As it is Pentecost tomorrow, I took the time to correct a broken picture and some formatting problems in an old post on the subject: The Background of Pentecost. Within the post, I discuss several of the Old Testament narratives that provide background for the New Testament event of Pentecost. So, for instance:
As part of God’s construction of a new temple, God prepares new lamps. In the original created order, the sun, moon and stars were the lamps prepared by God on the fourth day. In the tabernacle the lamp provided light. In the nation of Israel, the political and religious leaders were seen as the anointed lightbearers. The prophets, empowered by the Spirit, were the anointing ones (Samuel and Elijah are both prominent examples of anointing prophets — 1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13; 1 Kings 19:15-16). It is important to notice one of the more obvious parallels between the lamp and ruler: both were the recipients of sacramental oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The association of the imagery of lamps and rulers is seen in such places as Zechariah 4. It is also seen in such places as 1 Kings 11:36 and 15:4, where God promises that David will always have a ‘lamp before Me’, i.e. an heir on the throne.
In the gospels the lamp imagery is seen on a number of occasions. In Mark 4:21 Jesus points out that the lamp — it has the definite article in the Greek — does not come in order to be put under a basket or bed. Rather, the lamp comes in order to be publicly displayed. We should never forget that it is a parable (or riddle) of the kingdom that is being given here, not merely a timeless piece of moral advice for the individual believer. The lamp and light that is coming should be read in terms of the broader framework of redemptive history (e.g. Isaiah 60:1-3, 19-21). Christ and the new Israel that He is forming around Himself are to be the light of the world. The Church is to be a city set on a hill (a new Jerusalem — Isaiah 2:1-4). The lampstand giving light to the house (the language of the Sermon on the Mount) is quite probably temple imagery. We also see the lampstand imagery taken up in Revelation 1, where the lampstands represent the churches, with Christ, the great High Priest, tending them. The lampstand is also a symbolic burning bush. The burning bush of the Church is where man now meets with God. Wherever the Lampstand Church is, there is holy ground.
[Perhaps we should also read the lighting of the lampstand imagery against the background of the liturgical patterns of Exodus 29-30. The ascension offerings of 29:38ff would presumably have been followed by the lighting of the lamps and burning of the incense, which took place at the same time of the day (Exodus 30:7-8). The connection of ascension and lamp-lighting might help us to some degree in our understanding of the relationship between Ascension and Pentecost.]
When we hear of tongues of flame resting on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost we should instantly connect it with such biblical imagery. The disciples are being set up as new lightbearers. Being baptized by the Holy Spirit they are being placed in the heavenly places with Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:6) to shine as stars.
This is just a taster: there is lots, lots more in the post.
In another five part series, I discuss the manner in which the events of the day of Pentecost establishes the Church as a prophet:
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). In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor. 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).
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), 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. 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.’ The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.
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.
Read the whole thing: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
Finally, I posted on the subject of Pentecost earlier this week, over on the Political Theology blog:
Pentecost is a unification of the separated families of humanity. This unification isn’t accomplished through the will and power of empires and their rulers, but through the sending of the Spirit of Christ, poured out like life-giving rain on the drought-ridden earth. In place of only one holy—Hebrew—tongue, the wonderful works of God are spoken in the languages and dialects of many peoples. The multitude of languages is preserved—a sign of the goodness of human diversity—and human unity is achieved, not in the dominance of a single human empire, or in the collapsing of cultural difference, but in the joyful worship of God.
Thank you for such a provocative collection of insights on Pentecost…and the links for even more. My mind is racing! The truths of Pentecost seem ever enlarging.
It is encouraging to hear that people are finding these posts helpful. Thanks!
I was honored to preach at St. Anne’s Episcopal church, Ankeny, Iowa yesterday. Your post helped informed some of what I had to say. Thanks again!
Several things in here I had never seen before: the tongues of fire as lampstand imagery, the lamps correlation to rulers, the inheritance of a prophetic ministry.
I would be interested to hear more on how the prophetic succession “works” for the second generation of disciples, who received the Holy Spirit but were not directly apprenticed to Jesus and did not witness his ascension. (Probably you have written some 50,000 brief words on this elsewhere, in which case, a link will do…)
Fascinating and very helpful. Thank you.
Pentecost is an event that constitutes the Church as the body of Christ in the Spirit. As a constitutive event, it doesn’t have to be repeated generation after generation. God’s presence entered into the Temple once and after that point, to draw near to God’s special presence, you went to the Temple. In the same way, Israel only needed to have the experience of the Passover and Sinai once. From that point onwards, they were established as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Likewise with Pentecost and the Church. The events of Pentecost establish the Church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, filling the house, lighting the lamps, sanctifying its ministers, bringing fire down upon the altar. After that point, later generations receive the blessing by becoming part of the body and its life. Perhaps we could also compare this to the way that God created Adam from the earth in Genesis 2, but every subsequent human being isn’t created from scratch, but is born from the life established at that one point.
