Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Promise of the Father [Acts 2.1-47] (8 July 2001)

Accompanying presentation (opens in a new window)

Last week we began our brief series of sermons on the Acts of the Holy Spirit. I have been using and will be using a number of slides. There is a lot of material in all of these sermons not only because there is much historical and geographical information, but also because Acts is a pivotal book in the history of God’s dealings with the world. Some of you like taking notes and I do not wish to discourage that. However, jot down only things that stick out to you that are not on the slides. If you want the information on the slides, I can email you the relevant documents. Of course, if you wish to write everything, suit yourselves.

So let us recap the salient features of the book. It was written by Luke around AD 80 and is the second longest book in the New Testament. It was addressed to Theophilus, who probably was Luke’s patron and whose name means “lover of God.” We saw that Acts happens in the Roman Empire, which extended to most Mediterranean lands. We saw that there were Jewish communities in most of the major cities of the Roman Empire.

From Acts 1 we learnt that Jesus asked the disciples to wait because there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled; because the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living; because the new way of living was essential to the task at hand; because the task at hand was a part of God’s purposes; and because God’s purposes include both the vision and the means of its fulfillment. They had to wait for the promise because the promise would bring a new vision and would provide the means for fulfilling the vision.

We also saw that we live in a new era in which we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit; that Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador; and that the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns, in which what worked yesterday might not work today, and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel.

Today we will learn from Acts 2 what the onset of this new life looked like, what their immersion in God’s Spirit did to the disciples, and what it meant for them and means for us.

Now the event of Pentecost is surrounded with a number of incorrect views. And unfortunately, whole theologies are based on some of these incorrect views. So, before we proceed to understanding what God is saying to us today from the story of Pentecost, let us dispel some of these errors.

First, Acts 2 does not record an occasion in which Christians experienced the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. When Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, he makes it clear that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is unintelligible without the complementary gift of interpretation of tongues. The spiritual gift is that of ecstatic speech. However, in Acts 2 we have an instance of people speaking in other languages, which are readily understood by others who happen to be from various regions in which those languages were spoken. If we were to insist that this is an example of the gift of tongues, we would lose the impact—rhetorical and theological—of v. 8 where the listeners ask, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

Second, the list of nations in vv. 9-11 does not imply that the whole of the Roman Empire, let alone the whole world, was reached at Pentecost. The nations in Acts 2 cover Asia Minor, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Mediterranean Europe and in all of these nations there were Jewish communities. Luke’s point is not that Pentecost affected the whole world. It is well documented that the Roman Empire had trade relations with the Indian subcontinent and even China. A well educated and traveled person like Luke would have known about this. Yet neither India nor China is mentioned in Acts 2. Nor is Luke telling us that the church’s mission started at Pentecost. In fact, Luke portrays the church’s mission as an extension of Jesus’ mission. This is seen from four striking parallels between Luke’s Gospel and Acts. In the Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with his being baptized by John and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the disciples’ ministry begins with their being baptized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus is tempted by Satan. In Acts, the disciples are tempted to quench the Spirit by the accusation that they are drunkards. In the Gospel, Jesus’ first public act is to preach. In Acts, the disciples’ first public act is that of Peter’s preaching. In the Gospel, Jesus ministers mostly to Jews and occasionally to Gentiles. In Acts, the disciples minister first to the Jews and also to the Gentiles.

What Luke is telling us is that representatives of the entire Jewish Diaspora heard the Pentecost proclamation. We should remember that the gospel is proclaimed to the Jews first, and only subsequently to the Gentiles. This is one step toward the full proclamation of the gospel to Gentiles and we should not minimize its importance. We should certainly not neglect this point because to do so would be to make Peter’s sermon ridiculous from a Jewish perspective.

Third, Pentecost is a one-time event. There are no repeated outpourings of the Holy Spirit. If there were, it would make Peter’s use of Joel’s prophecy and Jesus’ promise in Acts 1 lack force. Some contemporary writers and teachers who talk about a second or third or final outpouring of the Spirit just do not grasp the huge point God made by pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost. We will get to that soon.

