Commentary: Acts 2

Chapter Two Outline:

I. Witness in Jerusalem(Acts 1-7)

<A-C in Chapter One>

D. Appearance of the Holy Spirit (2:1-13)

E. Assembly with Peter (2:14-40)

F. A New Fellowship (2:41-47)

Summary [Chapter 2]: A short time later on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were together inJerusalempraying and the Holy Spirit came upon them. This enabled them to tell the good news about the Lord in many languages that they had never learned before an international crowd of Jews gathered for the Feast. Peter followed the initial incident with an address to the excited and perplexed crowd explaining from the prophet Joel and from the words of David what had begun that day in their presence. He proclaimed salvation through faith in Messiah and more than three thousand people were saved.

Chapter Two

2:1 “Pentecost”: This is the Hebrew feast Shavuot literally translated “Weeks”. The feast marks the timing of the giving of the Torah to Moses onMt.Sinai. The rabbis associate this timing because of the key statements found in the Book of Exodus. A quick review of the book may help – in Exodus 1-3 God raised up Moses; in Ex.4-6 He took Moses through the seminary of the wilderness and brought him back; Ex.6-12 contains the ten plagues; Ex.12-15 Pharaoh changed his mind and chased after Moses and the people, the great sea is opened, the horse and rider of the Egyptians were swallowed up into the sea; by Ex.15 the party commences. God took the Israelites to Marah’s bitter waters, then to Elim where there are wonderful palm trees. Eventually God led them to the “Mountain of the Law” (ch.15-19). In Exodus, the scene followed the arrival at the mountain in Exodus 19, but “cut” to the text of the contents of the Law in Exodus 20–31. To follow the story, a student of the text must “jump” from chapter 19 to 32 to get to the next scene.

Exodus 12 states the people set out on the journey at Passover – the 14th/15th of the month of Nisan. Fifty days later they arrived at themountain ofSinai (Ex. 19). Thus Shavuot occurred fifty days after Pesach (a careful reading of Exodus 12 & 19 show the Israelites started out from Egypt and they ended at Sinai exactly fifty days later). This is the connection of Passover (Pesach) and Shavuot (Pentecost), and explains the name “fifty” chosen by the Greek translators of the Septuagint version. When the Israelites came to the mountain of the Law several events are recorded (Exodus 19:10-11). The people drew together all at one place and got washed and got cleaned.

All the Israelites were at the mountain. Boundaries were put around the mountain and when Moses went up on the mountain, he returned (after forty days) and found many Israelites having a party down at the bottom. Trace the story carefully from Exodus 19 to 32, and the elements are telling: when the Israelites got to the mountain there were strange winds, fire settled on the mountain and there was strange weather. Moses came off the mountain with the revelation of God and 3000 people were killed by the command of Moses by the sword of faithful Levites. They were executed because of their idolatry and debauchery before the Mountain of the Law.

The writer of Acts 2 (Luke) recounts the Pentecost setting as “Shavuot II – the sequel”. He is reminded of the story of the first Shavuot, as God revealed Himself at Sinai. He recalls the sound of wind, sees the “tongue-shaped” fire and recalls the strange weather that descended long ago onMt.Sinai. These details he recalled in the Upper Room as the next revelation of God was made known, the coming of the Holy Spirit to write the Law on the hearts of men, not merely on tablets of stone! He understood the Divine imagery and connection and supplied the detail that this time 3000 lived eternally, and did not experience the judgement the 3000 had experienced at Sinai! When the Torah came, it brought the knowledge of sin, and with it the knowledge of why men died. With the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 there was knowledge of life everlasting. The compilation of Exodus 19 & 32 should be compared to Acts 2, for that is Luke’s purpose in sharing the events at Shavuot. A full understanding of the earlier Shavuot is essential to understanding the narrative of Acts 2.

