Pentecost and Missions: Some Second Thoughts
From many pulpits and in many books it has been said: Pentecost was when the gates of the church were flung wide open. Before Pentecost, God was essentially concerned only with the Jewish nation. Pentecost represents a radical shift, a dramatic transition. In an instant, the focus of God’s work has become universal, rather than national. In his book God-Centred Evangelism, R.B. Kuiper echoed this point of view when he wrote, “The outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church implemented the transition from nationalism to universalism.”1 If this is correct, the events of Pentecost in Acts 2 are very important for missions. Indeed, this would be the critical turning point for the Christian church in its mission to proclaim the risen Saviour.
However, it appears that there is reason to question whether this well-established understanding of the significance of Pentecost is sustainable. There are several clues that lead us to this suspicion, but the most obvious clue is found later in the book of Acts. In Acts 10, we read the surprising story of how Peter was led to abandon his narrow vision of God’s family. Peter is brought to Cornelius. Cornelius is led to faith in the Lord Jesus. Peter then vexes his brothers in Judea by even daring to eat with this Gentile. In chapter 11, Peter is called to defend his actions and he does so cogently. The effect is stunning:
When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’Acts 11:18
This conclusion is reached in Jerusalem, the same place where Pentecost had taken place presumably a short time earlier. This kind of response from the “apostles and brethren” in Jerusalem provokes a question: why did they make this conclusion when Pentecost had signified “the transition from nationalism to universalism?” Wouldn’t it be natural for us to expect that the apostles would not be surprised that Gentiles were being brought into the church? But that isn’t the case. Rather, the apostles and the early church did not see Pentecost as the definitive moment at which a shift took place from nationalism to universalism.
This is further evidenced by a closer look at Acts 2 itself. The chapter begins with a description of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then in verse 5, we read “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.” Jews had come from all over the Roman Empire to attend the feast of Pentecost. Along with the ethnic Jews, there were also a number of proselytes (devout men) – people who were essentially Jewish, having been circumcised and who followed the Torah. This is not undermined by the list of places that follows. The list simply outlines where these Jews have come from – it says nothing as such about their nationality. In fact, the visitors from Rome are not described as Romans, but as “Jews and proselytes,” possibly foreshadowing the work of the apostle Paul later in the book.2 It is also striking that Peter’s sermon is addressed to the “Men of Israel” (2:22), “the house of Israel” (2:36), and “men and brethren.” The evidence is clear: Peter was preaching to men who were Jews. The Pentecost sermon of Peter was addressed to the covenant people of God who had been dispersed all over the world.
When this dispersion happened, the Jews took the faith of their fathers along with them. The amazing thing is that they also spread their faith. It is not clear whether this proselytizing was passive or active (more likely the former) 3 – but the result was the same: many people from other nations came to believe in the God of the Bible. The numbers may not have been huge, but they were large enough for there to be detailed discussions about the status of proselytes in various rabbinic writings. 4 We have to take note of this because it is consistent with what we find in the Old Testament.
Old Testament Background
Already in the Old Testament, God was concerned with the nations. Israel was definitely “the apple of his eye,” but He had not forgotten the other peoples. Two examples will suffice, both well-known. Twelve chapters into the Bible, God promised Abram, “...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The prophets are full of God’s attention to the foreign nations – though most of this attention is negative. One of the remarkable exceptions is Jonah. The prophet Jonah is sent to Nineveh because God doesn’t want this city of 120,000 to perish under his wrath – even the livestock of the city fall under his concern! God truly has a heart for the nations.
Thus, we may say that there is a universalism already present in the Old Testament. We could call this an incipient universalism. It is incipient: it is in an early stage. This universalism does not come to full expression in the older dispensation. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the Lord worked through his people and their dispersion to bring outsiders into his fold. This incipient universalism continues into the early New Testament period. We see our Lord Jesus in Matthew 8 speaking of the great faith of a Roman centurion. He does the same with a Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15: “O woman, great is your faith!” This incipient universalism only continues through the event of Pentecost.
This happens because the shift from a predominantly Jewish to a Gentile focus follows the contours of the mission outlined by the Saviour in Acts 1:8, “...you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” As the mission of the apostles moves outward in that pattern, so does the scope of the gospel shift radically from an incipient to a full-blown universalism. However, Pentecost does not represent this radical shift. Rather, we should look to the experience of Peter in Acts 10 as the defining moment. The gospel at that moment is ready to move outward in a forceful way and God brings the sheet-vision to Peter as a stimulus to this radical shift. He then works with His Holy Spirit to bring the realization of this shift to the believers at Jerusalem.
But What About...?
