Category Archive: Bible – NT – Acts
I’ve sometimes heard that one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot, presumably a former Zealot who, now that he was follow Jesus, had given up his desire to commit violence. Even N. T. Wright says, in one passage, that the name of “Simon the Zealot” (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13) “probably indicates known revolutionary tendencies” (NTPG, 174n33).
But it turns out that that’s not true (or at least, it’s highly unlikely). Yes, he’s called “Simon the Zealot.” But that title doesn’t mean he was part of a party called “Zealots.” To the best of our historical knowledge, that party didn’t exist or bear that name until after Jesus’ time.
Most likely, then, Simon wasn’t a member of some party in Israel that was inclined toward violence toward Romans or compromising Jews. What Simon was, it seems, was zealous, and that’s not a description of his life before following Jesus; that’s how he was as a follower of Jesus. He was zealous, and that was a good thing.
In Acts 2, we are told of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed to all, as any had need.”
Richard Paquier comments on the interrelationship here between the church’s adherence to the apostles’ teaching, the church’s common prayers and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and the church’s care for the poor:
These three aspects of the common life of the first believers, even if clearly distinguished from each other, are nevertheless very intimately connected.
The breaking of bread and the prayers, therefore, include necessarily the teaching of the faith and the declaration of the word; worship is done in a brotherly agape [love] and includes perhaps already an offering for the poor (cf. I Cor. 16:1-2).
It is in prayer and in the fraternal and sacramental communion that the congregation nourishes its life in Christ and draws its strength in order to witness to the outside: it is there as well that the impetus is given to those charged with the dedication of themselves to their less fortunate brethren.
When worship is neglected or degenerates, witness to the faith and charitable works dry up; and inversely, a church that is no longer missionary within its environment and gives only parsimoniously to help the poor, proves that the worship it celebrates is merely an empty formality (Dynamics of Worship, xviii-xix).
In Acts 2, Peter quotes from Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32): “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The rest of Peter’s sermon explains to the crowd that Jesus, whom they have crucified, thereby incurring God’s judgment, is that Lord (2:36). His goal is to exhort the crowd, as he later does, to “be saved from this perverse generation” (2:40), that is from rebellious Israel facing God’s wrath. The crowd responds by asking, “Men, brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter’s reply may take us by surprise. Peter doesn’t say, “Call on the name of Yahweh,” which is what Joel says. He doesn’t even say, “Call on the name of Jesus the Messiah,” though he has identified Jesus as Yahweh and though that is implicit in the answer he does give.
What Peter says the crowd must do is this: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But if it is those who call on the name of the Lord who will be saved and if the crowd must repent and be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ in order to be forgiven and to receive the Spirit, then it appears that Peter sees repenting and being baptized as the concrete shape that calling on the Lord’s name takes in this situation.
This is not the only passage where Luke makes this connection. When Ananias comes to Saul (who will later be called Paul), he says to him, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” It might sound as if Ananias is saying that, at some point before, during, or after the baptism Saul should call (in prayer) on the Lord’s name â€” and it’s possible that Saul did. But from Acts 2, it appears that the baptism itself should be seen as the call on the Lord’s name.
Furthermore, the same Peter who preached the sermon in Acts 2 also wrote later on that baptism is itself a request for a good conscience toward God (1 Pet. 3:21). He doesn’t say that one who is baptized must make such a request (orally or mentally) at the time of baptism; rather, he says that baptism itself is a plea for a good conscience.
All of this seems to me to have significance for our theology of baptism. To be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ is to call on the name of the Lord. That’s true, it seems to me, even in the case of those who are unable to speak or even consciously to call out to the Lord, even mentally. Perhaps that is one reason why Ursinus, among others of the early Reformers, spoke of baptism as itself being a profession of faith.
Of course, for clarification I hasten to add that those who are unable to be baptized and who cry out to the Lord for salvation will also be saved: baptism isn’t the only way one can call on the name of the Lord. I also want to stress that this baptismal call on the Lord’s name must lead to a life of calling on the Lord’s name, a life of faith in Jesus Christ: those who are call on the Lord’s name in their baptism and then turn away from Him will perish.
