Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger
I. It has all been pointing forward to this.
Acts chapter one has been dominated by a powerful sense of expectation. Luke has carefully shown us that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all of the Messianic promises of the OT. He has shown us that Jesus Christ conquered death and the grave in his glorious Resurrection, giving many convincing proofs to his disciples that he was alive during the forty days between the Resurrection and Ascension, and teaching them during this time about the Kingdom of God. Luke has described how Jesus Christ has bodily ascended into heaven, and that our now exalted Lord has promised to return to earth to judge the world and raise the dead. He will come again in glory in the same way in which the disciples saw him go into heaven. And we have seen that our Lord has promised to pour out his Holy Spirit on his disciples to empower them to be witnesses of him, first throughout Jerusalem, and then on to the ends of the earth. As Jesus Christ begins to establish his reign and to renew the world through the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, only one more redemptive event remains; the last of these once-for-all events whereby Christ establishes his present reign in his church was about to occur.
The timing was perfect. All was ready. Pentecost was the 50th day after the first Sunday after Passover. Among Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jews, Pentecost was known as the "Feast of Weeks," or the "Day of First Fruits." At some point in Israel's history, it came to be understood that Pentecost was the anniversary of the giving of the Law by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. What the Jews recognized as the anniversary of the giving of the Law on two tablets of stone at Mt. Sinai, is the very day that God chooses to pour out his Holy Spirit, turning sinful hearts of stone into living hearts of human flesh. This present age, centered in the Law and the elementary principles of this world, was about to be swallowed up by the glorious new age of salvation, as Jesus Christ begins his reign through the Spirit in the hearts of his people. All that the prophets had foretold was even now coming to pass.
II. Let us now turn our attention to the first four verses of Acts 2.
We read in verse one that when the day came, "they were all together in one place." Luke doesn't specify the exact location, but there is no reason to assume that this is not the very same upper room where the disciples had been gathering during the time between the Resurrection and Ascension. Luke speaks of how the "whole house" was filled with the presence of God in v. 2. As for those present, there is also no reason to assume that only the disciples were here. Luke has gone to great lengths to list the 120 present in v. 12-14 of chapter 1, and so we probably should assume that this is the same group present here.
Luke now describes the fulfillment of our Lord's promise, recorded in Acts 1:8, that "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses." Here we learn that "suddenly" God entered into their presence on the Day of Pentecost. God indeed poured forth his Holy Spirit in fulfillment of his promise. And those present heard what sounded like a violent wind. They saw what looked like tongues of fire surrounding each one there. They knew the OT. God's glorious presence in the room, produced the same sensory reactions that have always accompanied his presence throughout redemptive history. Promise has now become fulfillment. They knew what these signs meant.
The presence of a violent wind has strong OT significance. Ezekiel (Ez. 37:9-14) prophesied that the Sovereign Lord would blow on the dead bones in the valley of his vision. The very breath of God was breathed into these bones, and those who were slain came to life - a whole vast army of them! In 2 SA 22:16, the breath of God is said to be God's rebuke of the earth. Job gets his answer to the problem of human suffering from the midst of a whirlwind (Job 38). In John 3, Jesus also foretold of such events when he told Nicodemus, that you must be born again (or from above) and that the Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever it pleases under the control of God's will, not man's.
The second sign of God's supernatural activity is the appearance of what looked liked tongues of fire. John the Baptist had predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, fire being associated with both cleansing and judgement. What was audible in the wind, was visual in the tongues of fire. All of those present certainly knew the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3:2-5. They knew that God's presence with his people in the desert was marked by the pillar of fire each night. They knew that fire is primarily a sign of God's judgement. For as the disciples are empowered to be Christ's witnesses, they will soon be called to confront the unbelieving world with the Word of God. And the Word of God always comes with either blessing or with curse. For, as Paul tells us in Romans 1:16-18, the gospel is the revelation of the power of God unto salvation, as well as the revelation of the wrath of God upon sin. This was a time of awe and wonder, as well as a time of holy fear. How can the disciples continue to fear what mere men can do to them, as they have been doing, when they are seeing with their own eyes, the signs of God's judgement evident in the tongues of fire? God is in their midst in great power and the signs of his presence are now manifest in their midst. They must fear God rather than men.
