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Acts 2:42-47 is often used as a model for how to “do church” today.  There is a perception that the present church ought to create a community which is as close to the community in Jerusalem as possible.  But there is a reluctance to take all of the descriptions of church activity in Acts 2 seriously.  Modern churches pick-and-choose which aspects they will promote (prayer and fellowship, for example), but omit things like communal living or selling property to support the church.  I usually do not hear any reason for taking one aspect while ignoring the others.  My guess is that these things are re-interpreted or somehow explained away.

Clint Arnold points out in his Acts commentary that they community in Acts Two was characterized by four types of activities. Acts 2:42 says that the believers were devoted to these four activities. The verb here (προσκαρτερέω) has the idea of being busy with something, or even “to persist” (BDAG). The word appears twice in this paragraph, in verse 46 the community is daily worshiping in the temple and sharing meals together.

First, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (διδαχή). This instruction is for new converts who may not have heard Jesus teach. The apostles are witnesses passing along the things which they have seen and heard. It is entirely possible that the apostles had common set of instruction which they regularly passed along to new converts. If this is the case, then there was a basic body of tradition within months of the death of Jesus which could be called the “teaching of the apostles.”

Bread&WineSecond, they devoted themselves to fellowship (κοινωνία). Since this word has the connotation of sharing common, this is likely an allusion to the communal life described in the next verses (Fitzmyer, Acts, 269). At the very least this includes alms and care for the poor.

Third, they devoted themselves to “breaking of bread.” While this phrase can be used of sharing a meal together, it is likely that Luke is describing the community as celebrating some form of communion. In Luke 21:19 the same words are used as Jesus takes bread and breaks it. In Luke 24:35 it is used for the resurrected Jesus breaking bread as two disciples realized who he was.

Fourth, they devoted themselves to prayers. Since the Greek is plural this is plausibly a reference to daily prayers in the Temple. It would not be unusual for Jewish men to go to the Temple several times a day to pray, so the community continues to worship at the Temple regularly. In fact, Acts 2:46 indicates that the disciples met in both private homes and in the Temple.

Since a major interest in this series of studies is how to “apply” the book of Acts, it is critical to ask if Luke is describing an ideal Christian community, or the specific community in Jerusalem. While it is easy to see these four elements as generic components of Christian community everywhere, there are other elements in this paragraph which do not seem to be found elsewhere. I will come back to this later, but notice for now that the community sold property, pooled resources, and distributed these funds to the poor. Giving to the poor is a standard description of Christian community, but “living in common” only appears here in Acts 2. There is nothing which makes me think the Antioch church was pooling resources, nor does Paul give any such instruction to his churches.

The fact that these earliest believers are devoted to these activities daily is also unique in the apostolic period. There is no other group of believers who appear to have left their jobs to devote themselves to spiritual activity. In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul seems to instruct the members of the church to not retire from daily life and be constantly devoted to ministry. 2 Thess 3:11-12 specifically tells people to go out and get jobs so that they are not a burden.

What is the reason Christians are quick to apply Acts 2:42 but not Acts 2:43 (miracles) or 2:44-45 (communal living)? What is the difference between what is happening in Acts 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3?

Peter’s sermon is a summary of the sorts of things he would have preached in any similar context.  He is speaking to rather well educated Jews in the Temple, people who knew their Hebrew Bible very well.  Rather than pursue modern logical arguments, he turns to the Psalms and shows that David does not exhaust the meaning of the text. Since the messiah is to be a new David, the psalms Peter cites are turning into prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter_Paul_El_GrecoIn order to show that the Messiah would rise from the dead, Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11. In this text, David states his faith that God will not abandon him in the grace not “allow him to see decay.” Peter points out that David died and was not resurrected, his tomb was still venerated in Jerusalem to that day. Perhaps people in the audience had already visited the tomb of David during their visit to the City! (Modern tours of Israel often visit the Upper Room and the Tomb of David at the same time since they are relatively close together.)

Psalm 16 is remarkable in that both Peter and Paul cite it as a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus (cf., Acts 13:32-37). Yet when one reads Psalm 16, there is little there that hints at a messianic interpretation. To tease out a messianic implication from the psalm Peter blends it with Ps 132:11 and applies it to Jesus.

