An excerpt from The Acts of the Apostles (Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, Vol. 2), pp. 17 — 24
The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles on Pentecost and the Confusion of the People (2:1–13).
The great event of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles is called by some the “birthday of the Church of Christ.” At the same time, this event was also a conclusion of the entire work of God’s economy of salvation. According to St Theophan the Recluse, “what God the Father willed to be and what the Son of God accomplished in Himself, that the Holy Spirit came today to give to the faithful.” Illumined by the Holy Spirit, the apostles fearlessly began to preach Christ crucified and risen. The Church of Christ began to grow and spread at first among the Jews of Palestine, then eventually among the Gentiles in the whole world, and even “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This occurred “when the Day of Pentecost had fully come,” the high point of the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The Law of Moses decreed to celebrate solemnly the fiftieth day after the day following the Sabbath of the Passover, counting seven full weeks from that day (Lev 23:15). The Jewish Passover in the year of Christ’s death occurred on Friday evening. The first day of Passover was thus the Sabbath, and the morning after the Sabbath was the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection. From that day, seven weeks must be counted. Thus, in that year, the celebration of the Jewish Pentecost occurred on a Sunday (and therefore Christian Pentecost always falls on a Sunday). The Pentecost of the Jews was established to bless the harvest or the first fruits, because the first harvest of seeds planted immediately after Passover brought fruit roughly at this time. This feast also was combined with the remembrance of the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai. This was one of the three major “pilgrim” feasts of the Jewish calendar (Passover, Pentecost, Booths), on which all Jewish men were obligated to travel as pilgrims to Jerusalem for the celebration.
The concurrence of the descent of the Holy Spirit with Jewish Pentecost, of course, is no coincidence. In fact, it is symbolic. By this time, the apostles had matured and blossomed spiritually, and so this was the time when the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit descended on them, and thus they themselves became the first fruits of Christ’s work of redemption. In addition to the apostles, the first fruits of this work were the three thousand people who were baptized on that day. Just as the Christian Pascha replaced the Jewish Passover, so too did the Christian Pentecost replace the Jewish Pentecost. As Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid noted in his commentary,
It was appropriate for the grace of the Spirit to be given on the same day as the giving of the ancient Law, because as the Saviour willed to commit Himself to His passion in no other time than the time of the killing of the lamb, in order to tie the truth with the prefiguration. Thus also the coming of the Spirit could not have been given at any other time than the day when the Law was given, in order to show that the Holy Spirit is the same Lawgiver of both the Old and the New Covenants…. In the same way that on Pentecost sheaves of the new fruits were gathered by many people from many different places to Jerusalem, so on this day it was appropriate that the first fruits of all nations living under heaven should gather into a single sheaf of piety, brought to God through the apostolic preaching.
“They were all with one accord in one place.” The account in Acts makes it obvious that not only the Twelve were present, but also all the faithful, perhaps even more than those 120 mentioned in the first chapter. In verse 14, the Twelve are clearly differentiated from the other participants of this great event. This gathering, we can assume, occurred in the same Upper Room where the disciples probably met every day after the Mystical Supper. “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” They were awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit, but of course they did not know when exactly this promise would be fulfilled. Neither did they know the manner of this coming, and so St Luke calls the descent “sudden,” unexpected for them, especially because this was the hour of morning prayer, and most likely they were just getting ready to go to the temple to pray. The sound “as of a rushing wind” obviously was not an actual physical wind, but only the sound of it. This sound came down from above, filling the whole house, and it was so strong that it attracted the attention of many people who had gathered for the feast in Jerusalem.
“Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.” The tongues only appeared to be fire, but they were not fire, just as the sound appeared to be wind, but it was not wind. The noise was the audible sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the tongues were the visible sign. The sound of wind was a symbol of the mighty power that the Holy Spirit gave to the apostles and to all the faithful, while the tongues of fire were a symbol that all had received the gift of fiery speech that could burn away all impurity and falsehood, everything contrary to the truth, like fire.
Immediately after these external signs came the inner revelation: “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Even before this moment, the apostles were given some spiritual gifts, but now they were filled with the Holy Spirit, for the fullness of gracious spiritual gifts now had descended upon them. They were transfigured, purified, sanctified, and enlightened by the action of the Spirit of God. It was as if they became completely different, new people, with the Holy Spirit as their constant inspiration and guide. The external manifestation of this grace-filled transfiguration was the speaking in tongues, something that Christ Himself foretold (Mark 16:17). As soon as this divine fire lit their souls, they began to praise and thank God in the natural exuberance of their holy ecstasy, glorifying the majesty of God.
