On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 5

And they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:4

The terminology of being ‘filled with the Spirit’ is found in the lxx, where it is used on five occasions. The artisans involved in constructing the tabernacle are all filled with the Spirit for the purpose (Exodus 28:3; 31:3; 35:31). Joshua is filled with the Holy Spirit as Moses’ successor as leader of the children ofIsrael(Deuteronomy 34:9). Finally, the term is used with reference to the figure of Isaiah 11:1-2.Marshallprovides a helpful summary of the usage of this terminology with the NT:

This word [‘fill’] is used when people are given an initial endowment of the Spirit to fit them for God’s service (9:17; Lk. 1:15) and also when they are inspired to make important utterances (4:8, 31; 13:9); related words are used to describe the continuous process of being filled with the Spirit (13:52; Eph. 5:18) or the corresponding state of being full (6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24; Lk. 4:1).[1]

Witherington warns of the danger of treating such terminology in too technical a fashion, given the broad range of its usage in Luke-Acts.[2]

In its Lukan usage, the concept of being filled with the Spirit is closely related to prophecy. On a number of occasions Luke uses ‘filled with the Spirit’ and other related terminology as part of his characterization of prophetic figures (Luke 1:15; 4:1; Acts 6:3, 5; 9:17). On other occasions Luke uses this language as ‘an introductory formula to describe a moment of prophetic inspiration’ (e.g. Luke 1:41, 67; Acts 4:31; 13:9-11).[3] Marshall claims that we encounter such a usage in Acts 2:4, the glossolalia being the Spirit-inspired utterance.[4] Stronstad’s suggestion that Luke also frames Peter’s Pentecost sermon as a prophetic utterance is supported by Luke’s repetition of the verb αποφθεγγομαι, previous used in verse 4, in the introduction to Peter’s sermon in verse 14.[5]

The ‘filling’ that the disciples receive at Pentecost is both an initial bestowal of the Spirit and a temporary inspiration for a particular purpose.[6] As the initial gift of the Spirit, it is also referred to as a ‘baptizing’ (Acts 1:15; 11:16): as Marshall stresses, unlike the term ‘filled’, the verb ‘baptize’ is only used in connection with the initial reception of the Spirit.[7] As in Number 11, the temporary manifestation of prophetic speech is a sign of the Spirit’s abiding anointing.

Purifying the Lips of the Nations
The echoes of the OT account of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) in Acts 2 have frequently been commented upon, many seeing in the account of Pentecost ‘the old language-based division of humanity’[8] established at Babel being overcome, the ‘unbabbling of tongues’. Wedderburn objects to this reading in light of the fact that Acts 2 ‘does not describe a reversion to a single, universal language as one might expect if this symbolism were intended.’[9]

In Isaiah 19:18, it is prophesied that five cities in Egypt will speak the ‘language of Canaan’. Although more recent commentators tend to interpret this as a reference to the Hebrew language (or Canaanite languages more generally), a number of commentators in history have favoured a more metaphorical reading of the phrase, understanding it in terms of the language of true worship. In commenting on Acts 2:3, Calvin writes:

These cloven tongues made every man speak the language of Canaan as Isaiah foretold (Isa. 19.18). For whatever language they speak they all with one mouth and one Spirit call upon the same Father in heaven (Rom. 15.6).

A related passage can be found in Zephaniah 3:9, which speaks of God’s restoration of a ‘pure lip’ to all of the nations, generally understood to refer to a re-establishing of the unity of the nations in true worship.[10] Others have explicitly connected this prophecy with the events of Babel and Pentecost.

The argument for such a connection between Zephaniah 3:9 and Acts 2 may be strengthened by the quotation of Joel in Peter’s sermon:

For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord. – Zephaniah 3:9

And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. – Acts 2:21

The restoration of a pure lip or speech[11] to the nations will enable them to invoke the name of YHWH aright. Although ‘calling on the name of the Lord’ in the context of Acts 2 is generally understood in the narrower sense of seeking deliverance, the broader sense that the language has elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Genesis 4:26; 12:8; 2 Kings 5:11; Acts 9:14; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:22) is not necessarily absent.[12] At Pentecost God takes up the languages of the nations by his Spirit, making possible truly worldwide worship. As such it is an event in which we can discern echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah 19:18 and Zephaniah 3:9.

There is a strong relationship between prophecy and worship in the context of Luke. In Luke the prophet is the true worshipper and Spirit-inspired speech is frequently presented as the speech of worship (Luke 1:64, 67-79;2:25-32, 36-38;10:21-22). In Acts 2 that which is spoken in tongues is ‘the wonderful works of God’.[13] It is as God makes tongues glad (cf. Acts2:26) that true worship will be rendered. In ancient Jewish mysticism, the visionary who ascended into God’s presence was often permitted to participate in the angelic hymns, ‘speaking in the diction appropriate to the level of ascent.’[14] The Spirit-transformed tongues of Acts 2 can be seen as the tongues of prophets, who have been granted to join with the angels in their worship.[15]

Robert Zerhusen presents a strong case for understanding the groups mentioned in Acts 2:5-13 as ethnic, rather than linguistic, groupings.[16] Most of the people mentioned in these verses would have been fluent in Aramaic and Greek. Zerhusen argues that the account of Pentecost needs to be understood in light of a diglossic language situation, in which the Judean community functioned with Hebrew as its ‘high’ language and Aramaic and Greek as its ‘low’ languages.[17] The ‘other tongues’ of verse 4 are thus languages other than the ‘holy’ language of Hebrew. The significance of Pentecost was to be seen in the prophetic use of low languages in the temple context.

