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What Pentecost is All About

Derek Caldwell


That’s what some “God-fearing Jews,” as Luke called them, labeled Peter (a fellow Jewish person) on the Day of Pentecost, roughly 2,000 years ago (Acts 2:13). They felt like Peter and his friends had ruined their party celebrating the end of the grain harvest (Leviticus 23:15-16). The firstfruits of wheat were a sign that God would provide with bounty instead of famine, and this was good news that they thanked God for.

However, by the time these God-fearing Jews traveled to Jerusalem in the first-century, Pentecost was not about only firstfruits. It was a time to remember the providential care of God that brought Israel to the Promised Land in the first place. It was a time to remember the giving of the Law. It was a time, in light of these blessings, to focus on covenant renewal.[1] But Peter ruined it.

The Powder Keg of Pentecost

That year, all of Jerusalem was in a stir. Well, it was always in a stir around the time of high holy festivals. Simply put, the Jews wanted to be rescued from their overlords once again, just as they had been rescued from Egypt in the Passover—a festival they had just celebrated seven weeks prior, which is the first “firstfruits” celebration. They wanted out from under the thumb of Rome and they wanted their scattered brothers and sisters—those displaced by previous rulers—to return home to their national family. Some Jewish revolutionaries in the preceding centuries had tried to free the oppressed Jewish people, but those rebellions had ultimately been stomped out. Because of this, for the most part, Jewish people hated the Romans, and the feeling was very much mutual. The Romans were allegedly unclean, though they might say the same about the Jews. Their uneasy co-existence in the first-century meant that high festivals were supplemented with the increased presence of Roman soldiers.

But that wasn’t the only reason people were on edge. That particular year, during the time of the Passover festivities, a Jewish man claiming to be the Messiah had died. Er, he’d been killed. A claim to be the Messiah is a claim to kingship. Roman officials may not have considered this claim all that serious (and they had a lot of theatrical fun with that claim when they executed Him), but any claim to a throne by anyone other than the emperor was immediately quashed in those days. But the followers of this dead king said He was really alive. And a few days before the Pentecost feast, they said He had ascended into heaven in sort of a coronation ceremony. Yes, coronation, like a king, but a king not over one nation or one empire, but the whole world.

Needless to say, everyone was a bit nervous. Jews were always mad at Romans, especially so during festivals, and the crucifixion of one of their own (even if they did think He was insane) would not sit right. And the Romans were on edge as well. They had to somehow keep peace with historically reactive and uncontrollable people who may be fostering the idea of a universal king in their midst. If they didn’t stop such pernicious rumors, the emperor (or one of his underlings) would have their heads on a plate.

What a mess.

But How Did We Get Here?

This origin story goes all the way back to the beginning. In the opening chapters of the Bible, we learn that Adam and Eve were created for good but decided instead to run headlong into evil in a quest to become gods themselves. They took the advice of a serpent over that of the Creator of the whole world (which probably felt rather silly afterward). This was the “original sin” (Genesis 3:1-7). Feeling shame in the aftermath, they ran from God and blamed each other and God for their hasty decisions (Genesis 3:12-13). Pain and the struggle over power and prestige entered the human story. This schism is further illustrated in the next generation of humans when envy gives birth to hatred and Cain kills his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8).

Later generations continue running from God and eventually, exacerbating the original sin, enter into intimate relationships with demons (Genesis 6:1-4). So, humanity gets increasingly wicked, destroying the earth and destroying each other. God hits the reset button with a flood in hopes of preserving what little is left of humanity in the world, but sin is still apparent on the other side. And it didn’t take long at all for it to rear its ugly head again (Genesis 6:5-8, 7:6-24).

Humanity really is the proverbial bull in a china shop at times, isn’t it? Or rather, aren’t we?

