Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 2:1-21

The Day of Pentecost (2:1)

The day called “Pentecost” is named after the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fiftieth.” It was the only Old Testament festival determined by counting. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Pentecost was observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after this (verse 15). Since seven weeks elapsed between the day of the first grain offering and the beginning of Pentecost, this holy day was sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. [Exodus 34:22Leviticus 23:15Numbers 28:26Deuteronomy 16:9-12.]

The grain was harvested after the token of the first gleaning of the grain was given as an offering. Since the counting of Pentecost was tied to this event and it came at the end of the spring grain harvest, Pentecost was sometimes called the Feast of the Harvest and Day of First Fruits (Exodus 23:16Numbers 28:26).

Judaism came to regard Pentecost as the anniversary of the giving of the old covenant and law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20–24). It is not surprising, then, that Pentecost would have a symbolic meaning for the church. It was the day when God once again manifested himself in a unique way, signaling a new relationship between God and his people. As William Neil summarizes it:

Pentecost had also come to signify for Jews the commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai fifty days after the Exodus Passover. For Luke this, too, would be seen as having a Christian fulfilment in the giving of the Spirit fifty days after the Christian Exodus Passover, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles,The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 72).]

The Spirit coming in human minds was a kind of “second giving of the law”; the Spirit replaced the law as the guide for God’s people. It was, in Paul’s expression, “the law of the Spirit who gives life,” which came through the new righteousness that is in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). The Spirit-filled church made possible by Pentecost existed in some continuity with Israel. But there was a distinction as well between the age of Torah (law) and the age of Spirit, between old and new Israel. The law had no power to bring anyone into true communion with God, because it could not be followed in faith, being “weakened by the flesh” (verse 3). A new covenant was required, in which “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9) was made available to sinning humans.

In the Pentecost experience, the Spirit becomes, in Paul’s words, “the righteousness of God has been made known…apart from the law…to which the Law and Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21). The Holy Spirit is given by God as a gift of faith to those who believe in Jesus Christ (verse 22). This makes it possible for humans to experience oneness with God through the connecting link of spiritual love. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).

The old Jewish faith had been Torah- or law-centered, modeled after the requirements of the Mosaic covenant. The new faith was Christ-centered and Spirit-directed — with a new covenant of the Spirit. Pentecost, as the festival of first-fruits, would be an appropriate occasion for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On this day, the “first-fruits” of disciples would be transformed by the Spirit as a token or representative offering, giving evidence that one day all the nations would seek God, and his truth would cover the earth (Isaiah 2:2-311:9).

A sound like a violent wind (2:2)

On that extraordinary first New Testament Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in “one place” (2:2). Some think they were in the temple. The disciples were frequently at the temple during these days, praising God (Luke 24:53), and this would certainly be a good place to attract a large crowd. However, there is no other indication that the disciples were in the temple. The place may have been the same upper room where the disciples met together, or some other location (Acts 1:13). Wherever it was that the disciples were gathered, they began to experience powerful miracles.

First was the sound of a hurricane-like wind (Greek, pneuma) (2:3). Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma can mean either wind or spirit (the context determines this). The wind was a physical manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind symbolized the Spirit of God, even as did the dove that alighted on Christ at his baptism (John 1:323:8). The sound of a strong wind is also reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies in which God manifested himself (Ezekiel 13:13). The audience on Pentecost morning probably readily connected the sound of the wind to the thunder and trumpet sounds that accompanied God’s presence in the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:18). The loud sound of this wind also had a practical result: It attracted God-fearing Jews who were curious as to what was happening.

Tongues of fire (2:3)

The Jews were doubly awed by a second sign that reaffirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). They appeared to be individual “tongues,” not that each tongue was divided or forked. Fire was another symbol of the divine presence. Yahweh appeared to Moses in flames coming from a bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Fire was a frequent feature of Old Testament theophanies, especially those surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the law. [Exodus 13:21-2214:2419:1824:17Deuteronomy 4:1224335:410:4.]

John the Baptist had spoken of the Messiah carrying out a baptism of the Holy Spirit (hence, “wind”) and fire (Luke 3:16). For the disciples as well, these signs were instructive. They understood that Jesus Christ was bringing to fruition something he had promised (Luke 24:49Acts 1:4-58).

Filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4)

These two signs — the wind and fire — were the outward demonstration of what was happening inside the disciples. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The church — the Israel of the Spirit — was born through the Holy Spirit, and the disciples were spiritually transformed. All Christians continue to participate in the internal transformation that Pentecost symbolizes. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit upon conversion. [Acts 2:389:1711:1719:2Romans 8:91 Corinthians 12:13Galatians 3:2Ephesians 1:13Titus 3:5Hebrews 6:41 John 3:24.]

Speak in various languages (2:4, 6-12)

On that first Pentecost a third manifestation of the Spirit’s presence occurred. The disciples began to speak in other languages (“tongues”), “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). Simple Galileans appeared to have sudden skill in most of the languages spoken in that region of the world. The supernatural aspect of this was not lost on the hearers, who were “utterly amazed” (2:7). More than this, each person in the crowd heard the disciples speaking in his own nativelanguage (2:8). The Greek literally means, “We are hearing in our own language in which we were born.” The various local languages of these Jews’ original homelands were being spoken.

But why speak in local languages? Many Jews spoke Aramaic, especially if they had settled in Judea. But even if they were from the Dispersion, they probably spoke the one language almost everyone could speak — Greek. Luke’s account makes it clear that the “tongues” were real languages, and they could be understood. What the listeners needed was not an interpretation of the words, but an explanation of the sound of wind, the fire, and why various languages were being spoken by ordinary Galileans.

The basic purpose of the miracle of languages was not simply to communicate. Greek would have been sufficient for that purpose. The miracles, including the speaking in languages, were meant to get the attention of the crowd and have them wonder what was happening. They certainly accomplished that. As the perplexed Jews themselves asked, “What does this mean?” (2:12).

Jews from every nation (2:5, 8-11)

Before Peter explains the events of the day, let us look at the international flavor of the crowd that had gathered. Luke tells us there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem (2:5). Among the crowd there were also converts or “proselytes” from paganism to Judaism (2:11). The multitude was made up of devout Jews and proselytes, who were in Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of Pentecost.

One authority estimated that over 100,000 people attended Passover in Jesus’ day. Josephus wrote of the large crowds in Jerusalem for this feast. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:337; 17:254; Wars 1:253; 2:42-43.]  Jews would come to the city from throughout the Roman Empire, and from eastern kingdoms. The number of visitors at Pentecost was probably smaller, although still substantial. Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50), a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived at the same time as Jesus and Paul, said that there were “vast numbers of Jews scattered over every city of Asia and Syria.” [Philo, Embassy to Gaius 245.]  He claimed that there were about a million Jews in Egypt, though historians think his figure is inflated. But no one doubts that the Jewish population of Alexandria was large. [Philo, Flaccus 43, 55.]

Luke’s list of countries from which Jews had come is interesting. Why only 15 countries, why those in particular, and why the order he listed them in? The answers are not clear. But some things about the list can be inferred. Luke’s list begins with three countries east of the Roman Empire — Parthia, Media and Elam, in the area of modern Iran. Luke then moves westward to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Judea. He then mentions various provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) — Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Next, Luke skips to North Africa — to Egypt, Libya and Cyrene.

Luke also mentions “visitors from Rome,” which included Jews and converts (2:11). This may have something to do with Luke’s desire to show the gospel message penetrating Rome, capital of the Empire. Some of these visitors who were in Jerusalem on Pentecost may have returned to form the nucleus of the church in Rome. As we shall see, the gospel message reached Rome years before Paul did. Rome had a large Jewish population. One scholar estimated it at about 40,000, though there is no way to be sure. The spread of Christian teaching in the synagogues of Rome by the “visitors” may have led to riots, perhaps about a.d. 50. This may be what caused the Roman emperor Claudius (a.d. 41-54) to issue an edict calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).

After mentioning the Roman Jews, Luke ends his list with references to people from the Mediterranean island of Crete, and then Arabs. It has been called an odd list with a number of countries given in a strange order. We can infer that this list was meant to indicate that people from all over the Roman world, and parts east, were at Jerusalem. If these people were pilgrims and returned to their native lands, they would have told people about the Pentecost event far and wide.

