The Significance of Pentecost: A Study of Acts 2


This paper will demonstrate that the baptism of the Holy Spirit initiated at Pentecost, as detailed in Acts 2[1], marked the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ and established the ongoing, multicultural commission of each of its members. Particular aspects of this thesis will be defined and defended through exegesis, primarily rooted within Acts 2:1-4, which details both the concrete and metaphorical meanings of such phrases as baptism, other tongues, and fire (Matt 3:11), as well as academic extraction regarding the debates surrounding whether there are to be one or two baptisms, or what is applicably meant by “speaking in tongues.” The metaphorical support for the main thesis will be gleaned from parallel scriptural passages which exemplify the range of meaning within specific terminology associated with the Pentecost phenomenon and prophesy of Acts 2, such as sifting “like wheat,” the Great Commission and empowerment for ministry (Matt 28:19; Luke 22:31). The purpose of this study will not be to allegorically “define the undefinable” work of the supernatural Spirit of God within his church, but will be to explore and unite the literal and spiritual concepts demonstrated in the Pentecost event of Acts 2 with other patterns present in Scripture. Modern application regarding the concepts explored within this paper will focus on multicultural service within the Christian church via the continuing leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian Pneumatology of Acts 2

As aforementioned, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, initiated at Pentecost, marked the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ and established the ongoing, multicultural commission of each of its members (Acts 2). The unusual event of Pentecost in Acts 2, commonly known as “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” is set within the unusual book, The Acts of the Apostles, which, according to Blomberg, is “…the only existing work inside or outside the canon of Scripture to describe this first generation of church history.”[2] Therefore, Acts may be viewed as the earliest model for the Christian church. Seemingly contrary to the book’s title, Peter is the only initially-appointed apostle of Christ of primary importance within this book.[3] Paul plays the other significant role. It is worth consideration that this apostolic distinction, from appointed (Peter by Christ) to anointed (Paul by the Spirit), adds to the meaning of Acts as a whole, providing an illustration that “apostle” may entail the broader scope of apostello within this book, or “one who is sent forth…entrusted with a foreign mission” (Matt 10:2; Acts 9:1-7).[4]

The unusual events in Acts present “unique problems in application” to which Blomberg offers the following:

One fundamental hermeneutical axiom in answering these questions [regarding application] is to distinguish consistent patterns of behavior from multiple contexts within the book (and within the rest of the New Testament more generally)…[T]he book of Acts appears in a unique position in the progress of God’s revelation to humanity. …Jesus’ first group of disciples [were transformed] from an exclusively Jewish sect centered in Jerusalem to what one generation later had become a predominantly Gentile movement scattered throughout the Roman Empire.[5]

The phenomenal and prophetical aspects present within Acts 2 provide for more “implication” than “application,” perhaps allowing for an element of freedom in individual interpretation and expression. Ethically, however, this interpretive freedom warrants comparison between the events of Pentecost and the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Therefore, in addition to Acts and New Testament patterns, this paper will also include comparisons to Old Testament contexts as referenced in Peter’s sermon regarding the proper interpretation of the spiritual events of Acts 2 (vs. 14-36). In essence, the Spirit’s activity, as recorded within the book of the earliest church, has ingeniously led that church into the remainder of the Word of God for interpretive guidance, thus making the Church of Christ biblically astute throughout the generations.

Proving the baptism of Acts 2 as the exact fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy, per Peter’s sermon, is beyond the scope of this paper,[6] however, to disallow any room for scriptural comparisons in order to extract meaning restricts Trinitarian pneumatology which, “…faces two primary tasks: an account of the Spirit’s mysterious personal being and…his immediate personal action” (Acts 2:14-36)[7] Clearly, the Holy Spirit mysteriously encountered those attending the Pentecost of Acts 2 and Peter resorted to prophetical and metaphorical interpretations in his public explanation of the event (Acts 2:14-36). Any appropriate study on the nature of the Holy Spirit will leave room for unanswered questions and, therefore, the opportunity for faith. Blomberg states, “Luke [the author of Acts] clearly sees the work of the early church as ‘Spirit-directed.’”[8] The name of the third person of the Trinity, Holy Spirit, is used primarily in the New Testament, and primarily by Luke, with the Acts of the Apostles notably having the highest saturation of this name. Therefore, this paper will approach the study of Acts 2 in similar fashion to Luke’s overall intention of Spirit-direction with reverence for the Spirit’s mysterious interruption of the Pentecost celebration of Acts 2, an event of thanksgiving to himself wherein he opened the door to enter and begin the church (Luke 13:23-27; Rev 3:20).[9]

One cannot express or realize a proper pneumatological evaluation of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” without granting the triune God both a contemporary and historical place to lead and govern the study simply because the baptism exemplified in Acts 2:1-4 was “poured out” by God, done in the name of Jesus, with the gift of the Holy Spirit to follow to each recipient (Matt 3:11; Acts 2:2-4, 17-18, 22-24, 33, 38). Acts 2 illustrates a Trinity event—not something impersonal, nor conjured or imagined by man. Herrick explains:

The term pneumatology comes from two Greek words…pneuma meaning “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit”…and logos meaning “word,” “matter,” or “thing.” [P]neumatology refers to the study of the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit…[which] includes…the personality.., deity.., and the work of the Spirit throughout Scripture. The personality (and therefore “personhood”) of the Holy Spirit has been denied by certain groups throughout the history of the church…some refer to it [him] as “God’s active force,” almost in a Gnostic sense of an emanation from the one, true God. Before we look at the biblical evidence, it is important to point out that there is no necessary connection in the Koine Greek between grammatical gender and personal gender so it is simply false to say that since the Greek noun pneuma is neuter, the spirt must be an “it.”[10]

This distinction is significant in that rendering the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” a triune event links Acts 2 with the remainder of Scripture; reinforces the credibility of Peter’s own reference to the Old Testament prophesy of both Joel and David; and adds to the universality and continuation of the aftereffects of the baptism presented until the Lord’s return (2 Tim 3:16; John 1:1; Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:5-13, 16-21, 34-36, 41; Acts 10). To depersonalize the event of Acts 2 (by referring to the Spirit as “it”) isolates the event from the remaining Word breathed of God, therefore, stripping metaphorical yet biblical patterns from spiritual and practical interpretation, which Peter, Paul and Jesus openly employed (2 Tim 3:16; Mark 10:38; Acts 2:14-36).[11] For example, a strict stance against Peter’s own metaphorical interpretation of the events at Pentecost (…this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel…) also restricts faith in the continuation of the Holy Spirit’s work into the modern age by segregating his baptism to one day in time, or to a select few (2 Tim 3:16; Acts 2:14-36; Matt 28:19-20). Can God’s eternal Spirit be so limited (Gen 1:26; Matt 12:32; Mark 3:29, 13:11; John 3:34, 14:16-26, 16:7; 1 Pet 3:18)? This approach to the Pentecostal event of Acts 2 would be similar to insisting that God said, “Let there be light,” but interjecting a manmade cut-off date that is simply not available in the biblical text, nor in general revelation (Gen 1:3). There is still light present today, both spiritual and literal (divinity; sun), just as the Holy Spirit’s work continues within the church of Christ today (Gen 1:3; John 1:1-5; Heb 1:3). A cut-off date is absent from Acts 2, but continuation phraseology and behavioral patterns are present, such as the Gentile experience of Acts 10; Peter’s specific linkage of past and future prophesy; “in the last days,” being plural and purposely undefined; as well as the length of prophesy, “before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come,” being future tense and calculably unknown (Matt 28:19-20; 24:36; Acts 1:7-8; 2:16-18, 20-21, 33). Peter’s sermon strongly suggests the outpouring of the Spirit is to be continued until Christ’s second coming, as paralleled in the Great Commission’s “end of the age” pattern, in which the Holy Spirit is also personally included within Trinitarian baptism rites and “all the nations” are addressed as well (Acts 2:5, 14-36 & 10:44-48; Matt 28:16-20). Further, the manifestation of a rush of wind at Pentecost, followed by intelligible languages of Jews from “every nation under heaven,” as spoken by common Galileans, presents an amazing perplexity with no natural explanation; this testifies this baptism was not instigated by man (Acts 2:1-13). The result was three-thousand initial salvations and countless more as evidenced by the number of saved Christians on the earth today (Acts 2:41, 47; 10:44-48). Had the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred only twice in history—that is, with no individual, inner-workings of the Spirit within man, there would very likely be no current evidence of the Christian church or salvation present on the earth today (Acts 2, 10; Matt 3:11).