To me, this is an exegetical maneuver which I would not a student to make, and probably if I heard a pastor use Scripture in this way I would probably have a few things to say about his exegetical method.  But int he context of Jewish interpretation of Scripture, this makes sense.  Combining texts in this way creates new possibilities which are then applied to new situations.  I think this might be a case where we should be careful how we try and apply Scripture, Peter is not giving a lesson on how to read the Hebrew Bible, only showing that these texts allude in some way to the resurrection.

To further his case, Peter cites Psalm 110, another well known messianic prophecy. There David is told that he would be exalted to the very throne of God and that God would make all his enemies his footstool. This too cannot have been exhaustively fulfilled in the life David. Although David was given great victories, and he was the greatest king in Israel’s history, he was not raised to the level of the throne of God!

Peter therefore tells the crowd that Jesus non only rose from the dead but was taken up to heaven like Elijah or Moses (or Enoch, for that matter). In those three cases, the person was a highly respected prophet who did not experience death. Like the great men of old, God confirmed Jesus’ message by doing miracles through him, but he allowed him to die in order to initiate the new covenant.

Since Jesus fulfills the psalm which David could not, he is confirmed as the Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This is the most shocking point in the whole sermon – everything which the Hebrew Bible looked forward to had happened with Jesus, he was in fact the Lord and Messiah.

Dorffmaister,_István_-_Pentecost_(1782)The imagery of Pentecost may be important. Pentecost is a pilgrim-holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The holiday celebrated the Firstfruits of the harvest. The Festival of Weeks was the smallest of the three pilgrim festivals, falling 50 days after Passover (seven weeks), the late spring / early summer. This festival was an offering of two loaves made with the new wheat given in the firstfruit offering.

The point of the festival was “to declare God’s ownership of the land and his grace in bringing forth food. According to a tradition found in the book of Jubilees, Pentecost was the day on which Moses was given the Law (cf. Tob 2:1, 2 Mac 12:32). This tradition is based on the belief that the Israelites arrived at Sinai 50 days after the first Passover (Exod 19:1). Some scholars (Knox, Snaith) have made a connection between this tradition and the gift of the Holy Spirit (ie., Moses gave out the Law to Israel on this day, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the church). Fitzmyer thinks Luke was aware of the tradition since there are some indirect allusions to the giving of the Law in Acts 2, not the least of which is the image of fire descending (Exod 19:18).

It is at least possible to see the idea of “firstfruits” applied to the Holy Spirit. The new age has begun and the Holy Spirit has come for the first time. But we also need to consider two other potential “Pentecosts” in the book of Acts. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, a God-Fearing Gentile, and he speaks in tongues just like Pentecost. Peter makes this point clear in Acts 10:47, the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home received the Holy Spirit “just as we have.”

ShavuotBut there is a third reference to Pentecost in Acts 20:16. Paul is adamant that he reach Jerusalem before Pentecost if possible. This return to Jerusalem was dangerous, but Paul wanted to deliver the Collection from the Gentile churches at Pentecost if at all possible. Why? Because the sharing of gifts from the Gentile churches indicates that they too have received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s return to Jerusalem at Pentecost is calculated to highlight his “harvest” among the Gentiles. Three references to Pentecost is not unexpected since there are other repetitions of events on Acts (Cornelius’ conversion, Paul’s conversion, the rejection of Israel, etc.)

Whatever the intended imagery, the day represents the largest crowd in the Temple area after Passover. Peter and the other apostles are able to preach to large crowds of biblically-minded Jews gathered to worship God in the Temple (Acts 2-3). Is there anything in Peter’s sermon that makes some use of this Pentecost imagery?  In other words, why is Pentecost the time God chose for the outpouring of the Spirit?

Bibliography: W. L. Knox, Acts, (NCB, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 80-84; N. Snaith, “Pentecost, the Day of Power,” ExpTim 43 (1931-32): 379-80.