The appearance of Judea — and its location in the list — is especially odd (2:9). As one commentator points out, this “involves the curious anomaly of inhabitants of Judea being amazed to hear the apostles speak in their own language.” [Longenecker, 273.]  A number of solutions have been offered. One is that Judea as the land of the Jews was prophetically held to stretch from the Euphrates River to the Egyptian border. That is, it would represent the territory once controlled by Kings David and Solomon. This would explain Judea’s place in the list and why Syria is not mentioned. Such “Judeans” would have spoken a number of local dialects in a vast territory. However, it is unlikely that Luke’s readers would have this in mind.

There is also a question as to whether these Jews were pilgrims or had moved to live in Jerusalem. Some scholars see these Jews as pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. However, other scholars say they were permanent residents of Jerusalem. They had returned to the home country, much as Jews in modern times have returned to Israel. Longenecker writes,

Contrary to many who have assumed that the Jews mentioned here were pilgrims to Jerusalem coming for the Pentecost festival, it is more probable that they were residents of Jerusalem who had returned from the Diaspora lands…at some earlier time to settle down in the homeland. [Ibid., 272.]

The existence of a permanent mixed Jewish population in Jerusalem is supported by Acts 6:9. Also, the contrast between “visitors from Rome” (2:10) and those staying or “dwelling” in Jerusalem strengthens the point that most of those in the list had become permanent residents of Jerusalem. Whatever the situation, Luke’s point is clear. The miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. Many of these individuals from far-flung international areas believed the gospel and received the Spirit. They were later scattered because of persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4).

They are not drunk (2:13-15)

As the disciples rose to speak, it was clear that not everyone in the crowd was impressed by the miracles and signs. Luke tells us, “Some…made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine’” (2:13). So Peter began his speech to the astonished Jews by insisting that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was 9:00 a.m., too early to be drinking, and much too early to be drunk. Those speaking in languages were not filled with wine, but with the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s speech (2:17-39)

Peter explained what the events really meant. His speech takes up much of the remainder of this chapter. He made a powerful and courageous witness to Christ as the promised Messiah. Just a few weeks earlier, this same Peter had denied his Savior with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:7274). “Woman, I don’t know him,” Peter had insisted to a servant girl who recognized him as a disciple (Luke 22:57). Yet now, Peter was the first to shout aloud that he not only knew this man, he was a witness to all that Jesus had said and done. The Holy Spirit had breathed new courage into a once disheartened and discouraged disciple (Luke 24:21).

Peter presents evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He includes references to the Hebrew prophet Joel and a “father” of the nation, King David. In this context, devout Jews would have carefully listened to what Peter had to say about them. Peter appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God. He insists that this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of prophecy. Peter also asserts that Jesus is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of a coming Messiah.

Peter also appeals to the audience’s own experience. If these Jews had been in Jerusalem since before Passover — and especially if they lived in the city — they would have known of Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially the circumstances surrounding his death. Finally, Peter appeals to himself and the other apostles as being qualified to give eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. After this, Peter exhorted the Jews to repent, literally, to have a change of mind, by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

This was the apostolic message in its most basic form. It was composed of six themes, which are found repeatedly in Peter’s sermons in the first chapters of Acts:

  • The age of fulfillment prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to pass. The kingdom of God is imminent, indeed, is here.
  • The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus has made all this possible, and is proved from the Scriptures.
  • As a result of his exaltation, Christ is at God’s right hand, as the messianic head of a spiritual Israel.
  • The sign of Christ’s power and guidance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in that new congregation or church of Israel.
  • The consummation of the messianic age is imminent, and will be brought about by Christ’s return.
  • The proper response to this information is repentance and baptism. God forgives sins, gives the Holy Spirit, and makes salvation possible.

Peter’s speeches in Acts were styled and shaped by Luke, who was writing in accordance with the standards of historical writing in his day. But Luke did not invent the speeches out of his own imagination — they reflect the basic elements of the gospel message that Peter and the other apostles and evangelists carried far and wide. What we have in Acts 2 is only a brief synopsis of what must have been said by Peter during this occasion. Even Luke tells us that Peter warned the crowd “with many other words,” words Luke has not given us (2:40).

