Pentecost is about the Spirit. That is the focus in the Christian Church, where this festival day provides the most concentrated occasion for celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. However, often this focus on the spirit leads people to think that this was the first appearance of the spirit—on the day of Pentecost, the beginning of the church.
And let us not forget that Pentecost itself was already a well-established Jewish festival day, for the Feast of Weeks, or the Feast of Ingathering (Exod 23:16). Provisions for this festival are set out in Leviticus 23:15-22, Numbers 28:26-31, and Deuteronomy 16:9-12. The name Pentecost (meaning the fiftieth day) is used at Tobit 2:1 and 2 Maccabees 12:32, two books included in the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic Deuteroncanonical books.
The spirit was not a new entity arriving for the first time on the first day of Pentecost. The spirit had been active throughout the life of the people of Israel. In fact, the spirit is mentioned very early in Hebrew Scripture, in the opening verses. The Priestly writer attributed the spirit with a key role in creation. The story of creation which opens the scriptures of the Hebrew people affirms that creation took place when “the spirit moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2; see also Job 33:4).
Later, the Psalmist envisioned the spirit as playing an eschatological role at the end of time (Ps 104:30). The spirit bookends history, as understood in the biblical texts, being noted both at the very beginning and at the very end. So, the spirit joins with “the bride” (that is, Jesus), to utter the closing invitation at the end of the scriptures of the Christians: “the spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’ … let everyone who is thirsty, come; let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev 22:17).
The spirit was an important element in the ancient Jewish worldview. Moses and the elders whom he appointed as judges were filled with the spirit (Num 11:25), and subsequently the spirit was given to Joshua (Deut 34:9). Various prophets were anointed by the Spirit to declare “the word of the Lord” for the people of their time; the former prophets (Zech 7:12); the prophets Micah (Micah 3:8) and Zechariah (Zec 4:6); the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 2:2, 3:24, 11:1, 36:26-27, 37:1, 14); and the later prophet speaking in the name of Isaiah (Isa 61:1-3), who most famously declares “the spirit of the Lord is upon me”.
The promise is given that the spirit will rest upon the future Davidic leader (Isa 11:2-5), the servant whom God has chosen (Isa 42:1), and still later, on Daniel (Dan 4:8-18). Wisdom promises to give the spirit to those who listen to her (Prov 1:23) and Joel prophesies that the spirit will be poured out on “all flesh … your sons and your daughters … your old men … and your young men … even on the male and female servants” (Joel 2:28-29).
In a time of difficulty, Isaiah declares that the spirit will be poured out on the people of Israel, to turn their wilderness into a fruitful field (Isa 32:15, 44:3). So the promise that God makes through the prophets is striking: “my spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Haggai 2:5); and “my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and forever” (Isa 59:21).
The spirit was an important element in the ancient Jewish worldview. In the process of creating “the heavens and the earth”, God “gives breath to the people upon [the earth] and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isa 42:5). All human beings are created with the spirit of God within us (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:7). Job affirms this belief unreservedly and extends it to all creatures, not just human beings: “in [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10).
That is an incredibly important affirmation for human beings to make. Perhaps the sense of this divine in-breathing has led humans to reinforce our sense of human beings as being at the pinnacle of the order of animals, birds, and fish. However, we need to remember that we share this creative force with all of them; we sit on the spectrum of existence alongside all of them, each of us equally God-breathed at our conception.
Certainly, our human identity is grounded in the creative work of God’s spirit. Who we are is how God has made us to be—each human being is made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; Sir 17:3). The breath we breathe is an expression of the divine spirit implanted within us at creation. These words also provide every human being with an affirmation of each of us as exactly who we are, however we identify within the spectrum of LGBTIQA+ identities, for instance. We are as we are, just as God made us and intended us to be. We can each rejoice in our unique individual identity.
The same goes when we consider ethnicity. The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that we need to especially value the lives of people who have experienced intense persecution, marginalisation, and oppression, over many centuries. The colour of a person’s skin and the cultural patterns of their ethnicity do not diminish their worth. God has made each of us just as we are, and we can celebrate that fact.
