The Particularizing Effect of the Holy Spirit: At Pentecost, God gets Personal

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Acts 2:17 (Quoting Joel) ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my pneuma upon all flesh...’

Joel 2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my ruach on all flesh...”

The portion of Joel Peter quotes from is 2:28-32 in English Bibles. At first, Joel’s description of the “day of the Lord,” literally “day YHWH,” at first seems to be run-of-the-mill Hebrew apocalypticism. What is particularly interesting, however, is how the prophecy is humanized: “...your sons and daughters shall prophesy...” is placed before the signs about “portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below.” In appropriating this language from Joel, Peter—and by extension the author of Acts—carry this theme further. Peter uses the Joel text as an explanation, even a justification, for the events taking place.

Viewed in this light, the language earlier in Acts 2 is striking for its emphasis on the individual. In verse six, the crowd is confused because “each (Greek ἕκαστος) one heard them speaking in the native language of each (Greek ἰδίᾳ, “one’s own”).” More literally translated, the latter part of verse six could read, “...heard each one one’s own language being spoken to herself/himself.” This portion of the text, as well as the description of “divided tongues, as of fire,” and the text from Joel all echo and reinforce this theme of individuation.

The imagery of fire is also particularly instructive. Common as a symbol of divinity and power throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is reinterpreted in Acts. Previously we have seen a large pillar of fire in Exodus, or fire raining from the heavens to consume Elijah’s sacrifice in 1 Kings. Here, the fire is not a singular, grand display, but rather comes to rest on “each (again, ἕκαστον) of them.” This should tell us something about the role of the Holy Spirit in trinitarian theology. God has seemed to appear at big moments before and withdraw afterward, but now the game is changing. Now God “rests” (Greek ἐκάθισεν, “to sit”) on each person.

This is reinforced, again, by the use of the Joel text. The note to Joel 2:28-29 in the Harper Collins Study Bible points out that the “spirit” (transliterated Hebrew: ruach, which can also mean wind) being “poured out” evokes the Hamsin (in Arabic) or Sharav (in Hebrew), a dry, seasonal desert wind. This wind, according to the Harper Collins, is the same wind that divides the Red Sea in Exodus traditions. What does this mean for our interpretation of Acts 2? It means that the breath of God, this cosmic force, will not remain distant, showing up only at the pivotal moments. The literal Deus isn’t interested in being a metaphorical deus ex machina. God’s purpose will be accomplished in human history, and so God sends God’s spirit to sit with the believers at Pentecost. This means emphatically that the work isn’t “on us” or about us, but that we are indelibly a part of it.

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