This gratitude to God was expressed aloud in various tongues, which attracted even more attention from the masses of people who had come to Jerusalem for the feast from various countries, both near and far. St Luke purposely lists all the countries to show how many different tongues were spoken by the disciples of Christ after the descent of the Spirit. Here were inhabitants of eastern and western Asia, Africa, and Europe, and they all heard their native tongues. This was also symbolic. We see the foreshadowing of the Church of Christ, into which all nations and races would enter, so that with one mind and heart all would praise God.
The gift of tongues is understandable: it was necessary to spread the faith all over the earth. At the same time, one cannot help but remember how this same gift was once used by God as a punishment for human pride. There was once a time when “the whole earth had one language and one speech” (Gen 11:1). But man, in his pride, undertook a mad venture that God punished by sending down multiple tongues, which forced the workers to leave the work and go to different places. Now the multiplication of tongues has become a means by which diverse nations are united into a one single Church of Christ. This is beautifully expressed in the kontakion of Pentecost: “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations, but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. And with one accord we glorify the All-Holy Spirit.”
“And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.” Here St Luke speaks both of the Jews who previously lived in other countries and then moved to Jerusalem for religious reasons and the pilgrims who assembled for the feast, and thus were in the city for a short time. About the time of Christ’s earthly life, the Jewish diaspora was extensive. Some of the Jews abandoned Palestine unwillingly, as military captives, but some went into diaspora voluntarily, often for reasons of trade and business.
“And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.” Apparently the sound of wind rushing into the house where the disciples were assembled could be heard at a considerable distance, and it was so clear that the listeners could pinpoint the exact house. The strangeness of such a phenomenon attracted a huge crowd to the house—it is possible these people were on their way to the temple to pray. Probably, a wide courtyard was in front of the house. The people were amazed at the inexplicable phenomenon: the apostles—who by their clothing showed their Galilean provenance (i.e., their lack of education)—were speaking in various tongues, so that every person in the crowd could hear his own tongue or dialect. Galilee was known as a country of the unlearned folk, not particularly known for their education, and so the gathered people were amazed that Galileans could speak so many different languages and dialects. We can assume that the apostles, glorifying God in different languages, had come out onto the flat roof of the house, and the people listened to them from the courtyard of the house, surrounding the house and filling the square completely.
“So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘Whatever could this mean?’ Others mocking said, ‘They are full of new wine.’” Evidently, not everyone reacted in the same way to this event. Pious people saw it as something miraculous and tried to find out what it could mean. But frivolous and unbelieving people, perhaps belonging to the sects opposed to Christ the Saviour, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, began to interpret this event with the crudest of explanations—by the effect of wine, essentially insulting the Spirit of God. In the same way, unbelief, anger, and frivolousness always try to give the most exalted phenomena of the spiritual life the crudest of explanations, being unable to understand that which is spiritual (see 1 Cor 2:14–15).
The Apostle Peter’s Speech and Its Effect on the Listeners (2:14–41).
The amazement of some, and the crude mockery of others, inspired the apostles to explain the miracle to the people. The gift of tongues was given to all the disciples of Christ who were in the house, but now only the Twelve came forth, and in their name the Apostle Peter addresses the people with the first apostolic proclamation. He “raised his voice”—his speech was full of boldness, it was triumphant, vivid, and instructive. St Peter spoke to the people as though they represented all of Jerusalem. Gently and meekly he removed any suspicion of drunkenness, “for these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” This was the time of the morning prayer (around 9 a.m.), before which no Jewish person would even eat, especially on such a great feast as Pentecost.
In his explanation, Peter referenced the prophecy of Joel (3:1–3), spoken over eight hundred years before. In this prophecy, the Lord, through the mouth of the prophet, gave a promise to His people that the gifts of the Spirit would be poured down on all believing people, and together with the promise of salvation for the righteous, He warned of judgment for the unrighteous. The first words of the prophecy—“After this”—Peter replaced with the new introductory words, “and it shall come to pass in the last days,” a prophetic expression that refers to the end of the time of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. This replacing of the indeterminate “after this” made it clear that Peter considered it impossible that Joel’s prophecy could have referred to any event in the times of the Old Testament, but instead believed it to have been fulfilled now, in the New Testament time.
