Pentecost as Ecclesiology

Alastair Roberts
This is an article from the fourth issue of our journal Ad Fontes.
As sources for our ecclesiology, the narrative portions of Scripture may be deemed to be relatively unpromising, especially when compared to the New Testament epistolatory literature. Yet much of the New Testament teaching concerning the Church occurs first in the form of narrative, only later to be articulated in the form of theological exposition. The apostolic doctrine of the Church finds its grounding first in historical events, rather than being primarily a matter of abstract theologizing.
Of all of the important passages in this context, Acts 2 is the most foundational. From this and related texts, a rich ecclesiology in nuce can be developed. Within this article, I will explore some of this potential, before demonstrating ways that certain of the questions that attend our ecclesiology can be addressed from the book of Acts.
The Day of Pentecost occurs at the grand confluence of several streams of biblical narrative development, combining their forces into a mighty torrent of spiritual power. Discerning the direction of its course is one of the tasks to which this article is devoted. I will begin by charting some of its principal tributaries, before turning to the question of its movement downstream.
Overcoming the Division of the Nations
In Genesis 11, humanity is undivided, all speaking a single ‘lip’ (a word that possibly has religious connotations, cf. Isaiah 19:18; Zephaniah 3:9) and a single speech (verse 1). They settle in the plain of Shinar where, forming and firing bricks and using asphalt for mortar, they undertake a vast building project, constructing a city and a tower whose top reached the heavens. Within this megacity, with the immense tower as its religious heart, humanity would be preserved from being spread out throughout the earth as God had intended them to be. Frustrating their hubristic designs to a hegemonic universal world order, God descended from heaven and confused their lip, so that they could no longer understand each other (verses 5-7). Forced to abandon their building project—‘Babel’—humanity was scattered abroad across the face of the entire earth.
Reading the account of Pentecost in Acts 2 against the foil of Babel is illuminating. The builders of Babel sought to construct a tower to ascend to the heavens, yet God descended to confuse their lip. The immediate and crucial backdrop to Pentecost is the ascension of Christ into the heavens (Acts 2:32-33), after which God descends in the Spirit at Pentecost to give the disciples the power of prophetic speech in a multitude of ‘tongues’.
Babel is the moment when humanity was divided into many nations under judgment; this event provides the narrative context for the calling of Abraham as the one through whom all of the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). At Pentecost many nations are brought together in the new ‘building project’ of the Church. Although speaking many tongues, those tongues now express a single religious ‘lip’ (cf. Zephaniah 3:9), as divine prophecy is given in many languages and dialects, not only in the religious tongue of Hebrew. The diversity of humanity becomes a vehicle for its religious unity and the era of the exclusivity of Hebrew is ended. By implication, Pentecost is a definitive and seminal moment in the fulfilment of the promise that all of the nations would be blessed in Abraham.
Throughout the rest of the New Testament, the outworking of Pentecost as the unification of the nations is a prominent theme. In Galatians 3:14, Paul makes explicit what the blessing of Abraham was—‘the promise of the Spirit’—something that is implicit in the events of Pentecost. Elsewhere, in passages such as Ephesians 2–3, Paul prominently reflects upon God’s establishment of a new building within which Gentiles and Jews are united on an equal footing.
The Gift of the Spirit
Several weeks after the Passover and the departure from Egypt, Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 and the chapters that follow, Israel assembles at Mount Sinai, where they see a theophanic manifestation of the Lord’s power and glory. Moses ascends on top of the mountain, where he is given the Law by the Lord; he then brings the Law down to give it to all of the people. Sinai, however, was a site of national apostasy. The people and the newly designated high priest, Aaron, constructed and worshipped the golden calf. Moses summoned the Levites to himself, who slew three thousand rebels, after which they were set apart to guard and serve the tabernacle (Exodus 32:25-29).
There are several themes of Sinai to be seen in Acts 2. Explicit associations between the timing of the Feast of Pentecost and the Sinai event can already be found in the Book of Jubilees, a century or two before Christ. Jubilees connects Pentecost with other great covenant events, such as the covenant with Noah and Abram. More generally, much as Sinai is the constitutive event for the people following the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt, so Pentecost is the constitutive event for the Church, following the ‘exodus’ of Christ death and resurrection (cf. Luke 9:31).
