The Power of Pentecost: An Examination of Acts 2:17–21

Written by Martin C. Salter Reviewed By Alan J. Thompson

How should we apply the references to prophecy, dreams, visions, and signs and wonders in Acts 2 to church life today? Martin Salter, Associate Pastor at Grace Community Church in Bedford, England, has written an engaging treatment of Acts 2:17–21, with sensitivity to the immediate and wider narrative context of Acts as well as the pastoral implications of Acts 2 for local church practice. Originally an MTh thesis at Oak Hill College in London, the book comes with a foreword from Matthew Sleeman and an endorsement from David Peterson.

Before getting to those wider contexts, however, in chapter 1 Salter first examines the grammatical and syntactical details of Acts 2:17–21, especially any changes in these verses from the LXX and MT (such as the addition of “the last days” in 2:17 and “they will prophesy” in 2:18). This chapter also summarizes the various interpretations of “signs and wonders” in 2:19. Does this phrase refer to the miracles of Jesus, the cosmic signs accompanying the crucifixion, the phenomena of Pentecost itself (i.e., noise and fire), the miracles of the apostles, or the cosmic portents of judgment (whether final judgment, God’s wrath in general, or the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70)? Salter concludes that the addition of “in the last days” in 2:17 provides the clue that a combination of all of these views is best; they all relate to the “in-breaking and presence of the new eschatological age” (p. 17).

Chapter 2 widens the lens a little further and places these verses in the immediate context of Acts 1–2. Salter notes that Acts 2 provides evidence of Sinai parallels, a reversal of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, and a list of nations which reflects the table of nations in Gen 10 as well as lists given by Roman Emperors (pp. 29–33; primary emphases or more explicit themes could be weighed here with reference to implicit themes). Overall, Salter argues, “Luke is deliberately portraying these events as a new exodus in the restoration of Israel” (p. 36).

Chapter 3 then widens the lens still further as Salter observes the phenomena mentioned in these verses (tongues, prophecy, visions, and “signs and wonders”) in the subsequent narrative of Acts. Tongues occur in “historically unique situations” (p. 42) to demonstrate who constitutes the people of God. Prophecy, however, has a much broader reference in Acts where prediction, revelation (e.g., in setting apart Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13), “ecstatic prophecy” (Salter’s description for what takes place in 19:6), encouragement and exhortation, Spirit-inspired witness and preaching, teaching, and judgment oracles are all examples. Visions relate primarily to Gentile mission in Acts (p. 49). “Signs and wonders” occur almost exclusively in Jewish contexts in Acts and, recalling the OT use of this phrase with reference to the events of the exodus, provide further evidence “that Luke is reporting the restoration of Israel in her new exodus” (p. 52). They authenticate key leaders, the apostolic message, and the Gentile mission (pp. 52–55).

Chapter 4 tackles briefly the question of whether these events are meant to be descriptive or prescriptive. Salter observes that Luke’s overarching purpose is to provide “divine verification” of the early Christian movement rather than “a paradigm of church practice in every time and place” (p. 71). In Acts, the Holy Spirit primarily points to Jesus as the risen and exalted Davidic Messiah (pp. 74–75).

Having laid the groundwork in the previous chapters, in chapter 5 Salter applies these findings to current debates. Regarding the question of whether or not Luke intends us “to construct norms for how the Spirit will work in our churches today,” Salter concludes that the answer is “not a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’” (p. 79). Although patterns may be repeatable today, that doesn’t mean they are a norm (p. 81). Salter then discusses tongues with reference to 1 Cor 12–14 and concludes that they should not be prohibited but restricted to private devotional use. Dreams and visions, as in Acts, would be rare but should not be discounted. The phrase “signs and wonders” is best reserved for the “particular redemptive-historical use” in Acts. Salter argues, however, that since we too live in the last days, we should expect to see miracles with some “family resemblances” to those in Acts (pp. 84–87, with criticisms of Warfield). Finally, Salter draws on his earlier wide application of the term “prophecy” and distinguishes between capital “P” prophecy (authoritative and foundational NT prophets) and small “p” prophecy (the activity of encouragement, preaching and rebuke in Acts, p. 92). A concluding chapter summarizes the main argument of the book: Pentecost is unique and unrepeatable, but since we inhabit the same last days, we ought to see “family similarities” to these phenomena.

Salter’s work has many strengths. Because Greek terms are translated and each chapter is succinct, it is a very readable book for a general audience. Those unfamiliar with discussions about Lukan theology will find helpful summaries of the literature related to pneumatology. The book is obviously relevant to pastors who face practical questions about how to apply some of the descriptions found in Acts. In this regard Salter’s distinctions between the unique features of Acts and later family resemblances are helpful. Most importantly, Salter provides an excellent model for approaching Acts with contemporary concerns: he prioritizes Luke’s own purposes and emphases.

I have a few misgivings, however, concerning some of Salter’s formulations. Sometimes the impression is given that cessationists such as Warfield don’t believe in post-apostolic miracles at all (e.g., p. 87). In this regard it should be noted that Warfield himself differentiated between miracles (such as a healing in answer to prayer) and the miraculous gifts which have ceased (see e.g., Fred Zaspel, Theology of Warfield, p. 356). Also, the final chapter on application sometimes goes beyond the evidence presented in the earlier chapters. The discussion of tongues, for instance, tentatively affirms and applies the view that 1 Cor 12–14 refers to a private prayer language. An analysis of 1 Cor 12–14 would, of course, be necessary in a full discussion of tongues in the NT. In a discussion of the specific applicability of Acts 2, however, perhaps more should be made of the nature of tongues in Acts 2 and whether or not that gift is applicable today. The discussion of prophecy in the context of decisions concerning church buildings and counseling sessions (p. 90) also seems to extend too far beyond the emphasis in Acts 2. Prophecy in Acts 2 is more like the empowering of all new covenant believers to point to the fulfillment of God’s saving promises in the Lord Jesus. An examination of the relevance of Jesus’s teaching in Luke 7:26–28 about prophets and the “least in the kingdom” may have helped to keep the application here more focused.

Overall The Power of Pentecost is a good model of how to approach Acts when searching for answers to contemporary questions. It will encourage those on all sides of these debates to work through Luke’s own purposes first before grappling with how to apply what Acts has to say to contemporary church life and practice.

Alan J. Thompson

Alan J. Thompson
Sydney Missionary and Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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