It would be easy for some to say the story is told to show that “law brings death” and the “Spirit brings life” – but that is not what the passage says at all. That characterizes the Torah as something negative, something the Biblical writer never did. In fact, the writers of the Scripture exclaimed “I love thy Law” and “the Law is perfect”. The narrative actually reveals that in the revelation of the written Torah of God came the knowledge of our own sinfulness; and in the knowledge of our own sinfulness, only those who violate it or refuse to observe those truths face the penalty because they were violating the truth. With the coming of the Spirit there was something different; it wasn’t just the Spirit aiding in obedience, it was the Spirit living within. Those who followed the revelation of God’s truth through the Spirit of God within lived eternally. The emphasis was not that with Torah came death; it was rather: with Torah came knowledge of how life should be with the One who would give His people life. In other words, the purpose of Torah was primarily life. Yet it was through the Spirit one could experience God on the most intimate, inner level.

Remember that God was not well understood to the Israelites when they reached the Mountain of the Law. Even Moses, when he stood at the bush long ago said, “I don’t even know what your name is”. Part of the purpose of the Torah was to expose the character of the living God, and that is how they came to understand what He was like. The promise of the New Covenant was that God would eventually write the Law on the hearts of men (Jer. 31-32).

2:3 “tongues” – this is the first occurrence of the term in the book of Acts. For other places this gift is used, see note on 19:6. In order to clarify the miraculous work of God in the narratives on tongues, it may be helpful to examine some of the terms used in the events:

First, the term “unknown” (in 1 Cor.14: 2, 4, 13, 14, 19 and 27) is not in the original Greek manuscripts and is italicized to show it has been inserted to help the reader. As an insertion, the word is irrelevant to understanding the original intent.

Second, the term for the “tongue” is a translation of (a form of) the Greek term glossa. It was used as follows: 1. (Lexically) “the organ of speech or the noise that the organ (the tongue) makes; 2. (By implication) the language spoken by the mouth: note that Acts 2:6 uses the term as languages known to the audience. Acts 10 refers to the event as “the same as” what happened in Acts 2. This it must be a language as well. Acts 19:6 implies that the tongues were a part of the prophecy in the place, but is inconclusive. 1 Cor. 14:21 indicates that the “tongues” atCorinth relate to the quoted prophecies of the Old Covenant (Dt. 28:49 and Isaiah 28:11). In these prophecies, “other tongues” clearly refers to human languages spoken to nations other thanIsrael, for a witness to them.

Third, exception to the use of the term glossa for the miraculous tongue appears in the argument of 1 Cor. 12:10, 12:28, 14:10 and 14:28. The terms used are derived from the term genos translated “kinds”. The term is used to denote nationalities and races (cp. “stock” of Phil. 3:15). The implication is again a reference to known language that others among them understand. Based solely on New Testament language use, tongues appears to be a gift of “unlearned linguistic skill” to speak an actual known language without learning it. Though some scholars suggest this, it does not appear (linguistically) to refer to an “ecstatic utterance” of unintelligible sounds in any of the narratives, with the possible exception of the argument in 1 Cor. 12-14.

In addition to the terms, some helpful insight may be gained additional study of the context of “tongues passages” in the New Testament:

-There are passages where the term “Baptism of the Spirit” and speaking in tongues appear linked. In other passages, one of the two phenomena appears without the other. There does not appear to be a causative link between the two. Some scholars argue that 1 Cor. 12:13 seems to show that all believers have been baptized in the Spirit, yet the chapter goes on to ask, “Do all speak in tongues?” The implication is “Of course not!” If this interpretation is correct, there is no causative link between the Baptism of the Spirit and speaking in tongues except that they are both actions of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

-There is no Biblical connection between any specific gift and the spirituality of the one who operates in the gift. Corinthian believers had many gifts, yet the church suffered from sinful practices and was not at all “spiritual” in this sense. The gifts were helpful to build up the body, but did not immunize people from sin in any way. There is no cause to suggest that those who spoke in tongues were more “spiritual” in behavior than those who exercised other gifts in the church.

