God’s Harvest Program
The three central feasts of Judaism, at which every male was commanded by the Old Testament to gather, have symbolic, typological significance:
Passover speaks of redemption (the Cross).
Pentecost is connected with harvest (the Church).
Tabernacles anticipates full blessing (the Kingdom).
Leviticus 23:17 and Num 28:26 connect Pentecost with harvest and first-fruits. Here in Acts 2, God’s harvest program for this age commences and its first-fruits (3000 souls) are gathered. The cross lies behind and the kingdom lies ahead.
The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
2:1. They were all with one accord. Unity of heart characterizes those gathered. Thus the Spirit falls upon them to create that permanent unity which is the Church (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 4:4-6). It is as though they had, through prayer and waiting on the Lord, drawn so closely together that God is pleased to make their union an eternal one. Their spiritual unity made natural the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit. (God may fulfill His promises when we are prepared to receive them.)
2:2. The wind is an apt picture of the Spirit, invisible yet known by its effects. We can feel it, even as the Spirit is felt breathing upon our hearts and lives. We can see it bend the trees, even as the Spirit bends stubborn souls to the will of God.
Rushing in this verse is, pheromonēs. This verb is used in 2 Pet 1:17-18, 21 for the voice of God and of prophetic inspiration. The symbolism here probably has to do with the outpouring of the prophetic gift (cf. 2:17-18). In the words, It filled all the house where they were sitting, we seem to have a plain allusion to the filling of the Spirit (cf. v 4).
2:3. Divided tongues, as of fire. The Spirit imparts tongues that are ablaze with God’s truth (cf. Jer 5:14). Here a reference to the gift of tongues as symbolized by “tongues” of “fire” is manifest in context. Hence I would take diamerizomenai (KJV “cloven”) as either middle “dividing (themselves)” or, more likely, passive “being divided.” The visual image described may be that of a flickering flame with its apparently multiple tips. Symbolically the fact of the individuals whose tongues speak more than one language is suggested.
What Was Spoken by Joel
2:4-13. Languages originated in the dispersion of the nations at the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). The Jewish race, exhibiting the same pride and self-will as the nations, was similarly dispersed when Jerusalem, like Babel, was destroyed. Hence they participated through dispersion in the Gentile confusion of tongues.
The question, “whatever could this mean?” (Acts 2:12) finds its answer in the sign character of the gift of tongues (1 Cor 14:20-22). Tongues were expressly given as a sign to the Jewish people of God’s power and willingness to overcome the effects of their dispersion. The Jews from the many nations represented here might have been re-gathered according to Old Testament promise had they believed in Jesus as the Messiah. These Jews were ideal representatives of the dispersion, being devout men (v 5) and from every nation under heaven (v 5). It was an ideal occasion for the presentation of this offer, yet—although 3000 were converted—increasingly the nation rejected God’s offer of grace and re-gathering. Hence, to this day, Israel’s Babel-like dispersion (actually initiated by Babylon) continues and the Jews of the world are still to be found speaking the many tongues of the nations. But, though Israel refused to be gathered, God is gathering others nonetheless (John 11:52).
Modern claims to the gift of tongues lack evidence that the gift is being used for its stated purpose as a sign to Israel (1 Cor 14:20-22).
Though the baptism of the Spirit evidently occurs here, it is not specifically mentioned. None of the phenomena are synonymous with it. (Nor need these be repeated when a soul is so baptized. If it is wrong to insist that one being baptized with the Holy Spirit hear a noise of wind, or see a tongue of fire, it is also wrong to insist that he must speak in tongues.) The baptism of the Spirit, here as well as in our experience, is invisible—unseen, unfelt by human sense, totally supernatural. It is important to see that it was so from the first.
Had the special, supernatural events here recorded not taken place, the disciples might never have realized that it was then that the promise of the baptism was fulfilled. They might have been baptized without knowing it. We do not need these signs now, for we believe we have been baptized by the Spirit on the basis of the Word of God. These were but the tokens and evidences of the Spirit’s presence. The central message to us of this passage lies, not in the unique and special sign-gift of tongues, but in the power of the Spirit to transform timid men and women into bold witnesses of the Savior.
The special manifestation of the Spirit’s presence here was not the unseen baptism, but Spirit-filled men speaking in languages otherwise unknown to them. This filling seems both here and elsewhere in Luke/Acts to be mainly a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit by which the filled person becomes His mouthpiece (cf. esp., Luke 1:41, 67; Acts 4:8, 31; 9:17 with 9:20; 13:9).
The filling of the Spirit is distinct from the baptism, yet related. An empty glass submerged (baptized) in water will be filled by it. So here, although they are waiting for the baptism specifically (cf. Acts 1:5), yet when it comes they are filled (2:4). They were empty of self, open to God, waiting on Him in prayer, united in heart (2:1), and thus ready to be filled. Filling is an experience especially to be expected of those who are submerged in the Spirit. Though supernatural and sovereignly bestowed, it nevertheless comes upon prepared vessels.
