I was introduced to The Lord of the Rings very late in my life. It is true that we had a copy of The Hobbit at home but the cover of the book, which depicted a deformed frightening creature, just wasn’t inviting enough for me to take the plunge into Tolkien’s rich world. So I was well into my twenties before a friend at seminary recommended the books to me. Both of us were persuaded that non-violence was Jesus’ way and he recommended the book telling me that it was a critique in prose of the atomic bomb. Of course, after reading the books I actually read the foreword in which Tolkien clearly refutes any such intent on his part. Yet, for many even today, the Ring of Power represents atomic power, something that ought to be unmade and never used.
If ever there was a passage in the bible that has been interpreted in a similar one-dimensional manner and given rise to a lot of controversy, it is this one. Whole theologies have developed around what happens in the first few verse in Acts 2. And entire families of denominations have sprung up, each with a slightly different take on the significance of the events recorded here. It would be presumptuous if I thought we would settle these issues here in a few short minutes. And hence, while I enjoy a good debate, and enjoyed many lengthy ones with some of my good friends at seminary, we will not open that one-dimensional can of worms today.
You see, it is unfortunate that this passage has been high jacked and made one dimensional, as though it referred to only one thing, when in actuality Luke has woven many threads into his narrative. As people who believe that this is scripture, it behooves us to follow as many threads as possible, so we may understand this Father who gave his Son for us, this Son who is now our Lord, this Spirit who moves in and among us even today. We obviously cannot follow all threads today! But we can follow one.
After the Spirit had been poured out and the first disciples experienced the effects of that outpouring, the other people were divided into two groups. One group, Luke tells us, was amazed and perplexed and asked, “What does this mean?” The other group ridiculed the disciples and said, “They have had too much wine.”
The same behavior of the disciples caused different responses in the observers. But what does the first group refer to? And why do the second group come to the conclusion that the disciples had had too much wine?
Was it some sort of ecstatic behavior This is the claim of those who focus on the charge that the disciples had had too much wine. The idea is that they were drunk and their drunkenness caused them to behave unbecomingly. However, no sane person would ever be amazed and perplexed at someone’s drunken behavior I mean, it you saw a drunk tottering down the road, are you going to be perplexed? Are you going to think, “Could this be God’s doing?”
So those who were ridiculing the disciples were not referring to their behavior If not their behavior then to what were they referring? What could cause the responses “how can that be?” and “you must be drunk!”?
The only clue we have is the declaration, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.” Too much ink has been spilt – not to mention blood – because of the focus on the words “tongues” and “languages” – both the same word in Greek.
Now we know that it is not difficult to acquire a new language if we put our minds to it. Many of us have perhaps learnt a new language well into our adulthood. So these people would not have been amazed that Galileans had learnt to speak languages other than Aramaic. And surely no one who heard her own language being spoken would say that the speaker was drunk! I mean, if Santosh suddenly spoke excellent Malayalam, I might ask him where he learnt the language. But I certainly would not say, “You’re drunk, man!” So the amazement and ridicule must be not be because another language was being spoken.
What then could it be due to? Here Luke is an excellent storyteller. Suppose I told you, “A week ago Uncle Ken and I had a conversation. He had invited me to the ACTS office. I reached a little early. But he got there since we were supposed to talk about things. Some others also came. And then we spoke.” What would your response be?
Luke does a similar thing with the reader. In v. 4 he tells us that the disciples began to speak in other tongues. Then in v. 7 the people ask, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?” and then they go on, “how then do we hear them in our own language?” And by this time we are asking, “What were they saying?” In other words, Luke is telling us where to focus. The people are not commenting about the languages being spoken but about the content – the wonders of God.
Now Luke tells us that the people who responded were God fearing Jews from the world over. What would cause such people to either be amazed or scoff? Consider this. I am a Christian. I visit a church in Mumbai over Christmas. Would I be amazed if I heard about a virgin giving birth to a baby boy? Certainly not! That is already a part of my faith. I would agree with it. But I would neither be amazed nor begin to scoff. What I already know and acknowledge to be a wonder of God will not cause me to be amazed or to scoff.
No! Amazement and ridicule are reactions when presented with something new – something that does not fit the mold something we did not expect. For example, if I visit a church and the preacher proclaims that Jesus had returned, I would perhaps scoff, knowing my skeptic nature. Another person may be amazed. And we know that many people have lost their lives believing that Jesus has returned. The questioning attitude and the dismissive one are human responses to something new and unexpected.
And so we must ask ourselves, what is this something new and unexpected that these first disciples were speaking about? What had they experienced and witnessed that would have been new and unexpected to a Jew?
They had just witnessed the death of Jesus. But the death of a would-be messiah would be neither new nor unexpected. Every few years the Jewish people presented a would-be messiah to their oppressors only to see that person quickly silenced. No, the death of Jesus was quite expected.
The manner of his death too would have not been much of an issue. The Romans had crucified many messianic pretenders to deter future messianic pretenders. But it seems that had as much success as many of our modern schemes of deterrence!
What was unexpected was the resurrection of Jesus. Why was it unexpected? To answer that we must understand what was expected. Let us understand this visually with the aid of some timelines.
First, the Jewish timeline. This is the template for all timelines based on the might is right view of life. See for yourself. Here is the World War II Allied timeline. Exactly the same apart from context specific details.
But what the disciples were announcing amounted to a different timeline. Here is the New Testament timeline.
There are some remarkable differences. First, the Messiah – the deliverer – is rejected and killed. This was not supposed to happen. How could God work through a dead deliverer? Second, this rejected Messiah undergoes a resurrection. Resurrection was supposed to be after the defeat of God’s enemies and the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom. How could it happen while rebellion against God continued? Third, the Spirit had been poured out. This was supposed to happen only to righteous Jews who were raised after the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom. How could this happen while Jerusalem was still under pagan rule?
These are world view altering claims. No one can truly hear them and remain unresponsive. A person who listens will respond – either with a dismissive attitude or an questioning one. Either with “you must be drunk” or with “how can this be?” Either with “no way” or with “show me the way.” When faced with something new and unexpected, humans respond in two ways – disbelief and belief.
We have perhaps lost the ability to see how shocking this timeline is. How can we say our God is victorious when we see evil all around us? The corruption that Anna Hazare and others are fighting against is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the evil that lurks in the human heart. We know it for we too have the thoughts well up inside us, thoughts we may not act on, but thoughts that are nonetheless ours. How can we say our God is victorious when our struggle against evil continues? What does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death when our loved ones still die, when people are murdered, children killed daily? How can we say that Jesus is king when millions suffer due to illnesses and injustices?
These are the questions that cause people to scoff when the “wonders of God” are told to them. Because they are not blind. They can see evil inside and around them. The scoffing is a genuine response to the bizarreness of the gospel. If we mean to address even those who scoff, we must not be complacent with our answers. The coexistence of a victorious God and widespread evil is something we should not deal with lightly. Rather, we must once again engage the other question: What does this mean? For it is in going back and being surprised anew by the bizarreness of the gospel that we learn what is good about this news we are called to bear.