 58:266-267; Joan E. Taylor, Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 153ff. We should also observe the focal role played by the temple in Luke-Acts (‘The Meaning of the Temple in the Lukan Writings,’ 271ff).
[27] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 1:725-727. Cf. John 7:38-39, which many believe connects the promised Pentecostal gift of the Spirit with the prophesied opening up of a fountain in Jerusalem.
[28] Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, 56n8.

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 Acts, Bible, NT, NT Theology, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 3

  1. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2007-2011 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: Pentecost! | Alastair's Adversaria

  4. Alfred Osei Kuffour says:

    you are a blessing Sir. i wished i had encountered this blog several years ago. however better late than never! i bless God for your Life. keep up the good work Sir. shalom

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