Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Feast of Pentecost: Fulfilling Jewish Hopes

Background: The Feast of Weeks ("Pentecost")

Seven weeks after Passover and Unleavened Bread came the Feast of Weeks, the second major Jewish festival of the year. Its observance is described in Leviticus 23:15-22 and Deuteronomy 16:9-12. It celebrated the wheat harvest. The feast lasted fifty days (Lev 23:16), although there seems to have been some debate within some Jewish circles about when the counting began. 

In Greek it was referred to as "Pentecost"—referring to the “fifty” days (πεντηκόστη, "fiftieth [day]") (cf. Tob. 2:1; II Mac. 12:32; Josephus, Ant., 3, 10, 6).

Here Israel is specifically required to bring “leavened” bread to the temple to be waved before the Lord (Lev 23:17). This bread was to be consumed by the priests of Israel (Lev 23:20). Only unleavened bread could be offered to God in sacrifice (Lev 2:11; 6:17).

The Feast of Weeks was associated with the giving of the law at Sinai, which occurred not too long after the original Passover.

The New Exodus

As Brant and I have been discussing here, themes connected to the Exodus took on eschatological significance for Israel—they were waiting for a New Exodus (e.g. Isa 40:3, Jer 23:7-8).[1] At that time, the Lord would give to his people his Law once again, only this time he would not write it on tablets but upon their hearts. Recall the prophecy from Jeremiah 31, in which the Lord tells the days of the “New Covenant.” This covenant will be greater than the covenant he made with Israel when he brought them out of Egypt: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33).

Ezekiel also writes:
“For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you and I will take out of your flesh the heat of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek 36:24-28)
The Lord would not simply give to Israel his Law, but, in the New Exodus, his Spirit, which would enable them to keep the Law (cf. Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-28, 37:14).

As we shall see, this passage is crucial to understand what is happening in Acts 2.

The ingathering of the grain at this harvest festival served as an image for the ingathering of the renewed Israel. Here I cannot go into too great a detail. Suffice it to point out here the way Isaiah describes the restoration of the tribes of Israel in terms of a kind of offering to the Lord: “And they shall bring your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (Isa 66:20).

Pentecost In Acts

Luke describes the coming of the Spirit of Pentecost as the fulfillment of God’s restoration promises—the eschatological “ingathering” of Israel has arrived. Peter cites directly from Joel’s prophecy of the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21). The restoration is not political but spiritual—literarily in the Spirit.

Luke thus paints the picture of Pentecost with the colors of the eschatological ingathering of Israel with the nations. This is evident in the following:

  • The episode is preceded by the selection of a replacement of Judas, thus restoring the apostles to the number twelve, most likely a sign of the eschatological re-gathered twelve tribes (cf. Acts 1:15-26);[2]
  • Luke’s mention of the presence of the scattered of Israelites (Acts 2:5-13)[3]
  • Peter explains that the Spirit’s coming fulfills Joel’s prophecy of the eschatological day of the Lord’s coming (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21);[4]
  • Peter’s use of the term “house of Israel” (cf. Acts 2:36) suggests a reference to the lost northern tribes, since it was most usually used applied to them,[5] and hence may also be a reference to prophetic visions to their restoration (cf. Ezek 20:40; 36:10; 37:11, 16; 39:25; 45:6);[6]
  • Peter’s invitation to baptism, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39), also draws from the Isaianic vision of the New Exodus (cf. Isa 57:19).[7]
All of this takes place in Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the hope that such an eschatological ingathering would take place there (cf. Isa 2:2). In this, Luke shows the continuity between God’s covenant with Israel and the New Covenant.[8]

We should also notice how Luke describes the event in terms similar to the giving of the Law at Sinai. In Exodus 19:16-19 we read about the Lord’s coming to Sinai, which occurs with a loud sound (v. 16, 19, like a “trumpet blast”), the Lord’s “descent” in fire (v. 18) and miraculous but unintelligible speech (v. 19, God speaks “in thunder”). Likewise, in Acts 2, we read about the Lord’s coming in a “sound” like mighty wind (2:2), a vision of fire (2:3), and miraculous speech (2:4). As the Lord descended in fire on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19, the Lord descends on Mt. Zion in fire here. Luke also tells us that on Pentecost “three thousand souls” accepted the word of Peter and were added to the early Christian community. Here again we have imagery taken from Exodus— three thousand fell at the hands of the Levites after they worshipped the golden calf (Exod 32:28).

