Ten days removed from Christ’s ascension, all the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. Without warning, something like a gusting wind rushes through the house. “Divided tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) appear and rest on each of them.
Pentecost. God’s Spirit had arrived in his fullness.
Wind and fire. Cloud and flame. The glory presence that went before and behind in the exodus, that rested over the tabernacle (Num. 9:18), that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11), now rests over and fills up God’s new dwelling—his people, sin-stained though they are.
The storm of God’s presence rushes but doesn’t destroy. The fire of God’s presence descends but doesn’t consume. How can this be? Jesus was destroyed and consumed by God’s holy presence at the cross so that God could be present with—take up residence in—his temple people in grace.
In this mysterious moment, the Holy Spirit fills the disciples and miraculously enables them to speak in other languages. Jesus had promised to send the Spirit to empower his church’s witness in the world (Acts 1:8), and on the day of Pentecost, the ascended Lord keeps his word.
Where does this strange moment fit within the story of redemption? How does it tie the old and new testaments together? How should we understand it? We must begin with the audience in attendance on that day.
Pious Jews from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) are in Jerusalem, and they gather around to see the commotion. To their astonishment, these foreigners hear the disciples preaching about God’s mighty works in Jesus in their native tongues.
At Babel, God judged and restrained rebellion by confusing languages and dividing the people (Gen. 11:1–9).
At Pentecost, God forgives rebellion, using various world languages to bring people together in Jesus. The effects of sin are being undone as the Spirit goes forth with the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
Pentecost is a reversal of Babel.
But this is more than the reversal of Babel. It’s the restoration of the kingdom. When the Old Testament envisioned the renewal of God’s kingdom, it anticipated the day when God would heal the divided people of Israel and unify his kingdom under the Messiah King from David’s line (Ezek. 37:15–28). The fulfillment of Israel’s wildest hopes is beginning in an unexpected way as scattered Jews from around the world are united by faith under Christ’s kingship. Soon, this restoration will extend to Gentiles as well.
First of Last Days
This multinational collection, perplexed by these strange events, asks precisely the right question: What does this mean? Scoffers suggest the disciples may have broken into the wine cellar a bit early, but Peter—recently too afraid to even acknowledge Christ—lifts his voice to answer.
Peter takes the Scriptures his hearers already believe and shows how they point to Jesus as the “yes” to all God’s promises. In the process, he gives us a marvelous glimpse into how the apostles—recipients of a post-resurrection lesson in biblical interpretation from Jesus himself (Luke 24:44; Acts 1:3)—understood the Old Testament as finding its ultimate meaning in Christ.
Peter starts with Joel 2:28–32, where the prophet looked forward to the last days when God would grant new-covenant blessings and pour out his Spirit on all his people. No longer will the Spirit only dwell on special, anointed leaders. He’ll be with and within young and old, men and women, slave and free—every covenant community member.
The last days Joel anticipated have arrived, and the Spirit the prophet longed for has been given. The God who dwelt among in Eden, in the temple, and in Christ will now dwell within by his Spirit. The “wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below” (Acts 2:19, citing Joel 2:30) signal the arrival of the day of the Lord, God’s intervention in history for judgment and salvation.
Intriguingly, these wonders and signs match many of the descriptions surrounding Jesus’s death and resurrection (Matt. 27:45–54; 28:2). Why? Because the day of the Lord broke into history at the cross when God judged sin and worked salvation for his people. And now in these last days, every person who calls on Christ’s name in faith will be blessed with the Spirit and reconciled to God.
David’s Prayer, David’s Heir
Peter continues with a clear announcement of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and killed by men according to the sovereign plan of God, and he was raised from the dead because death couldn’t hold him. Death—part of God’s curse on sin—can only stake a legitimate claim on sinners. But God loosed the chains of death around his Son because Jesus was perfectly holy and spotlessly righteous.
Quoting Psalm 16:8–11, Peter makes the staggering claim that David himself, Israel’s premier king, anticipated Christ’s resurrection. In the psalm, David expressed his hope that God wouldn’t abandon him to death, but Peter suggests that this hope is realized only in Jesus. David’s words pointed past himself to the eternal son God promised would inherit his throne forever.
Though King David died, King Jesus—the true Holy One—overcame the corruption of death in the fullest sense imaginable. David’s prayer—“you will not abandon my soul”—is answered in David’s heir, the Christ, who was not abandoned in the grave and in whom David and all who believe God’s promises are granted the blessing of indestructible life.
What Did Pentecost Mean?
This Jesus, Peter testifies, was exalted in his ascension to the right hand of God the Father—the symbolic place of absolute power and authority—and he sent the promised Holy Spirit, whose work the Jewish audience has now seen and heard with their own eyes and ears.
So what do the events of Pentecost mean?
Peter used the Scriptures they’ve believed to interpret the phenomena they’ve seen. Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and has poured out his Spirit to fill God’s new-covenant people, according to the Scriptures:
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)
Pentecost is a redemptive-historical confirmation that Christ is risen and reigning.
Through Peter’s preaching, the Holy Spirit performs his life-giving work and cuts people to the heart. If what Peter declares is truly true, what must they do? They must repent—agreeing with God about the sinfulness of their sin and looking in faith to Jesus—and enter the church through the covenant sign and seal of baptism. As rebels repent and are baptized in faith, they are marked as citizens of God’s new-covenant community and receive all the blessings God promised, including forgiveness and the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
Peter’s assurance that this gospel promise is “for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” reverberates with echoes of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1–3; 17:1–8) because God’s blessing for families and nations is found in Abraham’s greater son.
In one day, the church grew from 120 to 3,000. And while the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is a unique event, the same Spirit who fell at Jerusalem still resides within all God’s people, and the same promises Peter announced are still the securing, comforting, and empowering hope of every sinner the Spirit has brought to faith in Christ.
In the Old Testament, the feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s faithfulness in giving the harvest. And the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost means the harvest of disciples is only beginning.
What does it mean for us? It means God’s Spirit poured out at Pentecost will take our proclamation of God’s Word and use it to build the church—just as Jesus promised.
This article is adapted from Trevor Laurence’s book The Story of the Word: Meditations on the Narrative of Scripture (Wipf and Stock, 2017).