Luke tells us in verse 4 that "all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit." The promises made by John and Jesus were now a reality. The church, the New Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) was born in an instant! Each of the 120 present in that upper room, from the least to the greatest, were "filled" by the blessed Holy Spirit of God. There are a number of things here that we need to mention.
First of all, the birth of the church, stands in direct fulfillment of the temple imagery, first found in Exodus 40. In the words of one writer (M. G. Kline), "The last chapters of Exodus deal with the construction of the tabernacle under the leadership of Moses and the filling of the finished structure by God's Spirit, visibly present in the form of the cloud of glory (Exodus 40). While the resurrection accounts in the gospels record the raising up of the temple of the new covenant in the sense that Jesus himself is that temple, it is beyond the gospels in the Book of Acts that the further [fulfillment] to the conclusion of the Book of Exodus is found. In the Pentecost-event Christ erects the temple of his church and the Holy Spirit fills the house of God (Acts 2:1 ff.)." The earthly temple described by Moses, is now superceded by the glorious temple that Jesus Christ erects; the temple built without hands, which is his body. This temple, which is even now being formed in their very midst, is filled with God's glory through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
This whole notion of "being filled with the Holy Spirit," raises the question for us about the exact nature of the "filling" that occurred. Luke uses this term in many different ways. We are told that this filling with the Holy Spirit was an event which was repeated. It is presented as an initial endowment for service (Acts 9:17), when giving inspired speech (Acts 4:8). We are told variously that filling is both a process of "being filled" (13:52) or the state of being full (Acts 6:3). A person already filled can receive a fresh or a continuous filling. It can be called a "baptizing" (Acts 1:5), a pouring out and a receiving (Acts 10:47).
The "baptism in the Holy Spirit" is, however, never used to describe a subsequent experience or a repeatable event. The community of believers receives its baptism in the Holy Spirit now, at Pentecost, and subsequent to this event, individuals are said to experience new fillings, or the state of "being full of the Holy Spirit," but the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, occurs at the moment of conversion, and is signed and sealed unto us in the waters of baptism.
III. Luke now introduces the subject of tongues, for as he points out, as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, "[They] began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (v. 4b)."
This whole concept of speaking in tongues is again rich in OT imagery. First and foremost, the whole picture given here in Acts two, must be seen against the background of Genesis 11. After the days of Noah, we learn that "the whole world had one language and a common speech." But as the people began to build a city to heaven, that is, as they began to seek to stand before God clothed in self-righteousness, God came down upon them in judgement, "confusing their language, so that they would not understand each other." So, "the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stop building the city" of man. "That is why it was called Babel -- because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole world." The diversity of language, the scattering of the peoples of the earth is God's judgment on the world, because of unbelief. When men seek to force their way into God's heaven on the basis of their works or good deeds, God judges them, rebuking and frustrating their efforts.
Thus, the undoing of the confusion at Babel is a sign of God's grace, and a central theme in our redemption. For it is a sign of God's grace that diverse peoples are re-united in the body of Christ, as one new people, God's new society. And the undoing of the confusion of diverse languages is also in view. This can be seen throughout the OT, for when the Holy Spirit possessed men and women they prophesied. The account of Eldad and Meded at the camp of the Israel in Numbers 11 is one example. It was Moses' wish that "all the LORD's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them." In Isaiah 19:18, we read that in the Messianic age, "the cities of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty." Now, as all of these prophecies are being fulfilled, the Holy Spirit demonstrates his presence not only by the sound of the wind and the tongues of fire, but with inspired speech as well. In this case, the undoing of Babel is seen through the Spirit-given utterances in tongues.
Luke is crystal clear that what was being spoken here was a known language, which may or may not be known to the speaker. In v. 6 for example, when the crowd heard the commotion raised by what was going on in the upper room, they gathered around. Luke does not state the details of this, but it is very likely that the 120 left the upper room and went out into the streets of Jerusalem. The Jews who had gathered for the Pentecost celebration were from every nation under heaven. "When they heard this sound [the commotion in the upper room] a crowd came together [those Jews from the nations mentioned here] in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language." This is reiterated in v. 8. "Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?" And in v. 11, "we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues [literally our own language]." There can be no doubt that in this passage the tongues being spoken, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, were languages known to the audience, whether known or unknown to the speaker. There is a legitimate debate about whether or not the tongue-speaker knew the language which they were speaking. But the text is crystal clear that the audience heard those in the upper room declaring the wonders of God in known languages which they clearly understood. There is no biblical support, whatsoever, that tongues is a "heavenly language" or gibberish.