The final straw comes in Genesis 11 when we are told that Noah’s descendants, the people of the world—who were of “one language” still (v. 1)—decided to construct what is known as a ziggurat, a large tower that created a passageway between heaven and earth, in Shinar. That seems innocent enough, right? Perhaps they were simply trying to get God to dwell with them again, as He had dwelled before in Eden (and would eventually dwell with Israel in a tabernacle and a temple).

Apparently, walking with God and talking with God was not their objective. God grows concerned with their ingenuity. But why? Well, if we’ve learned anything about humanity, it’s that we love to rebel and we love to play around with dark things as if we can somehow control them. We are, at our core, the scientists in Jurassic Park. Will we ever learn, or will we be forced to sit through endless sequels of our hubris?

Hubris it is. This “ladder” to heaven was probably meant to draw down fallen angels again, to relive the days of the pre-flood wickedness (ziggurats typically moved in one direction, from the heavens to earth).[2] It’s like the people couldn’t wait to settle down somewhere and summon their old flames once again, the (fallen) ones who got away. If they were anything like their father, the devil, they unquestionably offered to humanity untold riches and honor. Satan did the same to Jesus in the wilderness, but Jesus rebuked his advances (Matthew 4:8-10). To most, though, they seem to relish the Faustian bargain. Any offer for worldly importance, no matter the cost, becomes an offer they can’t refuse. What is this insatiable human desire to entertain darkness as if we can somehow escape its clutches later?

Other interpretations of why they built the ziggurat do exist, but the main point is that whatever it is, it ain’t good.[3] The sin of the Babel ziggurat was that they sought to make a name for themselves, i.e., a name above even God’s name, a name above the Name above all names. Logically speaking, this is pure nonsense, but, in the words of O Brother Where Art Thou’s Ulysses Everett McGill, “it’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”[4]

To slow humanity’s destructive plan to recreate the pre-flood world, God scattered them and confused their languages, thus leading to distinct people groups, cultures, and identities.[5] The city with the tower was renamed Babel because God confused their language, and the term babel means to confuse or mix. While God weakened their ability to rebel by limiting their ability to cooperate with each other, this did not in any way weaken the human affinity for desiring a name above all names. History is littered with people groups and leaders who have battled for this supremacy without rest. Every revolution that seeks to change the world in this way is already doomed for failure for the simple reason that we’re all infected with the same contagion.

This reminds me of a famous experiment. In 1968, an Iowa school teacher named Jane Elliott performed an experiment in her classroom between blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children. When she separated them into groups and then said one group was better than another (cleaner and smarter), the “better” group became more confident but sometimes arrogant and cruel while the “lesser” group became full of resentment and shame. The next week, she reversed the rules and said that she had been mistaken: the formerly “better” group was the “lesser,” and vice versa. Instantly the children changed in their self-perception and their treatment of others. This experiment well sums up the aftermath of the Tower of Babel, where every group is quick to think they are the greatest. And battles for undisputable greatness did ensue.

Winds of Change

Well, that was depressing. The story isn’t over yet, though. In the Book of Joel, God promised to spare people from the destruction this world seems hell-bent on. Yahweh will restore His people and, apparently, other people too. In that day, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:23). And, He says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (2:28).

Joel most likely prophesied after the time of the Babylonian exile of Judah in 586 BC. In a tragic replaying of the scattering and dividing of nations post-Babel, the Israelites had been living in a divided kingdom. Eventually, both kingdoms were divided and further scattered among the nations, though some returned later. Joel’s prophecy is, to them, of a national return, but God has something much larger up his anthropomorphic sleeve.

It is this section of Joel that Peter references on Pentecost. Peter, as it turns out, was not drunk on spirits, but rather he was full of the Holy Spirit. On that Pentecost, all things converged: the firstfruits of Passover, feasting for the new covenant, and a reversal of the necessary but regrettable divisions made in Babel. On that day, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2), and they were filled with the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised would come.