When the story is told of the spirit coming on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), any Jew who had listened carefully to the stories in their scriptures would have known that “the coming of the spirit” had happened before, and that it would happen again, as the story of Acts continues. This is not the first manifestation of the spirit; nor would it be the last. The spirit of Hebrew scriptures continues as a dynamic force at work amongst the earliest followers of Jesus.
Yet, there is something striking and significance about this Pentecost story of the coming of the spirit. This spirit has already twice filled the messianic community gathered in the Jewish capital, Jerusalem. The first occasion is the best-known of all the times that the spirit came: on the day of Pentecost (2:1-4), and subsequently (4:31). The spirit gifts people with the capacity to hear and understand across the barriers of human language (2:5-13), enabling the followers of Jesus to speak with unfettered boldness (4:31).
Later, it was the spirit who had been gifted to believers in Samaria (8:17), and then the spirit who took Philip from Samaria to Caesarea (8:40). This latter city, of course, is where Peter preaches and the Spirit moves amongst Gentiles (10:44-48; 11:15-18). When the spirit is poured out on the Gentiles in Caesarea, the gentile capital (10:45), it is clear that this is an act of God (2:17; 11:15-18).
Caesarea is a pivotal location in the overarching story of Acts. This is where God provokes the leadership of this movement to reach out and encompass new people, different people, into the community of faith. The sequence of events narrated in Acts 10:1-48 (and immediately reported to the believers in Jerusalem, 11:1-18) is replete with many important consequences for this fledgling movement.
Being filled with the spirit, or having the spirit poured out, to enable particular activities, had been a regular biblical refrain in the stories of the Hebrews. That emphasis comes to the fore, particularly, in the two-volume narrative that Luke constructs. He signals the strategic role of the spirit in the lives of Jesus (Luke 4:1) and John the baptiser (Luke 1:15), as well as of John’s parents (Elizabeth, Luke 1:41; Zechariah, Luke 1:67).
The traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
The words of Anna, although unreported in detail by Luke (2:38), are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being. They, too, are “filled with the Spirit” (John, 1:15; Jesus, 4:1, 14). This is the same Spirit which, according to old traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2) and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30).
The giving of the spirit at Pentecost thus stands in continuity with God’s actions in Israel; it also prefigures the state of many individuals later in the narrative of Acts. Peter is the first individual who is so filled (4:8); after him will come Stephen (6:3,5; 7:55), Saul (9:17; 13:9) and Barnabas (11:24).(4:8; 6:3,5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9; and cf. 18:25). Indeed, all the members of this community in Jerusalem were “filled with the spirit” (4:31). That comment, along with the Pentecost narrative (2:1-4), signals that the spirit is to be an integral factor in leadership of this messianic movement of followers of Jesus.
Being “filled with the Spirit” is then referenced in a number of the letters attributed to Paul that are collated in the New Testament: Rom 5:5; 1 Cor 2:9-13, 12:1-13; Gal 4:6, 5:22-26; 1 Thess 1:5; Eph 5:18. The anonymous author of Hebrews indicates that the spirit has distributed gifts to those who follow the way of Jesus (Heb 2:1-4). “Life in the spirit” receives detailed attention for Paul (Rom 8:1-17) and his discussion of “all creation groaning” along with the groaning of the spirit (Rom 8:18-27) is a crucial passage.
So the celebration of the coming of the spirit on the Day of Pentecost is indeed a “filling up to overflowing” of the promises of God, coming to expression as fulfilment of ancient hopes. (That is my translation of the single Greek word in Acts 2:1, sumplerousthai, which the NRSV rather lamely renders as “when the day had come”. It needs to convey the sense of rich, deep fulfilment, coming to pass in this narrative.)
The same Spirit which has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2), been active throughout the stories recounted about the people of Israel, and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30), continues to enliven and enrich the lives of the faithful people of God.