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Pentecost as Paradigm

Acts 2 and the Church’s bold, prophetic witness

Robert P Menzies on December 30, 2020

New Testament scholars widely agree that Jesus’ dramatic sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 is paradigmatic for Luke’s Gospel. All the major themes that will appear in the Gospel are foreshadowed here: the work of the Spirit; the universality of the gospel; the grace of God; and the rejection of Jesus.

This is the one significant point where the chronology of Luke differs from that of Mark. Here Luke takes an event from the middle of Jesus’ ministry and brings it right up front. Luke does this because he understands that this event, particularly Jesus’ recitation of Isaiah 61:1-2 and His declaration that this prophecy is now being fulfilled in His ministry, provides important insights into the nature of Jesus and His mission. This passage, then, provides us with a model for Jesus’ subsequent ministry.

Luke provides a similar sort of paradigmatic introduction for his second volume, the Book of Acts. After the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter delivers a sermon (Acts 2:14-41) that in many ways parallels that of Jesus in Luke 4. In his sermon, Peter also refers to an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Spirit, this time Joel 2:28-32, and declares that this prophecy too is now being fulfilled (Acts 2:17-21).

The message is clear: Just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to fulfill His prophetic vocation, so also Jesus’ disciples have been anointed as end-time prophets to proclaim the Word of God. The text of Joel 2:28-32 that is cited here, like the paradigmatic passage in Luke 4, also shows signs of careful editing on the part of Luke.

Luke carefully shapes this quotation from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures) to highlight important theological themes. Three modifications are particularly striking:

First, in Acts 2:17, Luke alters the order of the two lines that refer to young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams. In Joel, the old men dreaming dreams comes first. But Luke reverses the order: “Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Luke rearranges these two lines drawn from Joel so that the reference to “visions” precedes the comment about “dreams.”

A survey of Acts reveals this alteration is not a whim or an oversight. It is intentional. Luke prioritizes “visions” to emphasize their importance. This highlights a theme Luke sees as vitally important — one that recurs throughout his narrative.

The terms associated with dreams and dreaming occur nowhere else in the Book of Acts. Clearly, Luke is not big on dreaming.

By contrast, references to visions are not only plentiful in Luke’s narrative, but they also come at strategic moments (e.g., Acts 9:10,12; 10:3,17; 16:9; 18:9). Thus, Luke’s alteration appears theologically motivated.

Of course, visions are not the only way God guides the Church in the Book of Acts. Yet Luke’s point is hard to miss: By linking the “visions” of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:17) with the visions of the Early Church, Luke is in effect saying that in “these last days” — that period inaugurated with Jesus’ birth and leading up to the Day of the Lord — the mission of the Church must be directed by God.

God will lead His end-time prophets in special and personal ways, including visions, angelic visitations, and the prompting of the Spirit, so that we might fulfill our calling to take the gospel to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

So, the experience of the Early Church, a Church God supernaturally led, serves as a model for the Church throughout the age.

Second, with the addition of a few words in verse 19, Luke transforms Joel’s text to read: “I will show wonders in the heavens above, and signs on the earth below” (emphases added). In this way, Luke consciously links the miracles associated with Jesus (notice the very first verse that follows the quotation from Joel: “Jesus ... was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs,” Acts 2:22) and the Early Church (e.g., 2:43) together with the cosmic portents listed by Joel (Acts 2:19-20).

All are signs and wonders that mark the end of the age. For Luke, “these last days” — remember, Luke’s church and ours are firmly rooted in this period — represents an epoch of signs and wonders.

Luke is not only conscious of the significant role miracles have played in the growth of the Early Church, but he also anticipates signs and wonders continuing to characterize the ministry of the Church.

Third and most important for our purposes, Luke inserts the phrase “and they will prophesy” into the quotation in verse 18. This simply emphasizes what is already present in the text of Joel. The previous verse reminded us this end-time outpouring of the Spirit of which Joel prophesies is nothing less than a fulfillment of Moses’ wish “that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29).

Acts 2:17 quotes Joel 2:28 verbatim: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” Now, in verse 18, Luke echoes this refrain. Luke highlights the fact that the Spirit comes as the source of prophetic inspiration because this theme will dominate his narrative. It is a message Luke does not want his readers to miss.