At Pentecost, the anointed leader ascends on high, and is given something that will thereafter provide the primary principle of the assembled people’s existence by God. There are theophanic phenomena reminiscent of Sinai—a heavenly sound as of a rushing mighty wind and divided tongues of flame. Various Second Temple Jewish and early rabbinic writers connected the flames and the voices of the Sinai theophany, regarding the flashes as a ‘visible’ voice, which was in turn related with the inscription of the Law. Some even spoke of the division of the flames in this context, relating it to seventy tongues of the nations or to the distinct words of the Law.
The tabernacle was established at Sinai and the Church is established as a new Temple at Pentecost as the divine glory presence descends upon it and the Church is ‘lit’ as if a great lampstand (cf. Revelation 1:12-20). Elsewhere in the New Testament, both the Church and its individual members are presented as new temples of the Holy Spirit and a royal priesthood (1 Corinthians 3:17; 6:19; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5, note the echoes of Exodus 19:6). Whereas three thousand were slain at Sinai by the Levites, three thousand were ‘cut to the heart’ at Pentecost, by those who would be set apart for a new ministry.
The verbal ambivalence of the term γλωσσα (‘tongue’) in Acts 2 is noteworthy, referring to both speech and flame, exploring the same conjunction of imagery that is encountered elsewhere in writings of the period. The divine ‘word’ descends in distributed flame upon the disciples, who proceed to deliver it in distributed languages.
Reflecting upon these images, we see a Church that is formed by the descent of the divine word upon it in the power of the Spirit, in an event redolent of Sinai. Whereas the tablets of the Law were the site where the divine word was once inscribed, now the fire of divine speech descends upon the disciples. The constitution of the new covenant people through the inscription of the Law upon their hearts and the contrast between the economy of the Law and the economy of the Spirit are themes that pervade the New Testament, in fulfilment of Old Testament promise (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Prophetic Succession
I have already drawn attention to the importance of the event of Christ’s Ascension as the narrative backdrop for the events of the Day of Pentecost. The relationship between the two events may be more apparent when we read Acts in conversation with 2 Kings 2. In that chapter, Elijah ascends into heaven. However, the ascension of Elijah is the ‘pentecost’ of Elisha, as Elisha receives the firstborn portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9-15), a fact immediately demonstrated as Elisha repeats the miraculous division of the waters of the Jordan that Elijah had just performed with his mantle. This event is, in turn, reminiscent of Moses’ passing of his leadership of Israel to Joshua on the far side of the Jordan, after which Joshua also entered the land through a miraculous parting of the River Jordan. It foreshadows in various ways the passing of John the Baptist’s ministry to Christ at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.
Joshua, Elisha, and the disciples had all formerly served as apprentices, until they were charged and equipped to take up and continue the prophetic ministry of their masters. In 1 Kings 19:15-16, Elijah had been commissioned with a task, which he didn’t finish before his ascension. Rather, Elisha completed Elijah’s ministry in Elijah’s spirit. The ascension of Christ would have brought Elijah’s ascension to mind, as it was the only other closely comparable prior event. The wording of Luke 24:49, which charges the disciples to wait until they are ‘clothed’ (ενδύσησθε) with power from on high, may well have recalled this: the Spirit is the descending mantle of Jesus, the great Prophet.
Pentecost is spoken of as the ‘baptism’ of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:5). In its placement within the wider structure of the book of Acts and also in the details of the narrative, it is closely congruent with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as recorded in Luke. In Luke 3:21-22, as Jesus prays, the Spirit descends with physical phenomena and a sound from heaven, anointing and filling him for his prophetic ministry. In the chapter that follows, Jesus speaks of himself as anointed for the preaching of the gospel (Luke 4:18-19). The baptism of the Church at Pentecost is homologous with Christ’s baptism at the Jordan: both are set apart for and thrust out upon their mission. The reception of the Spirit is also a token of sonship (cf. Luke 3:22): as the Church receives the Spirit its members are marked out as the sons of God.
Once again, these are fundamental themes of New Testament ecclesiology. The ministry of the Church is the ascended Christ’s continuation of his ministry in a different form and the Church acts in the power of his Spirit. Through the Spirit, the Church participates in Christ’s status, as we are identified as beloved sons and daughters, and charged to act in his name.
