What goes up must come down.
The earthly ministry of Jesus culminates in his going up: up to Jerusalem, up to Skull Hill, up onto the cross, up from death to life, up to the Mount of Olives, and finally up into heaven. But the story of the gospel, Luke explains, is only what Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1).
The next part of his activity on earth, which Luke focuses on in Acts, takes place through the church. And it involves a coming down.
Pentecost and Babel
The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is often associated with Babel, and with good reason. People are not scattering, God comes down and works a miracle of language, people scatter throughout the world, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham begins.
At Babel, this scattering was an act of judgment in response to disobedience, bringing incomprehension and fracture. At Pentecost, it’s an act of blessing in response to obedience, bringing new understanding and unity.
Pentecost, in an important sense, is Babel’s reversal.
Pentecost and Sinai
Yet Pentecost also echoes the exodus, particularly the encounter on the mountain at Sinai. Some of these connections are obvious:
- The law was given to Israel about seven weeks after the Passover; the Spirit is given to the church about seven weeks after the cross.
- The anointed leader has gone up, and the divine presence comes down.
- There are tangible physical signs: a great noise from heaven, whether thunder and trumpets or a mighty rushing wind, and the descent of God in fire.
- The gift that defines God’s people—first the law, then the Spirit—is given.
- The people are commissioned as kings and priests, and the tabernacle/temple is established.
- A sermon is preached, calling for obedience.
- A new covenant has started.
But there are also subtler echoes, which indicate that Pentecost is in some ways the reversal of Sinai.
Sinai was a moment of national apostasy. Moses came down the mountain to find the people embroiled in the most wicked act in their short history: worshiping a golden calf, and thanking it for leading them out of slavery. God condemned them as a stiff-necked generation. Three thousand people were cut down by the sword and died. From that time on, the promise of priesthood was limited to the Levites, who responded to the Lord’s call.
Pentecost, on the other hand, is a moment of national blessing. Peter confronts the people after the most wicked act in their history: the crucifixion of their Messiah. Yet his confrontation is shot through with mercy. He promises forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead of condemning them as a wicked generation, he offers them the chance to save themselves from a wicked generation. Three thousand people are cut to the heart by the word and saved. From that time on, the promise is for all God’s people, who respond to his call.
When you press in to take hold of your inheritance, though, you face opposition. Both Israel and the early church—as they begin to obey their God-given commission to “go into all the land/earth, for I am with you”—face enemies from outside. This is to be expected: the powers that be are not impressed to hear that their time is up. But in both cases, these external enemies aren’t the real problem. The Sanhedrin are no more able to stop Peter and John than the Amalekites or the Canaanites were able to stop Joshua and Caleb. Swords and spears, beatings and prison sentences, are no match for the prayers of God’s people.
The real problem, of course, comes from within—from sexual immorality, pride, idol worship, injustice. Just as Israel’s victories were marred by the greed of Achan, so the church’s progress was marred by the greed of Ananias and Sapphira (Josh. 7:1–26; Acts 5:1–10). Achan’s greed is simple theft, whereas Ananias and Sapphira’s is exaggeration and deceit, but the root problem is the same. Joshua and Peter, respectively, express amazement that people could sin in such ways, given all the blessings they’ve received. And then the shocker: both families are singled out, rebuked, and killed—to cleanse the people and cause them to fear. As hard as the stories are to read, they point to the reality that it’s the inside (rather than the outside) of the cup that makes it unclean (cf. Matt. 23:26).
Pentecost and the Imperfect, Triumphant Church
The gift of the Spirit doesn’t make all of the church’s problems go away. The apostolic community still faces apostasy and arrest, division and disappointment. But whereas the gift of the law was accompanied by judgment, the gift of the Spirit brings salvation.
As Paul would put it a few years later: “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).