The Church in “these last days,” Luke declares, is to be a community of prophets — prophets who are called to take the message of “salvation ... to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). And now Luke reminds his readers that they also have been promised power to fulfill this calling. The Spirit will come and enable the Church — Luke’s and ours — to bear bold witness for Jesus in the face of opposition and persecution.

This theme of bold, prophetic witness is anticipated in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is anointed with the Spirit to “proclaim good news to the poor,” so that He might “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

The Church has a mission to carry out, a message to proclaim.

The parallels between Jesus’ experience at the Jordan River and of the disciples at Pentecost are striking. Both occur at the beginning of the respective missions of Jesus and the Early Church. Both center on the coming of the Spirit. And both are described as a prophetic anointing in the context of a sermon that cites Old Testament prophecy.

Through his careful shaping of the narrative, Luke presents Jesus, the ultimate Prophet, as a model for all His followers, from Pentecost onward. The Church has a mission to carry out, a message to proclaim.

This motif of bold, Spirit-inspired witness is also evident in the teaching of Jesus. Luke foreshadows events that will follow in his second volume by relating the important promise of Jesus in Luke 12:11-12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Immediately after Pentecost, in the first story Luke recounts, we begin to see how relevant and important this promise of Jesus is for the mission of the Church. Following the healing of a crippled beggar, a large crowd gathers, gaping at this marvelous event. The story builds to a climax as the Jewish leaders arrest Peter and John for preaching about the resurrection of Jesus.

“You killed the author of life,” Peter declares, “but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:15).

The Jewish leaders, upset with this turn of events, move in and arrest Peter and John. After spending the night in prison, Peter and John are called before the leaders and questioned. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, bears bold witness for Jesus (Acts 4:8).

The courage of Peter and John is so striking it leaves the Jewish leaders astonished and amazed. Finally, after deliberations, the leaders command the apostles to stop preaching about Jesus.

But Peter and John reply with incredible boldness, saying, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

This is merely the beginning of the persecution the end-time prophets must face. Very soon, the apostles are again arrested. The Jewish leaders interrogate them and angrily declare, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this [Jesus’] name ... . Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28).

Peter and the apostles incur the wrath of their opponents when they declare, “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead ... . We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:29-32).

The apostles are flogged and warned not to speak about Jesus. But the beatings do not have their desired effect. The apostles rejoice that they have been “counted worthy of suffering ” for Jesus and continue to proclaim “the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:41-42).

The persecution intensifies. What began with warnings in Acts 4 and led to beatings in Acts 5 now extends to Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7. Just as the apostles were strengthened by the Spirit to bear bold witness for Jesus, so also Stephen’s witness unto death is inspired by the Spirit (Acts 6:10).

In the midst of Stephen’s sermon to his persecutors recorded in Acts 7, he declares, “You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?” (Acts 7:51-52). There is powerful irony here, for this same crowd moves to kill Stephen, a man “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55). The witness of another prophet is rejected.

This pattern of bold, Spirit-inspired witness in the face of opposition continues with Paul, the dominant character in the latter portion of Acts. Paul is chosen by the Lord to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

We are told Paul’s journey will not be easy. The Lord, speaking to Ananias, declares, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16).

And suffer he does. Yet, in the face of mind-numbing opposition, Paul is guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. A trail of churches filled with believers who worship Jesus are left in Paul’s wake. The narrative of Acts ends with Paul imprisoned in Rome, where he preaches about Jesus “with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

Luke’s motive in presenting these models of Spirit-inspired ministry — Peter, John, Stephen and Paul, to name a few — should not be missed. Luke has more in mind than simply declaring to his church, “This is how it all began!”

Certainly Luke highlights the reliability of the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus. And Luke wants to be sure we are all clear about their message, which is to be handed on from generation to generation, people group to people group, until it reaches “the ends of the earth.”

Yet Luke also narrates the ministry of these end-time prophets because he sees them as important models of missionary praxis his church needs to emulate.

These characters in Acts demonstrate what it truly means to be a part of Joel’s end-time prophetic band and thus challenge Luke’s readers to fulfill their calling to be a light to the nations. As they face opposition by relying on the Holy Spirit, who enables them to bear bold witness for Jesus no matter the cost, these end-time prophets call Luke’s church to courageously follow the path first traveled by our Lord.

Pentecostals, today, likewise affirm that every Christian has been called and promised the power needed to become bold, Spirit-inspired witnesses for Jesus. The Church is nothing less than a community of end-time prophets.

This article is adapted from Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (2020), and is used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, www.wipfandstock.com.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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