In my last post I described the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost as forging the Church as a New Humanity, reversing Babel’s curse of social and national disintegration. Today I would like to look at the coming of the Holy Spirit as establishing a New Covenant marked by the dynamic corporate experience of God.
As with last time, my intention is to interpret Acts 2 through Old Testament narrative of Israel’s history as alluded to in the passage. Previously looking at Genesis 11, we now turn to Exodus 19. This is the beginning of the account of Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. God comes down upon the mountain with manifestations of fire, smoke and the loud sound of a trumpet. These are common aspects of a Biblical phenomenon called a theophany (literally, “God-appearing”) in which God becomes perceptible in a visible and physical display (cf. 1 Kgs 19:11; Isa. 66.15; Ps. 18).
Immediately following the exodus from slavery in Egypt, this event is what solidified Israel’s identity as a nation through their covenant with God. It is likely that this moment was what later writings referred to as the “creation of Israel” (Isa. 43:1, 15). Israel was offered the covenant by God and when they agreed to the words God spoke, they became his special possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). Their incorporation was two-fold: (1) to have a unique relationship with God and (2) to be priests to the rest of the earth. As a nation, they received promises analogous to those offered to Abraham, which included a special relationship with God, and that he would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. As Abraham (whose covenant in Genesis 12 comes strategically following Genesis 11) was called by God to be the agent of His solution to the problem of sin amassed in Gen. 1-11, so now Israel as a nation carries that priestly task.
Of significant note, is that while God came down upon the mountain, only Moses was allowed to come near to God. Eventually, Aaron, the priests and the seventy elders were permitted to come to the mountain, but only “at a distance.” With the exception of Moses, those permitted on the mountain were told that “they shall not come near.” Furthermore, the people at large were not permitted to come close to the mountain.
Now we turn to Acts 2. Pentecost was traditionally a harvest festival (Exod. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15-21; Num. 28-26), but came to be associated with both the renewal of the covenant with Noah and the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is certain that Jews in the first century associated Pentecost with the Noahic covenant, as it is attested in literature from before that time (The Book of Jubilees 6:17-21; ca. 150 BC). However it is less certain whether it was yet affiliated with the Giving of the Law (though it certainly was in the second and third century). What would make us think then that Acts 2 is meant to be understood in light of Mount Sinai?
First, the great sound and the fire descending upon the believers parallels the sound and fire that accompanied the Sinai event. In Rabbinic writing, fire was commonly used as a symbol for the Torah. Furthermore, nowhere in the Bible is there an emphasis on both the descending of fire and a great sound in a theophany except for in Exodus 19.
Second, Philo, a prolific Jewish writer in the century before Jesus, spoke about the giving of the Law in this way: “Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear the” (On the Decalogue 46).” This shows us that in time the New Testament was written, the Giving of the Law was being spoken of in terms of communication by fire (“tongues of fire?”) that became recognizable to the audience in their language.
Third, Luke consistently uses Moses typology to talk about Jesus. Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” of whom it was promised that God would raise up. In Luke 9:35 a voice from heaven tells the people to listen to Jesus, much like Israel was to listen to Moses. Moses was “raised up” by God, but Jesus was “raised up” by resurrection (Acts 2:34-36). Moses “received the living words and gave them” (Acts 7:38) but Jesus receives the Holy Spirit and gives it to his disciples (Acts 2:33).
It seems then, that Pentecost is meant to be understood in parallel to the Giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Obviously, much could be said about the relationship between the Law and the Spirit, but that will have to be said at another time and place. For the present, I would like to simply focus on the theophany aspect. If Pentecost is a New Sinai (following the New Exodus in Jesus’ death and resurrection – cf. Lk. 9:30, when Jesus speaks to Moses and Elijah about the exodus he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem), notice how instead of God descending upon the mountain, he descends upon the entire community of believers. Rather than the people remaining at a distance while only Moses approaches God, the community of women and men is the place where God manifests his theophanic presence. The Church, the New Covenant people, become a theophany in person.
The Church is the mountain upon which God descends in theophanic glory and like Israel, takes up a priestly vocation to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth – to be agents through whom God deals with the problem of sin and restores the creation to Himself and to His intentions for it. As Moses proclaimed the Word of God to the people after God met him on the mountain – the assembled believers began proclaiming the mighty acts of God to those who were in Jerusalem.
As I asked previously, so now I ask – what would a “praxis of Pentecost” look like, in light of this understanding? I think, in relation to what has been said here, it begins with the recognition and celebration of the fact that God is with us. There is much to be said concerning intercession for God’s presence and purposes as well as much to be said about the experience of God-forsakeness (cf. Ps. 22). Jeremiah spoke of a time when there would be a New Covenant and one person would not tell another to “know the Lord” because they all would know the Lord. This time of New Covenant has come and is an experienced reality in the community of believers. Few could deny our need to know the Lord in deeper and clearer ways. I am even aware of a deep reticence within myself to speak concerning my knowledge of God, conceivably in order to maintain some form of humility. However, I think we need to find a way to speak positively about our knowledge of God – to recognize that God has descended in our midst, that he dwells among us, and we do indeed know Him. Perhaps a way forward in this is the awareness that the Church corporately is the location of this New Covenant theophany. Individual, all of “see in a glass dimly,” (1 Cor. 13:12) but together “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).