Now Jesus called this event of Pentecost “the promise of the Father.” There are two levels of interpreting the phenomenon of Pentecost. First, we can discern what the event tells us about the way things are. At this level we try to understand what the text says, trying to bring to light the salient points of the text. Second, we can ascertain what the way things are means for us. At this level we attempt to feel what those who first heard Peter’s sermon felt. This is the level at which we normally operate. For instance, when I was in Austin, one of my friends asked me, “Do you have the fourth of July in India?” The first level of interpretation would lead me to think of the specific date—July 4th. Yes, in India we don’t skip from July 3rd to July 5th. But that was not what my friend was asking me. At the second level of interpretation I would need to understand what the fourth of July meant to an American. Then I could conclude that he was not asking me about the date but about the celebration associated with it. In other words, he was asking me, “In India do you celebrate the fourth of July as Independence Day?” And so my answer would be, “No!” Independence Day in India is August 15th.

Since we operate on the second level, I will be concentrating on the second level. But in order to get there, let us briefly consider what the first level tells us. And for that we need to hear the text. I have asked Eric and Narcis to read for us the text for today.

Thanks Eric and Narcis.

Peter, though a fisherman by trade, is a very good analyst. He might have made a good scientist had he been born in our time. See how he works.

He makes three observations. He first hears visiting Jews say that they understand what the disciples are saying. He then hears the accusation that the disciples are drunk. He, of course, knows that the disciples are not drunk. 

Having made these observations, Peter begins his sermon with the assertion that the disciples are not drunk. Then he draws three points of conclusion, each following from the preceding one. First, he says that the phenomenon of Pentecost is actually a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. The Spirit has been poured out.

Here it is important to pause for two brief observations. Joel says that the pouring out of the Spirit would cause people to prophesy. In Acts 2 the disciples are reported to be proclaiming the mighty acts of God. Contrary to some strands of Christian thought that hold that prophecy is foretelling the future, Peter tells us that prophecy is a declaration of the mighty acts of God. And the mighty acts the disciples mention are the death and resurrection of Jesus—events in the past from their point of view. So prophecy, far from being a foretelling of future events, is a recollection of what God has done and is doing. Prophecy emphasizes not the future but the implications that the past has for the present. Another thing is the language of prophecy. Peter quotes the portion of Joel’s prophecy that contains cosmic signs. Peter indicates that these have been fulfilled in the event of Pentecost. Yet, the sun did not darken. Nor did the moon become blood. How then could Peter say that these aspects of Joel’s prophecy were fulfilled? Here we need to understand what such language meant in the first century to a Jewish audience. The language is highly figurative. Such language indicated not that the world had come to an end but that events had happened that had changed things at the cosmic level. The world remained but a new era had dawned. We should keep this in mind when we interpret parts of the bible that contain such language. What Peter is saying is that Pentecost is a universe-altering event. So great was the change produced by Pentecost that it might as well have been that the sun had stopped shining. We use similar imagery when we say, for instance, “Hell would freeze over before I ever took drugs.” We are pointing not to the literal meaning of the words but to the mind-boggling change that would have to occur prior to my taking drugs.

So let us get back to Peter. Having concluded that the Spirit had been poured out, Peter remembered that Jesus had promised to pour out the Spirit. So he further concludes that this meant that God had exalted Jesus and had given him the Spirit. In other words, Jesus had become king.

With Jesus as king, the final conclusion Peter makes is almost self-evident. If Jesus is king, then the kingdom of God had begun in the reign of Jesus. In Peter’s words, “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.”

We have thus far looked at what Peter said in his sermon. However, what did the Jewish audience think and feel when they heard this sermon? In other words, what is the second level of interpretation?

What implications did Peter’s sermon have for Jews? When Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy, what were the Jews expecting to hear? What were they accustomed to hearing in the context of this prophecy?