The Lord has fulfilled the promise he made to Ezekiel: he has begun the ingathering of his people and he has given them his Spirit. Furthermore, as Ezekiel described the future cleansing of Israel and their reception of the spirit as taking place through the sprinkling of water, Peter tells the people what they must do to be saved: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). The restoration takes place not through a political decree or action but through a sacramental act.

Finally, we should point out Paul’s concern to bring an offering to Jerusalem from the Gentile Christians at Pentecost (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:18). Paul understood his ministry to the Gentiles in connection with the eschatological ingathering of the tribes of Israel (cf. Rom 9-11; Acts 26:7).[9] The offering he took up from them to bring to Jerusalem at Pentecost may have been in some way connected with Isaiah’s description of the restoration of Israel we mentioned above (cf. Rom 15:16, 25-29).

[1] For a good introduction to New Exodus themes and their use in the New Testament, see Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark (Tubingen, Mohr Siebeck, 1997).
[2] That the selection of twelve apostles should be understood in light of restoration hopes see Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2000), 98: “… if Jesus indeed taught that ultimately these twelve would judge the twelve tribes, then he was thinking eschatologically. To assemble the twelve tribes… would take a miracle. But that, I think, is what Jesus was expecting.” See also John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 3 of The Roots of the Problem and Person; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 2001), 148-154; Sanders, , Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 98; B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979), 154. Also see Max Turner, Power from on High: The Spirit in Israel’s Restoration and Witness in Luke–Acts (Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 9; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 300–1.
[3] See Luke describes that those present included “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 1:5), a clear reference to diaspora Jews. Likewise, “Medes” and residents of “Mesopotamia” are probably to be understood as descendants of northern Israelites. See Richard Bauckham, “The Restoration of Israel in Luke-Acts,” in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (vol. 72 in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism; ed., J. M. Scott; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 471. Also see Jacob Jervell, Luke ad the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972), 57-8 who argues that Peter’s speech is directed to Jews of the diaspora.
[4] Darrell L. Bock, Proclamation from Prophecy and Pattern: Lucan Old Testament Christology (JSOT Supplement Series 12; Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1987), 167-71; Mark Strauss, The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts: The Promise and its Fulfillment in Luke Christology (JSNT Supplement Series 110: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 132-34; John J. Kilgallen, A Brief Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 17; etc. There is a well known textual issue here (i.e., the substitution of "in the latter days") that we cannot delve into here given the constraints of this essay. Here we simply note that Peter understands the coming of the Spirit as a fulfillment of eschatological hopes.
[5] For a comprehensive look at the use of the term “Israel” in Jewish writings see, James M. Scott, "'And then all Israel will be saved' (Rom 11:26),'" in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (vol. 72 in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism; ed., James M. Scott; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 500-15.
[6] Bauckham, “The Restoration in Luke-Acts,” 473.
[7] Bauckham, “The Restoration in Luke-Acts,” 474; Frans Neirynck, “Luke 4, 16-30 and the Unity of Luke-Acts” in The Unity of Luke-Acts (J. Verheyden, ed.; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), 377 n. 90; Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 22). Whether or not Peter is referring specifically to lost Israelites or Gentiles here is a matter we cannot examine here. Suffice it to say, he is clearly referring to restoration hopes which involved the inclusion of both.
[8] This is clearly a major part of Luke’s agenda. See Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX (AB 28; New York: Doubleday, 1970), 188-92; Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 271-3.
[9] Here I cannot go into great detail. For a fuller discussion see the epilogue of my book, Singing In The Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2001).

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