THE SPIRIT, SIGNS, AND WONDERS
(May 15, 2005 Sermon Notes)
In some ways, what happened on Pentecost was unexpected. But in other ways, it was expected. It was promised by Jesus (Acts 1:4-5, 8 ), so the disciples should have anticipated it. But it was also promised by God through the prophets, and Israel should have anticipated it. That’s what Peter makes clear in his Pentecost sermon.
ALL FLESH (2:14-18)
When the church proclaimed God’s works in different tongues, some people accused them of being drunk. Peter rejects that interpretation: it’s the third hour (9 AM), too early to be drunk.
Since the number three often has to do with preliminary judgments in the Bible, it’s possible that there’s a hint of that here: The Spirit has passed by these people and that means that it’s time for them to repent and get on the right track before it’s too late.
Peter offers a different explanation of what happened: it is the fulfillment of what God said through Joel (2:28-32). These are the “last days” of the Old Covenant, the time when the Old Covenant reached its goal. Now, because Jesus has been glorified, God has at last poured out Hi Spirit on “all flesh,” that is, on the whole of Israel â€” parents and children, young and old â€” and even on Israel’s servants. In fact, we’ll see later in Acts that He is including Gentiles as well as Jews.
In Numbers 11, the Spirit came on the seventy elders of Israel. But Moses wished that all God’s people would be prophets. At Pentecost, God granted that wish. The whole church prophesied, proclaiming God’s works.
We don’t prophesy the same way today (i.e., speaking words inspired by God) and even these early Christians didn’t all keep doing so (see 1 Cor. 12), but we are all still prophets in other ways. We do all know God (Jer. 31:34). We’re members of His council who speak to Him and for Him. God’s Spirit empowers us to bear witness to Jesus.
THE DAY OF THE LORD (2:19-21)
The outpouring of the Spirit on the church, not on the rest of Israel, is itself a judgment and it’s the prelude to judgment. The “day of the Lord” is coming, the day when God would vindicate His people and destroy His enemies.
That day will involve signs and wonders. There will be signs of war on earth (blood, fire, smoke); rulers â€” described symbolically as heavenly bodies (see Gen. 1:14; Isa. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7-8) â€” will be destroyed. Peter is warning his hearers that Israel’s lights are about to go out.
That judgment, which happened in AD 70, is a foretaste of the final judgment which will involve all nations. But those who call on the name of the Lord (Jesus) and are baptized into His name will be saved and will receive His Spirit (Acts 2:38, 40) because Jesus bore the judgment for us.
This week, as I worked on my sermon for Pentecost, I got thinking about the charge levelled against the church in Acts 2. When the crowd hears Jesus’ disciples speaking in other languages, some of them said, “They are full of new wine” (2:13), which Peter (rightly) understands as a charge that the disciples are drunk (2:15).
But why this charge in particular? On one level, we might say that the charge is simply based on the way the tongues-speaking sounded, especially as language followed language (though clearly what was being said was clear enough for the people to recognize that what they were hearing were “the wonderful works of God” being spoken in each of their own languages). Some of the languages, not to mention the switching from one to another, might have sounded like drunken speech.
But I find I’m not completely satisfied with such an explanation. Or, to put another way, “That’s just how it sounded” or “That’s just what happened” doesn’t seem to me an adequate account of why this charge is recorded in Scripture. After all, this isn’t “just what happened.” The Holy Spirit had a reason for making the tongues sound to (at least some of) the crowd like drunken speech.
Part of that reason, I submit, may be found in Isaiah 28:7-10. (Thanks to Jim Jordan for drawing my attention to this passage.)
In Isaiah 28:11-14, we have the warning that Yahweh will speak to Israel “with stammering lips and another tongue,” the warning that Paul picks up when he is explaining the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. But in the preceding verses, we find this:
They have also erred through wine,
and through intoxicating drink are out of the way;
the priest and the prophet
have erred through intoxicating drink;
they are swallowed up by wine;
they are out of the way through intoxicating drink;
they err in vision,
they stumble in judgment (28:7).