While some had thought these “lesser” Galileans (both a geographically-located people and somewhat synonymous with “Christian” in this setting) were simply drunk babblers, others understood their own languages in the mix. While ancient Galileans weren’t as ignorant as modern commentators might have us believe, it is probably safe to say that they were not all polyglots either, a rather rare gift even today.

This event—the simple gesture of speaking the same language as someone else—constituted a victory over the various isms that arose in the aftermath of scattering the nations. Pentecost is a rebuke of isms: racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, jingoism, favoritism, you name it. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28—that there would no longer be Jew or Gentile—are not a mere statement of sentimentality, a statement meant to erase our differences for the sake of pretending the past never happened, or a statement meant to flatten differences. Paul sought not to erase distinctions but divisions. This was anything but a simple statement to make in the first century when Greeks considered themselves loftier than Jews and vice versa. The coming of the Spirit was God’s not-so-polite way of saying to Gehenna with that noise.

A New People

Cyril, a fourth-century bishop of the Jerusalem church where the Holy Spirit descended, wrote that “the Holy Spirit is no respecter of persons, for he seeks not dignities but piety of soul.”[6] Indeed, the Holy Spirit’s work inaugurates the Church, the most multicultural collection of people that had and has ever been assembled. In the words of theologian John Meyendorff, the Holy Spirit “overcomes division, contradiction, and corruption. He Himself is the ‘symphony’ of creation, which will be fully realized in the eschatological fulfillment.”[7]

It is not lost on me that this beautiful vision of the Church has been far from the image many people have witnessed in its local and sometimes global manifestations. While many Christians today grieve this past, I am confident that none have grieved it as much as the Holy Spirit Himself. But He is still at work today and somehow, through the missteps of His people, God still moves and still brings us together. As the old saying goes, God uses crooked sticks to make straight paths. It looks uneven on this side of the eschaton, but the day will come when we will see all the Spirit has been doing and we will see our brothers and sisters across time, space, and race for the first time. We will be humbled. We might grieve. And then, in sheer gratitude at God’s grace, we will rejoice, all together, forever.

In light of recent deadly racist attacks and school shootings, this day takes on even more significance this year. These are terrible reminders of the infection that is within us all, though disastrously exacerbated in some. But it is also a reminder of that divine spirit that beckons us, the one that fills a heart with love. Pentecost is the war cry of a people who refuse to let violence and hatred have the last word. It is a foretaste of the peace to come, the new heart we can all claim as our own. Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus!

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[1] See Rich Robinson, “The Jewish Roots of the Feast of Pentecost,” Jews for Jesus, April 27, 2021, https://jewsforjesus.org/blog/the-jewish-roots-of-the-feast-of-pentecost.

[2] To learn a bit more about the context of the Tower of Babel story, see Michael S. Heiser, “The Tower of Babel Story: What Really Happened?” Faithlife, accessed May 26, 2022,https://www.logos.com/grow/really-happened-tower-babel/.

[3] Other interpretations I’ve heard include that they built a ziggurat to invade heaven and take it by force or to create a tower so high that floodwaters could not reach it. Others exist, but I find these two particularly entertaining to consider!

[4] O Brother, Where Art Thou? directed by Joel Coen (Touchstone Pictures, 2001), 1:47.

[5] In more recent times we have witnessed this phenomenon in instances of formerly fringe ideas and groups becoming more mainstream because the internet allows separated groups to find each other and join as one. On a more innocuous level, there has been an increased interest in flat earth societies. Much less innocuously, conspiratorial ideas are more popular as ever as well, from InfoWars online following (groups who taught, for example, that the Sandy Hook shooting was a government hoax) to Jesus mythicism videos. Lastly, of course, we know the internet has allowed the joining together of various racist and terrorist groups as well, aiding the expediency of their devilish plots.

[6] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.19 in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds.), Edwin Hamilton Gifford (trans.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume VII: S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory of Nazianzen (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1894), 129.

[7] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 174.