Note how Peter has scarcely begun to speak when he begins to pour forth the Scripture. The quoted passage, verses 17-21, is the longest quotation of Old Testament in Acts. Note also verses 25-28 and 30, 31, 34, and 39 for quotations or allusions to the Word. The Apostle is full of the Spirit and hence full of the Word. The experience recorded here finds illustration in John 2:1-11. For 3 1/2 years, and then intensively for 40 days (1:3), our Lord had filled the stone water pots of their hearts with the water of His Word, supplied through His servants the prophets. Now on the day of Pentecost the mysterious miracle occurs and the water of the Word is transformed into the wine of the Spirit. The joys of salvation are partaken of by 3000 on that day. “These men are full of new wine.” Wrong, yet right. They were full of the new wine of the Spirit freshly poured out from heaven (cf. Luke 5:37-39).
Peter Speaks (Acts 2:14-18)
2:14. The only personal reference on Peter’s part from verses 14-36 is in this verse, hearken to my words. He dwells not at all upon his personal experience or inner feelings. (He does not even bother to deny their charge as to himself, saying These are not drunken not “I am not” v 15.) He speaks only the Word of God, only of Christ throughout. Preoccupation with our inner experience of the Spirit is not a sign of His influence, but occupation with Christ and His Word is. Moreover, he appeals not at all to the supernatural wind, or the cloven tongues of fire, or any of the other supernatural phenomena; instead he appeals directly to the Word of God (v 16). Spiritual experiences are validated only by the Word.
2:15-16. It was no accident that the Holy Spirit descended in the third hour of the day (v 15). For it was the Third Person of the Triune God Who had come to earth. Moreover, this was, in a sense, the third hour of Israel’s historic day. God’s presence was manifested among His people by means of:
• The Shekinah glory (Old Testament)
• The Incarnation (Gospels)
• The coming of the Spirit (Acts)
Thus successively we have the presence of the Father (cf. Matt 17:5 for the Father’s connection with the cloud of glory), the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The patience of God is revealed in this. The Shekinah glory was driven away by Israel’s sin (cf. Ezekiel), the Son was crucified and yet, here, the Spirit is poured out in the Church as a witness to Israel. It was the third hour of Israel’s day and it was also the last hour of opportunity before the judgment of God (cf. the quoted prophecy of Joel, esp. vv 19, 20). These were the “last days” (v 17). Though 1900 years have passed in the long-suffering of God, all 1900 have been in character and quality the “last days.” The final stage of history for this age is here.
2:17-18. These verses contain a hint of the broader outreach of the gospel. Note all flesh in verse 17, implying Gentiles; and then observe:
• Jews (your sons; your daughters; your young men; and your old men)
• Gentiles (my servants; my handmaidens)
The doulous and doulas imply ownership. Thus God is to pour out His Spirit ultimately upon all who belong to Him. (Christians all are bondslaves and bondmaidens of the Lord, bought out of sin’s slave market, 1 Cor 6:19-20).
Note that by the Spirit Peter adds to the quotation the word, My which is not found in Joel, yet it is true to Joel; for “the servants” and “the handmaids” of Joel 2:29 are such as belong to God. The original prophecy leaves scope for both those who were servants socially and those who were servants spiritually. Often in the early Church converts were both. A religion of slaves some might call it.
Note that the concept of all flesh is amplified by the fact that the Spirit is poured out without distinction of:
• Gender: your sons and your daughters.
• Age: your young men and your old men
• Station: servants and handmaidens
Observe the distinction between young men and old men in terms of visions and dreams. A vision may be seen when we are awake. Dreams come when we are asleep. In old age men tend to rest and sleep more, young men are vigorous and active. Thus the two terms suggest a basic difference in temperament. Dreams, moreover, spring out of our experience, being constructed out of various components of things we have seen, heard, felt, etc. The old man tends to know God’s will in terms of past experience, while the young man tends to know it in terms of a “vision” of what can be done for God and what God can do. The Christian Church needs the vision of its young men, tempered by the caution and experience of its old men. (Dreams in the Bible are often warnings. Hence they are naturally linked to the caution born of experience.)
The Spirit’s coming is inseparable from witness (cf. Acts 1:8, Acts 2:4 and John 15:26-27). Note that witness is His effect upon the sons and daughters (shall prophesy, v 17), upon servants and handmaidens (and they shall prophesy—a phrase added by Peter, v 18). Note also that the prophecy divides naturally into a threefold division, each of which contains two groups:
• Sons and daughters
• Young men and old men
• Servants and handmaidens
The numbers 2 and 3 together are significant of witness. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established” (Deut 19:15). Note that we have, in these divisions, two or three witnesses. The sons and daughters and the servants and handmaidens are specifically said to bear witness in prophesying. But we may infer that the old men and young men will do the same; for they are most likely to tell forth what they have seen in visions and dreams. If the Spirit came to bear witness, and He indwells us, it is most natural that we should become witnesses. Witness was the first evident effect of His coming in Acts 2.