Joel’s prophecy is a last-days prophecy. The arrival of the kingdom of God would be marked with the pouring out of God’s Spirit. But when did the Jews expect this to happen?

In attempting to answer this question we must first remember that much of Old Testament theology is situated in the context of oppression—as in Genesis, Exodus, and Judges—or exile—as in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. It is here in the context of the loss of freedom that the visions of freedom were given to the prophets.

How would this freedom be accomplished? If one were being held captive, freedom—lasting freedom—would entail the defeat of one’s captor. But there is not much a slave can do to obtain freedom from an oppressive master. Hence, the Jewish people rightly expected that their freedom would come through their Messiah—that the Messiah would subdue their enemies, who also were God’s enemies. Following this the Messiah would inaugurate God’s messianic kingdom on earth. After this would come the resurrection, at which time God would raise righteous Jews to eternal life and unrighteous Jews to eternal damnation. This would reconstitute Israel as it was meant to be—full of righteous Jews obedient to the Messiah. God would then pour out his Spirit on Israel. Israel would naturally become a light to the Gentiles, on account of which righteous Gentiles would be gathered into God’s kingdom. This briefly was the Jewish timeline for the kingdom of God.

Incidentally, this is the timeline for most of the stories we know—fictional and non-fictional. Consider the story that fueled the Allied war effort in World War II. The evil Nazis were oppressing weak nations and weak people. There was nothing the victims could do. So they needed help from outside. The Allies provided just such help and succeeded in vanquishing the German forces. The Allies restored peace in Western Europe. Western Europe would then rise from the ashes and become economically prosperous. Eastern Europe, being communist, would remain impoverished. In other words, the spirit of capitalism would reign in the world. So Western Europe would appeal to Eastern Europe. Some East European nations would reject communism and be included in the world market. Other nations would be ignored or explicitly excluded. Very similar to the Jewish expectation, isn’t it?

But this is not what Peter preaches! The timeline he preached looks like this. We begin once again with oppression. But, rather than subdue the Romans, the Messiah is rejected and killed by God’s people. God, however, vindicates the Messiah and raises him from the dead. The Messiah ascends into heaven and begins his reign. He then pours out the Spirit as the power that fuels the spread of God’s kingdom. Peter does not go further with the timeline in this sermon. However, the rest of the New Testament tells us that there are two steps remaining. First, the outpouring of the Spirit implies that the gospel can be preached to the Gentiles. The Gentiles can be gathered into God’s kingdom. Second, Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the general resurrection that will happen at the end of time.

The message Peter preaches contains two remarkable differences from the expected timeline. And these two differences were as important when Peter spoke at Pentecost as they are today.

The first difference is that the Messiah is rejected and killed by his own people rather than being accepted and then leading a violent revolt against Israel’s then primary political enemy—Rome. The second difference is that the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit happen while Israel still remains under foreign rule.

How do you think the Jewish listeners would have felt hearing that they had allowed their Messiah to be crucified by the very enemies from whom they expected him to deliver them? The fictional character that can understand this is Obi Wan Kenobi. As a youthful Jedi, he takes Anakin Skywalker to be his apprentice. This he does because he believes that Anakin would be the one to restore balance to the force. Yet, in the episodes that follow The Phantom Menace Obi Wan will watch as his deliverer, Anakin, sells his soul to Senator Palpatine. And all Obi Wan will be able to say to Anakin’s son, Luke, is that Anakin had died and become Darth Vader. Obi Wan had allowed his deliverer to be destroyed by his enemy. He had shot himself in the foot.

I’m sure Peter’s Jewish audience felt the same way. If indeed Jesus was their Messiah, then, by their own treachery, they had dashed all hopes for their salvation.