Whether or not we choose to adopt Zerhusen’s rather radical diglossia thesis, the issue that he raises is an important one. The religious priority of Hebrew was a position that was most likely widely held in Jesus’ day, being based in part on readings of the narrative of the early chapters of Genesis.[18] For those who believed that all languages apart from Hebrew resulted from the curse at Babel, the divine inspiration of people speaking languages other than Hebrew may well have been shocking. Understanding such an occurrence against the background of the prophecies in Isaiah and Zephaniah mentioned above, we can provide an answer to Wedderburn’s objection: Babel is reversed, not by the return to a universal language, but by the purification of all languages for prophetic utterance.

Acts 2 and the Prophetic Speech Impediment
Highlighting a common feature of many prophetic call narratives—the identification of an impediment and God’s encouragement or rectification of the impediment—Daniel Fredericks suggests that the call of Ezekiel can also be seen to manifest this pattern.[19] Detailing some of the weakness of previous explanations given for the ‘cumbersome’ grammatical style of the opening chapter of Ezekiel, he proposes that we understand it as an expression of Ezekiel’s own awkward vernacular speech.[20] Ezekiel’s impediment of speech (cf. Exodus 4:10; Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 1:6) is rectified by his swallowing of the scroll of divine revelation in 3:1-3.

The contorted grammar and style of chap. 1, then, is perhaps a rhetorical prop that gives the book a context in which to elevate and authenticate a prophetic message that transcends any “deep-lippedness” or “heavy-tonguedness.” A cultic message must only be conveyed in the proper literary language. Eloquence is everything.[21]

Ezekiel is sent primarily to the elite of Judah, who would expect a prophet to adopt a more elevated style of speech. The agrarian population would have been less offended by a prophet who spoke in a vernacular dialect.[22] Fredericks concludes:

What appears to be happening in Ezekiel 1-3 is a reaffirmation of an official, literary language that tolerates no deviance from the norm.[23]

In light of this background, the events of Pentecost (which, as we have already observed, echo those of Ezekiel 1-3 in a number of respects) appear all the more startling. God prepares the lips of his prophets, but what they utter is not the elevated, literary Hebrew, but ‘deep-lipped’ and ‘heavy-tongued’ common dialects. Pentecost thus elevates the vernacular, or makes the holy tongue common to all men.

Rejection and Failure to Perceive
The theme of the rejected prophet is a recurring one in the context of Luke-Acts. Marguerat observes that the rejection of Jesus in Luke 4 ‘confirms ironically his status as a prophet.’[24] The rejection of the early church and its message proved that it stood in line with the prophets and Christ (Luke 6:22-23).[25] In Acts 2:13 we see an initial occurrence of this theme, when the tongues-speaking of the disciples is met with derision.

The rejection of the prophet is frequently foretold in the context of prophetic call narratives (Exodus 4:21; Isaiah 6:9-10; Jeremiah 1:19; Ezekiel 3:7). The significance of this theme in the context of Luke-Acts is underlined by Luke’s citation of Isaiah 6:9-10 at the conclusion of Acts, in a section that has been described as ‘a clue to understanding the whole of Luke-Acts.’[26] Blaine Charette suggests that Isaiah 6:9-10 provides us with a framework within which we can better appreciate the purpose of glossolalia in terms of divine hardening.[27] Tongues-speaking in Acts 2:4 demonstrates the fact that the word of YHWH is being given in languages other than Hebrew and serves as a sign of the judgment that results from unbelief. It is a sign of the exclusion of the Jews in unbelief, a point that Paul develops in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22.

The fact that the mockers perceived tongues-speaking as drunken speech suggests a number of further scriptural resonances. Isaiah 28:11-12, verses that Paul uses in his teaching on the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:21), originally occur in a context where the themes of prophecy, drink and lack of spiritual perception are prominent (Isaiah 28:7-8). Peter Leithart has also highlighted the possibility of a connection between Acts 2:13 and 1 Samuel 1:13-14, where Eli’s accusing Hannah of drunkenness is a sign of his loss of spiritual perception.[28] In light of the contrast between being filled with wine and being filled with the Holy Spirit that occurs elsewhere in the NT (Ephesians 5:18), there is also the possibility that Luke wishes to use the theme of drunkenness to introduce an element of irony to his account.[29]


We began our study by observing the intertextual relationship between the ascensions of Elijah and Jesus and the granting of the Spirit to their successors. We then proceeded to examine the manner in which the accounts of the Sinai theophany in Exodus 19 and the participation of the seventy elders in the Spirit of Moses in Numbers 11 serve to illuminate Acts 2 as a narrative of corporate anointing. Exploring the importance of theophany in the context of prophetic call narratives, we highlighted the resemblances between Acts 2:1-4 and OT theophanies, and presented the case for a connection between theophany and temple.

