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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Making a Prophet—Acts 2:1-21 (Alastair Roberts)

Luke’s account of Pentecost frames it as the installation of a prophet. As we reflect upon the shape of the prophetic vocation and the content and shape that Luke’s narrative gives to the Church’s calling we will be empowered for our political vocation in the twenty-first century.

1When 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.’

Many theologians have reflected upon the offices of prophet, priest, and king, especially in the context of the ‘threefold office’ (munus triplex) of Christ. While we frequently reference these three offices within our Christian discourse, often we do so without a clear sense of what each involves. In biblical literature, these three offices perform interlocking functions, have different realms of concern, and even have peculiar affinities with different bodies of literature or types of speech.

The priest was the palace servant of YHWH.[1] Priests guarded and maintained the regular operations of the sanctuary, but were also responsible for teaching and upholding the Torah to ensure the spiritual wellbeing of the wider ‘house of Israel’. Kings were YHWH’s vicegerents, ruling over the land and people as YHWH’s representatives, a task requiring the development of wisdom. Prophets were members of the divine council, charged with relaying YHWH’s judgments to his people and their rulers and, increasingly, to the surrounding nations. In the biblical narrative, there is a development from an order that foregrounds priests and the Law (the Mosaic period), to one that foregrounds kings and wisdom (the Davidic period), to one that foregrounds prophets and the prophetic literature (the exilic and post-exilic periods). With this development came an expansion of the horizons of Israel’s ministry, from a narrow focus upon the tabernacle, to the larger realm of the land, to the wider world of the empires within which Israel was situated.

Of the three figures, the prophet is arguably the one with the greatest scope of influence. The prophet has the words of YHWH placed in his or her mouth and is, like Jeremiah, appointed “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”[2] The prophet advocates for the nation in the divine council and also addresses God’s authority and truthful judgments to the powers and, in so doing, wields considerable power over them.

In Luke’s account of the events of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he alludes to various earlier prophetic traditions, representing the coming of the Spirit upon the Church as an event of prophetic installation or anointing. The previous chapter of Acts narrated the ascension of the risen Jesus to God’s presence. The connection between ascension and Pentecost is a significant one. In 2 Kings 2, the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven and the mantle of his Spirit fell upon Elisha, empowering him to complete Elijah’s mission.[3] The Day of Pentecost is a homologous event, as the Church is anointed with the prophetic Spirit of Christ in order to complete the mission Christ began.

The parallels between the Day of Pentecost and the events at Sinai during the Exodus are manifold. The ascension of the anointed leader leads to a gift of new revelation and a reconstitution of the people. At Sinai, the people are established as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). While these themes are present in a more elevated form in Acts 2—the Church itself becomes the new temple—here it is the constitution of the people as a prophetic body that is especially striking.

In Numbers 11:16-30, YHWH took of the Spirit of Moses and empowered seventy elders of the people to exercise prophetic rule alongside him. As YHWH descended in the cloud and places the Spirit of Moses upon the seventy, they spontaneously began to prophesy in a remarkable but non-recurring manner (verse 25). The desire Moses expressed at that time—“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (verse 29b)—is alluded to in the promise of Joel 2:28-29:

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter claims that this prophecy is arriving at its fulfilment (Acts 2:16-21). In the pouring out of the Spirit, a new prophetic people are being formed. As in Numbers 11, the Spirit of the leader of the people is distributed to others who will exercise gifted prophetic rule alongside him and, as in Numbers 11, the reception of the Spirit is accompanied by remarkable prophetic speech. At Pentecost the Spirit descends and rests upon the Church in a manner comparable to the descent and resting of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism.

Within the prophetic traditions, we witness a number of examples of prophetic installation events. These events are typically accompanied by theophanic phenomena—Moses’ burning bush, Elijah’s theophany at Horeb, Elisha’s witnessing of Elijah’s ascent, Isaiah’s vision of YHWH’s glory filling the temple, Jeremiah’s vision of the hand of YHWH, Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne chariot, Jesus’ theophany at his baptism. Pentecost is no exception. The sound as of a rushing mighty wind filling the house and the tongues as of fire—described in the same elliptical language that often accompanies a theophany (cf. Ezekiel 1)—are reminiscent of Isaiah’s temple vision in Isaiah 6.[4] The initiatory theophanic vision prepares the prophet for their mission in a number of ways, granting them 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).

The appearance of non-consuming tongues of flame resting upon the heads of the disciples might recall the miraculous fire of the burning bush. Fire is an element associated with the Holy Spirit and his ministers (Psalm 104:4; Ezekiel 1:13-14). In being raised to participate in the divine council, prophets were elevated to share the status of the angels. The prophet operates within the element of the angels, possibly being transfigured (Exodus 34:29-35; Acts 6:15), appearing with them in the divine council, or moving rapidly and miraculously from place to place in the wind and fire of the divine throne chariot (2 Kings 2:11; Ezekiel 3:14; Acts 8:39).

YHWH’s speech is like consuming flame (2 Samuel 22:9; Psalm 28:7; Isaiah 30:27; Jeremiah 23:29) and the mouth of the prophet has to be prepared and kindled to burn with the fire of God’s word (cf. Jeremiah 5:14; Revelation 11:5; Sirach 48:1). In Isaiah 6:6-7, the mouth of the prophet is cleansed (and kindled?) with a live coal from the altar. The connection between the tongues of flame and the tongues of speech (both γλωσσα) of Pentecost may draw upon this association: the Church is being lit as a witnessing lampstand and as burning mouthpieces of the divine word.

Acts 2 is arguably the generative core of the New Testament doctrine of the Church. Within the span of four verses, tightly packed with allusions, it establishes the Church as the new covenant recipient of the eschatological Spirit, the new temple and priesthood, the reversal of Babel, and also, as we have now demonstrated, the new prophetic community.

The role of the prophet, as I have defined it, is a deeply politically charged one. The prophet is a member of the divine ruling council, participating in its deliberations, and charged with playing the ‘angelic’ role of communicating its judgments to the powers of this world. The prophet is also often defined by suffering witness and frequent martyrdom. Luke’s narrative identifies the Church as continuing the prophetic mission of Jesus, bearing the authorization and power of Jesus’ Spirit, enjoying privileged access to the heavenly court, and delivering the judgments of God in Christ to kings and rulers. It should come as no surprise to us that the rest of the book of Acts is filled with confrontations and showdowns with various rulers and authorities.

It is, however, rare for the Church to display such a self-understanding of its status and vocation. The Church far too easily finds itself in thrall to the powers that be, weakly petitioning for a hearing in their halls, rather than confidently exercising its privilege of access to the heavenly council. The Church too often addresses the rulers of this world with impotent bleats, rather than with the authoritative blast of the incendiary word of God. Reflection upon Pentecost calls us to return to the self-understanding that underlay the Church’s earliest prophetic mission, a self-understanding that equipped it with the nerve to confront political powers, to face both suffering and death unflinchingly, and to overcome the world by faith in the One who is above all earthly rulers.

[1] Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 53-86
[2] Jeremiah 1:10
[3] Of the three tasks that YHWH entrusted Elijah with in 1 Kings 19:15-17, Elijah only performed one: the anointing of Jehu and Hazael were both performed by his successor, Elisha (2 Kings 8:9-15; 9:1-10).
[4] Some have suggested that the events of Acts 2:1-4 occurred in an upper room in the temple’s outer courts (cf. Luke 24:53; Acts 1:13-14; 2:46; 3:11; 5:12).

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