-There is no instruction for anyone in the church to impart specific gifts to others, though there are narratives that suggest such practices occurred in the time of the Apostles. Even at that time, it is doubtful that any human choice was involved in receiving specific gifts, but the use of that which God gave was a matter of obedience. A whole church may pray for gifted individuals to be sent from God in areas where they lack. The instruction of Paul in 1 Cor. 12:31 to “covet earnestly the best gifts” was not for individuals, but is addressed to the whole church, as the Greek “you” in the command is plural, to the entire congregation.

-The gift of tongues was presented as a temporary gift in nature. 1 Cor. 13:8 claimed a stopping point for the exercise of the gift. The time of cessation is problematic (“cease”: Greek pauo: to stop, halt) and is variously described by scholars as: 1. when the Bible was completed; 2. when Jesus returns for the believers; 3. the end of the Church Age. One thing is agreed, the gift has an ending point according to the aforementioned verses.

-The use of the gift of tongues, and any other gift, was controlled and regulated. There is no text that indicates the use of the gift was not in the control of the believer. In fact, standards introduced inCorinthdemonstrate the believers had specific control of the function of tongues. Paul told them they had to have interpreter, or remain silent. If this was an irresistible urge of the Spirit, as some have argued, how do you stop to consider the rules of Scripture? There were to be no more than three per meeting (I Cor. 14:27). Though men were not to regulate the speaking in tongues beyond that which God instructed in the Bible (I Cor. 14:39), the Apostle was “forbidding” one to speak inCorinthif the Scriptural conditions were not met.

-The normal use of tongues was as a witness to the unbeliever in the various narratives of Acts, and the Pauline instruction includes this idea (I Cor. 14:21-22). The use of the gift appears to have been consistently in settings where the unbeliever could hear!

-There are those that argue on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:1-17 for another type of tongue used as an ecstatic prayer language. If there is another use of the tongues gift as an individual “prayer language” in that passage, it stands alone in the New Testament and deserves serious study as a separate matter. It does not seem that this should have been included in the gift list to “build up the Body” as the orientation of 1 Cor. 14 suggests individual, but not corporate use (1 Cor. 14:4).

2:5 “devout men” : These were Jews who had traveled from all over the then known world to worship during the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) in Jerusalem, the spiritual center for all the Jews (Acts 2:5-13).  It is in Jerusalem after the preaching of Peter, that out of these men, the first three thousand people repented, believed and were baptized in the Name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:41).  Thus the gospel began inJerusalem. After this,Jerusalem became a place where great miracles and signs and wonders were experienced and witnessed at the hands of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:16). Many believers were added to the number of believers and the Word of God and the preaching of Jesus increased. (Acts 2:47; 4:4; 5: 14, 42; 6: 7)

2:15 “third hour”: Since it was customary (and still is) to fast on the first half of feast days that include services at the local synagogue, he argued that is was not possible they were drunken. The third hour in this case should be understood as “the third hour of the daylight”, or about 9 A.M.

2:17 “last days”: The period of the New Covenant began with the salvation of a remnant of Jews (Rom. 11:5), was followed by the opening of the Good News to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:11), and will eventually consummate in the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 11:26-35) as promised to Jeremiah (cp. 31 and 32). The entire period is referred to as the “last days” as it reflects the final countdown of God’ program.

2:27 “hell”: literally “Hades”, the abode of the dead or the grave. It was clear that since they all knew of the place of David’s tomb, David must have been speaking of the Messiah and not himself.

2:34 “he saith”: a reference to Ps. 110:1. The context of Ps. 110 may well be after Nathan’s prophetic address. Peter connects the Psalm 110:1 quote to the Ascension of Jesus. For other important Psalm connections to Messiah see also Ps. 2:6ff, Ps. 22.

2:38 (and others) “baptise”: The Greek word is partially transliterated rather than properly translated in this case. The term means to “cover with, normally to immerse”. The term is used in the Septuagint in relation to the High Priests work at the Mercy Seat in the Tabernacle, and thus must be seen as “totally covering”. The term is used in the Gospels and Acts specifically in reference to a practice that came out of Jewish congregations during the exile intoBabylon. There appears to earlier reference to the practice, though it can be generally linked to ritual cleansing as far back as the Tabernacle.

