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Jan 19 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

The Biblical Backstory of Acts Chapter 2

“This Is What Was Spoken Of”

The events reported in the second chapter of Acts on the “day of Pentecost” (one of Israel’s annual feasts) is central to the church’s mission. For that reason, we need to pay careful attention to these spectacular phenomena. The Spirit of God came crashing into the bodies of Jesus’ followers, setting the church apart from any previous work that God had done on earth within a human community.

To fully appreciate this world-changing moment requires more biblical background than we have time to cover in our Sunday morning meeting, so this summary is intended to give you an idea of the deep roots these strange events had in the Old Testament.

The Wistful Prayer of Moses

God told Moses to appoint seventy leaders to assist him in the daunting task of taking the horde of Israelite refugees through the desert. The Lord explained that he would place his same Spirit that inspired and empowered Moses on these men. This meant they too would be divinely energized and directed by God.

When “the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again” (Nu. 11:16-25). In instances such as this, the English word prophesy can be misleading. We equate prophesy with words, either spoken or written. But the Hebrew word, as it is used in Old Testament Scriptures, can refer to the experience of a specific moment of inspiration in which God’s divine energy was released into the world through a human person. This inspiration empowers a number of different activities, including those performed by musicians–cf. 1 Chr. 25:1-3, where prophecy is connected with the playing of lyres, harps and cymbals.

That the leaders Moses appointed to assist him experienced prophecy only this one time and “did not do it again,” most likely served to validate the ongoing inspiration of God’s Spirit that would enable them to perform their duties.

For some reason, two men who were on the list of leaders were running late and failed to reach God’s sacred tent in time to join the others. Nevertheless, when the Spirit rested on the sixty-eight, he fell upon these two men as well. While on their way and still in the camp (among the people), they also began to prophesy. Joshua found this offensive and recommended to Moses that he “restrain them.” Moses, however, replied:

Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them! (Nu. 11:27-29)

Apparently, until that moment the experience of God’s Spirit coming on a person in power was unique to Moses. Later on, Joshua is also described as being “filled with the Spirit” (De. 34:9). Otherwise, the experience of being supernaturally energized by the Holy Spirit was not a national privilege but the exclusive experience of specific people.

Who Else Experienced God’s Spirit In this Way?

Short answer: Anyone who had a significant role in the life of Israel, including political, military and spiritual leaders. Also anyone whose participation in worship was of special interest to God. The list includes:

  • Artisans and craftsmen who constructed God’s sacred tent with all its furnishings and decorations (Ex. 35:30-35).
  • People who served as Israel’s judges–i.e., interim leaders whom God used to rescue Israel from foreign invaders and oppressors (Jdg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:26, etc.)
  • Israel’s first two kings (1 Sam. 10:6–and notice that like Moses’ leaders, Saul also “prophesied”–; 1 Sam. 16:13).
  • The prophets of Israel (2 Chr. 24:20-21; Eze. 11:5; Mic. 3:5-8, etc.).

Old Testament theologian, Walther Eichrodt, observed that God’s formation of a people devoted to him entailed “the emergence of specially equipped men and women whose leadership in word and deed . . . dragged the dull mass of the people with them, again and again smashing and sweeping away all the obstacles . . . raised against them.” And further on:

“Looking back, we may describe the overall spiritual pattern of classical prophecy as that of a dynamic power released by a new sense of the reality of God. This dynamic, invading Israelite life and thought with overwhelming force, sweeps away all that is stagnant, and unleashes a forward movement which can no longer be restrained, and which, once in full career, pauses for nothing.”

George Ladd commented: “The most notable work of the Spirit in the Old Testament was an ‘official ministry’, i.e., the Spirit endowed certain people because they filled particular offices . . . . The symbol of this official impartation of the Spirit was the anointing with oil.”

And William Barclay wrote, “. . . the fact remains that in general the work of the Spirit is connected with the extraordinary and the abnormal. The experience of the Spirit [in the Old Testament] is not an experience for the common man or the everyday.” It was, instead, reserved for special people appointed to fulfill specific tasks.

A Prophetic Twist

The prophet Joel delivered God’s word to Israel in a time when the nation’s agriculture was being ravaged by locusts. Although the people shared in the blame for their desperate condition, there was a radiant hope on the horizon:

It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29)

Joel’s prophecy almost sounds like a response to Moses’ prayer, that all God’s people would be filled with his Spirit and prophesy. That this outpouring of God’s Spirit would include even children and slaves–society’s least valued members– stresses the universal nature of this promised gift. The destiny of God’s people was to become a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), a nation devoted to God’s work, empowered by his Spirit.

Now We Come to Acts Chapter 2

When the disciples experienced the phenomena of the Spirit during Pentecost, the crowd that formed around the believers were astonished and perplexed. When Peter stood up to explain what they were witnessing, he used terms that were familiar to them, quoting from their scriptures and specifically citing the words of Joel that we just read. He introduced the quotation by informing them, “this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.” The promised future had arrived and it was happening before their eyes.

The amazing exploits and inspired writings associated with people like Moses, Samson, David, and Jeremiah were extended to all of Jesus’ followers. The work of the Spirit that William Barclay described as “abnormal” and “extraordinary” was being experienced by normal, ordinary men and women. Unbelievable, right?

A few years ago, Clark Pinnock wrote:

“Evangelical religion in our day had tended to become overly intellectualized . . . . We have become insecure in the presence of the strange, paralogical powers of the free, dynamic Spirit. And instead of lamenting our deficiency we have sought to restrict the outpouring of the Spirit to the first century so as to direct attention away from our own spiritual poverty.”

Theoretically, all Christians are special people appointed to a specific task–the task of giving testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. We are empowered to let the world know that Jesus is alive by telling them how he has worked in our lives. Those times in which we are filled with God’s Spirit gives our words greater force and effectiveness.

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