What Does This Mean?
In Acts, the activity of the Spirit is essential to the life and growth of the church. The church was inaugurated by the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and the young faith spread quickly from Judea to Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and finally, to the heart of the Roman Empire.
Jesus commanded the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Spirit, the “promise of the Father” that would equip them to become his witnesses to “the uttermost parts of the earth” - (Acts 1:4-8).
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The disciples waited in prayer until the day of Pentecost had “fully come” and the Spirit arrived “like a rushing mighty wind,” an impressive event accompanied by visual and audible effects.
Many Jewish pilgrims who were in the city “saw and heard” the commotion, confounding a crowd of “about three thousand” men since “every man heard them speaking in his own language” - (Acts 2:4-13).
The passage lists fifteen nations from the Near East and the Mediterranean areas represented by the pilgrims. The arrival of the Spirit was observed by Jews and proselytes from many nations, not just Judea.
Moreover, this list of nations anticipates the implementation of the command by Jesus to preach the gospel “to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
The pilgrims in Jerusalem were consternated because “each man heard them speaking in his own language.” What impressed them was the sound of Galileans “speaking in our own languages.”
Later, Peter described the event as the “promise of the Holy Spirit, which you see and hear,” and this suggests they also saw and heard the other effects of the Spirit’s presence, the “sound of a rushing mighty wind” and “tongues like fire.”
The crowd heard the disciple “speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God.” Clearly, the men who observed these things understood what the disciples were saying. There is no mention of “interpreters” or the “gift of interpretation.” That would defeat the purpose of the manifestations as evidence of the Spirit’s arrival.
The Jewish pilgrims were struck by the fact that Peter and his compatriots were “Galileans.” In popular thought, Galilee was a backwater territory, not only of the Roman Empire but also of Judea. To label anyone a “Galilean” was tantamount to saying he was poorly educated and little more than a “country bumpkin.”
This is the only instance in the New Testament where the exercise of the “gift of tongues” is described as a known language. Elsewhere, believers are inspired by the Spirit to speak in “unknown tongues.”
Likewise, though tongues do occur again in the book of Acts, they are never again described as a known language - (Acts 10:44-48, 19:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1, 14:1-9).
- (Acts 2:12-13) - “And they were all amazed, and were perplexed, saying one to another - What does this mean!? - But others, mocking, said: They are filled with new wine.”
The crowd’s reaction sets the stage for Peter’s sermon. He begins by citing the prophecy from Joel promising the arrival of the Spirit “in the last days” (“these men are not drunk… But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” – Joel 2:28).
The experiential aspect of the event must not be downplayed. What they “saw and heard” made deep and lasting impressions.
The reality of what the disciples AND the crowd of pilgrims experienced on Pentecost undergirds the theological propositions of the book of Acts. And the description of the pilgrims’ reaction to what they “saw and heard” loses its point if the events were not very profound and life-changing experiences.