Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Mark's thoughts: Ascension and Pentecost - The exalted Lord pours forth the Spirit

During the month of May we have both the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord and the Feast of Pentecost.  Separated by ten days, forty and fifty days after Easter, they are inextricably linked with one another.  On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the first believers accompanied by the sound of a rushing wind, flames like fire and speech in many foreign languages.  After declaring that God had raised Jesus whom they had killed (Acts 2:22-32), the apostle Peter went on to say: 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 that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

For Peter, the events of Pentecost demonstrate three important truths.  First, Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead has been exalted by God the Father.  After Jesus willingly walked the way of humility, service, suffering and death in order to fulfill the Father’s saving will and to save us, God has now exalted him.  He is the risen and ascended Lord who now exercises all authority, power and might.

Second, as the exalted Lord, Jesus had received the Holy Spirit.  At first glance this sounds strange. After all Jesus was conceived through the work of the Spirit (Luke 2:34-35).  He also received the Holy Spirit as the Spirit came upon him at his baptism (Luke 3:21-22; 4:17-21). 

In an important article, Max Turner has analyzed the language used with the Spirit in Luke-Acts  (“Spirit Endowment in Luke/Acts: Some Linguistic Considerations,” Vox Evangelica 12 [1981]: 45-63).  Turner considers language that the Spirit is “on” or “in” a person and concludes:

The assertions that the Spirit is ‘on’ a person, or ‘in’ him, are simply two different spatial metaphors denoting the same reality: viz, that God’s Spirit is at work in and through the life of the one so described.  Luke is not concerned to tell us where the  Spirit was (six inches above the heads of Simeon (2:25) and Jesus (3:22); later ‘inside’ Jesus (4:1) and then back to the position of halo again (4:18)), but rather that the Spirit was with these men and regularly active through them (cf. Acts 10:38-39) (48; emphasis original).

Turner proceeds to show that references to the Spirit “coming on,” “falling on” or “descending onto” a person are “dynamic metaphors corresponding to the static ones we have just discussed” (49).  Thus:

We should no more press the spatial reference in Luke’s phraseology of the Spirit ‘coming upon’ people than we should when he talks of men’s fate ‘coming upon’ them (Lk. 21:26; Acts 8:24; 13:40): the spatial imagery is simply a vivid metaphor for inception – a way of saying that something begins (perhaps suddenly) to happen, by picturing it (locally) as ‘arriving.’” (49; emphasis original).

For this reason:

To say that at a particular moment in time the Spirit ‘came upon’ someone is to say that from that moment the Spirit commenced (in some sense) to be active in him; or, at least, to be active in a new way in him. And to say the Spirit ‘fell on’ someone is to denote a particularly vigorous, charismatic or intense experience of God’s Pneuma . (49; emphasis original).

When this understanding is applied to language about “receiving” the Spirit in Acts 2:38 now poured out in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17) and Jesus receiving the Spirit in Acts 2:33 the resulting insight is very beneficial.  The apparent problems found in the language of “giving” and “receiving” the Spirit fall away as we see that such language is metaphor and it indicates the beginning in a person of certain activities by the Spirit. Turner observes:

We are affirming that the phrase ‘to receive (the gift of) the Holy Spirit’ is metaphor, because the language of receiving a gift has been transferred from its natural referents – receiving concrete objects (whether persons or things) – and has come to be applied to the inception of an experience of some specific area of the activity of God’s Spirit, so that this second  referent (i.e., what God’s Spirit does in man) is ‘seen as’ a gift given by God and received by his people…. (58; emphasis original)

When the ascended Jesus is described as having “received the promised Spirit,” this certainly does not mean the same thing as it does for human beings.  Instead this indicates the new authority and work as the exalted Lord by which Jesus administers the promised Spirit. Thus, as the exalted Lord, Jesus experiences new activities and workings in relation to  the Spirit that relate to the third and final point.

As the exalted Lord who has received the Spirit, Jesus now pours the Spirit out upon his Church in what for her is the experience of new activities and workings of the Spirit.  In Luke-Acts, before his ascension Jesus promises the disciples a new experience of the Spirit:But you will receive power 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 end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 24:48).  In particular this work of the Spirit is now that of sharing the Gospel with the world (though in Acts it is not limited to this and includes the life of Christians in the Church).  Jesus had ascended and withdrawn his visible presence.  Yet now, the Spirit is the presence of Jesus with his Church as he works to spread salvation to all people.  The Spirit is the “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7) – the Spirit poured forth by the exalted Lord to extend his saving work.

In summary, Turner's comments are helpful and important for understanding language about the Spirit in Luke-Acts.  In the conclusion to his article he writes:

Or, to be more precise, the phrase 'to receive (the) Holy Spirit' has a common connotation (it always means the beginning of some new nexus of activities of the Spirit in a man) but it has several different denotations (or referents) depending on which particular area of activity of the Spirit in a person is in mind.  We could rightly say that Jesus 'received the Spirit' at the Jordan (Lk. 3:22) and after his ascension (Acts 2:33); and that the disciples 'received the Spirit' at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and perhaps before (cf. Lk. 9:1; 11:13; Jn. 6:63; 14:17 and 20:22). At each point the language bears the same general sense: viz., the Spirit began a new work in relationship to the person concerned. But each of these 'receivings' of the Spirit was fundamentally different in character and purport. It would be possible (at least in theory) to speak of one person 'receiving the Spirit' on a series of occasions, if each occasion corresponded to a different and complementary set of activities of the Spirit. The phrase 'to receive the Spirit' is thus a relatively ambiguous metaphor: its precise referent in any instance is only recoverable by an examination of the context in which the assertion is made" (59-60; emphasis original).

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