Clint Arnold points out in his Acts commentary that they community in Acts Two was characterized by four types of activities. Acts 2:42 says that the believers were devoted to these four activities.  The verb here (προσκαρτερέω) has the idea of being busy with something, or even “to persist” (BDAG).  The word appears twice in this paragraph, in verse 46 the community is daily worshiping in the temple and sharing meals together.

First, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (διδαχή). This instruction is for new converts who may not have heard Jesus teach.  The apostles are witnesses passing along the things which they have seen and heard.  It is entirely possible that the apostles had common set of instruction which they regularly passed along to new converts.  If this is the case, then there was a basic body of tradition within months of the death of Jesus which could be called the “teaching of the apostles.”

Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship (κοινωνία). Since this word has the connotation of sharing common, this is likely an allusion to the communal life described in the next verses (Fitzmyer, Acts, 269).  At the very least this includes alms and care for the poor.  I would suggest that many of those who needed assistance were Diaspora pilgrims who accepted the message of Jesus and remained in Jerusalem rather than to return home after Pentecost.

Third, they devoted themselves to “breaking of bread.” While this phrase can be used of sharing a meal together, it is likely that Luke is describing the community as celebrating some form of communion.  In Luke 21:19 the same words are used as Jesus takes bread and breaks it.  In Luke 24:35 it is used for the resurrected Jesus breaking bread as two disciples realized who he was.  I think that Jesus’ practice of common meals was the foundation for this practice — they all ate and drank together as one group.

Fourth, they devoted themselves to prayers. Since the Greek is plural this is plausibly a reference to daily prayers in the Temple.  It would not be unusual for Jewish men to go to the Temple several times a day to pray, so the community continues to worship at the Temple regularly.  In fact, Acts 2:46 indicates that the disciples met in both private homes and in the Temple.  This likely put them into contact with other observant Jews who would then be introduced to Jesus as Messiah.

Since a major interest in this series of studies is how to “apply” the book of Acts, it is critical to ask if  Luke is describing an ideal Christian community, or the specific community in Jerusalem.  While it is easy to see these four elements as generic components of Christian community everywhere, there are other elements in this paragraph which do not seem to be found elsewhere.  I will come back to this later, but notice for now that the community sold property, pooled resources, and distributed these funds to the poor.  Giving to the poor is a standard description of Christian community, but “living in common” only appears here in Acts 2.  There is nothing which makes me think the Antioch church was pooling resources, nor does Paul give any such instruction to his churches.

The fact that these earliest believers are devoted to these activities daily is also unique in the apostolic period.  There is no other group of believers who appear to have left their jobs to devote themselves to spiritual activity.  In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul seems to instruct the members of the church to not retire from daily life and be constantly devoted to ministry.  2 Thess 3:11-12 specifically tells people to go out and get jobs so that they are not a burden.

What is the reason Christians are quick to apply Acts 2:42 but not Acts 2:43 (miracles) or 2:44-45 (communal living)?  What is the difference between what is happening in Acts 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3?

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is critically important since it demonstrates how the apostles interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, including the Ascension.  Peter uses the Old Testament in this sermon and cites texts which were fulfilled in the events of Jesus’ life, but also in the events of Pentecost.

Peter first explains the significance of the Holy Spirit (2:14-21).  Beginning with a prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, Peter states that the presence of the Spirit in the apostles at that moment is what Joel predicted.  In short, it is proof that the New Covenant has begun! Several other texts from the Hebrew Bible indicate that the Spirit of God would fall upon his people when the New Age begins (Isa 32:14-15, 44:3; Ezek 11:19, 37:14).

Second, Peter explains that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the purpose of God in his death and was vindicated by God in his resurrection and ascension (2:22-35). The life of Jesus is summarized simply by stating that Jesus was from Nazareth and he was confirmed by God through many miracles.  Since this is a summary of the actual sermon, it is entirely possible Peter illustrated this point with his personal experience and witness.  Remember that the main theme of chapter one was that the twelve were to be witnesses of these events!

