Luke set our expectations for the book of Acts in 1:8. That’s where he indicated that the disciples are going to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. But first, Jesus told the disciples they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. That happens in Acts 2 and it is crucial for the rest of the book. In this post we look at one of the reasons for its importance.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
During the time of the early church, there were certain writings in Judaism that made a connection between the Pentecost holiday and the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19-40). Not only that, but with the quote from the prophet Joel and the description of the tongues of fire, it seems quite possible that what we have in Acts 2 is a deliberate picture of the democratization of the presence of God (via the Holy Spirit) with his people.
Mount Sinai and the Establishment of the Covenant
When we read about the giving of the law in the book of Exodus what we find is a covenant making ceremony between God and the people of Israel. A covenant is the establishment of a special and well defined relationship between two parties. When I say well defined I mean there are certain stipulations that each party must uphold in order to keep the relationship in good standing. If those stipulations are not upheld, then there are specific consequences. That is what the law is–it defines the stipulations of the relationship (both God’s and the people’s) and the consequences of holding to or not holding to he covenant (bad and good, see Deuteronomy 27-28).
In order to establish a covenant with his people, Exodus paints the picture of God having descended from heaven, coming as far as the top of Mount Sinai. God’s presence is manifest by thick smoke “because the Lord descended on it in fire” (Exodus 19:18). The people, meanwhile are at the bottom of Mount Sinai carefully keeping their distance because if they get too close to Mount Sinai “the Lord will break out against them” (Exodus 19:24).
What’s the point of all this separation? God is holy. If something that is not holy (think about this as something that is contaminated) is about to come into contact with something that is holy (completely without any contamination of any sort), then one of two things will happen. Either the holy thing will become contaminated by the unholy thing, or the unholy thing will be utterly destroyed to prevent contamination. Since God, who is holy, cannot become contaminated, that means the people, who are unholy, cannot come into the presence of God (until they are made holy). That’s why they have to keep their distance from God at the bottom of Mount Sinai.
With God at the top of Mount Sinai and the people at the bottom, Moses acts as a mediator for the covenant ceremony. So Moses goes up and down the mountain to communicate back and forth with God, carrying his instructions to the people. For example in the first instance Moses goes up the mountain and God asks him to carry a message to the people. Basically, God wants the people to give their initial expression of willingness to enter into a covenant with him (Exodus 19:5-8).
God says …
Now if you obey my fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And the people reply …
We will do everything the Lord has said.
Next, we have the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and the book of the covenant or the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:19-23:33. Then we have the long description of how the tabernacle is to be built and how the priests are to be consecrated to the Lord and then how the tabernacle is actually built and how the priests are actually consecrated.
To really understand what’s going on here we have to understand just what the tabernacle is. The tabernacle with the whole sacrificial system, is the means by which an unholy people can enter into fellowship with a holy God. The holy of holies will become the throne room of God, the place where God in his holiness dwells in the very midst of his people. But in order for God’s people to have fellowship with him, they must first be consecrated–they must become holy. The people become holy only when their sins are washed away and covered through the sacrificial system associated with the temple. It is through the sacrificial system that we can enter into fellowship with a holy God.
But first, this whole system has to be established. That’s what is happening in the book of Exodus when God is instructing them in how to set up the temple with the altar and the basin on the way up to the temple. It’s also what is happening when the priests are first consecrated for service in the temple. And that is why, when all of the setting up and consecrating is done and when the covenant has been established, God’s presence (represented by the fire) moves from the top of Mount Sinai and comes down to dwell in the temple.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Pentecost and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit
I wonder if you see already how the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai is related to the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost.
At Mount Sinai God came down out of heaven to dwell in a special way with his people, whom he consecrated for himself, by dwelling among them in the temple.
During the Pentecost God also came down out of heaven to dwell in a special way with his people. Just like at Mount Sinai, God’s presence is depicted in the fire that came down from heaven, but now God’s presence does not dwell in the holy of holies that is in the tabernacle but in the holy of holies that is in the heart of every believer. This is the democratization of the presence of God; God is now present with every individual who has been consecrated to him by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is because of Jesus Christ that God’s spirit need no longer dwell in the tabernacle but can now dwell in the heart of every believer.
At Mount Sinaia, the people of Israel were defined by the covenant that God established with them. As a result of the covenant, God set them apart from every other nation and he dwelt with them like with no other nation. God actually created Israel when he brought them out of Egypt and established his covenant with them.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
When the Holy Spirit baptized the disciples on the day of Pentecost, God redefined his covenant community. Before it was the temple and the sacrificial system that defined how God’s people were able to approach him and be in his presence. Without the law and the tabernacle and the sacrificial system there was no way to be in relationship or in covenant with God. That is why Israel was a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). They were the mediators between God and all the other nations on the earth. No one came into relationship with God except through the tabernacle–through Israel. But now Jesus has done something new and the implications of what he has done come through at Pentecost. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we are made holy without any need for the sacrificial system or the tabernacle. Now the Holy Spirit dwells in each and every one of us.
The implications of what Jesus has done by his death and resurrection go beyond what we have said here. In fact, it’s the implications of what Jesus has accomplished that Luke unpacks throughout the rest of the book of Acts.
Where are We in the Story?
I said at the beginning that we’re reading as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. So far, we’re well on our way. We have already seen the fulfillment of our first expectation, that is the Holy Spirit baptism of the disciples. This same type of baptism will play an important role on several other occasions in the book.
Other posts in the series: The Story of Acts
- The Story of Acts
- How to Read a Story
- The Beginning of Acts
- The Middle of Acts: Continuing the Ministry of Jesus
- Mount Sinai and the Pentecost: Recreating the People of God
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Jerusalem
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Judea and Samaria
- You Will be My Witnesses: To the Ends of the Earth
- We’ve Only Just Begun: The Emergence of Paul
- A Work that You Will Not Beleive
- I Must See Rome!