Holy drunkenness on Pentecost

Pentecost / El Greco (1597)

Did your church acknowledge Pentecost? If so, how? The church has become divided over the significance of the events of the first Christian Pentecost.

Pentecostals emphasize the supernatural events and consider them normative. Others fear them and try to explain them away.

Some even teach that God no longer performs supernatural acts and that anyone who claims otherwise follows the devil! So what happened? And what does it matter now?

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech.” (Acts 2:1-4, HCSB).

We regard Pentecost as the birthday of the church. But on that first Christian Pentecost, Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate one of the major traditional feasts.

Speaking, or just hearing?

Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer (1750s)

Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, 1750s

“They” in the first verse of the scripture presumably means the 120 people mentioned in the first chapter. The one place has to mean a house large enough to accommodate all of them.

What happened there scares some modern Christians. All 120 people began to speak in tongues as the Holy Spirit enabled them.

Some in the church today point to v. 8, where the crowd asks, “How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language?” They say that the real miracle is the hearing. They use that verse to explain away the speaking.

They completely misunderstand the entire passage. First, the Bible clearly says that the 120 were speaking in other languages. Second, they miss the action of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit manifested himself through the 120 believers, not through the crowd. Some in the crowd mocked the believers for being drunk.

To emphasize the hearing over the speaking implies that the Holy Spirit acted through the clueless crowd. That, in turn, implies that the disciples’ being filled with the Holy Spirit did not act on the crowd. A very serious error.

So who was the crowd and how did the Holy Spirit manifest to, not through, them? Verses 9-11 indicate the distances from which people came.

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites all lived east of the Tigris river, roughly equivalent to modern Iran, and a part of the world outside the Roman Empire. Mesopotamia corresponds to modern day Iraq.

Cyrene, no longer extant, was a major city located on the same peninsula as present-day Bengazi. Egypt, Arabia, and Rome meant about the same places then as now. Most of the rest of the ethnic groups mentioned lived in modern Turkey.

All of these people probably spoke some Greek, the one language everyone in that part of the world had in common. Being Jews, they probably all spoke some Aramaic.

Each group had a native language none of the others understood. They thought they had left that language behind them. They certainly did not expect to hear anyone but immediate friends and family speak it until they returned home. No wonder they were astonished and perplexed.

A less-noticed manifestation

Pentecost / Restout

Pentecôte / Jean II Restout (1732)

But notice that v. 9 includes Judea, the district immediately surrounding Jerusalem. Why would Judeans be surprised to hear their own language, Aramaic?

Because all those speaking were Galileans, country bumpkins.

Not too long ago in the US, broadcasters tried to eliminate local accents. They drilled appropriate speech into new broadcasters to the point they lost the ability to speak as they had growing up.

Standard American English meant in part what broadcasters had learned to speak. It also included certain standards of vocabulary and grammar.

So imagine a group of people from the Appalachian region visiting New York shortly after the founding of the United Nations (late 1940s). TV had not yet homogenized spoken English.

Now imagine that suddenly and very publicly they began to speak languages they hadn’t learned, but languages native to the various UN delegations. That certainly would give all the foreigners a shock.

The New Yorkers would understand not a syllable. But some of them would recognize that an outlandish hillbilly they mocked the day before now sounded like Walter Cronkite. They could experience the same shock of recognition as everyone else. God granted that shock to Judeans at Pentecost.

Actually, with 120 people speaking in other languages, each probably spoke a different language. Since the Holy Spirit made his presence known in the speaking and not merely in the hearing, he did not limit himself to known languages. One of the believers may have spoken English.

The 120 spoke in the house in v. 4 and a crowd gathered in v. 6. At some point, then, the Christians left the house, still speaking in tongues, and made a spectacle of themselves. They got the attention of the crowd. And Peter was ready with a sermon that converted 3,000 people.

Image credits. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons:
El Greco.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *