Pentecost: This Story Is Our Story
The reluctance to give clear, theological definition to the Pentecostal movement misses the fact the Bible shaped the Movement; it also loses sight of a genuine need of the church. We need to know who we are to pass on this legacy.
By Robert P. Menzies
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center/Herma/
A friend asked, “Why do Pentecostals talk so much about baptism in the Holy Spirit?” I suggested he read Acts 2. The Bible, particularly the narrative of Acts, drives and shapes Pentecostal experience and practice. It is impossible to understand Pentecostals apart from this basic, fundamental fact.
Many academics today scoff at the notion that we can identify Pentecostals with any precision. They often ridicule the idea that we can define Pentecostals theologically. If the origins and the central doctrines of the Pentecostal movement are relatively clear, why, then, should it be difficult to define what it means to be a Pentecostal?
The focus on Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in the largest possible terms is often an extension of researchers’ purposes, which generally focus on illuminating cultural trends, and not directly related to the life of the church.
Also, church leaders are not immune from describing the Movement they associate with in the largest possible terms. Many who stress the ecumenical significance of the Pentecostal movement are reluctant to define the Movement in clear, theological language. While precise definitions bring clarity, they also establish limits. Markers that shape identity also exclude. But if everyone is a Pentecostal, then what does this term mean?
There are many theological descriptions we may use to define other groupings of Christians in relation to Pentecostals. I suggest the following definitions as both historically accurate and helpful for our present discussion:
Pentecostal: A Christian who believes that the Book of Acts provides a model for the contemporary church and, on this basis, encourages every believer to experience a baptism in the Spirit (Acts 2:4), understood as an empowering for mission, distinct from regeneration, that is marked by speaking in tongues, and affirms that “signs and wonders,” including all of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, are to characterize the life of the church today.
Neo-Pentecostal: A Christian who agrees and acts in accordance with all of the tenets listed above except the affirmation that speaking in tongues serves as a normative sign for Spirit baptism.
Charismatic: A Christian who believes that all of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, including prophecy, tongues, and healing, are available for the church today; but rejects the affirmation that baptism in the Spirit (Acts 2:4) is an empowering for mission distinct from regeneration.
Non-Charismatic: A Christian who rejects the affirmation that baptism in the Spirit (Acts 2:4) is an empowering for mission distinct from regeneration, and who also rejects the validity of at least one or more of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 for the church today.
All of these categories are compatible with the term Evangelical. Evangelicals are Christians who affirm: the authority of the Bible; that salvation is found only in Christ; and that evangelism is an important part of the Christian’s mission in the world.
The global Pentecostal movement is firmly rooted in Evangelical soil. At its heart, the Pentecostal movement is Christ-centered. The work of the Spirit, as Pentecostals understand it, centers on exalting and bearing witness to the lordship of Christ. Jesus is the One who baptizes in the Spirit. Pentecostal faith and practice flow from the Bible. Although Pentecostals encourage spiritual experience, they do so with a constant eye to Scripture. The Bible, and particularly the Book of Acts, fosters and shapes Pentecostal experience.
Many scholars studying the Movement are generally not practicing Pentecostals. They define the Pentecostal movement largely or exclusively in sociological terms. They identify Pentecostals not by what they believe, but rather by the nature of their experience (e.g., Do they exercise spiritual gifts?) or their behavior (e.g., What differences can we observe in the lives of Pentecostal believers?) While sociological analysis can provide helpful insights, on its own it cannot fully comprehend or adequately describe this profoundly Christ-centered and Bible-based movement. The picture they present of Pentecostals is often a caricature, an image that, while partially true, contains many exaggerations and distortions.
In this article I explain why I am a Pentecostal. My definitions are unapologetically theological. My approach is thoroughly biblical. I show how key passages in the Bible support my Pentecostal convictions. As Pentecostals, we need to reexamine and clarify the rich theological legacy early Pentecostal pioneers have passed on to us. The reluctance to give clear, theological definition to the Pentecostal movement misses the fact the Bible shaped the Movement; and, it also loses sight of a genuine need of the church. We need to know who we are to pass on this legacy.
So, what do we mean when we say, “I am a Pentecostal”? An accurate answer includes three elements. First, Pentecostals read the Book of Acts as a model for their lives. Second, Pentecostals emphasize that we should not confuse the baptism in the Spirit promised to every believer in Acts 1,2 with regeneration or conversion. Third, the Pentecostal movement from its inception (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6), linked speaking in tongues with the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The early Pentecostals thus described tongues as a unique marker, a sign, or evidence of baptism in the Spirit. Many historians insist that without this connection between tongues and Spirit baptism, there would be no Pentecostal movement.