The presence of tongue-speaking is not necessarily evidence of the Holy Spirit. In apostolic times as well as in the OT, criteria were provided to determine whether such utterances were from God. We think of the tests of a prophet given by God in Deuteronomy 18, and 13. The prophet must be accurate 100% of the time (or else he must be immediately killed). If he is 100% accurate he must not lead the people of God after false Gods (or else he must be killed). In the NT, Christians are exhorted to "test the spirits, to see if they are from God." Peter and John both warn us that false prophets will be revealed by their doctrine and lifestyles. In 2 Peter 2:1 ff., Peter tells us that false prophets are greedy, they will bring the truth into disrepute, they will exploit people with stories they have made up, they will slander celestial beings, and they will blaspheme in matters about which they have no knowledge. Paul's test for a true prophet is that "no man can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." Since even Satan can say the words "Jesus is Lord," what Paul actually means is that in the first century, only those willing to pay the price that such a confession would have required of them, do so as enabled by the Holy Spirit. In an interesting passage in the Didache (AD 120), Christians were warned of prophets who would say supposedly from the Spirit, "give me money." There is indeed nothing new under the Sun.
Whether or not Paul's treatment of tongues in I Cor 12-14 is based upon another kind of tongue which is not a known language, is a matter open for debate. In any case, Paul tells the Corinthians that there was undo importance attached to the gift of tongues, since tongues is the least of the gifts, and that if it was used in the church, someone must be present with the correlative gift of interpretation. Luke's treatment of tongues is helpful here, because Luke tells us the content of the tongues that were spoken here, and this information does relate to Paul's instruction in I Corinthians. What each of those speaking in tongues declared was "the wonders of God." Thus the content of what was spoken is every bit as significant as the medium in which it was said. As we will see, with only two exceptions (the prophecies of Agabus who predicted the Jerusalem famine and Paul's being bound with his own belt) all of the prophetic utterances in Acts are, in effect, Spirit-inspired sermons on the OT, showing how Jesus fulfilled the promises of the OT and how he was God's Messiah. In Scripture, Spirit-led, prophetic speech, always declares the wonders of God! Thus the Spirit aids the prophet, not only in understanding how a given OT passage bears witness to Jesus Christ, but also the Spirit gives the prophet supernatural boldness in declaring the Law and the Gospel, in the face of those who scoff at God's will, and who trample the blood of Christ under their feet. This is why Paul exhorts the Corinthians to desire prophecy (or preaching), because prophecy declares the mighty wonders of God, which an unknown tongue cannot do, because if not interpreted, it gives no edification.
In any case, the result of this is that in v. 12, many are said to be "amazed and perplexed," and in v. 14, many made fun of them, accusing them of being drunk. Imagine, the sheer audacity of these theologically untrained Galileans, running around Jerusalem on the Holy Day of Pentecost, proclaiming the mighty deeds of God--preaching the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as proof that he was God's Messiah. What's worse, they are doing so in Greek or Aramaic, common languages, and not in Hebrew, the appropriate and Holy language. To those who do not see God's actions through the eyes of faith, such commotion and boldness can only be explained by a blood alcohol limit over 1.0.
IV. What can we conclude from the Pentecost account:
First, Pentecost is a once-for-all event unique in redemptive history. It has a past, a present and a future perspective, which must be considered. To make this event the pattern for Christian experience today is to ignore the fact the Pentecost is directly linked to a series of non-repeatable events, such as the Resurrection, Ascension and return of Christ. As for the past, it is the culmination of what was promised in Joel 2:28-32 and Isaiah 32:15, that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all flesh. As for the present, those who were filled (or baptized with the Holy Spirit) on this occasion were chosen by God to experience his awesome power in the violent wind, the tongues of fire, and the inspired prophetic utterances. As for the future, what happens here is nothing less than a reversal of God's judgement upon the world at the tower of Babel. Pentecost begins the process of the undoing of God's judgement on Babel as Jesus Christ extends his kingdom. For one day, all of the people of God from every race and tribe and tongue under heaven, will see Christ face to face and worship and adore him with one voice and in one language. Pentecost though not repeated again in the NT is the event where in the resurrected and ascended Christ pours out his Spirit on his church. It does not need to be repeated! The Holy Spirit is ours now, as a deposit, a guarantee, sealing us until ultimate redemption awaiting us at Christ's return and the resurrection.