There are several words used to describe the miracles (signs and wonders).  Signs is the most significant, since σημειον (semeion) typically refers to a miracle done to prove some sort of point, to make some sort of revelation. Peter states that God did the miracles through Jesus, not that Jesus himself did the miracles.   He adds “as you yourselves know,” indicating that at least some of the crowd were witnesses to the miracles of Jesus.  It is equally likely that the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans as a rebel was well known by the crowds in Jerusalem.

But Jesus is not dead – God raised him from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy.  Peter goes about proving the resurrection quite a bit differently than we do today.  He does not mention the empty tomb or challenge the Pharisees to produce a body to prove that Jesus was really dead.    Rather than pursue modern logical arguments, he turns to the Psalms and shows that David does not exhaust the meaning of the text.  Since the messiah is to be a new David, the psalms Peter cites are turning into prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection.

Before looking at Peter’s use of the Psalms, I want to pause and think a bit about what Peter is claiming here.  He is clearly saying that the messianic age has in some way already begun.  The Spirit has been poured out on those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  The dead have already been raised.  Miracles are in fact happening.  Remember that the crowd assembled to hear this sermon are religiously observant Jews who are spending time in the Temple during a religious feast.  Peter is claiming that the age anticipated in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve is beginning at that moment!

If this is on the right track, what might a religiously observant and biblical educated Jew in the first century have expected, if the messianic age was beginning?  I suspect the crowd had a more than a few people with rather fervent messianic hopes.  They might have expected Israel to be re-gathered from the nations to Mount Zion to worship the Lord.  It is not a surprise, then, to find that Jews from all over the world who believe in Jesus as Messiah settle in Jerusalem to prepare themselves for his soon return.

The imagery of Pentecost may be important.  Pentecost is a pilgrim-holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The holiday celebrated the Firstfruits of the harvest.   The Festival of Weeks was the smallest of the three pilgrim festivals, falling 50 days after Passover (seven weeks), the late spring / early summer.  This festival was an offering of two loaves made with the new wheat given in the firstfruit offering.

The point of the festival was “to declare God’s ownership of the land and his grace in bringing forth food.  According to a tradition found in the book of Jubilees, Pentecost was the day on which Moses was given the Law (cf. Tob 2:1, 2 Mac 12:32).  This tradition is based on the belief that the Israelites arrived at Sinai 50 days after the first Passover (Exod 19:1). Some scholars (Knox, Snaith) have made a connection between this tradition and the gift of the Holy Spirit (ie., Moses gave out the Law to Israel on this day, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the church).  Fitzmyer thinks Luke was aware of the tradition since there are some indirect allusions to the giving of the Law in Acts 2, not the least of which is the image of fire descending (Exod 19:18)(Acts, 234).  Darrell Bock, on the other hand, points out, if Luke knew of this tradition he does not seem to make use of the imagery (Acts, 96).

It is at least possible to see the idea of “firstfruits” applied to the Holy Spirit.  The new age has begun and the Holy Spirit has come for the first time.  But we also need to consider two other potential “Pentecosts” in the book of Acts.  In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, a God-Fearing Gentile, and he speaks in tongues just like Pentecost.  Peter makes this point clear in Acts 10:47, the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home received the Holy Spirit “just as we have.”  But there is a third reference to Pentecost in Acts 20:16.  Paul is adamant that he reach Jerusalem before Pentecost if possible.  This return to Jerusalem was dangerous, but Paul wanted to deliver the Collection from the Gentile churches at Pentecost if at all possible.  Why? Because the sharing of gifts from the Gentile churches indicates that they too have received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s return to Jerusalem at Pentecost is calculated to highlight his “harvest” among the Gentiles.  Three references to Pentecost is not unexpected since there are other repetitions of events on Acts (Cornelius’ conversion, Paul’s conversion, the rejection of Israel, etc.)

Whatever the intended imagery, the day represents the largest crowd in the Temple area after Passover.  Peter and the other apostles are able to preach to large crowds of biblically-minded Jews gathered to worship God in the Temple (Acts 2-3).

Bibliography: W. L. Knox, The Acts, (NCB, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 80-84; N. Snaith, “Pentecost, the Day of Power,” ExpTim 43 (1931-32): 379-80.

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Phillip J. Long

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