Here, Yahweh indicts the priest and prophet in particular, as well as the people (28:1 refers to “the drunkards of Ephraim”) for being led astray through wine. Israel has been drunk with wine, and that is why Yahweh is going to speak to them “with stammering lips and another tongue.” That is, because Israel has been drunk and her priests and prophets have been drunk as they try to instruct Israel, Yahweh is going to instruct Israel in a way that sounds like drunken speech.
Here in Acts 2, Israel is symbolically drunk and her priests and prophets have given her drunken instruction to lead her astray. Yahweh is responding by speaking to Israel in speech that sounds drunken. The charge of drunkenness in 2:13 thus fits with the function of tongues-speaking as Isaiah and Paul present it.
But I also wonder if there isn’t something more going on here. The charge is not simply “These men are drunk.” The charge is “These men are full of new wine.” And that might prompt us to look back at the rest of Scripture to see what it says about “new wine.”
When Isaac blessed Jacob, he said,
May God give you
of the dew of heaven,
of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and new wine (Gen. 27:28).
Having “plenty of new wine” is God’s blessing to Jacob (= Israel). But on Pentecost, the charge is made that the church is “full of new wine.” Perhaps there is irony here: in being filled with the Spirit, the church is experiencing the blessing of new wine and unbelieving Israel isn’t.
In Numbers 18:12, Yahweh gives the priests “all the best of the new wine.” Perhaps, then, fullness of new wine can be seen as a priestly benefit. But on Pentecost, it is the church who has “all the best of the new wine.” On Pentecost, ironically, the church is God’s priestly people.
Of course, “new wine” is repeatedly listed as one of the blessings of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy (7:13; 11:14; 12:17; 14:23; 18:4; 28:51; 33:28; cf. 2 Kings 18:32; 2 Chron. 32:28; Isa. 36:17, etc.). Is it now the case that the church is inheriting all the blessings of the Promised Land?
The charge against the church in Acts 2 is meant as a charge of drunkenness and that fits with what God said in Isaiah 28: Israel is the one which is truly drunk and in judgment God is speaking “drunkenly” to them by speaking to them in other tongues. But perhaps there is also irony in this charge: They are not drunk with wine; rather, they are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). But in being filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples really are “full of new wine” in a sense. They are enjoying the blessings of “new wine,” the blessings of the Spirit which were symbolized in the Old Covenant by “new wine,” the blessings God had promised to Israel (and especially to the priests).
This week, I’ve been working on Acts 2 in preparation for Pentecost (this coming Sunday). In particular, I’ll be focusing on the gift of tongues (2:4ff.), which I take to be ordinary human languages and not some kind of private prayer language or a sort of “non-cognitive vocalization” (to borrow Richard Gaffin‘s term). I’m aware that some commentators distinguish between the tongues on the day of Pentecost and the tongues that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians, but that distinction doesn’t seem plausible to me.
As I thought about Pentecost, I was struck by the importance of understanding the gift of tongues in its historical context. If we posit that the gift of tongues is the ability to scat while praying or prophesying, like a jazz singer improvising, or if we take the gift of tongues to be the gift of a private prayer language, what is the point of the gift? Why was this particular gift given at Pentecost, after Christ ascended into heaven? Why would such a gift have to wait until after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ? How does this gift fit into redemptive history?
One answer might be that this gift is some sort of evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit has come, we can now pray and prophecy in some other language. But why? Why this particular gift? What’s the significance of it? Why couldn’t this gift be given earlier?
Those questions arise if we treat the gift of tongues in isolation from its historical context. The gift of tongues becomes a sort of showy demonstration of the Spirit’s power. The Spirit could just as well have shown His presence by giving people the gift of doing handstands or, for that matter, barking like dogs or laughing uncontrollably. The gift is arbitrary, with no roots in the rest of Scripture, and if it’s arbitrary then any number of weird things someone has dreamed up can be claimed as a similar “gift of the Spirit.”
But if we locate the gift of tongues in its historical context, as men such as Sinclair Ferguson, Palmer Robertson, and James Jordan have done, we end up with a richer understanding of the gift of tongues. In fact, only in this historical context does the gift make sense.
The gift of tongues wasn’t an arbitrary example of the Spirit’s power. Rather, it was given at Pentecost precisely because it had a role to play at that point in redemptive history.