Second, the experience of the filling of the Holy Spirit is in the NT a repeatable or a perpetual "state or condition" enjoyed by believers, and is always linked in Scripture to the a new understanding of the Word of God, or the means of grace (Word and Sacrament), and in the missionary enterprise, the Holy Spirit enabling Christians to bear witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end of the Earth. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a one time event, bestowed upon each believer at conversion. It is never repeated in the NT. All Christians are baptized in the Spirit at the time of conversion. There is no second level or stage of Christian experience.
The gift of tongues as presented by Luke, is not gibberish, but is instead a known language unknown to the speaker. The content of these inspired utterances were the "wonders of God," that is, Spirit-given divine commentaries on the true meaning OT. Pentecostals cannot claim Acts 2 as a pattern of Christian experience, and then substitute gibberish for these known languages. It is not a question of whether or not Spiritual "gifts" continue today. It is a question of insisting that Christian theology and practice match the Biblical data, and that we cannot twist the Scripture and make the Bible conform to personal experience. Unfortunately, with the rise and popularity of Pentecostalism, one cannot treat this very important and exciting passage of Holy Scripture without a few qualifications.
Pentecostals argue that this passage supports the major tenet of their view of the Christian experience. According to Pentecostals, there are two stages of the Christian life. The first and lower stage is salvation, or conversion, where one accepts Christ as savior and receives the Holy Spirit. The second, and higher level of Christian experience, is the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" which manifests itself in speaking in tongues as the initial and inevitable sign of Spirit baptism. This passage is cited as "proof" of this two level form of the Christian life, because the disciples are said to have already received the Holy Spirit in John 20:22, and here, after their own reception of the Holy Spirit, they are said to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The danger in this is the division of Christians into two categories-- the ones who do (with a higher degree of piety) and the one who don't and who need to! Those who "have it" are expected to attain new levels of victory over sin, sickness and the devil. They seek to encourage others to share their experience, frequently dividing the church in the process. Since no such higher level of Christian experience exists in Scripture, one can only attain the Pentecostal expectation by one of two ways. The first is pretending that one's problems with sin, sickness and the flesh do not exist. The second is far worse, one can simply delude oneself into thinking that one is actually able to "pull it off." This is certainly in contrast to Paul's treatment of the Christian life in Romans 7. Tragically people in this category find themselves in serious danger of eternal perdition. Paul's warnings to the Galatians who begin in the Spirit and then attempt to attain perfection in the flesh are aimed at such people, who are in serious danger of falling from grace. One is either in Christ or in Adam. If one is in Christ, one posses all of his benefits, including the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The NT never speaks of a two-level Christianity.
As we look at Acts 2, we see that what was promised is fulfilled. What the prophets foretold had come to pass. For God himself, in the person of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, has begun his reign through the power of the Holy Spirit. He will begin to renew the world and undo the curse. The suffering servant, Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world, is not only risen but enthroned; and not only enthroned but exalted. And now Jesus Christ baptizes his disciples in the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses. The church was born and Christ will begin to extend his reign through the word in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Moses saw the glory of the Holy Spirit in the earthly temple, how much is God's glory evident in the temple made without hands of "living stones." For at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit indwelt the new temple, the church of the living God, and his glory is evident. This morning we stand in the light of Pentecost. The risen and exalted Lord is in our midst through Word and Sacrament, and we are his temple. The gospel has gone out to the ends of the earth, and the curse at Babel is being reversed. Jesus Christ is extending his reign.
Copyright © 1998-2005 Dr. Kim Riddlebarger
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger is a graduate of California State University in Fullerton (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.) where he worked under Richard A. Muller. He is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches (URCNA), a regular contributor to many publications such as Modern Reformation and Table Talk, and has authored four books. He is the senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, and also co-hosts the White Horse Inn radio program.