One of the most disappointing opening scenes of a movie I’ve ever watched was that of Executive Decision. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet watched this 1996 action classic, you’re never going to.) The top-billed cast member was Steven Seagal, surely the greatest living actor of our time. If he’s still alive. From some of his recent straight-to-video releases I’m not entirely sure. But how that guy never won an Oscar…
Anyway, I was excited to be watching the latest Seagal movie, particularly as it was in his pre-puffy days and he was still doing all his own martial arts stunts. Can you imagine my disappointment when he dies in the opening scene, and the movie is left in the capable but – let’s face it – not-quite-as-cool hands of Kurt Russell? I charitably gave Kurt some time to establish himself as a martial-arts cool dude, but he never really lived up to the opportunity he was given to be Steven Seagal’s anointed successor.
Acts is a bit like Executive Decision, and I’ve made some tenuous movie links in my time so I should know. Jesus turns up in the opening scene and – OK, he doesn’t die, but he disappears from the plotline back up into the sky. He turns up again briefly in Saul’s vision, but basically he’s no longer in the sequel. In the first scene, he passes his resurrection-won authority on to his chosen successors, and then leaves them to establish their credentials in Jerusalem. Will they fumble the opportunity, like Kurt Russell, or will they demonstrate that they are now the ones who speak for God? This will be one of the key plotlines for the first 5 chapters of Acts.
But the apostles have one advantage Kurt Russell never had: the Holy Spirit. The one whose acts of power would back up their claim to speak for God and have access to his power. Today’s reading narrates how this happened:Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
There’s a lot of symbolism here, as well as some very real power being displayed.
Firstly, what’s the significance of its being Pentecost? It was a Jewish festival (also called the “festival of weeks”) that occurred fifty days after Passover (hence the name “pentecost” via Latin) which celebrated the harvest. It was when the firstfruits of the harvest were presented to God. Here, we have the firstfruits of God’s coming harvest among his people, as Jews from all over the Mediterranean heard the good news and became believers.
The blowing of a violent wind may be a symbol of judgement, in which wind blows the chaff away (see Luke 3:16-17), or more likely a symbol of regeneration, as the “wind” or “breath” that gave life to the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14. God’s Spirit/wind (same word in Greek) was giving life to his people.
The tongues of fire were symbolic of God’s presence, like the fire in the bush when God appeared to Moses, and the fire that guided the Israelites in the desert by night.
This then enabled them to speak in other tongues. This was of immediate practical benefit, since Jews from all around the empire were able to hear the message in their own language. But it also is symbolic. In Peter’s speech (which we’ll get to next week), he paints it as a fulfilment of a prophecy in Joel. This talks about the Spirit being poured out on all people when Israel truly returns from exile, involving prophetic speech and visions. More broadly, it’s a sign that Babel is being reversed. No longer will people be divided by language as the gospel re-unites people from all backgrounds and languages into the one family of God.
But already, all of this is having an effect. The crowd is amazed (v7). Aren’t these uneducated Galileans speaking in our language? Isn’t this Kurt Russell pulling some awesome martial arts moves?
The authorising of the apostles as God’s new spokespeople continues, as the power of God’s Spirit is poured out on them. Stay tuned.