2:19-20. Witness brings responsibility to men and portends judgment to those who reject it. Thus the prophecy of Joel moves from the thought of testimony through an outpoured Spirit, to that of the judgment of the day of the Lord in these verses. The fearful signs here given will announce the imminent arrival of the Lord in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and obey not the gospel, who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (cf. 2 Thess 1:7-9).
It is therefore clear that these signs announce the everlasting doom of those yet unsaved. Hence they may be viewed as symbolic of eternal judgment. Note:
1. Blood—symbol of death; the first step to eternal doom (Heb 9:27).
2. Fire—symbol of divine punishment; clearly turning our minds to hell, the lake of fire.
3. Vapor of smoke—symbol of torment (cf. Rev 14:11). Fire without smoke is not burning anything. Smoke signals that fire is affecting something which therefore is feeling its intensity and effect. Thus smoke fittingly suggests the effect of eternal fire upon those who are in it, i.e., tormenting them (cf. Luke 16:23-24).
4. The sun shall be turned into darkness—symbol of the “blackness of darkness forever.” Hell is the place where men who have turned their backs on the Light of the World will suffer the agony of an eternal night.
5. And the moon into blood—second reference to blood; symbol of death, hence a symbol of the “second death.” A darkened sky lighted by a blood-red orb would be a dreadful sight. But the darkness of hell is a place where but one thing is really visible-the experience of the second death. (If we could see souls in hell, we would indeed see them conscious and existing. For whereas the first death is an experience producing unconsciousness, the second death is a conscious experience of death. But whereas they exist, there is nothing worth existing for, whereas they are conscious, there is nothing worth being conscious of. To such a sight one might well respond, “these exist, but do not live.” For there is nothing here that deserves the name of life. This is the second death.)
Blood, fire, vapor of smoke are doubtless signs in the earth beneath and represent the physical side of eternal judgment. The moon and sun are signs in heaven above and represent the spiritual side of eternal judgment.
Calling On His Name
2:21. Calling upon the name of the Lord is distinct from saving faith (Rom 10:12-15). There are five steps revealed in Rom 10:12-15:
1. Sending of preacher (v 15)
2. Preaching (v 15)
3. Hearing (v 14)
4. Believing (v 14)
5. Calling (v 13)
Verse 21 is not to be removed from its context. When the cataclysms of verses 19 and 20 are taking place—the world seeming to be on the verge of destruction—it would be natural to cry out: “Lord save me!” But the unregenerate cannot truly do this. “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom 10:14).
When Paul stood before Festus he “appealed” to Caesar (Acts 25:11), a privilege granted to citizens of Rome, but not to mere provincials. The verb is the same here, epikalesēai. Christians became known as those who “called upon” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 9:14, 21; 1 Cor 1:2). Christians recognized a higher authority than Caesar, and a greater throne than his. They were citizens of a heavenly city—and just as the Roman citizen appealed over the head of subordinate judges—so Christians appealed over the head of every earthly judge to the Judge of all. Their Lord and Savior sat on the right hand of the majesty on high. (Likewise we, in time of need, can appeal above earthly injustice, or above the circumstances of life—we call on the name of the Lord.) Stephen (Acts 7:59) is the first illustration of this privilege. Condemned and executed by an earthly court, he appealed for acceptance in the presence of a higher Judge. (Is Stephen’s the first soul to go directly to heaven?) Thus “calling on the name of the Lord” is a privilege of those who are already citizens of heaven.
It will be of no avail—as it would have been of no avail to a Roman provincial to appeal to Caesar—for the unregenerate in their hour of need to appeal to God. (Of course God has ever the prerogative to hear, but the unsaved crier has no claim to be heard. No doubt Caesar could have heard a slave’s appeal if he had desired.) In the day predicted by Joel many will no doubt desire deliverance, but the right of appeal will belong alone to those who first have put faith in that name. “How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?”
Hence, Joel 2:32 seems to link the deliverance particularly with the (believing) remnant. They will be rescued from the catastrophes taking place at that time.
The great privilege of Christianity is the right of the believer in all circumstances to appeal to, call upon, the name of our Lord Jesus to whom all authority in heaven and on earth is given. It is the right of heavenly citizenship. Appeal to Caesar was necessarily a public act. So the concept of “appealing to” or “calling upon” the name of the Lord Jesus appears to be interwoven with the public profession of that name (Acts 9:14, 21 and Rom 10:10-13). Peter’s quotation from Joel’s prophecy sets forth that privilege in its most primitive form. For, at this stage, the Second Coming to establish the kingdom was theoretically possible for that generation (cf. 1:6-7). Thus all of the cataclysms foretold by Joel could have occurred and believers could have “called on the name of the Lord” for deliverance from them. But verse 21 is still true on many levels, quite apart from the Tribulation catastrophes.
Zane C. Hodges taught Greek and NT Exegesis at Dallas Seminary. He went to be with the Lord in 2008. This is from his forthcoming commentary, The Acts of the Risen Christ.