And what was that role? It was a role rooted in the Old Covenant revelation. The background to the gift of tongues includes what happened at the Tower of Babel. As the Tower of Babel resulted in division, Pentecost results in unity as the gospel now goes out in many tongues to gather people into the church. The divisions of the Old Covenant and of the Old Creation are now being broken down by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, including, in particular, the division between Jew and Gentile, represented by the language of Israel and the many tongues of the nations.
But, as with the Tower of Babel, speaking with other tongues also implies judgment. At Babel, God confused the “lip” of the people (Gen. 11:9) so that they were not able to understand each other’s speech (11:7). But at Pentecost, too, the disciples begin speaking in different languages. The effect is not that the listeners couldn’t understand â€” they did, in fact, understand â€” but I wonder if there isn’t something symbolic going on here. Is this gift of tongues implying that the temple and perhaps Jerusalem is (in danger of becoming) a new Tower of Babel, from which the unbelieving Jews will be scattered?
Even if that’s not the case, Paul links the gift of tongues to judgment coming on unbelieving Israel in 1 Corinthians 14:21, when he quotes from Isaiah 28:11, 12:
With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear me.
That passage in Isaiah draws on God’s threat to bring against Israel “a nation whose language you will not understand” (Deut. 28:49). Israel wouldn’t listen to God when He spoke to them in their own language, and so He threatened to speak to them in the language of foreign invaders. That speech is a speech of judgment, but it is also a summons to repentance.
And so it is, Paul says, with the gift of tongues in the church: It is a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22) and, given the context, a sign to unbelieving Jews in particular. It is a sign that the kingdom has been taken from Israel and has been given to another nation, a nation that will bear fruit to God, as Jesus had said (Matt. 21:43).
As a sign of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension and as a sign of God’s judgment on unbelieving Israel, the gift of tongues fits with the situation begun by Pentecost. It wasn’t simply a private prayer language and it certainly isn’t non-cognitive vocalizing: it involved genuine human languages, the languages of the nations, because it was a sign of the gospel going to the nations and of judgment coming on Israel.
As such, this gift was also intended to be temporary. Though God may continue to bless some missionaries with unusual language gifts, the gift of tongues itself, as a sign to unbelieving Israel, was intended for the period when the Old Covenant and New Covenant overlapped, the period when God’s judgment had not yet fallen on unbelieving Israel and its temple, the period before AD 70. After that, the gift of tongues no longer had a role to play.
The gift of tongues given at Pentecost thus had everything to do with its particular moment in history. It was not an arbitrary personal experience certain Christians might have, an experience which appears out of the blue after Pentecost and which has very little meaning in itself. It was, rather, rooted in God’s past revelation, a fulfilment of God’s past warnings, a reversal of Babel’s confusion, and a demonstration of the new situation brought about through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The gift of tongues has meaning only in its historical framework.
In connection with my reading of Genesis, I’ve also been reading James Jordan’s Primeval Saints. Here’s a quotation relating to the Tower of Babel:
Ever since this time sinful human beings have tended to view people who speak other languages as inferior, or even as only talking animals. The word “barbarian” comes from the way other languages sound in our ears: “bar bar,” almost like the barking of dogs. European conquerors treated Africans and Asians as barbarians, seldom bothering to learn their very rich and complex languages, despising the inescapable manifestation of the image of God in these cultures.The Christian knows that God has established Christianity to create a true unity of confession … among all nations and peoples, but this unity will not destroy the diversity of languages. Instead, each nation and language will praise Him in its own tongue (Rev. 7:9). Enlightened Christians seek to recognize and appreciate the beauty of every language God has put into the human race. Good missionaries do not seek to destroy everything in pagan societies, but rather they bring the Bible to such cultures and let the Bible transform them into true cultures.
At Pentecost (Acts 2), God sent out the gospel in all languages. While the Bible is the original and pure form of God’s Word in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the fullness of His revelation will not come until every language comes to express biblical truth in its own unique way. Every language has a particular set of perspectives on the Word of God, and thus every language is fitted to reveal God and praise Him in a special way. Throughout eternity the saints will delight to learn language after language, learning to praise God in new ways, age after age, forever and ever.