When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’Acts 2:1-21
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Joel spoke of a time when God would exercise compassion on God’s people and pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:18-29). Generations later, Peter believed that this prophecy had come to pass. As a strong wind (πνοῆς) filled the tiny house where Jesus’s disciples had gathered, Luke tells us that a holy spirit (πνεύματος) filled each of them.
This same spirit gave each of these ethnically Galilean Jews, who would have likely spoken Aramaic, the ability to speak in other languages and be understood by all of the diasporic Jews who, visiting Jerusalem for the festival, heard the commotion coming from their home. Normalcy, or the status quo, of lingual and ethnic division, is replaced with the fullness of God’s vision for human relationship in this scene. The previously closed frames of reference that may have limited Jesus’s first disciples as an ethnically homogenous group are expanded to allow them to hear the diverse voices of everyone gathered and so to speak with them in turn.
Both Joel and Peter characterize this experience of God’s Spirit, whether anticipated or realized, as a time marked by visions and dreams. The dreams that they have in mind, however, are not the result of drunkenness or hallucination (Acts 2:15)—the so-called “pipe dreams” of 20th century American whimsy—but rather, are grounded in a very real confidence in God’s presence among and, indeed, within them. This is the fullness to which the Lukan author twice refers (Acts 2:2, 4; contrast Acts 2:13), the fullness of God’s realized action.
Dreams in the Hebrew Bible and, so too, in the Christian New Testament, are not flights of fancy. They are, rather, commensurate with the prophetic experience of visions—a means by which God reveals God’s self and God’s desires to God’s people. Hence, the prophet Joel poetically pairs the experience of dreams and visions together, as an outgrowth of the prophetic voice with which God will endow all of God’s children—sons and daughters—in God’s coming reign of justice and mercy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).
Such justice, however, is not sugar-coated by Joel. While God looks with compassion upon God’s children and promises restoration, not only to the people but even to the animals and the land (Joel 2:21-22), Joel prophesies judgment upon those who have divided God’s land and abused God’s people (Joel 3:1-3; Acts 2:19-21). Even the prophet Amos, who declares that in the day of the Lord “justice [will] roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24) contextualizes this as a justice that entails freedom for the oppressed and punishment for those who insist upon continuing to oppress. Such is the double reversal of the blessings and woes recorded by the Lukan author in Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49).
Or, in the words of a modern day prophet, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously quoted Amos on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
These words or prophetic critique, calling Americans to action for the sake of justice, come from the same speech in which Dr. King told America about his own dream— a dream of a day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It is a beautiful dream. But it is not a dream that Dr. King intended to sit idly by and wait to manifest. Nor was it a dream that he intended his audience or any of us who have read or quoted these words in the decades since to delight in as a poetic construct. No, Dr. King’s dream was a prophetic dream—a dream rooted in the embodiment of God’s justice through hard work and chance; through the reversal of power structures that comes from living into and among the fullness of human experience.
For that reason, Dr. King’s speech was officially titled, “Normalcy No More,” and in an early draft of this speech, he wrote,
I read a newspaper editorial recently which speculated upon when the leaders of this civil rights movement would become “satisfied” so that American could return to normalcy…we do not want to return to normalcy. It was normalcy in Alabama which made a racist Governor defy the Supreme Court and the President of the United States. It was normalcy in Jackson, Mississippi, which enervated a mad killer and gave him the brutal urge to erase the meaningful life of Medgar Evers…It is normalcy which has been the betrayal of all that we mean when we recite the Oath of Allegiance. It is normalcy which makes eleven o’clock on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America and many Sunday Schools the most segregated schools in our country. Every inspired genius who has given something to the world; every people who have ever struck for freedom has rejected the normal and embraced the abnormal.
Inspiration—being filled by the spirit, is not about dreaming dreams or seeing visions, it is about living them. So it is that Joel prophesies, after God has shown compassion on God’s people, then the young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. Peter proclaims after receiving God’s holy spirit that all those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21).
But what cannot be lost in this is the particularities. The lived experience of this salvation, which, in Greek, is another way of saying wholeness. The Spirit doesn’t just pour out upon all flesh, but upon particular flesh. Upon young and old. Upon each of the racial and ethnic groups gathered in Jerusalem, giving the disciples the ability not simply to be understood but to understand and to speak in multiple particular tongues.
God’s Spirit is not only universal, it is also particular. This is what is often missed when we only quote a few lines from Dr. King’s dream. And can be easily lost, as well, if we paint the Pentecost experience as simply a reversal of the Tower of Babel. When God pours God’s spirit out on all flesh God affirms the human goodness of each person in their God-given particularity.
Universal love and justice is impossible if we ignore the particularities in which people live, thrive, and struggle. The fullness of God’s people comes from embracing and celebrating our differences and correcting past injustices, not ignoring them. God’s justice comes from rejecting what, in this imperfect world, is taken as “normal,” in favor of the immeasurably abundant abnormality of God’s intended realm.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches about reversal. In the sequel here in Acts, the disciples and those gathered with them live into the possibilities of such a departure from the norm. In what follows after Peter’s sermon, the Lukan author tell us, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).
Pentecost isn’t simply about the dreams of old men or the prophesies of children; though, these, certainly, are a part. Pentecost is about living the dream, coming alongside all of God’s children, and changing the way we relate, communicate, and live.