“I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh,” instead of the original words of the prophet, “I will pour out My Spirit,” communicated the same meaning, but the apostle indicated that these gifts of the Holy Spirit are shared out among each one of the faithful individually. This “pouring out” is an image of the abundance of these gifts of the Holy Spirit, like rain or water pouring out of a vessel. The pouring out “on all flesh” indicates that all mankind will receive these gifts. This, of course, refers to all those who enters into the newly initiated kingdom of the Messiah (see Isa 40:5, 66:24), for only the members of the Christ’s kingdom will receive this grace of the Holy Spirit. Before the coming of Christ, the greater part of mankind, the Gentiles, were deprived completely of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while grace was given to some of the Jews who were chosen for a special ministry. In Christianity, every one of the faithful receives these gifts of grace through the sacraments. The fulfillment of this prophecy began on the day of Pentecost.
As examples, the prophecy indicates certain manifestations of these gifts of the Holy Spirit that already were known in the Old Testament: prophecies, visions, dreams, and other means of divine revelation. “Your sons and your daughters … your young men … your old men”—this indicates that the Holy Spirit will pour His gifts on all, with no distinction of age or gender. The phrase “and on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” is interesting, because in the Old Testament, we know of no instances of slaves receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit or of slaves becoming prophets. In the New Testament, however, the bonds of slavery will be destroyed and the Holy Spirit will pour out His gifts on all, regardless of their social status, for in the kingdom of Christ, all are equal before the Lord, for all are His servants.
This foretelling of the abundant pouring out of the Holy Spirit is connected to a prophecy concerning the judgment of the impious world, and the salvation of the true worshippers of the true God. The signs of this coming Last Judgment of God over mankind are “blood and fire and vapor of smoke.” These are the symbols of bloodshed, rioting, wars, and desolation. Together with these signs will come heavenly signs, including eclipses of the sun and the moon. These terrors, in the literary style of the Scriptures, indicate the calamities in the world of man that will be the harbingers of God’s judgment over the world. All this will occur “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, this day was understood to be the “day of the Messiah,” that is, the beginning of his glorious reign, but in the New Testament, this is seen to be the day of the Messiah’s judgment over the world, the day of the Final Judgment.
However, “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” from this judgment. Of course, this person is not the one who calls on the Lord only after His second coming, or only with his lips. As St John Chrysostom explains, “It is not enough to call on Him, for Christ Himself said that not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who says it with inward earnest affection, with a life more than commonly good, with the confidence which is meet.”
Of course, here the Scriptures mean the righteous men from among those who truly believe in the Lord.
How is this prophecy of Joel related to the events of Pentecost?
When the apostle explained to his listeners that the miraculous event that they witnessed is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, this explanation immediately gave rise to the thought that the time of the Messiah had already come. But where is He? Who is He? And so, in his subsequent speech, Peter began to preach the good news concerning Christ. He told his listeners that the Messiah already had appeared as “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs.”
Everyone knew of Christ’s miracles, and Peter reminded his listeners of them as true proofs of His messianic dignity. For the Jews of that time, however, the Cross that He carried was a great temptation and stumbling block. To remove this temptation, Peter added that the betrayal and death of Christ occurred “by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” Removing their doubts that God could be crucified and die, and to be better understood by his listeners from among the Jews, the holy apostle spoke of Christ as a Man, the Son of David. Therefore, he said, “God raised [Him] up,” even though Christ, as the Son of God, rose from the dead by His own power and authority (see John 10:18).
Speaking of the resurrection of the Lord, St Peter offers convincing proof from the Psalms of David (Ps 15:8–11). The Psalmist described a righteous man who had close communion with God and who expressed joy that this communion would not end with death, that his soul would not remain in hell, that even his body would not become corrupt, but that he would continue to enjoy fullness of life in God and joy in communion with Him. The apostle directly indicated that David could not be speaking of himself, since David “is both dead and buried.” Therefore, David must have been speaking of the Messiah. David said this, “being a prophet,” knowing the future as God revealed it to him, and “knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne.” This we indeed find in the Second Book of Kingdoms 7:12–16, in which God promised David that his house would not fall and the throne of his kingdom would be eternal. This promise, of course, could be accomplished only by the Messiah, who was to appear from the seed of David. David himself understood the promise to be such, and he glorified God in verses 18–29. Psalm 131 speaks of the same promise of God to David—that the Messiah will be his descendant, and this promise is even called an oath: “The Lord hath made a faithful oath unto David, and He shall not shrink from it” (Ps 131:11) in the sense that what is prophesied shall not ever change.