But then Peter also says that Jesus had been raised. What would this have done to the audience? It could only have meant that God had overturned the verdict to crucify Jesus. Jesus had been sentenced unjustly and the injustice had to be reversed. That is what we expect from a just God. It is much like the case when the U.S. President pardons a person found guilty by the Supreme Court. Such a pardon, whether one acknowledges it or not, undermines the authority of the Supreme Court. In Jesus’ case, so grave was the injustice, that resurrection, which was supposed to happen only at the end of the age, had happened while the present age was still underway. Jesus’ resurrection indicates a divine reversal of the sentence to kill Jesus. Does this not mean that God had defeated his enemies? After all, their harshest sentence against God—here the crucifixion of Jesus—could not stick.

But if resurrection, which was to be the hallmark of the age to come, had happened to even one person during this present age, it meant that we are in a period of unprecedented conflict. The age to come is pressing in on the present age.

So what does this mean for us today?

How many of you believe that, when Jesus saves us, he gives us his resurrection life? How many of you believe that, when a person becomes a Christian, old habits give way to new ones? How many of you believe that, when the Holy Spirit moves into a person’s life, that person is transformed?

We speak a lot about resurrection life. Unfortunately, when it comes to defining resurrection life, we come up short. We are unaware of the content with which to fill the phrase. But see how Peter’s audience responds. They hear that the resurrection has started and they realize that what this means is that the new age of God’s reign has begun even though the old age is still around. They realize that this means things have to change. Or, as Luke puts it, they were cut to the heart. But since only one person—namely Jesus—has been raised, only he knows what this raised life is like. So Peter’s audience asks, “What should we do?” In other words, “How do we enter into this new age you speak about?”

Peter answers that entrance into this new age is through repentance. Now it is not some abstract repentance that Peter speaks of. Later he says, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”—from this era defined by corruption, from this age that has been superceded by Jesus’ resurrection. So repentance is not simply a confession of personal sins but a rejection of the corrupt ways in which this present age works.

This is because resurrection life is the same as life in the Spirit. Such a life is characterized by a way of living that demonstrates that death has been defeated, that God’s new era is pressing in on this present era. So to live in this new era is to undermine all the values of this present era that are not in accordance with God’s character. And to turn from following the dictates of the era that is passing to following the dictates of the era God is birthing is repentance.

So if this era is characterized by lies, repentance will be to tell the truth. If this era promotes alienation, repentance would be to be in community. If it is defined by pride, repentance will be to be humble. If it operates on self-aggrandizement, repentance would be self-sacrifice. If it tells you to hate your enemies, repentance will be to love your enemies. If it convinces us that violence is necessary, repentance would be to act non-violently. If it denies and fears death, repentance would be to accept and embrace death. After all, if resurrection awaits us, death does not have the final say.

Such is the life to which Jesus invites people. Some of us have already accepted that invitation. But for many of us, repentance was not really defined or it was left at the level of personal sins when in fact it is a complete renunciation of the agenda of this age. Knowing this, it might be that God is leading you to redefine your commitment to Jesus.

Some of us were led to believe that repentance is only a matter of the heart, having no bearing on external acts. But to believe that death does not have the final say is to act as though death does not have the final say. Knowing that repentance is a public act, it might be that God is leading you to a new level in your commitment to Jesus.

And there may be others here who have not repented yet, who have not taken the step of trusting Jesus and of living in the resurrection life he gives. If you are wondering why you have heard this message and what you need to do, you are in good company. The people who heard Peter’s message also felt the same way. Then understand this. You have heard this message because God is reaching out to you, inviting you into his kingdom, offering you new life in the name of Jesus. This is the promise of the Father—that everyone who trusts Jesus will be saved from captivity to the darkness of this era and saved for the wonderful life in which Jesus reigns supreme, in which the Holy Spirit leads, in which God relates to us as though we were his children, in which death has lost his sting. If you wish to appropriate this promise I invite you in the name of Jesus to come forward. There are people here who will pray for and with you so that you too will receive the promised Spirit. Come, therefore, to the open arms of the lovesick heavenly Father.

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