The first Christian Pentecost
Decker, Ralph Winfield
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The events of the first Feast of Pentecost after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth have been given a position of prominence in the Acts of the Apostles. This fact is an indication of the high esteem in which those events were held by the author of Acts and by primitive Christianity in general. Pentecost was a decisive day in the life of the movement, and its influence has been continued in the historical Christianity which has followed, The present study was undertaken in an attempt to determine what happened at Pentecost, to discover that in the event which gave it such impoitance in New Testament history, and to ascertain its place in and influence upon the movement which grew out of the life and teachings of Jesus. Existing treatments of this problem have left it unsolved, not because they have given false answers, but because they have failed to discover the whole truth. This inadequacy has been largely due to failure to go behind the external features and the results of Pentecost to the central fact of the experience. Thus the customary answers have proved to be unsatisfactory. The suggestion that Pentecost was "the outpouring of the Spirit" fails to identify, define, or give content to the term "Spirit," thus leaving a certain amount of vagueness about the experience and failing to relate it to the Jesus movement of which it was a recognized part. Similarly, the answer that Pentecost was "the birthday of the Church" fails to settle the problem since it does not recognize the fact that the Church emerged as a result of the experience. It confuses the result with the cause, the resultant establishment of the Church with the event itself. Pentecost was the impetus, the Christian Church was the result. That Church was built, however, not around Pentecost, but around Jesus. The failure to see that it was a Jesus-centered Church and that the Pentecost experience must then have been Jesus-dominated has left this answer incomplete. Almost the same thing may be said about the idea that Pentecost was "the beginning of the Christian Mission." Aside from its over-emphasis upon the external features of Pentecost, in some cases upon the spectacular and miraculous, this answer falls short of the goal in neglecting the fact that the witness which the disciples gave, thus beginning the Christian Mission, was the result of the witness which they had received, namely, that Jesus was present and accessible in spirit. Thus it fails to find the Jesus impetus and content of the Apostolic witnessing and to deduce from them the essential character of Pentecost. Such answers as those which make Pentecost "a Christophany" or "a group mystic experience" are based upon inadequate evidence, besides failing to make the relationship of the event to the Jesus movement clear. C. A. A. Scott has given a more satisfactory answer in his suggestion that Pentecost was "the emergence of the Fellowship." He has missed the point by only a little, for he fails to see that it was a Jesus fellowship and not a Holy Spirit fellowship which emerged. Recognizing that the Koinonia was a result and not the event itself, he says that back of it lies that which can be defined only as "the uprush of Life." Such a vague characterization fails to show how the experience was related to the Jesus movement in which it occurred and which it influenced. All of these answers, therefore, contain elements of truth, but all are inadequate, especially in regard to the nature of the Pentecost experience and its place in the Jesus movement. A careful study of the second chapter of Acts, the wonder-elements and the results being carefully separated from the central fact, shows Peter's speech, the earliest attempt to describe the experience, to be a better source of information than the description of the miraculous features earlier in the chapter. The striking thing about this speech, and indeed about the whole second chapter of Acts, is the prominence of Jesus. This is the key to the understanding of Pentecost. Pentecost was a Jesus event. The relationship of Jesus to it is shown in the circumstances under which it came, the participants in it, Peter's explanation of it, and the subsequent results seen in the activities of the early Christians. The event took place in, and was limited to, the movement which grew up around the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The members of that movement were those who had a personal relationship to Jesus—-his loyal disciples who submitted themselves to his leadership and gave their allegiance to him. Support for the limitation of the experience to those within the movement can be found in the fact that Peter offered a share in it to those who would bring themselves into the proper relationship to Jesus. Thus the sole participants in the event were the disciples of Jesus—-those who had once had him but were now without consciousness of his presence or means of access to him. In the realization of this deficiency and in the desire and need for its removal, is to be found the immediate preparation for the Pentecost experience. These disciples were confronted with a number of problems all of which related to Jesus—-his nature, his location, his purposes for them, his availability. Through the experiences of the past, especially that of Easter, they were led to expect that he would come to them again, probably apocalyptically. No other type of experience than a Jesus experience or revelation would have satisfied their needs and desires. No other type of experience would have been expected or understood. The disciples were waiting for and praying for some sign from Jesus. Then Pentecost came. This group of expectant disciples, all members of the Jesus movement, all sensing their need of contact with their Master, were together in prayer and waiting. As they expressed their need for Jesus' help and perhaps prayed for his coming, there burst in upon them the realization that he was already there. He could not be seen or touched. Yet they felt him in their midst and found that they had readier access to him than ever before. Faced with the problem of how he could thus be present, they answered it in the only way in which it could be satisfactorily answered—in the way in which the presence of Jesus has been explained and experienced for centuries-—they said that he was present in spirit. This then was Pentecost, the realization by the disciples that Jesus was with them in spirit form. Just as certain events were found to lead up to the experience, there are certain results which emerge from it. These results support the answer which we have given to the problem and in turn are best accounted for by it. The immediate results on the day of Pentecost are best understood as coming from the realization of the presence of Jesus in spirit. Thus the troublesome glossolalia is best accounted for as a result of the disciples being thrown into ecstatic joy by their new contact with Jesus and as an attempt to express that which was happening to them. Likewise, Peter's sermon, in which he traces the history of Jesus and climaxes it with the statement that he has given the Pentecost experience is most intelligible when considered in connection with the spiritual presence of Jesus. Peter's demand for repentance toward Jesus, his offer of baptism in the name and into the fellowship of Jesus, his promise that the Jesus converts which he was making would share in the experience of the Jesus disciples to whom Pentecost had come, are best understood when one realises that he was doing these things because Jesus was present—-not in bodily form, as was obvious, but in spirit form. Likewise later events are best accounted for in the light of this solution to the problem of what happened at Pentecost. The disciples who in the days before Pentecost had been confused and inactive, became ardent, confident, fearless Jesus propagandists. They went out from Pentecost to speak, preach, teach, and heal in the name of Jesus. They offered salvation through him. They made converts to him and baptized them into his fellowship. They were arrested, reprimanded, and beaten for their activities in his name. Yet they rejoiced in their opportunity to suffer dishonor for him. All of this determination and enthusiasm, all of these activities, are best explained by the fact that they did not act by their "own power and godliness" but in the consciousness that Jesus was present and working with them and through them. The dawn of that consciousness can not be satisfactorily fitted into their story anywhere except at Pentecost. This answer to the problem of what happened at Pentecost fits the circumstances and account of the event. It explains the subsequent activity of the Christian community in an adequate fashion. It explains why a position of importance was given to Pentecost in the primitive Church. It justifies the prominence accorded to the event in the subsequent teaching and experience of Christianity. It fits in with the fact that the content of Christian preaching and experience has always been a present, abiding, spiritual Jesus to whom his disciples have free access. At Pentecost that presence of Jesus was first realized and it was accounted for as we now account for it, in terms of spirit.
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