In our treatment of verse 3, we studied the significance of fire as a sign of divine authorization and favour, and suggested the possibility of a symbolic connection between the tongues of fire and the empowerment of the disciples’ speech. We then drew attention to the manner in which the descent of the Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost can be understood as a consequence of the final stage in Jesus’ three stage relationship with the Spirit.

Our examination of verse 4 began with an exploration of the meaning of being ‘filled with the Spirit’, after which, making use of Robert Zerhusen’s diglossia thesis, we advanced an understanding of the gift of tongues as the establishment of prophetic worship in all languages. Having read Acts 2 against the backdrop of YHWH’s rectifying of the prophet Ezekiel’s common speech, we concluded by demonstrating the way in which Pentecost fits within the broader Lukan theme of prophetic rejection and failure of perception.

While some of the intertextual relationships suggested within these posts are relatively tentative, there is robust support for the claim that Luke frames his account of Pentecost as a prophetic call narrative. The significance of these connections is to be found in the manner in which they provide the means for the Church to grasp the nature of its prophetic identity.

[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1980), 69. See also James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM, 1970), 70-71.
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 133.
[3] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 67; Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 71.
[4] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 69.
[5] Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers, 67-68; Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 160-161.
[6] For the connection between the filling of houses and the filling of persons (cf. Acts 2:2, 4), see Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 45-46.
[7] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 69.
[8] Scott in Jostein Ådna and Hans Kvalbein (eds.), The Mission of the Early Church to Jews and Gentiles. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 105.
[9] A.J.M. Wedderburn, ‘Traditions and Redaction in Acts 2.1-13.’ Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 17:32n14.
[10] Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1986), 82-83; Allen P. Ross, ‘The Disperson of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9.’ Bibliotheca Sacra, 138:120.
[11] J.J.M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 219 claims that Zephaniah 3:13 serves to explicate 3:9. Ehud Ben Zvi, A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 226 suggests Psalm 15 as a parallel text. The connection between mouths purged from deceit and cultic worship can be seen in Revelation 14:5.
[12] See Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 2005), 197-200, for a discussion of early Christian usage of such language with reference to Christ.
[13] Cf. Acts 10:46; 1 Corinthians 14:2.
[14] Markus Bockmuehl, Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1990), 169.
[15] We find a passage with a number of similar features (the coming of the glory cloud to Mount Zion) in Revelation 14, with a reference to a song of worship that no one could learn except the 144,000.
[16] Robert Zerhusen, ‘An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?’ Biblical Theology Bulletin, 25:118-130.
[17] David Aaron (in Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Judaism. [Oxford: Blackwell, 2000]) claims that ‘the notion that Hebrew is a holy language is found among Jews of every era’ (268), going on to observe that

By relating to their language as holy, Jews transformed Hebrew into a kind of ritual object, parallel, in many ways, to the Torah scroll itself. In this sense, Hebrew is part of a religious system. (268)

[18] James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as it was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 235-237 observes that the view that Hebrew was the primordial language, lost at Babel and later taught to Abram by God, was held by many Jews and Christians in the early centuries C.E.
[19] For the following see Daniel C. Fredericks, ‘Diglossia, Revelation, and Ezekiel’s Inaugural Rite.’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 41:189-199.
[20] Ibid. 192.
[21] Ibid. 196.
[22] Fredericks suggests that this is that which is referred to in Ezekiel 3:5-6 (cf. Exodus 4:10).
[23] Ibid. 198-199
[24] Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles.’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 140n34.
[25] V. J. Samkutty, The Samaritan Mission in Acts (London: Continuum, 2006), 205. Stephen’s speech plays on this theme (Acts 7:9, 25-29, 35, 39, 51-53).
[26] Steve Moyise and M.J.J. Menken (eds.), Isaiah in the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 95; Blaine Charette, ‘‘Tongues as of Fire’: Judgment as a Function of Glossolalia in Luke’s Thought.’ Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 13:182. For discussion of Luke’s use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in this context see Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, 183ff, Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, 803ff and Moyise & Menken, Isaiah in the New Testament, 95ff. Moyise wonders whether Luke’s wish to save the full force of the Isaiah quotation to the end of his two-volume work explains his failure to give it as prominent a place within his gospel as it is given in the others (Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the New [London: T&T Clark, 2001], 57-58).
[27] Charette, ‘Tongues as of Fire’, 184.
[28] There are also a number of suggestive parallels between the account of 1 Samuel 1 and the account of Luke 1 that could be explored.
[29] In 1 Samuel 1 the theme of wine is also exploited to highlight the irony of the situation. Eli accuses Hannah of drunkenness at the very moment that she is taking the Nazirite vow for her son and ‘pouring out’ her soul to YHWH (J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: A Full Interpretation Based on Stylistic and Structural Analyses [Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993], 45-47).

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 5

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

  2. Pingback: Terah and Abram’s Exodus – 40 Days of Exoduses (2) | Alastair's Adversaria

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

  4. Pingback: Pentecost! | Alastair's Adversaria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.