The Distribution of Christ’s Spirit
A further passage that can help us to unlock the riches of Acts 2 is found in Numbers 11. In that chapter, Moses appealed to the Lord to reduce the burden of leadership that was upon his shoulders. In an event redolent of the Sinai theophany in some key details, God took of the Spirit that was upon Moses and put it on the seventy elders. This donation of the Spirit to the elders was mediated by Moses: the gift of the Spirit was a ‘membering’ of Moses’ own gift. The elders do not receive the Spirit in the form of an immediate bestowal of God, but as a participation in Moses’ ministry. Thereafter they can represent Moses to the people without displacing him. When the Spirit descends upon the elders, they prophesy as a sign of their new gift, a phenomenon that is not repeated again (11:25).
Within this passage Moses declares his wish that ‘all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them’ (11:29). This desire is later rearticulated in the form of promise in Joel 2:28-29:
And it shall come to pass afterward
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions;
And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
It is this passage that Peter references in his Pentecost sermon, declaring that the events of that day are in fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:16-21). Lurking behind Joel’s prophecy is Numbers 11 and the membering of the Spirit upon Moses to the seventy elders. At Pentecost, the promise of the Spirit received by Christ from the Father (2:33) is ‘membered’, given to the disciples, who now bear his authority and act in his name and as his representatives.
The Rudiments of an Ecclesiology
Within the discussion above, the rudiments of an ecclesiology have started to emerge. The Church is a body of people formed of many different nations and language groups. It is a fulfilment of the promised blessing of Abraham, as people formerly divided and alienated from God by judgment are brought together in a single body.
It is a people constituted by the gift of the Spirit, who writes the Law of God on our hearts and sets us apart for ministry. The Church is a new temple, a habitation for God in the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit—understood against the background of the theophany of Exodus 19 and 20—is fundamentally the inscription of the Word upon us and the empowering and authorizing of us by the Word placed within us. This gift is manifested in the powerful preaching of the gospel to all.
The ministry and authority of the Church flows from the ministry and authority of Christ. As Christ gives us his Spirit, the Church’s ministry is conformed to Christ’s own ministry, exhibiting a similar shape. However, the Spirit is never detached from Christ, nor does the Church ever replace Christ. Rather, we receive the Spirit as a membering of Christ’s own Spirit. We act in his name, are empowered by his strength, participate in his sonship, and labour as those completing his mission. Christ continues his mission through us.
Pentecost displays the truth at the heart of Reformed ecclesiology: the Church is a body formed by the power of the Word and manifested in the preaching of that Word. The Church finds the sole source of its identity and spiritual power in its dependence upon its head, Jesus Christ, whose place no other can usurp. The Spirit that we receive is a membering of his Spirit: the flames upon us are always already divided, their tongues only united in their source. The gift of the unmembered Spirit without measure is only the possession of the Church in the person of its head and he is the only one who ever mediates its gift.
Lessons from the Aftershocks
Following the Day of Pentecost, there is a small succession of ‘aftershock’ events, as the Spirit is received by a number of other parties or as the disciples experience a renewed encounter with the Spirit’s power (Acts 4:31; 8:14-17; 10:44-45; 11:15; 19:1-6). These events present us with a more complicated picture, while bringing certain dynamics into clearer expression. They help us to address the question I raised at the outset concerning the downstream movement of the Spirit in relation to the Church.
The first key event occurred as the Samaritans responded in faith to the preaching of Philip in Acts 8:4-8 and were baptized. The Jerusalem apostles sent Peter and John to them, who prayed that the Samaritans should receive the Holy Spirit. After laying hands on them, the Spirit came upon the Samaritans. The second event occurred as Peter declared the gospel to Cornelius’ house and, while he was still speaking, the Spirit fell upon those hearing his word (10:44; 11:15). The third event involved about twelve disciples of John the Baptist who had only been baptized by John’s baptism. After Paul instructed them concerning the meaning of John’s baptism and declared the gospel to them, they were baptized in Jesus’ name. Then Paul laid hands on them and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.
