Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) by F. Scott Spencer

Acts 2:1-4 tells the story of a “big bang” event that energizes the earliest followers of Jesus soon after his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). According to the text, on the day of Pentecost, a popular annual Jewish festival in Jerusalem, a group of about 120 of Jesus’ followers from the region of Galilee (Acts 1:15, Acts 2:7) are suddenly “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Strange sights and sounds—wind, fire, and speaking in tongues—accompany this experience, as the Spirit enters them and these uneducated Galileans begin praising “God’s deeds of power” in the native languages of the crowds from around the Mediterranean world who had come to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11).

What do the signs of wind and fire mean?

The special effects include the “sound like the rush of a violent wind” and the sight of a tongue-shaped flame of fire resting upon the heads of each person in the group. These are powerful symbols of spiritual experience, though they are not to be taken literally. The people are not physically blown around the room, and their hair is not burnt. However they might “feel” or sense the loud wind and bright flame, they no doubt interpret these effects as evidence of God’s awe-inspiring, dynamic presence among them. Their sacred writings, the Hebrew Bible, provide the prime examples.

In the story of creation, a mighty “wind from God” sweeps over the unformed dark, deep space that God is about to transform (Gen 1:2). Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) closely link the word “wind” with the words “breath” or “spirit.” So “wind from God” could mean “spirit of God,” similar to the divine spirit that “breathed the breath of life” into the first human being (Gen 2:7). God’s spirit-wind also plays a powerful role in the exodus, the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. With Egypt’s army in hot pursuit, the fleeing Israelites come to the Reed Sea, where “the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” so that the people could safely cross over (Exod 14:21-25). God had earlier appeared to the Israelites’ leader, Moses, in a mysterious “flame of fire out of a bush” at Mount Sinai (Exod 3:1-6) and guided the Israelites out of Egypt in a guiding “pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exod 13:21-22). After crossing the Reed Sea, Moses returns with his people to Mount Sinai, where God makes another dramatic appearance, engulfing the mountain in smoke and fire and giving instructions (Exod 19:18), including the Ten Commandments. Evoking these well-known precedents, the Pentecost account in Acts 2 is meant to mark God’s formation of a renewed community imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is the purpose of spirit-filling in the story of Acts?

Apart from providing assurance of God’s dynamic presence and guidance, the infilling with the Holy Spirit has a more specific purpose related to the spreading of the Christian message. In his final instructions after his resurrection, Jesus tells his followers “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). Soon Jesus identifies this “promise” as the Holy Spirit and explains why God’s Spirit will be given: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In other words, the Spirit will spur the early Christians to spread the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection throughout the Jewish homeland and into Greek, Roman, and other non-Jewish areas.

The Pentecost event offers a preview of this expanding “witness,” as the Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to communicate in languages from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). In this case, Jews from the Diaspora (regions outside the Jewish homeland) come to Jerusalem and hear about Jesus in their own local dialects. But this sets the stage for the early Christians’ movement from Jerusalem out to Judea, Samaria, and more distant territories inhabited by people who do not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, as the rest of Acts recounts (see Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 13:1-3, Acts 19:1-7).

F. Scott Spencer, "Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)", n.p. [cited 24 Jul 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/pentecost

Contributors

F. Scott Spencer

F. Scott Spencer
Professor, Baptist Theological Seminary

F. Scott Spencer is professor of New Testament and biblical interpretation at the Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012); The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles (Abingdon, 2008); and Journey through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading (Baker Academic, 2004).

Acts 2:1-4 recounts the earliest Christians’ experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, accompanied by dramatic effects of wind and fire and the special ability to speak in other languages.

Did you know…?

  • The book of Acts says that Jesus’ last words on earth were instructions to his followers to wait in Jerusalem until they were “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
  • Acts 2:1-4 reports the earliest Christians’ dramatic individual and group experience of God’s Spirit at the Jewish festival of Pentecost.
  • Acts 2:1-4 associates the earliest Christians’ experience of God’s spiritual presence with sounds of gusting wind and sights of blazing fire.
  • Wind and fire are classic biblical symbols of God’s life-giving, liberating power and guidance.
  • According to the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit enables the earliest Christians from Galilee to speak about God in the languages of the many pilgrims to Jerusalem at Pentecost.
  • In the story of Acts, the experience at Pentecost prepares Jesus’ followers to spread the news about Jesus throughout the Jewish homeland and into Greek, Roman, and other non-Jewish areas.
  • Many Christians throughout the world today identify themselves as “Pentecostal,” experiencing the energy of the Holy Spirit in similar ways to those described in Acts.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Acts 2:1-4

The Coming of the Holy Spirit
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rus ... View more

Acts 1:9-11

9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward hea ... View more

Acts 1:15

15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said,

Acts 2:7

7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

Acts 2:5-11

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Gen 1:2

2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Gen 2:7

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Exod 14:21-25

21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters ... View more

Exod 3:1-6

Moses at the Burning Bush
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Ho ... View more

Exod 13:21-22

21The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they mig ... View more

Exod 19:18

18Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain sho ... View more

Acts 2

The Coming of the Holy Spirit
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rus ... View more

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The southern kingdom of Judah.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Acts 1:4

4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from ... View more

Acts 1:8

8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the ... View more

Acts 2:5

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

Acts 8:14-17

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.15The two went down and prayed for them t ... View more

Acts 10:44-48

Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit
44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.45The circumcised believers who had come wit ... View more

Acts 13:1-3

Barnabas and Saul Commissioned
1Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a ... View more

Acts 19:1-7

Paul in Ephesus
1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.2He said to them, “Di ... View more

Those related to the Christian renewal movement called Pentecostalism, which is a charismatic movement connecting people to a lived experience of the Christian God through the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:1-4

The Coming of the Holy Spirit
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rus ... View more

Acts 2:1-4

The Coming of the Holy Spirit
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rus ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.