“He, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ,” continued Peter. What David said in Psalm 15:10 was accomplished not in himself, but in his descendant according to the flesh who is Jesus Christ. For Christ, having died in the flesh, descended into hell with his soul, but did not remain there. Having preached to the spirits in hell concerning His redemption of all mankind, He once again gave life to his flesh, which did not “see corruption” (see also 1 Pet 3:18–19). Peter attests to the reality of the resurrection of “this Jesus” by appealing to the witness of all of the faithful: “of which we are all witnesses.”
Then, St Peter witnessed also to the ascension of Christ, which resulted in the pouring out of the grace of the Holy Spirit on the faithful. As St Peter confirmed the truth of the resurrection on the basis of the prophecies of David, so he also confirmed the truth of the ascension on the basis of a Psalm (109:1). Obviously, David did not himself ascend into heaven, but he said that God placed his Lord on His right hand. It is clear that David speaks not of himself, but of another person—the Messiah, Who is Jesus from Nazareth, Who ascended into the heavens. The Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly life applied this same prophecy to Himself (see Matt 22:42–45), and St Peter applied it specifically to the ascension of the Lord and His session at the right hand of the Father.
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Jesus, crucified by them, is the same Messiah of whom the prophets spoke. “Whom you crucified”: this is a bold and powerful statement, through which the apostle wanted to pierce the hearts of his listeners as with a sharp knife. God raised and glorified this Jesus, but you crucified Him! “He does well to end with this,” said St John Chrysostom, “thereby agitating their minds.”
The speech of the Holy Apostle Peter truly had a powerful effect on the listeners. “They were cut to the heart,” coming to a state of true compunction, seeing how grievously they had sinned before God and His Messiah. The divinely inspired words of St Peter, confirmed by the miracle they had witnessed with their own eyes, firmly convinced them of the Messianic dignity of Jesus of Nazareth, and they turned to Peter and the rest of the Twelve with a question full of respect, love, and trust: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” That is, how shall we wipe away our transgression? How shall we receive forgiveness for our sins and enter into communion with the Messiah that we rejected?
Peter, on behalf of all the apostles, points to the path of reconciliation with God that lies not in the external rites of Old Testament piety, but in repentance and baptism. “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Here the apostle demands from the Jews the same condition for entry into the kingdom of the Messiah that St John the Baptist and Christ Himself required (see Matt 3:2, 4:17). The first and most essential condition for entry is repentance, that is, the firm resolution to change one’s life at its very root. In particular, for the Jews, that meant a rejection of Judaism and conversion to Christianity.
The second condition is baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. These words do not contradict the command of the Lord Himself to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” They indicate only the most important aspect of the faith and confession of those who are baptized—that is, they must believe in Christ as the Messiah and with this faith approach the baptismal font. In return for the fulfillment of these two conditions, the apostle promised them two rewards: forgiveness of sins and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The salvation of man is accomplished by this twofold path: by the laying aside of the old man with his sinful deeds and by the putting on of the new man, which is the “new creation” of mankind by the power of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
“For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” This promise of God, given through the prophet Joel, about the pouring out of the Holy Spirit belongs first of all to the Jews as to the chosen nation of God, and then to all the nations of the earth, that is, the Gentiles, whom the Lord also calls into His kingdom. The idea of this second calling is still not explicit in Peter’s words, however, for he calls the Gentiles as those “afar off,” in order not to tempt the Jews, because they believed only themselves to be worthy of the kingdom of the Messiah.
“And with many other words …” St Luke, the writer of the Acts, does not record for us everything that Peter said to his listeners, but rather only gives the essence of all that he said in a single phrase: “be saved from this perverse generation.” That is, strive to avoid that condemnation that awaits the recalcitrant Jews who stubbornly refused to believe in Christ the Messiah. The promised judgment over this perverse generation occurred quite soon afterward, in a.d. 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The Jews who converted to Christianity avoided the horrors of this terrible divine punishment of the perverse generation. They, remembering Christ’s teaching (Matt 24:15–16), fled Jerusalem with time to spare.
Of course, St Peter’s words also apply to all generations of all eras, because the faithful always must strive to be saved from this world that lies in sin through faith in Christ and a life of virtue. Thus, they will avoid the punishment of God that awaits the sinful world at the Last Judgment.
The effect of these events—the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the speech of St Peter—was magnificent. The original small community of Christians was increased by “about three thousand souls” who accepted baptism.