Transformation by the Spirit
The Acts of the Apostles is basically an account of how the Holy Spirit, the powerful and personal presence of God, transforms the earliest followers of Jesus into the restored people of God, the beginnings of God’s new creation. “You will receive power,” Jesus tells his disciples at the story’s beginning, “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Luke (the author of Acts) then describes how the Spirit guides and empowers the first Christians to carry out their mandate of gathering a new people of God composed not only of Israelites but also of people from the earth’s many nations.1
Among the eleven disciples’ first actions is the restoration of their number to twelve, the number of Israel’s twelve tribes (Acts 1:13–26).2This indicates that they, and those who believe the good news about Jesus they proclaim, are the answer to the prophets’ promise that God would rekindle his relationship with his people. Luke also wants his readers to know that the number of Christians gathered in Jerusalem at this time is “about 120” (Acts 1:15), ten times twelve. Here, then, is the core of the restored Israel.
It is on these 120 Christians in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit comes “like a mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2). This description recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s promise that God will one day restore the fortunes of defeated and exiled Israel by breathing life into the nation’s dead bones, just as God breathed life into the first man (Gen. 2:7).3“Prophesy to the breath,” the Lord tells Ezekiel, “prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezek. 37:9). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word that Luke uses for “wind” is the word that appears in Genesis for the life-giving “breath” of God, and the word for “breath” in Ezekiel is identical to the word that Luke uses for the Holy “Spirit.” It seems likely that Luke is trying to communicate to his readers that the day of Israel’s prophesied restoration has dawned.In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, Frank Thielman traces the theme of the new creation through Scripture, from God’s promise in Genesis to redeem the world to the culmination of this promise in the book of Revelation.
Luke then tells his readers that the sound of the wind causes a crowd of Jewish pilgrims “from every nation under heaven” who have come to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost to “[come] together” (Acts 2:5–6). The apostle Peter uses this opportunity to explain to the crowd the significance of what is happening, the significance of Jesus as the great Davidic king promised in the Scriptures, the tragedy of his death, and the meaning of both his resurrection and his exaltation to a position of authority beside God in the present (Acts 2:14–36). Peter then calls on this international gathering of Jewish people to “repent” of their previous rejection of what God is doing in their midst and “be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” When they do this, he tells them, they, too, “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Peter continues, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself ” (Acts 2:39; cf. Isa. 2:1–3; Mic. 4:1–2). The story ends with the comment that “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
By the end of this important day, then, God has started to fulfill such promises as Isaiah 11:12, which says that Israel’s great Davidic king will one day “assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth,” and Jeremiah 23:3, where the Lord says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”4 Israelites scattered among many nations have converged on Mount Zion for the pilgrimage festival of Pentecost, and in a single day, the numbers of restored Israelites have increased to three thousand.
Luke next describes the character of this new community (Acts 2:42–47). They learn from the apostles, eat together, and pray. Amazing miracles happen among them, and they hold their property in common, “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any [have] need” (Acts 2:45). Later he says that because of this communitarian approach to their personal property, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). Luke emphasizes the joy that characterizes the group: “They received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46–47).
Luke refers to the Holy Spirit fifty-seven times and fairly evenly throughout his narrative. The only major swath of text without a reference to the Holy Spirit is Acts 21:12–28:24.
The picture emerges of a community that has started to realize the promise of the restored Israel. Through the apostles’ teaching, which must have basically handed on the teaching of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit, they are beginning to experience life under the king descended from David, “the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1) on whom
the Spirit of the Lord shall rest . . .
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isa. 11:2)
The society over whom this king presides will be just, particularly with respect to the poor, who so rarely receive justice. It will also be a place of peace and abundance, like the peaceful and verdant world of the garden of Eden (Isa. 11:3–9). Just as “in that day” Israel will “with joy . . . draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:1, 3) and will “sing for joy” (Isa. 12:6), so these early Israelite followers of Christ Jesus are also joyful.
The early church is also a community that is beginning to see the first hints of the physical restoration of the human condition to the period before the pain, burdensome toil, and death of God’s curse after Adam’s disobedience (Gen. 3:17–19). The “many wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43) that the early Christian community experiences seem to have been primarily miracles of healing. Immediately after his summary of the early community’s characteristics, Luke recounts the healing at the Jerusalem temple of “a man lame from birth” (Acts 3:2).
“Leaping up,” Luke says, “he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8). Isaiah had said that in the period of Israel’s restoration, “the lame man” would “leap like a deer” (Isa. 35:6), and just as this had started to happen during the time of Jesus’s ministry (e.g., Matt. 9:1–8), it continues to happen among the earliest Christians. In the address that Peter gives to the crowd who assembles when the lame man is healed, Peter emphasizes this element of the new situation. He explains that faith in Jesus has given the formerly lame man “perfect health,” using a term emphasizing that the man has now been restored to “wholeness” or “completeness” (Acts 3:16).5
The Nations to Come to Zion
Early in Luke’s account of the beginnings of this new day, he hints that it will include more than just the people of Israel. In the first few paragraphs, Jesus tells the eleven apostles that they will be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, all lands traditionally within Israel’s boundaries, but “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he makes the point that the restoration of Israel, as the prophets envisioned it, was intended eventually to include non-Israelites. “The promise,” he says, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself ” (Acts 2:39). A little later, he reminds the crowd that gathers after God has healed the lame man at the temple, “You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed’” (Acts 3:25). Peter then tells these “men of Israel” (Acts 3:12) that God sent Jesus to them “first,” presumably before reaching out to “all the families of the earth,” and he appeals to them to repent of their wickedness and join the new movement (Acts 3:25–26). The implication is clear that God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 to bless “all the families of the earth” in him will shortly begin to be fulfilled (cf. Gen. 22:18; 26:4).
As Luke’s story progresses, he shows how this promise begins to receive fulfillment in a special way through a figure named Paul. Paul is not one of the twelve apostles and not even someone who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Rather, he had been an enemy of the new movement until the risen Jesus powerfully intervened in his life and gave him a special commission to take to the nations the good news of God’s forgiveness and desire to be at peace with his human creatures (Acts 9:1–19; 22:3–21; 26:4–23). In Acts 13:1–28:31, Luke tells the story of Paul’s faithfulness to this commission as he takes the good news to both Jews and non-Jews across the eastern Mediterranean region. In a formal legal hearing before the Roman governor of Judea, Porcius Festus, and the Jewish king, Herod Agrippa II, Paul summarizes his message this way.
I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22–23)
Luke never mentions that Paul wrote letters, but thirteen of his letters to churches and coworkers are preserved in the New Testament. He wrote them primarily to churches he had planted around the Mediterranean or, in the case of his letters to Jesus’s followers in Rome and Colossae, to churches he had not planted but for which he felt some responsibility. All these letters allowed Paul to teach Jesus’s followers in a wide geographical area, most of them non-Jews, how to live in light of their new status as the restored people of God. In two letters, he uses the phrase “new creation” to describe God’s transforming work in the lives of all who follow Jesus, whether or not they are Jewish.
- Luke refers to the Holy Spirit fifty-seven times and fairly evenly throughout his narrative. The only major swath of text without a reference to the Holy Spirit is Acts 21:12–28:24.
- For a discussion of this act, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 220–21.
- See, e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 50; Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012–2015), 1:798, 801–2.
- See also Isa. 49:11–12; Ezek. 34:11–16; Mic. 2:12; 4:6–8. On the theme of exiled Israel’s ingathering, see especially Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 290–91.
- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 1217; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 703.
This article is adapted from The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture by Frank Thielman.