Pentecost was one great Baptism of the whole Church. Our individual baptisms are echoes of this great baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12-13), bringing us into the realm of the life of the Temple of the Holy Spirit, much as inclusion in Israel for later generations of Israelites would make them participants in the covenant and blessings given at Sinai. As we are brought into the Church and as we participate in and are deeply knit into its life by faith and the Holy Spirit, we are made partakers in the blessing of Pentecost. The one great Gift of Pentecost is re-presented in the many gifts given to particular members of the body, exercised for the edification and life of all.
Thanks, that’s helpful and also correlates with what I had understood the role of the church as the Spirit-filled temple to be. It was the “we witnessed his departure and inherited the prophetic ministry” parallel I was questioning the continuity of.
Have a blessed Pentecost 🙂
Thanks, you too!
I, too, am fascinated by what you have said about lampstead imagery…. and I think your final paragraph ( excerpt from your Political Theology blog} is poetic.
By ‘poetic’ I mean here that I could not begin to summarise it /paraphrase it – it speaks so beautifully for itself.
“Pentecost is a unification of the separated families of humanity.” I was surprised at the simple declarative power of this statement, until I realized that most of what I hear in the news these days reinforces separation of races, economic classes, and castes, and “in that day” when Christ returns we will be united – all families, all peoples! Until then, the Holy Spirit has been sent to us – O blessed Spirit of God! – to do what we cannot. As Paul writes,
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)
Thanks for the comment! Those really are perfect verses for Pentecost.
Mr. Roberts, I discovered your blog several months ago and I want to tell you that I very much enjoy your expositions of Biblical texts, themes and narratives. The extracts you’ve quoted above from other posts of yours all sound very interesting and I intend to read through them in the coming days. For now, I’d like to pose a couple of questions that derive from your last quoted paragraph, the one from the Political Theology blog.
First: you describe the multitude of languages that prevail among humankind as “a sign of the goodness of human diversity”. But in Genesis we’re famously told that God caused the diversity of languages in order to sow confusion among human beings and to frustrate their hubristic plans. Speaking a multitude of tongues, they would no longer be able to work together and would be forced to hive off into separate tribes. It would seem that God imposed “diversity” on the human race not because it was a good but precisely because it was an evil. One might say that God imposed the evil of diversity on mankind in order to avert the greater evil that would stem from sinful humanity’s unity and only in that sense could it be described as a relative good, i.e. a lesser evil. If I were to say that you appear to be paying honor to a contemporary shibboleth–the “diversity” cult–how would you respond and how would you reconcile the notion of the “goodness of human diversity” with the Tower of Babel account?
Second: At Pentecost the apostles spoke a witness to Christ in other tongues that were heard by those present who spoke those languages. But is it not the case that the apostles themselves did not understand the languages they were speaking? It was a sign given outwardly to those outside the apostles’ circle but it was, so to speak, not a sign given inwardly–i.e. within the apostles’ own understanding. In that sense, did the apostles not remain very much within the Hebrew domain in spite of the fact that they were momentarily the vessels of a sign to other language groups?
Thanks for the comment and for the kind words. In response to your questions:
First, God’s will was that humanity should multiply and fill the earth. The Babel project went directly contrary to this: it was an attempt to resist being scattered throughout the earth (Genesis 11:4). It was also an attempt to impose and maintain unity—through the establishment of a central city and religious cult and the maintenance of a universal language. The confusion of the languages frustrated their rebellious plan of a single world empire and forced them to submit to God’s purpose. Diversity can be a blessed thing and God’s original intent involved various forms of diversity. The events of Pentecost suggest this too. Rather than having the many people groups starting to speak Hebrew or some original human language, God ‘scatters’ the languages of the disciples, just as he will later scatter them like salt throughout the world.
Second, I am inclined to believe that the apostles understood what they were saying. There is a gift of tongues-speaking and a gift of the interpretation of tongues. The one Gift of the Holy Spirit is later ‘membered’ into various gifts in the Church, with only some being given the gift of tongues directly and others the gift of interpretation. If Numbers 11:16-30 (especially verse 25) provides an analogy, those present and speaking in tongues at Pentecost didn’t necessarily do so again. The unity of the Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost suggests to me that the disciples possessed the ability to understand the tongues being spoken. Or, at the very least, there were some in the company who understood what was being said and interpreted.
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