The Politics of Pentecost—Acts 2:1-21 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

As the people of Pentecost, our political vocation is to manifest the reality of God’s worldwide kingdom, to be a place where the enmity between peoples is overcome and the many tongues of humanity freely unite in the worship of their Creator. Amidst the Babelic projects of the ages, the Church proclaims by its existence that the kingdom belongs to God, that there is no other true ruler over all the nations.

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, 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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The account of Pentecost in Acts is played out against a vast backdrop of scriptural history. Throughout the passage there are purposeful echoes of other narratives, Luke’s literary artistry suggesting the significance that he ascribes to the events. Various commentators have alerted us to the striking parallels between Pentecost and Sinai. In both cases a leader ascends to God’s presence in the cloud, receives a covenant-forming gift (the Law at Sinai and the Spirit at Pentecost), and, along with dramatic theophanic effects on a morning several weeks after Passover, bestows it upon the people. While 3,000 persons are slain at Sinai (Exodus 32:28), 3,000 people are ‘cut to the heart’ and repent at Pentecost (Acts 2:37, 41). Roger Stronstad argues that the epochal significance of Sinai—where Israel was constituted as a kingdom of priests and holy nation (Exodus 19:6)—is matched at Pentecost:

[T]he creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests. That is, on the day of Pentecost, and for the second time in the history of his people, God is visiting his people on his holy mountain and mediating a new vocation for them—prophethood rather than royal priesthood.[1]

Others have found scriptural background in the story of Elisha’s reception of the Spirit of Elijah following Elijah’s ascension in 2 Kings 2. The placing of the prophetic Spirit of Moses upon the seventy elders of Israel in Numbers 11 appears to be relevant too, not least on account of Luke’s employment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 (cf. Numbers 11:29). We are also probably supposed to see a vivid echo of the divine consecration of the tabernacle and temple (cf. Exodus 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10-11) in the descent of the Spirit, filling the house, and placing tongues of flame upon the assembly as if upon a lampstand.

Pentecost’s presence within such a vast scriptural resonance chamber testifies to the profile that the event has within Lucan theology. Perhaps the most frequently identified background is that of Genesis 11. Genesis 11 tells of an immense building project, undertaken within the realm of the mighty empire-founder, Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-12). As Peter Leithart has observed, the building project had two dimensions to it—a city and a tower (Genesis 11:4)—and these two dimensions corresponded to the linguistic (‘one language’) and liturgical (‘one lip’) unity of the people recorded in verse 1.[2] The tower is the religious heart of an empire that will dominate the earth. The great city and tower of Babel was an attempt to secure human power against the threat of divine judgment and establish the hegemony of Nimrod’s empire upon the earth. YHWH frustrated the city and tower-builders by coming down and confusing their language, with the result that they were scattered abroad and their plan to establish a single world empire was abandoned.

In the chapter that follows, a new nation is formed as Abraham is called away from Ur of the Chaldees, the land of Babel. YHWH declares that, through Abraham, he will bless all of the nations of the world. In Zephaniah 3:9, God promises that He will restore to the peoples a pure ‘lip’, so that they may all call upon the name of the Lord. For Luke, Pentecost is a sign of the fulfilment of these promises.

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.

The Church is a Pentecostal symbol of human unification, a place where different ethnicities, nationalities, races, and people of various languages can be united as they are transcended in common worship. In the second century, Mathetes wrote of Christians in his epistle to Diognetus:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.

The Church created at Pentecost is a dramatic contrast to the project of Babel and all attempts to repeat it. Rather than gathering all together within an imposed imperial uniformity and polity, the Church of Pentecost is scattered abroad, where it freely traverses all human differences with its message and identity. Dispersed throughout the world and its peoples, the unity of the Church represents God’s achievement and prerogative against the hubris of empires. Present within all nations, yet belonging to none, God’s worldwide kingdom cannot be contained, controlled, circumscribed, replicated, or assimilated by any other power.

As the people of Pentecost, our political vocation is to manifest the reality of God’s worldwide kingdom, to be a place where the enmity between peoples is overcome and the many tongues of humanity freely unite in the worship of their Creator. Amidst the Babelic projects of the ages, the Church proclaims by its existence that the kingdom belongs to God, that there is no other true ruler over all the nations. As God’s sovereignty is thus displayed, the vaunting empires of this world will be kept in their place.


[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2010), 53
[2] Peter Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 5

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