There appear to be several methods of ritual cleansings (referred to in Hebrew as a mikveh) during the time of theSecondTemple. The difference between Jewish ritual baptism (Mikveh) and the Messianic or Christian baptism practice appears to be the number of times it was performed. The Messianic use appears to been done once only (as the sacrifice of Jesus). In the Book of Acts the baptism followed the repentance of individuals from sin upon accepting the gospel of salvation through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. In Jewish practice, the mikveh was performed many times in a person’s life, if performed for the purpose of preparation forTemple worship. Though Paul clearly stated that only one baptism was necessary in relation to the faith he had in Jesus, he continued to mikveh to enter the Temple (as in Acts 21:26ff). The Jewish practice included:

  1. Proselyte baptism: this practice was used by a Gentile born man or woman who observed ritual bathing as part of a much longer process for joining to the covenant that God made with Israel. This appears to have been done by bathing in the nude in an enclosed and private pool set aside for this purpose.
  2. Ritual ablution: performed in a similar way to the proselyte baptism, this was used in the ablution for those who needed cleansing according to rabbinic standards. Women were required to undergo this practice after the monthly cycle, as were those who had touched any dead thing. These standards are outlined in the “Taharoth (Purity) Laws” of the Mishnah.
  3. Vow ablution: also done in the nude in a room alone, these baptisms were done in preparation for the initiation or completion of a holy vow. An example of this practice in Acts is found in 21:26. The place for such a practice was no doubt the Mikvaot on the south porch of theTemple.
  4. Preparation baptism: there is no actual precedent for this outside the record of the work of John the Baptizer. Virtually no scholar accepts that John had scores of people strip all of their clothing off to baptize themselves in theJordan. We are unsure of the methodology used by John, but can conclude that the purpose was to outwardly show repentance and preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

The practice became one of the congregations of followers of Jesus by holy command, as found in Mt. 28:19. Jesus commanded this particular symbol as one of the physical examples of joining the faith community of the believers. Peter’s preaching in Acts 2 and later in Acts 10 offered some theological rationale to the command. He preached: Repent of your sin and believe in the sacrifice of Jesus for their atonement. Once one believed, this step of faith showed obedience to a command from Jesus.  A number of examples of this obedience are recorded in Acts, as that of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38). For more detail on this event, see the note under 8:38.

Some scholars suggest the best example of Paul’s explanation of the symbolic meaning of baptism may be found in Romans 6:4.  This verse refers to a believer being buried by that baptism into death, and afterwards being raised up from death into a new life.  Some make the illusion that the death and resurrection symbolized dying to an old life of sin and disobedience, with resurrection from death out of the water representing being born into a new life of obedience to God’s word.

As the theology of the church developed, some understood the practice of baptism to be a substitute for the covenant symbol of circumcision, as practiced by Jews. They developed a sacramental theology approach, accepting covenant symbols in the church as equivalent to covenant symbols of the ancient Israelites. In this regard, these theologians considered the church as the inheritor of God’s program and thought that Jews were “disinherited”, a position not uncommon in Christian theology today. The sacramental use of the symbol is practiced in many denominations, and usually is common among those who believe the church has replacedIsraelin both spiritual position and blessing.

Further, historians note that methods varied among communities almost from the earliest centuries. The observance of baptizing in the nude was practiced during the Byzantine period, which included the witness of the deacons (or in the case of women deaconesses). The immersion pool was surrounded by the witnesses, but the water was only entered by the candidate. In addition, the candidate immersed three specific times, one for each of the members of the Trinity. Entering from the west and bowing into the water to the east, north and south, allowed the entire process to mimic a cross (cp. Rom. 6). About a dozen cruciform baptismal pools have been uncovered from this period, and several are on display in places like Tabgha (near theSea of Galilee) and Avdat (in the Negev of Israel).