The prophecy of Joel (2:16-18)

As we look carefully at Peter’s speech, we are surprised at what it says. The first thing we notice is that Luke has used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament in quoting Joel 2:28-32. The Septuagint was a Greek translation that Jewish scholars created in the 3rd century b.c. for the many Jews who could not understand Hebrew. This version (from the Latin, septuaginta, which means 70) is commonly referred to by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. The number derives from a story that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars did all the work.

The Septuagint is important for several reasons. Rather than any Hebrew version, it was the Bible of the early church.

It was not secondary to any other scripture; it was Scripture. When a New Testament writer allegedly urged his audience to consider that all scripture given by divine “inspiration” is also profitable for doctrine, it was to the LXX not the Hebrew that attention was being called. [Melvin K.H. Peters, “Septuagint,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 5 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992; now published by Yale University Press), 1102.]

This is clear from Peter’s citation of the prophet Joel (2:17-21), which agrees in most details with the LXX. However, there are some alterations in the text, and these show us something important about how the church used and regarded the Old Testament. The LXX of Joel 2:28reads, “It shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Greek of the LXX is meta tauta, or the indefinite “after these things.” However, in Acts the Greek expression has been changed to en tais eschatais hemerais, which means the very specific “in the last days.” Thus, Peter (and/or Luke) has grounded the event of Pentecost at a specific time in history — as part of the end times or last days of God’s redemptive program. The indefinite feel of the old has been made more specific in the new.

For the New Testament writers, the “last days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and would end with the events of his reappearance and the consummation. Peter clearly regarded Joel’s prophecy as applying to the last days, and he claimed that his hearers were living in those days, when God’s final act of salvation had begun. He was saying to the Jews, in the words of William Barclay, “For generations you have dreamed of the Day of God, the Day when God would break into history. Now, in Jesus, that Day has come.” [Barclay, 25.]

When Peter spoke these words, he probably didn’t realize how many years would pass between Christ’s two appearances. Not until decades later did the passage of time force the apostles and the church to deal with the question of how long it would be (2 Peter 3:3-9Revelation 6:9-11). When Luke wrote, the question of when Christ would return may have been a major issue. Even near the end of his life, Peter thought, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). The book of 2 Peter had to defend the promise of Jesus’ return because so many decades had elapsed since the resurrection without his reappearance (2 Peter 3:3-10).

The first part of Joel’s prophecy that Peter quoted bore directly on the events of Pentecost. Joel had spoken of a time when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:17). This had happened at Pentecost. The Age of the Spirit had begun.

Wonders in heaven (2:19-20)

In verses 19 and 20 Peter quoted parts of Joel’s prophecy that spoke of the heavenly signs that would accompany the pouring out of God’s Spirit. These signs were to occur “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20). In Peter’s mind all the events between Jesus’ earthly ministry and return were telescoped into a short time. We can infer from other information in the New Testament that he regarded the heavenly wonders to be just around the corner. The darkening of the sun (and perhaps a red moon) on the Passover of Jesus’ death may have reverberated in Peter’s mind (Luke 23:44). Perhaps he (and others) considered those events as harbingers of what Joel spoke about — the coming of the day of the Lord.

Jesus is the Messiah (2:21-24)

With a tone of urgency, Peter ended Joel’s prophecy by asserting that this is a time to recognize the Messiah, and put one’s faith in him. Everyone who would be willing to do so, said Joel, would be saved (2:21).

Up to this point, Peter has argued that the Jews should recognize the miraculous phenomena as manifestations of the Spirit, signaling an end-time age of the Spirit. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy applies to his day, but he has not yet offered an extended argument that Jesus is the Messiah. But now Peter begins to insist that the ministry of Jesus validated him as the Messiah. He addresses his listeners as people of Israel — as those who claim to be God’s people. If they are God’s people, Peter is saying, they will recognize the work of Jesus as having been described in their Scriptures.

We have arrived at Peter’s main theme, the chief focus of the church’s witness: the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. In the speeches of Acts, this is usually done by the witness (such as Peter) giving an account of the ministry and death of Jesus. There is usually an assertion that he was unjustly murdered, and he has been raised from the dead. The Old Testament is usually cited to show that what happened to Jesus was what the Scriptures said would happen to the Messiah.