What Does This Mean?

SYNOPSIS - The outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost caused a great commotion and much consternation in JerusalemJoel 2:4-13.

River Patagonia - Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash
In the book of Acts, the activity of the Spirit among the followers of Jesus is programmatic and essential for the entire period of its existence - From its inception on the Day of Pentecost until the arrival of Jesus in glory.
The epic story of the church moves outward from Judea to Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and finally, to the city of Rome where Paul proclaimed the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike in the heart of the empire. But first, the Spirit must be poured out in Jerusalem as a testimony to all Israel. - [Patagonia - Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash].

Jesus commanded the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Spirit, the “promise of the Father.” It would equip them for an effective witness to the nations, even to “the uttermost parts of the earth”:
  • (Acts 1:4-8) – “Being assembled together with them, he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, you heard from me…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and you will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Assembled in Jerusalem, 120 disciples tarried in prayer for ten days until the Day of Pentecost had “fully come” and the Spirit arrived “like a rushing mighty wind,” an impressive event accompanied by visual and audible effects. And many Jewish pilgrims who were in the city for the feast “saw and heard” these things:
  • (Acts 2:4-11) – “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
They were all filled.” “They” refers to the 120 disciples who were gathered together in anticipation of the “promise of the Father.” It was not just the twelve apostles that were filled with the Spirit, and it certainly was not just the twelve that spoke in tongues.

They began to speak as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The stress in the passage is on “ALL” – “All” were assembled, “all” were filled, and “all” began to speak. They did NOT each speak in turn – one-by-one – But the entire company began to speak “as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

This understanding is confirmed by the reactions of the crowd of “about three thousand” Jewish pilgrims – “They were confounded because every man heard them speaking in his own language.”

English renderings often fail to present the full sense of the Greek verb tenses. The clause - “they began to speak” - uses a present tense infinitive. In Greek, the present tense signifies ongoing action - action in progress. Hence, the clause more fully means “they began to be speaking.”

Likewise, the final clause - “the Spirit gave utterance” - employs an imperfect tense verb (“gave”) and a present tense infinitive (“to utter”). The imperfect stresses continuous action in the past; hence, it reads, “As the Spirit was giving them to be speaking.” It was a noisy and extraordinary affair that continued for some time.
  • (Acts 2:5-13) – “Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound was heard, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speaking in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying, Behold, are not all these that speak Galileans? And how hear we, every man in our own language wherein we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God. And they were all amazed, and were perplexed, saying one to another, What does this mean? But others mocking said, They are filled with new wine.
As the editor of Acts, Luke lists fifteen nations from around the Near East and the Mediterranean Sea, including “Judea.” The arrival of the long-promised Spirit was observed by Jews and Proselytes from many nations, not residents of Jerusalem. Judea is included in the list because it, too, needed to hear the gospel.
More relevant, the list anticipated the fulfillment of the command of Jesus – “You will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
The crowd was confounded because “every man heard them speaking in his own language.” Whether the pilgrims also observed the “tongues of fire” or heard the wind-like sound when the Spirit arrived is not stated. What impressed them was the sound of Galileans “speaking in our own languages” - That is what caught the attention of the crowd. Later, Peter described the event as the “promise of the Holy Spirit, which you see and hear.” This suggests the crowd also saw and heard the other effects that resulted from the outpouring of the Spirit.

Day of Pentecost
We hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God.” Clearly, the Jewish pilgrims understood what the disciples were saying. There is no mention of any “interpreters” being present or of the exercise of the “gift of interpretation.” That would defeat the whole purpose of the manifestation. Nor was there a need for interpreters. At this time, most Jews traveling from around the region would have spoken Greek or Aramaic - or both - in addition to the language of their home country.

What struck the crowd most was the observation that these men were “Galileans.” How the crowd knew this is not stated. Galilee was considered a backwater territory, not only of the Roman Empire but also of Judea. To label someone a “Galilean” could include the connotation that he or she was poorly educated, even illiterate, a “country bumpkin.” It was all well and good for someone from Rome or Antioch to speak Latin and Greek fluently, but a “Galilean?!”

This is the only instance in the New Testament where the exercise of the “gift of tongues” is described as a known language. Elsewhere, the Spirit inspires believers to speak in “unknown tongues,” even the “tongues of angels.” Likewise, although the gift of tongues occurs again in Acts, it is not portrayed again as comprised of known languages - (Acts 10:44-48, 19:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1, 14:1-9).
  • (Acts 2:12-13) - “And they were all amazed, and were perplexed, saying one to another, What meaneth this? But others mocking said, They are filled with new wine.
This last observation sets the stage for the subsequent sermon by Peter, using a prophecy from the book of Joel about the arrival of the Spirit “in the last days” - (“These are not drunken…but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel”).

The experiential aspect of the event must not be downplayed, both from the perspective of the disciples and the crowd. What they experienced, and what the crowd “saw and heard” made deep and lasting impressions.

When Peter first preached the gospel to Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, it was their same experience of the Spirit that left no doubt in the minds of Peter and his Jewish comrades that God had accepted uncircumscribed Gentiles as equal members of the covenant community:
  • (Acts 10:45-46, 11:15-17) – “And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If, then, God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?
Similarly, in his appeal to the churches of Galatia not to place themselves under the Law, Paul pointed his largely Gentile audience to their initial receipt of the Holy Spirit:
  • (Galatians 3:1-4) – “O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth crucified? This only would I learn from you. Did you receive the Spirit from the works of the law, or from the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish, having begun in the Spirit, are you now to be made complete in the flesh? He, therefore, that supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you – from the works of the law, or from the hearing of faith?
Paul appealed to the personal experiences of the Galatians when they received the Spirit. His argument would be pointless if the event had only been a mental exercise, an intellectual assent to the reality of God’s indwelling Spirit. Moreover, it must have been an experience significant enough to make an impact that was still vividly remembered years later.

The account recorded in the second chapter of Acts is loaded with theological content. However, the reality of what the 120 disciples AND the crowd experienced is just as relevant and gives the theological propositions of the passage their real significance. The description of the crowd’s reaction to what they “saw and heard” loses its point if these events were not very profound and life-changing experiences.


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