The story of the origin of a nation, a movement or an institution captures the imagination of later generations. Whether in the yearly remembrance of America's founding, the Fourth of July, or the twentieth anniversary of a key event in a movement, the civil rights march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, or the celebration of the New Testament church's birthday, Pentecost, each generation desires to recall in vivid detail what happened in those early days. A people reinvigorates itself by drawing comfort and challenge from the way it was in the beginning.
By the way Luke notes the arrival of the day of Pentecost, he marks it as a key event in salvation history (symplerousthai, "was fulfilled" [NIV came]; see Lk 9:51). Pentecost, the Feast of the Firstfruits, was a most appropriate time for the Spirit to come. It was closely connected with Passover, just as the Spirit's coming would be associated with the saving events of the Lord's crucifixion and exaltation. The feast celebrated the first produce of the Promised Land, Israel's inheritance, just as the Spirit is the "firstfruits" of the salvation blessings to the believer (see Deut 26:1-11, especially vv. 9-11).
All together in one place, probably the upper room, the disciples in prayerful unity await the Spirit (Acts 1:14). Suddenly God gives signs of sound and sight. Their divine origin and supernatural character is clear. The sound is from heaven and is like the blowing of a violent wind. The tongues that appear seemed to be flames of fire. In the Old Testament such a loud sound often accompanied a theophany (Ex 19:16, 19; 20:18; compare Heb 12:19). A violent, rushing wind symbolizes the Holy Spirit (Ezek 37:9-14; compare Lk 16:16). The sound fills the whole house. What has arrived is an all-encompassing divine presence. The divided tongues like flames of fire, resting on each, also symbolize the Spirit of God, especially his power (Lk 3:16; compare Acts 1:8).
Those on whom the outward sign rests experience an inner filling with the Holy Spirit. This leads to a further external manifestation of his presence. Luke uses the verb filled in order to emphasize that although this is the initial endowment of the Spirit on the church, it is also an equipping with inspired speech for ministry. It is the first of many fillings the believers will know (4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9).
As the Spirit inspires their speech, the believers are speaking in human languages other than their own native tongues. Here is a further sign that something extraordinary has happened. Acts 1:8 is being fulfilled all at once.
What of Pentecost does God want the church to expect in its life today? What is repeatable? What is unrepeatable? Those aspects of Pentecost that marked the inauguration of the Spirit's presence indiscriminately among the people of God appear to have fulfilled their purpose in the first Pentecost. We should not necessarily expect to see them again. The external signs of sound and sight and the foreign languages fall into this category. But in any age we should expect to find a church filled with the Holy Spirit, powerfully enabled to bear witness to Christ and his gospel.
If we are not so experiencing the Spirit's filling, why? Have we met the conditions of expectant prayer and cleansed lives? That is Pentecost's challenge. But what is its comfort? God has not abandoned his church. If he sent his Spirit before, he can do it again.
The sound like the blowing of a violent wind is evidently not isolated to the house. It attracts a crowd upon its occurrence, or possibly as the believers move out into the street and toward the temple. The curious throng, composed of devout Hellenistic Jews from every nation under heaven (compare Deut 2:25), is confused and then astonished (existanto) that each person hears in his or her native language the declaration of God's great deeds. Luke uses existemi very selectively to describe the effect of the miraculous (Lk 2:47; 8:56; 24:22; Acts 8:13; 10:45; 12:16). We find it two times in this account, together with other "amazement" or "confusion" terms (thaumazo, synchyno, diaporeo--vv. 6-7, 12). Clearly, Luke wants us to sense what a strong impact the Pentecost event had on the onlookers. They marvel that by a miracle of speaking or hearing, or both, they can understand Galileans, who were disdained for their indistinct pronunciation with its confused or lost laryngeals and aspirates (Bruce 1990:116).
The crowd's initial reaction shows us that God's powerful saving presence will always astonish us and challenge our current understandings of him and his ways. Turned toward God, our curiosity and surprise will become marveling, an important preparatory step to the believing reception of salvation blessings (Dupont 1979c:54).
People in the crowd enumerate their nationalities and places of origin. They begin with the far eastern border of the Roman Empire (Parthians, Medes and Elamites), move westward through Mesopotamia and Judea (Israel, understood according to its God-given boundaries--Josh 1:4), and then encompass regions of Asia Minor in a circular counterclockwise fashion, commencing with the east: Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. The list then notes southern regions of the empire--Egypt and, west of it, the parts of Libya near Cyrene. Rounding out the list is Rome, the Empire's center, and two geographical extremities: the islands of the sea, represented by Cretans, and the desert places, represented by Arabs (compare Ezek. 30:5).
Each in his or her own language hears of the wonders--the great deeds--of God. Were these wonders the gifts of the Messiah and the outpoured Spirit (see 2:17, 33)?
This multilingual witness coheres with the universal offer of salvation in the church's message and its consequent worldwide mission. It also highlights the church's multicultural character. God affirms people as cultural beings. As many a Bible translator knows, our native language and culture is natural, necessary and welcome to us as the air we breathe. No wonder that when persons receive a Scripture portion in their own language, they rejoice: "God speaks my language!"
The crowd's astonishment progresses from marveling to perplexity. They are trying to figure out the "why" of this miracle, both its cause and its significance. Some admit their inability to come up with an answer but show they are open for one as they wonder aloud, "What does this mean?" Others, for whom much of the speech is gibberish, mock, accusing the believers of being drunk with sweet wine (compare Lk 7:34).
How should we respond to the work of the Spirit in our midst? We must avoid the mockery of the scoffer who explains everything in empirical terms. We must be open to a divinely given explanation. The mixed reaction of the Pentecost crowd also teaches us that the "miraculous is not self-authenticating, nor does it inevitably and uniformly convince. There must also be the preparation of the heart and the proclamation of the message if miracles are to accomplish their full purpose" (Longenecker 1981:273).