Pentecost: Significance of Languages

The Holy Spirit chose to initially baptize at the Pentecost celebrated in Acts 2 (Matt 3:11; Acts 1:5, 2:1-4). This event marked “the Festival of Weeks, a day-long agricultural festival…[which] celebrates the fruits of the harvest… The Spirit arrives…into a setting overflowing with sojourners…”[12] The text indicates the Jews present in Jerusalem were “devout” and “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). “Every nation under heaven” according to Albert Barnes is, “[a] general expression meaning all parts of the earth”[13] As previously established, the usage of metaphorical terminology is present within the context of Acts 2. There is a literal aspect of the listing of actual nations and a metaphorical aspect which details the “universal participation” divinely inferred upon the church (Acts 2:6-11, 20-21, 39).[14] This metaphorical aspect is significant in that: 1) it establishes the all-inclusive, or multicultural, nature of the church of Christ according to the character of God, and 2) it illustrates his continuation of will from the Old Testament until the return of Christ, i.e. “from every nation under heaven;” “all mankind;” “everyone;” “before the great and glorious day;” “until I make…” (Acts 2:5, 17, 18, 21, 28, 35). Blomberg states the significance of the celebration and diverse languages of Acts 2:

Pentecost completes the sequence of events that began with Christ’s death, included his resurrection and ascension, and now provides the opportunity for God to bestow his Spirit upon all his people. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came upon certain Israelites temporarily for special acts of power and service; now he will permanently live within all believers. …Moreover, though God confused the languages of earth’s inhabitants at the tower of Babel (Gen 11), here he begins to undo that confusion. [15]

The above illustrates that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon “all…people” for “permanent” empowerment for acts of service, or ministry, and that cross-cultural communication is a process wherein God undoes former confusion.[16] The languages spoken on the day of Pentecost were intelligible and simply foreign (Acts 2:6-12).[17] Had Luke intended the glossolalia of 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, or “tongues only…understood through an interpreter,” he would not have gone to such great lengths to record the understandability and legitimacy of the languages on this day (Acts 2:6-12).[18] By crossing lingual and geographical barriers in a supernatural way, the passage clearly indicates that the baptism of the Holy Spirit enables multicultural communication and international participation, evidenced within Acts 2 and the movement of the Christian church on the earth today. McDevitt adds, “The Spirit is an inclusive entity and does not discriminate in choosing through whom [he] will act. …[This was a] full community with a wide variety of voices.”[19] Russell states:

Pentecost is the beginning of the universal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ…The multiplicity of languages present…foreshadowed not only the universality of the message of the gospel, but also the universality of the messengers of the gospel…[Jesus’] dependence upon the Holy Spirit who encourages this universal ministry (Luke 4:1, 14) is our model…The Spirit promotes world evangelization now according to Christ’s desires…Luke always connects the “filling of the Holy Spirit” with the proclamation of the gospel in Acts…[20]

Egocentrism, or a refusal to be cross-culturally inclusive with the gospel message, is, according to Russell, equivalent to “quenching the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19-20).[21] The outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2, coupled with the manifestation of various languages, echoes the Great Commission’s multicultural command to make disciples of “all nations” (Acts 2:5-11; Matt 28:16-20; Acts 10).

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

The baptismal event which occurred in Acts 2 (Jewish), and again in Acts 10 (Gentile), both unified and diversified the church of Christ, in that it was no longer to remain exclusive to the Jewish nation, but was meant for the inclusion of “all nations” as exemplified by two occurrences each including diverse languages (Acts 1:5, 17; Acts 10:47). The exegesis of this paper is primarily rooted in Acts 2:1-4:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

This baptism, or filling of the Spirit, is “foundational for Acts but is not referred to elsewhere in the New Testament [except in] John 20:22.”[22] It was predicted by John the Baptist to be done “with the Holy Spirit and fire,”[23] and implicated as significant and forthcoming by Jesus’ use of a future tense of the verb form of baptizo (Luke 3:16, 24:49; Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; John 1:33, 16:7; Acts 1:5).[24] According to Strong’s Concordance, the resulting “speaking in tongues” (glossa) is defined as:

[T]ongue, language, nation…used of flowing speech; (figuratively) speaking, inspired by God….The normative experience of the 120 believers received “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) and miraculously spoke in other actual languages…[was] a sign repeated in Acts 10:46; 19:6—furnishing ample proof (three attestations) that the Lord had incorporated all believers into Christ’s mystical body (1 Cor 12:13).[25]

The significance of the symbolism of “tongues as of fire” in the passage unites the baptism of the Holy Ghost with both language (or speaking) and fire (purification; holiness; Old Testament symbol for divine judgment).[26] According to the aforementioned definition, speaking, or glossa, primarily refers to actual languages, as attested to in Acts 2:5-12, inspired by God. This suggests, in light of the Great Commission, this baptism enables each disciple of Christ to engage in a form of multicultural communication of the gospel, but with the additional endowment of inspiration, similar to that immediately exemplified within the context of Acts 2 (Peter’s 3,000 converts; vs. 14-41; Matt 28:16-20).

