So with all this in mind (and I know it’s a lot of material), let’s take a fresh run at the first part of Acts — and read as a Jew would have read Luke’s book.
(Act 1:4-5 ESV) 4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
While Jesus does not deny the continuation of water baptism (which is plainly taught in Acts and elsewhere in the NT), he places an unambiguous emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit promised by John. The outpouring of the Spirit, according to the Prophets, would mark the coming of the Kingdom.
(Act 2:1-4 ESV) When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Many commentators have compared the tongues of fire to Mt. Sinai. I think Peterson nails the exegesis in the Pillar commentary (quickly becoming a favorite of mine) —
In the perspective of Acts, the messianic judgment is mercifully delayed, giving the Spirit-filled disciples the chance to preach repentance and offer the hope of salvation to all (e.g. 3:19-21; 10:42-43; 17:30-31). Again, it is unlikely that these tongues are meant to represent the other tongues (heterais glōssais) with which they began to speak (v. 4). This visionary experience is best understood against the background of passages like Exodus 3:2-5; 19:18; 24:17; 40:38, where fire symbolizes the presence of the Holy One to communicate with his people and guide them. The Pentecostal gift is God’s empowering presence with his people in a new and distinctive way, revealing his will and leading them to fulfill his purposes for them as the people of the New Covenant. When Luke says the tongues like fire separated and came to rest on each of them, the implication is that the blessing of God’s Spirit was for each individual member of the believing community. The Spirit’s work in binding them together as the nascent church is illustrated in 2:41-47.
David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), n.p.
And so we see again both a national call to repentance and promise of the Spirit as well as an individual call and promise. God wishes that all of Israel would repent, but he is allowing each Jew to decide for himself, and the curses and blessings will result as each decides. That is, the covenant is becoming more and more individualized, as we each decide whether to follow Jesus, but at this point in God’s narrative, he is transitioning from a covenant with a nation — the Law of Moses — to the new covenant of Jer 31:31 ff —in which God will directly operate on the hearts of each Kingdom individual, not just the King and not just a handful of prophets.
And so the division of the fire from a singular fire above Mt. Sinai to separate fires above each of the 120 disciples speaking demonstrates vividly that God’s relationship is to become much more individualized. Much of the old covenant remains. Election is still the election of Israel (now the church, as a continuation of Israel), not individuals. The nation of Israel will suffer the curses of Deu 28 and 30 as a nation — except for the remnant that repents. But repentance is one person at a time — as vividly revealed not only in the individualized tongues of fire but individualized baptism.
We must avoid the temptation to insist on one view or another. Rather, God is adding an individual relationship to the national relationship given through Moses and the government-by-king relationship given through David. And the early chapters of Acts reveal this transition being realized.
(Act 2:5 ESV) Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.
Peter preaches to an audience of Jews gathered in Jerusalem from across the Roman Empire to celebrate Pentecost. Pentecost is 50 days after the Passover, and so there’s no reason to assume that these people are identical with those present at the crucifixion. There’d surely have been some overlap, but these are not one and the same people.
It’s important that these Jews are called “devout,” eulabes, meaning God-fearing, pious, or reverent. Luke makes it a point to let us know that these were not evil or godless people, even though Peter will soon call on them to repent. And that only makes sense. These were pilgrims who cared enough about God to travel great distances at great expense and risk to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost. This was, for most, a once in a lifetime experience. They obviously cared about the things of God.
The Outpouring of the Spirit
Peter begins his sermon quoting from Joel –
(Act 2:16-21 ESV) 16 “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-32. The references to “Lord” in the Hebrew are references to YHWH. And this is one of the several passages built on Deu 30:6 in which God’s promise to circumcise the Jews’ hearts at the end of the Exile and beginning of the Kingdom is attributed to the outpouring of the Spirit. Joel goes further than most prophecies, making it clear that this outpouring of the Spirit will be given to men and women, both, and the result will be salvation.