During his final post-Resurrection appearance in the upper room, Jesus directed the apostles to stay in Jerusalem to await a great event. What was this event? We know it as Pentecost, which we will celebrate this Sunday, June 4.
The Christian holiday of Pentecost commemorates the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they were “clothed with power from on high.” However, the celebration has its roots in a Jewish tradition that the apostles had observed while awaiting the “great event” promised by Jesus. Peter, John, and the other apostles were still in Jerusalem ten days after Jesus’ ascension, during the Feast of Weeks. Known also as Shavuot, this Jewish period of thanksgiving commemorates God providing for both the earthly and spiritual needs of the Israelites: earthly, through the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22), and spiritually, through the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18). The Feast of Weeks begins with the Passover Sabbath and lasts seven weeks, or forty-nine days.
By the late second century, Christians had adopted a celebration similar to the Shavuot for the annual Pascha. By the fourth century elements of that festival had been included in the observance of Pentecost, which comes from the Greek, pentekoste, meaning “fiftieth.” Pentecost officially ends the Easter season, which lasts forty-nine days, beginning with Resurrection Sunday.
Yet, while Pentecost marks the end of the Easter cycle, it is significant for another reason: On that fiftieth day after the Ascension, when God poured the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ apostles and disciples, the Church was born.
A Mighty Wind
Since Jesus had directed the disciples to remain in Jerusalem after his ascension, the apostles continued to stay in John Mark’s home. They gathered daily in the upper room, where the Last Supper and the institution on the Eucharist had occurred, with the other disciples—including Mary Magdalene and the women mentioned as being present at Jesus’ tomb; Mary the mother of Jesus; and Jesus’ “brothers”—to pray. According to Acts 1:15, the entire community of Christians present totaled about 120.
After Jesus’ death, the disciples, as devout Jews, continued to visit the temple and offer blessings to God. These temple prayers were general prayers; there is no indication that they included any related to Jesus’ words that he would send the promise of his Father upon them. In fact, it is likely that Jesus’ instructions to them included an admonition not to do so to prevent any interference with the promise from occurring.
However, we may readily conclude that while at prayer in the upper room, away from public view, their prayers did include some for the coming of the Lord’s promise. And ten days after Jesus ascended, as they all met in the upper room, “…a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) It was not a mighty wind which filled the house, but rather a “sound…like the rush of a mighty wind.” A powerful wind would have blown the robes of the disciples and distracted them, as they tried to preserve the decor of their attire and their modesty. At some point, someone undoubtedly looked outside and announced that there was no wind outside that they were hearing.
Tongues of Fire
“And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3–4) The “tongues” resting on each disciple were not of fire, but rather were “as of fire,” something that appeared similar to fire. One thinks of some sort of electrical display, since God uses his miraculous manipulation of existing material elements to show forth his power, as when Jesus ordered the wind and waves to be still. The coming of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by a sound like a mighty wind, manifested itself, as it was granted to each disciple, in some form of aura, likely electrical, that rested on each one’s head.
“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God’ and all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” (Acts 2:5–13)
The gift of tongues in this case was the gift of existing languages not known to the speaker. It is different from the glossolalia referred to elsewhere in the New Testament. (1 Cor 14:1–19) Speaking in non-existent languages is a characteristic of “speaking in tongues” as is sometimes experienced today, though some current “speaking in tongues” is speech in an existing language not known to the speaker, as occurred at Pentecost.
Once again, the Lord did not compel belief. The unbelievers attributed what they saw and heard to “new wine,” though it was only 9:00 a.m. No matter what the proof, even an encounter with the risen Jesus by the 500, the unbeliever can always find a means to justify his unbelief.
Peter’s First Sermon
The noise “like the rush of a mighty wind” had drawn a crowd outside John Mark’s home. Peter addressed the crowd, offering his first sermon and, in doing so, marking the success of Jesus’ post-Resurrection teaching: For the first time a teacher other than Jesus interpreted the Old Testament scriptures in a new way, showing how they foretold the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Peter first cited Joel as foretelling the coming of the Holy Spirit that day. “’I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.’” (Acts 2:16–21) He then cited Psalm 16 as foretelling the Messiah’s resurrection. “‘For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption.’” (Acts 2:25–31)
As to the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection, Peter asserted the Church’s claim forevermore: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” While Acts mentions only the other eleven apostles as standing with Peter, we may be confident that the other disciples had streamed out of John Mark’s house behind Peter, no longer fearful of the Jews and hiding behind locked doors, but filled with the Holy Spirit and confidence flowing from it. When Peter said, “(W)e are all witnesses,” he doubtlessly gestured toward the entire Church of 120 persons.
Finally, Peter cited Psalm 110, as David’s foretelling that the Messiah would ascend into heaven. “‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’” It was in this fashion that the early Church preached, to the Jews especially, as Jesus had taught them in his post-Resurrection appearances.
A Hellenized Church
Many of those who heard Peter were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:37–38) About 3,000 received his word and were baptized that day.
These 3,000 new members of the new Church are described as foreign Jews “dwelling” in Jerusalem. The word used for “dwelling” refers to permanent residents, not to pilgrims in town for the feast of Pentecost. Such a large number of converts, who were permanent residents of Jerusalem, immediately constituted part of the core group for the new Church and gave it a character different from the Judean Jewish establishment of priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, temple guards, and all those bureaucrats on the payroll of the temple. Since they heard the apostles speaking in their native tongues from the entire Eastern world, those foreign tongues were their native languages.
They were Jews of the diaspora. The lingua franca of the diaspora was Greek, and we can safely assume that most of them spoke Greek as their second tongue, though many of them probably also spoke Aramaic either before or after they had moved to Jerusalem. Furthermore, the Galileans especially, but also many Judeans, spoke Greek as their first or second language. Knowledge of Greek was not limited to the upper classes but was found in all classes, especially in Galilee and the diaspora.
The point is that the Church from its first day was heavily Hellenized. The Galileans themselves were looked down on in Jerusalem because they came from Galilee “of the Gentiles” and were likewise to some degree Hellenized. Witness particularly Jesus’ word-play between agape and phileo with Peter, which works only in Greek and puzzles those who read it in English without further instruction. Such partial Hellenization does not imply that they were less devout than the Jews of Judea. Rather, many of them doubtlessly had moved to Jerusalem because they were especially devout.
The New Testament was written in Greek (except for Matthew’s Gospel), not just for the Gentile converts but also for the Hellenized Jews who were a large, and perhaps even a majority, element in the Church even before the Gentiles were evangelized. Pentecost was “the birthday of the Church.” The 3,000 joined the 120, and suddenly there was a critical mass of disciples to spread the gospel rapidly, “beginning from Jerusalem.”