WHY WE READ DIFFERENTLY
Pentecostals have always read Acts, and particularly the account of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), as a model for their lives. The stories of Acts are our stories. Pentecostals identify with these stories. This sense of connection with the text encourages us to allow the narrative to shape our lives, our hopes and dreams, and our imagination. We read them with expectation and eagerness: stories of the Holy Spirit’s power, enabling ordinary disciples to do extraordinary things for God.
Pentecostals have never viewed the gulf that separates their world from that of the text as large. Western theologians and scholars of the past two centuries, however, have exerted great energy wrestling with how to interpret biblical texts that speak of God’s miraculous activity. As Evangelical theologians sought to explain why we should accept the reality of the miracles recorded in the New Testament but not expect them today, Pentecostals were (at least in our eyes) witnessing Jesus perform contemporary “signs and wonders” as He established His church.
The hermeneutic of the typical Pentecostal believer is straightforward and simple: the stories in Acts serve as models for shaping lives and experiences. This simple, narrative approach to the Book of Acts is one of the great strengths of the Pentecostal movement. The simplicity of reading the text as a model for our lives, without angst about the miraculous or how it all fits into complex theological systems, clearly enables people to readily grasp the message.
This suggests that Pentecostals have a distinctive hermeneutic in that they read the Bible, particularly Luke–Acts, in a manner different from non-Pentecostal Evangelicals. I do acknowledge the close link that binds Pentecostals and Evangelicals together. Indeed, Pentecostals generally identify themselves as Evangelicals; yet, they are distinct groups. I use terms here simply to denote Pentecostal Evangelicals on the one hand and non-Pentecostal Evangelicals on the other.
Pentecostals reject two assumptions that shape Evangelical approaches to Luke–Acts. The first assumption is associated with the Evangelical tendency to reject the Acts narrative and the apostolic church it describes as a model for the church today. Evangelicals assume that Luke wrote to provide a historical account of the beginnings of the Church so subsequent readers might have an accurate account of the gospel and be assured of the historical basis on which its stands. Evangelicals also insist that Luke did not present the events he describes as models for the missionary praxis of subsequent generations of Christians.
The second assumption is an outgrowth of the Evangelical tendency to reduce New Testament theology to Pauline theology. In other words, Luke is a historian and Paul is a theologian. Evangelicals assume that Luke’s references to the reception and work of the Spirit have essentially the same meaning as similar terms used by Paul and thus we should understand them in the light of these Pauline texts. Evangelicals insist that Pentecost represents the disciples’ entrance into the new age, their initiation into the life of the new covenant.1 Pentecost, they explain, is the birthday of the Church.2
Evangelical scholars, with one voice, constantly tell us that Pentecost is a unique and unrepeatable event. In what sense is Pentecost unique? We cannot repeat any event in history, but Luke clearly presents many events in Acts as models for Luke’s church. Luke recorded them so they will be repeated in the lives of his readers.
I critique these two assumptions, and particularly the notion that Pentecost is “unique and unrepeatable,” by examining various aspects of Luke’s narrative.
THE STRUCTURE OF LUKE–ACTS
Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:16–30) is paradigmatic for Luke’s gospel. This passage foreshadows all of the major themes that appear in the Gospel: the work of the Spirit; the universality of the gospel; the grace of God; and the rejection of Jesus. This is the one significant point where the chronology of Luke’s Gospel differs from Mark’s Gospel. Luke takes an event from the middle of Jesus’ ministry and brings it up front to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus. Luke does this because he understands that Jesus’ recitation of Isaiah 61:1,2, and His declaration that He is fulfilling this prophecy in His ministry provide important insights into the nature of Jesus and His mission. This passage, then, provides us with a model for Jesus’ subsequent ministry.
Luke provides a similar paradigmatic introduction for the Book of Acts. After the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter delivers a sermon (Acts 2:14–41) that, in many ways, parallels that of Jesus in Luke 4. In his sermon, Peter also refers to an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32), and declares that the events on Pentecost fulfilled this prophecy (Acts 2:17–21). The message is clear: Just as the Spirit anointed Jesus to fulfill His prophetic vocation, so also the Spirit anointed Jesus’ disciples as end-time prophets to proclaim the Word of God. The text of Joel 2:28–32, like the paradigmatic passage in Luke 4, also shows signs of careful editing on the part of Luke.3
One change is especially instructive. In Acts 2:18, Luke inserts the phrase, “and they will prophesy,” into the quotation from Joel. This insertion emphasizes what is already present in the text of Joel. The previous verse has already reminded us that this end-time outpouring of the Spirit of which Joel prophesies is nothing less than a fulfillment of Moses’ wish “that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29). Acts 2:17 quotes Joel 2:28 verbatim: “ ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.’ ” In Acts 2:18, Luke echoes this refrain. Luke highlights the fact the Spirit comes as the source of prophetic inspiration. The church in “these last days,” Luke declares, is to be a community of prophets whom God called to bring the message of “salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6; Acts 1:8). Luke reminds his readers that Jesus also promised them power to fulfill this calling. The Spirit will come and enable His church — Luke’s and ours — to bear bold witness for Jesus.
