Reading the Signs of the End Times — Acts
Recently we were discussing the day of Pentecost – how it was, according to Luke, the launch point of the Christian Church. (Luke didn’t yet label the movement that, but most Christians do in retrospect.) Skillful story-teller that he is, Luke weaves several important themes into his description of the events of this momentous day, 50 days (pente=fifty) after the death of Jesus.
The main point in focus today is the way Luke deals with one key aspect of Jesus’ major theme of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) – when it will be instituted and the Holy Spirit’s role in this. In chapter 1, Luke has reported that between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, the apostles had asked Jesus,
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom toIsrael?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:6-8, NRSV).
They Got the Power!
In chapter 2, Luke gives a description of that very “reception” of “power” via the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in languages known to diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem but not to the apostles. (Luke is not precise on this point but seems to suggest that most or all of the “believers” – about 120 – were doing this speaking, not just the twelve apostles, now including Matthias, added in Judas’ place.) Next, Luke introduces Peter, giving the interpretation of what has been happening with the “tongues speaking,” and tying it to the theme important to all Jews then, and which the apostles had asked Jesus about – the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. They had been looking for one beyond even that of David and Solomon in those idealized days – this one “… the Lord’s great and glorious day [in which] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:20-21). (This, the surrounding material and other Hebrew prophecies not cited here by Luke, emphasize the ongoing centrality of Israel and Jerusalem, but with the inclusion of “the ends of the earth,” or people all over the known world.)
So, what about the “last days” or end times? Were they being introduced back then, nearly 2000 years ago, by the Holy Spirit? Luke surely suggests that this is how Peter saw it, representing the other apostles (2:14) as he spoke to the befuddled crowd of over 3000 that had apparently gathered quickly – where, we are not told.
You may note my careful wording about Luke’s “quoting” of Peter. The best way I’ve found to understand supposed quotations, or at least close paraphrases of lengthy speeches by Peter, Paul and others in Acts, is his use of a common rhetorical device. Authors of that day often composed precisely constructed, rhetorically powerful “speeches” to put into the mouths of key characters at critical junctures.
Luke says that Peter referred to a prophecy of Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.… They shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day…” (2:17-22).
Apocalypse Now or Kingdom Delayed?
So, within two chapters, Luke has sought to direct his readers’ perception of not necessarily a new “religion,” but a contemporary and potentially powerful updating of Jewish messianic hopes. The term “apocalyptic” is a technical one to biblical scholars, but also one that has been in church tradition and even come into current popular usage via things like a major movie, “Apocalypse Now,” around three decades ago. To Luke (no doubt a Gentile) and still a proportionally very small group of believers (relative to all Jews and pagans) in the late first century, Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They had expected “apocalypse now” and with its failure to materialize, they had some serious problems.
One of them was how to get respectability for budding Christianity among either Jews or Gentiles (non-Jews), or ideally both. A long tradition was important, not only to Jews but also in Greco-Roman culture. How to establish a long tradition, now that the immediacy of the Kingdom spoken of by Jesus and his promised “this-generation” return emphasized by Paul and others had faded? Thinkers like Luke realized the need for a new casting of prophetic interpretation, given this unexpected and unsettling delay; and also given the apparently very small conversion rate in Jerusalem and Israel itself. Note: this need for a new grounding and looking forward was greatly intensified for Palestine-area Jews because of the incredible destruction of life (estimates range from ½ to 1 ½ million), property and even the magnificent Temple in the war of 66-70 (or 73 forMasada—the final stand).
The answer in an oversimplified nutshell: The Holy Spirit could be used as the claimed agent for introducing what otherwise seemed too much of a disjuncture – the covenant of Jehovah with Israel was envisioned as a New Covenant, for Gentiles as well as Jews, that God had promised and, just that morning was instituting. He had inaugurated it initially by raising Jesus from the dead (2:30-32). Peter goes on with our central point by saying, “… having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (2:33). Luke judged that a “wonders and signs” story here (with healings, etc. soon to follow, which may indeed have happened, as they may well have with Jesus) was important evidence. It would take that to make convincing the major bridge his Acts stories were creating between Jewish and Christian faith.
Does Peter (or Luke?) Blame All Jews?
There is a lot more that is fascinating in this pivotal chapter, along with chapter one of Acts. We won’t take time to discuss the possible reason for a likely major number inflation by Luke in saying “about 3000 persons were added” (2:41) to the believers after Peter finished speaking. This despite having charged this Jewish crowd with murder – crucifying Jesus (2:36). He did not blame the Romans, nor merely the Roman-supporting priestly leadership, with Roman help.
Was there any major event of tongues speaking at all? If so, did a crowd of at least 3000 gather, listen to Peter’s theologically and politically well-tailored message and convert en masse (less than two months after Peter’s denying Jesus, according to the Gospels, and running away at the crucifixion; not to mention getting his theology down in great detail, before the Holy Spirit had even shown up)? This is far from the only place we see Luke purposely setting up situations (which may have happened in some fashion) through which to make epic points – vital connectors in the great epic of Israel and the emerging one of the Christian Church.
Luke certainly didn’t entertain any prospect that the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel would never come. Did he envision a lengthy period of 2000 years or more before it would happen? It seems neither he nor any of the New Testament authors thought in those terms. So what else was in Luke’s imaginative choice of events, stories, and the theological spin he gives them? Did he unwittingly set up hundreds of generations of Christians to see the “end times” as certain within their own generation? Or to be content to see the Kingdom as only spiritual, with no concern about an “end game?”
We will continue to explore these questions…. What are your thoughts?