The Acts of the Apostles begins with a brief but crucial phase in the life of the budding Christian community: the seven weeks following Jesus’ resurrection, during which the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and waited for “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
During that time they also waited for and wondered about Christ’s kingdom and when it would be established. They expected an earthly, political kingdom but instead were given a spiritual one: Christ was enthroned in heaven, and they were charged to be his witnesses. The apostles then replaced Judas so that they were once again twelve, representing the twelve tribes (and thus the restored kingdom) of Israel. All that remained was to await the promised power from on high.
Acts 2 opens with the disciples gathered together, most likely to pray and await the gift of the Holy Spirit as Jesus has commanded. The events of Acts 2 took place on the Feast of Pentecost, one of three annual pilgrim feasts that brought thousands of Jews from miles away to celebrate in Jerusalem. “Pentecost” means literally “fifty days.” It refers to the ancient Feast of Weeks, which was held fifty days (seven weeks) after Passover to celebrate the end of the harvest. Over time, the feast became strongly identified with the covenant renewal and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. That feast of thanksgiving was about to gain enormous significance for the Christian Church as it received the new law of the Spirit.
Speaking in Tongues
One of the more unusual manifestations of the Holy Spirit is the gift of “tongues,” which we see in Acts 2. The Church remains open today to such “charisms,” or gifts, as a sign of the Spirit working in the Church. It reminds us of the purpose of all charisms, which are “graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 799). The purpose of charisms is to build up the body of Christ, not to attract attention to oneself.
In the New Testament, the sign of tongues is a dramatic manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence at key times in the establishment of the Church. The Spirit first falls on the Jewish believers gathered for the Feast of Pentecost, establishing a new community and a New Israel. In Acts 8, it falls upon the Samaritans as a reminder that the Spirit is advancing into non-Jewish communities as promised. In Acts 10, it falls upon Cornelius and his household, who speak in tongues as a sign to Peter and the Church leadership that the gift of the Spirit is being extended to the Gentiles. Finally, in Acts 19, the Spirit falls upon the disciples of John the Baptist living in Ephesus. Each of these events marks a new beginning in the growing family of God.
Peter’s Pentecostal Sermon
The perplexities and doubts of the people demand a response, and Peter rises as head and spokesman of the apostles to address the crowd. Peter’s bold preaching is itself a witness to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. (Contrast it to his inability to associate himself with Jesus when the Lord was put on trial.)
It is easy to get lost in the miraculous signs of Pentecost and miss the meaning of this event. Peter is clear on what he believes Pentecost signifies:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. (Acts 2:32-33)
Peter’s message so profoundly touches those listening that “they [are] cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) and wonder what they should do in response.
Questions to Ponder
What proofs that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah does Peter give in Acts 2:22-36?
Acts 2:42-47 describes some of the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early Church. Which of these characteristics of the early Christians are true of your parish or faith community today? What practical steps can you take to encourage the growth of this kind of life in the Spirit?
Editor’s note: This article is taken from The Great Adventure study, Acts: The Spread of the Kingdom, and adapted for the blog.
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