Luke’s Gospel anticipates this theme of bold, prophetic witness. The Spirit anointed Jesus so He might “ ‘preach good news to the poor, … proclaim freedom for the prisoners,’ ” and “ ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ ” (Luke 4:18,19). The parallels between Jesus’ experience at the Jordan and the disciples’ experience at Pentecost are striking and clearly intentional. Both occur at the beginning of the respective missions of Jesus and the Church, both center on the coming of the Spirit, and Luke describes both as a prophetic anointing in the context of a sermon that cites Old Testament prophecy. Through his careful shaping of the narrative, Luke presents Jesus, the ultimate prophet, as a model for all of His followers, from Pentecost onward.4
Luke also highlighted this motif of bold, Spirit-inspired witness in the teaching of Jesus. Luke foreshadows events that will follow in his second volume by relating the important promise of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:11,12. Immediately after Pentecost, we see how relevant and important this promise of Jesus is for the mission of the Church (Acts 4:19,20).
In presenting Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul as models of Spirit-inspired ministry, Luke highlights the reliability of the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus. And he wants to be sure we are clear about their message, which we are to hand down until it reaches “the ends of the earth.” Yet Luke also sees these end-time prophets as important models of missionary praxis his church needs to emulate. As they face opposition by relying on the Holy Spirit, these end-time prophets call Luke’s church to courageously follow the path first traveled by our Lord.
Luke structures his narrative to highlight the fact just as Jesus’ experience of the Spirit at the Jordan River serves as a model for the experience of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, so also the disciples experience at Pentecost serves as a model for subsequent Christians. This is supported by Peter’s words in Acts 10:47, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
THE SENDING OF THE SEVENTY (LUKE 10:1–16)
The account of the sending of the Seventy (Luke 10:1–16) is unique to Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 10:1 we read, “After this the Lord appointed seventy–two [some mss. read, ‘seventy’] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”
A central question centers on the number of disciples Jesus sent out and its significance. Some manuscripts read “seventy,” while others “seventy-two.” Although we cannot determine the number with confidence, it is important to keep the divided nature of the manuscript evidence in mind as we wrestle with the significance of this text.
Most scholars agree that the number has symbolic significance. Many suggest that the number 70 is rooted in the Old Testament narrative and has symbolic significance. I argue that we find the background for the reference to the “seventy” in Numbers 11:24–30. The Lord “took of the Spirit that was on [Moses] and put the Spirit on the Seventy elders” (verse 25). This resulted in the 70 elders, who had gathered around the Tent, prophesying. However, two other elders, Eldad and Medad, did not go to the Tent; they remained in the camp. But the Spirit also fell on them and they, too, began to prophesy. Joshua urged Moses to stop them. Moses replied, “ ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ ” (Numbers 11:29).
The Numbers 11 proposal has a number of significant advantages over other explanations: (1) it accounts for the two textual traditions underlying Luke 10:1 (How many actually prophesied in Numbers 11?); (2) it finds explicit fulfillment in the narrative of Acts; (3) it ties into one of the great themes of Luke–Acts, the work of the Holy Spirit; and (4) numerous allusions to Moses and his actions in Luke’s narrative support our suggestion that we find symbolism for Luke’s reference to the Seventy in Numbers 11.
The reference to the Seventy evokes memories of Moses’ wish that “ ‘all the Lord’s people were prophets,’ ” and, in this way, points to Pentecost (Acts 2), where the events dramatically fulfilled this wish. This wish is continues to be fulfilled throughout Acts as Luke describes the coming of the empowering Spirit of prophecy to other new centers of missionary activity (Acts 8:14–17; 10:44–48; 19:1–7). The reference to the Seventy, then, foreshadows the outpouring of the Spirit on all the servants of the Lord and their universal participation in the mission of God (Acts 2:17,18; cf. 4:31).
God has called (Isaiah 49:6; Luke 24:45–49; Acts 1:4–8) and empowered (Acts 2:17–21; cf. 4:31) every member of the Church to be a prophet. Luke emphasizes that the prophetic enabling experienced by the disciples at Pentecost is available to all of God’s people.
ACTS 2:17–21 AND SALVATION HISTORY
We have already noted the important role Luke’s edited version of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:17–21) plays in Luke’s narrative. One additional modification of the text from Joel is also important. Joel’s text only refers to “wonders in the heavens and on the earth” (Joel 2:30). Yet Luke’s skillful editorial work enables him to produce the collocation of “signs and wonders” (Acts 2:19). By adding a few words, Luke transforms Joel’s text so it reads: “I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below” (Acts 2:19, emphasis added). The significance of this editorial work becomes apparent when we read the verses that immediately follow the Joel quotation. Peter declares, “ ‘Jesus … was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs’ ” (Acts 2:22). The significance of Luke’s editorial work is magnified further when Luke also associates “signs and wonders” with the ministry of the Early Church. Nine of the 16 occurrences of “signs and wonders” (σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα) in the New Testament appear in the Book of Acts. In Acts 4:30, the disciples ask the Lord to stretch out His “ ‘hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders’ ” through the name of Jesus. A few verses later we read, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12). Similarly, Luke describes how Stephen, “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). The Lord also enabled Paul and Barnabas “to do miraculous signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3; cf. 15:12).
By skillfully reshaping Joel’s prophecy, Luke links the miracles of Jesus and those of the Early Church with Joel’s cosmic signs (Acts 2:19,20). These miraculous events are “signs and wonders” that mark these “last days.” Luke, then, is not only conscious of the significant role that miracles played in the growth of the Early Church, he also anticipates that these “signs and wonders” will continue to characterize the ministry of the Church in our day. We, too, live in the “last days,” that epoch bracketed by the first and second comings of Jesus. According to Luke, it is an era that is to be marked by signs and wonders.
Luke does not rigidly segment the salvation history presented in his narrative into discrete periods. The kingdom of God (or the new age when God’s covenant promises begin to find fulfillment) is inaugurated with the miraculous birth of Jesus (or, with Jesus’ public ministry, which was marked by miracles) and continues to be progressively realized until His second coming and the consummation of God’s redemptive plan. Pentecost is a significant eschatological event, but it does not represent the disciples’ entrance into the new age. Rather, Pentecost is the fulfillment of Moses’ wish that “ ‘all the Lord’s people were prophets’ ” (Numbers 11:29; cf. Joel 2:28,29; Acts 2:17,18) and, as such, represents an equipping of the Church for its divinely appointed mission. In short, Luke stresses the continuity that unites the story of Jesus and the story of the Early Church. Luke’s two-volume work represents the “one history of Jesus Christ,”5 a fact implied by the opening words in Acts 1:1.
One other significant implication flows from this insight: we cannot date the birthday of the Church to Pentecost. Graham Twelftree argues that, for Luke, we must trace the beginning of the Church back to Jesus’ selection of the Twelve. Twelftree declares, “Luke would not call Pentecost the birth of the Church. For him the origins of the Church [are] in the call and community of followers of Jesus during His ministry.”6 Furthermore, Twelftree asserts that “the ministry of the Church is not seen as distinct from but continues the ministry of Jesus.”7 These conclusions, drawn largely from Luke’s portrait of the apostles, are supported by Luke’s citation of Joel’s prophecy.
One of the great strengths of the Pentecostal movement is that it has read the promise of Pentecost contained in Peter’s quotation of Joel as a model for the mission of the Church. This approach to the text, although it runs counter to many Evangelical interpretations and assumptions, captures well Luke’s intent. Although Luke is concerned to stress the reliability of the apostolic witness, his purposes go beyond this. Luke’s narrative also provides us with much more than merely a summary of apostolic preaching. Through his two-volume work, Luke declares that the Church, by virtue of its reception of the Pentecostal gift, is nothing less than a community of prophets. The Spirit of Pentecost comes to enable every member of the Church to fulfill his or her prophetic call to be a light to the nations.
This article is abridged from Pentecost: This Story Is Our Story (Springfield, Missouri: My Healthy Church, 2013).
1. James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM Press, 1970), 43.
2. Joel B. Green, How to Read the Gospels and Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 113.
3. When I refer to Luke’s editorial activity, I do not in any way wish to imply that Luke’s narrative is historically inaccurate. Rather, I merely wish to point out that while Luke writes accurate history he does so with a theological purpose in view. Luke clearly, on occasion, summarizes the speeches or dialogues, and in so doing, utilizes his own vocabulary and style as he presents this material. He also paraphrases Old Testament quotations to highlight important themes that run throughout his narrative. While it is my assumption that Luke’s editorial work accurately reflects and emphasizes dominical and apostolic themes, the essential question that I seek to answer centers on the content of Luke’s message. It is this message that I believe to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and authoritative for the Church.
4. Luke 11:9–13 also indicates that Luke views the prophetic vocation of Jesus, the Twelve, and the Seventy (Luke 10:1) as applicable to His church.
5. Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, trans. J. Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1979), 59.
6. Graham H. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 28.