Having said that, there are several places in the early chapters of Acts which would appear to contradict this thesis. In Acts 6, there was a dispute between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. In response to this dispute, seven men were chosen as what we would today call deacons. Many commentators have noted the fact that these seven have Greek names. However, we should not think that these men were not of a Jewish background. Rather, the term Hellenist refers to a Greek-speaking Jew.5 In verse 5, we are even informed that Nicolas was “a proselyte from Antioch.” This piece of information reinforces the fact that the Hellenists were essentially Jewish, though not necessarily ethnically Jewish.
In Acts 8, the gospel goes out to Samaria. On this point, we don’t need to spend a lot of time for the reason that Jews and Samaritans shared a similar heritage. The Samaritans were a sect of the Jews. Even more troublesome, at least at first glance, is the account of Philip and the Ethiopian in that same chapter. In Acts 8:27, we read that this man had “come to Jerusalem to worship.” Who did he come to worship? The fact that he was reading from the gospel of Isaiah would seem to indicate that he too was a proselyte. We infer this also when Luke notes no surprise on the part of the apostles and brethren at Jerusalem. If this man had been a “raw Gentile,” we might expect the kind of reaction we find in Acts 11:18. Instead, this is accepted as part of the manner in which God has been working up to this point (including Pentecost): incipient universalism. Believers from a non-Jewish background are easily accepted into the church, so long as they come into the church as circumcised proselytes.
With Cornelius and his household in Acts 10, there is a significant change. It is true that Acts 10 describes Cornelius as a devout man, but the difference here rests with the fact that he is uncircumcised. He respected God, was generous with his wealth, and prayed to the Lord all the time (Acts 10:2). Still, he had not taken the step of becoming circumcised and did not follow the ceremonial requirements of the Torah. For Jewish purposes, he was a Gentile. Cornelius represented the bridge in redemptive-history by which also we have been ingrafted into the people of God. This moment demonstrated powerfully that the doors of the church are open for those who are not Jewish by birth or circumcision. So, the gospel-acceptance worked in Cornelius was indeed a, if not the, radical step forward. At this point, also the book of Acts shifts focus from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the rest of the world. Chapters 12 and 13 find Saul and Barnabas being sent out to the other nations. If Pentecost was really the dramatic shift from nationalism to universalism, why did the apostles not go out to the ends of the world earlier? No, we find that there is a pattern that follows the Lord’s outline in Acts 1:8. This pattern and the incipient universalism which undergirds it lead naturally to what happens in Acts 10.
Pentecost and Missions: Some Conclusions
So, where does this leave Pentecost? For one thing, as already mentioned, Pentecost does reinforce the fact that God’s concerns are broader than ethnic Israel. This is evidenced in that large numbers of proselytes were present and also turned to the Lord Jesus in faith. However, the deepest significance of Pentecost for missions should be seen in its relation to the covenant people of Israel. Pentecost, the speaking in foreign languages, the sermon of Peter – all of these things served as warning signs to Israel. In Isaiah 28:11, the speaking of God in another language served as sign of a curse. 6
Most of Israel had rejected the Messiah and the speaking in foreign languages signalled that God was ready to move on. Peter’s sermon highlights this aspect as well, since he is trying to show his Jewish listeners that the one they crucified is both Lord and Christ. So, we can say that Pentecost is prophetic of the definitive shift that takes place in Acts 10, but it is not the definitive shift itself.
Finally, we should naturally say something about the Old Testament background of the Pentecost feast itself. Pentecost represented the culmination of the Feast of Weeks. This feast ended with the offering of two loaves of unleavened bread. This symbolized the first fruits of the harvest. Seen against this background, Pentecost does illustrate the bringing in of the first fruits of the “Christian harvest” of men. But note well that this says nothing about the nationality or religious status of those being gathered in. Firstfruits have nothing to do with universalism as such, but they definitely look forward to a greater harvest. Once again, we catch a sense of the prophetic nature of Pentecost.
From all of this we learn something very important about our God: He always has been and always will be a “missionary” God. From the moment He sought out Adam in the garden, God has always been concerned for the lost in whatever corner of the earth they may be. Today, our God continues to send out missionaries to those in darkness. “To the ends of the earth” is a goal that remains. Those of us who are privileged to serve in this task ought to be humbled by the fact that it is not our work. We see very clearly from the Scriptures that God sovereignly brings all the lines together in his time. He is at work in us and in those who hear the message which is preached. We can look through sacred history and witness God’s power in extending his church everywhere. We can look around us today and witness the same thing. When Gamaliel advised his colleagues in Acts 5:39, he was right: “...if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it.” His work cannot be overthrown! That is our confidence today and we praise God for it!