Roberts addresses some denominational differences regarding glossa: “Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that one who is baptized in the Holy Spirit will evidence this through speaking in other tongues. Non-charismatics or non-Pentecostals do not see this as a necessary sign…”[27] However, for the purposes of this paper, “speaking in tongues,” when evaluated within the context of Acts, may best be interpreted to mean that the spoken word in the art of gospel evangelism is inspired in a similar fashion as was the written word, though subpar (2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Cor 14:15; 2 Pet 1:21). In addition, the Acts 2 languages are understandable by select hearers, but unknown to the speaker (Acts 2:8). McDevitt expounds:

[E]veryone can relate to feeling as though one’s words never quite arrived at the intended destination. As such, many may appreciate the quieter, though equally remarkable, work of the Spirit in this text: opening the ears of those who hear…[28]

The unique detail of the speakers’ incomprehension illustrates dependence upon the Spirit for the correct utterance, and the advance preparation of the listener(s), in order to make a meaningful connection.

The primary meaning of the name Holy Spirit, or pneuma, is holy breath—something literally required to speak (breath) and, figuratively, needed to communicate the gospel reverently (holiness).[29] In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul suggests to pray and sing both “with spirit” and “understanding” in order to be instructive and build the listener up (1 Cor 14:15-19). While Acts infers that glossa is completely legitimate language, it is a special communication granted by the Holy Spirit to be used in a way that he governs, which, in modern application, could include missions in a foreign country or simply inspirational preaching or teaching which reaches souls for Christ (Acts 10, 2:41; Matt 28:16-20).

The baptism which results in inspirational speaking (glossa) is accompanied with fire, or puros—a term often associated with transformational and purifying trials which brings the subject into a closer likeness with holiness, and therefore God.[30] This baptism, or baptizo, as drawn from the following passages, is attributed to the Holy Spirit rather than man: I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8); the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). Jesus confirms “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 1:5. Baptizo can mean, “to immerge; to wash; to make clean” or, “metaphorically, to overwhelm—with calamities.”[31] According to Roberts, the term can refer to a wide range of applications: to dye; drowning a man; sinking a ship; to destroy; to bring to the brink of destruction; to sink into sleep or drunkenness.[32] Mark 10:38 and Luke 12:50 relate the negativity of the event, equating it to distress. Roberts adds, “Paul’s use of βαπτίζω [baptizo] in the epistles is almost exclusively metaphorical…Just as dipping into dye changed the color of cloth, so being immersed into Christ identifies the believer with Christ.”[33] Roberts explains the “overwhelming” or metaphorical meaning of baptizo with fire as the Lord’s purification coming upon the multitudes, separating “wheat from chaff,” yet this author would add purification trial can come upon the individual prior to ministry.[34] In Luke 22:30-32, Jesus speaks of Satan sifting “all of you” like grain, yet states, “I have prayed especially for you [Peter], that your own faith may not fail.” Such a dramatic and overwhelming type of spiritual baptism and fiery trial, as Oats describes, is “…a sovereign act of God, in which the Holy Spirit empower[s] individuals for a particular ministry at a specific time.”[35] The result of Jesus’ intersession during trial is repentance, “when you yourself have turned again,” and the command and ability to “strengthen and establish your brethren,” in a ministerial capacity (Luke 22:30-32). The Holy Spirit provides empowerment for missions, where the anointed is “clothed with power from on high” with “living water” flowing from within (Luke 24:49; John 7:38).

Modern Application

Present academic debate centers on whether there are to be one or two baptisms. In the Gentile version of Acts 10, Peter signifies “they have received the Holy Spirit,” and then he ordered “they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:44-48).[36] The baptizo term is only used for the latter ceremonial baptism—which would argue for strictly one Trinitarian, water baptism, similar to that commanded in the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20). Essentially, Peter’s (and Luke’s) careful handling of the term baptizo in Acts 10:44-48 decides the matter, ceremonially, upon one baptism. However, if one’s concept of baptism includes the “reception of the Spirit,” or the metaphorical definitions of baptizo previously discussed,[37] this same passage would suggest two distinct events or layered experiences, particularly if the recipient is passively awaiting supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to content with mental ascension only. With regard to the former, Keener offers a Pentecostal apology in interpreting Scripture: