Monday 25 May 2015

A New World Order?

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. An earlier version of it first appeared in a book, Whole Life, Whole Bible: 50 Readings on Living in the Light of Scripture, written with LICC colleagues Margaret Killingray and Helen Parry (published by BRF).

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.
Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost was a harvest festival, when thankful worshippers would offer to God the firstfruits of their crops. Celebrated fifty days after Passover, coinciding with the giving of the law, it also became associated with the covenant made between the Lord and his people. The nation that was first constituted at Sinai, gathering together in Jerusalem to renew their relationship with God, is now, so many years later, reborn – the firstfruits of a new harvest – as God pours out his Spirit to ratify the new covenant.

Certainly, Peter is aware that something momentous has happened. His subsequent explanation ties together the ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus with several passages from Scripture, notably God’s promise through Joel that ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’ (Joel 2:28). Previously the Spirit was given only to special people, like kings and prophets, or only for specific tasks; now all of God’s people receive the Spirit – men and women, old and young – as part of God’s end-time renewal of all things. Pentecost marks the beginning of that era not in Moses giving the law, but in Jesus giving the Spirit – to ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord’ (Acts 2:21).

In fact, this is nothing less than the inauguration of a new world. It may remind us of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), but it is not necessarily a reversal of Babel – where the scattering reaffirms God’s original purpose for men and women to fill the whole earth. The basis of the unity of humankind is not found in the recovery of a single language, but in a people indwelt by the Spirit of God. If there is a reversal, it is that at Babel people want to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4) whereas at Pentecost they proclaim ‘the wonders of God’ (Acts 2:11). Many languages are spoken and all of them are fitting to praise God.

This fits with the international perspective of Acts. Jerusalem is full of Jews from all parts of the world, each with their own language and dialect. And they hear the great things of God spoken of in the vernacular tongues of their pagan neighbours – showing that what starts in Jerusalem will become a worldwide mission enabled by the Holy Spirit which will result in the worship of God to ‘the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

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