A striking feature of these accounts is the contrasting order within them. In the case of the Samaritans, the order of events is (1) hearing the gospel, (2) faith, (3) baptism, (4) apostles’ prayer for them to receive the Spirit, (5) laying on of the apostles’ hand, (6) reception of the Spirit. In the case of Cornelius and his household there is (1) an anticipatory form of faith, (2) hearing of the gospel, (3) Christian faith, (4) reception of the Spirit, and then (5) baptism. Finally, in the case of the Ephesian disciples of John, there is (1) an anticipatory form of faith, (2) hearing of the gospel, (3) Christian faith, (4) baptism, (5) laying on of hands, and (6) reception of the Spirit.
Through the disruptions and inconsistencies of the patterns, in addition to certain elements within the sequences, the divine prerogative in giving the Spirit is emphasized. The occurrence of prayer preceding the apostles’ laying on of their hands upon the Samaritans makes clear that it wasn’t an autonomous power they possessed (as Simon the sorcerer seems to have supposed—8:14-25). The unexpected descent of the Spirit upon Cornelius and his household, before Peter had baptized or laid hands on them, served as a divine testimony to God’s welcome of the Gentiles: Peter’s performance of baptism was purely responsive in this situation. The gift of the Spirit is not tied to the action of the Church and its ministers, but can occur independent of it.
Yet there are congruences, which highlight the fact that God ordinarily works through the ministration of the Church. Especially in the case of the gift of the Spirit to the Samaritans we see God acting in a way that establishes the importance of the apostles within his Church. The structure and institution is thus upheld by the manner of divine action, but it remains clear that God can and does act beyond and apart from this. The pouring out of the Spirit on Cornelius’ household illustrates this. Once again, the fact that Peter, the pre-eminent apostle, is divinely chosen to pioneer the ministry to the Gentiles reinforces the institution of the Church, yet the fact that God pours out the Spirit apart from Peter’s laying on of hands makes clear that, while the Church and its ministers may ordinarily be the means of God’s action, he is by no means tied to them.
An illustrative parallel to this can be found in a dimension of the account of Numbers 11 that I have yet to comment upon. The seventy elders are assembled around the tabernacle and the Spirit of Moses is placed upon them. However, two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp and the Spirit came upon them too, causing them to prophesy in the midst of the camp (Numbers 11:26-30). Upon hearing a report of this, Joshua called Moses to forbid them, but Moses refused to do so, questioning whether Joshua was jealous for his sake and expressing his desire that all of God’s people would prophesy.
This event is strongly reminiscent of the gospel account of Luke 9:49-50, where John declared that they had forbidden someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because he wasn’t a member of the apostolic band. Jesus responds much like Moses, charging his disciples not to forbid such a person ‘for he who is not against us is for us.’ Both Moses and Jesus resist attempts to restrict the Spirit’s ministry and prerogative to the ordered institution, which, although it is the ordinary form of the Spirit’s action, is not the only form. Eldad and Medad may not have been among the elders around the tabernacle and the exorcist of Luke 9:49 may not have been a member of the apostolic band, but each of these people has a part in the ministry and the Spirit. The Church exceeds the institution. Like Joshua, there is no need for us to be jealous on Christ’s account, for all with the Spirit, whether or not they are within the institution, are members of him.
How then should we understand baptism, which seems to be naturally connected with the ministry and membership of the institutional church? Within Acts there is an intimate connection between faith, reception of the Spirit, belonging to the Church, and baptism, something apparent in places such as Acts 2:38. If we cannot regard baptism as the means by which we are included in Christ, must we evacuate it of any meaning, reducing it to an empty sign?
The answer, I believe, is found in the Reformed tradition’s recognition of baptism as a promissory and confirmatory seal. Baptism is a divinely instituted rite, by which we are marked out by a promise. This rite publicly confirms our standing to us and to others in a manner that strengthens faith. It is a means by which we are granted to receive and grasp onto the reality that it signifies. The relationship between baptism and membership of Christ is akin to the relationship between accession to the throne and coronation: the two are intimately and inseparably connected in the ordinary manner of things, yet it is possible for one to occur without the other. The ruling status of the monarch is not directly dependent upon their coronation, but the coronation confirms and publicly manifests that status. Likewise, baptism is the ordinary means of our reception into the Church, yet is not the basis or cause of our membership, nor so necessarily tied to it that we could not be members of the visible Church apart from it.


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