So we're up to Pentecost, and Pentecost is huge. Often considered the "birthday of the church," it is, in the book of Acts as well as Christianity as a whole, an important story in terms of the group's sense of identity. It is a bit like the Exodus in that while the earlier stuff is clearly important, Pentecost is pivotal.
Chapter 2 takes flight with the rushing wind and the miracle of tongues. It's hard to tell, even taking the text literally, what's going on here. Are the apostles/disciples speaking different languages or are the various people groups hearing things in their own language? The text actually suggests both, and I've heard it both ways. I'm not sure it matters. Those for whom speaking in tongues is important lean toward the former; those who get freaked out by that sort of thing seem to prefer the latter. We'll just let them duke it out.
In some groups, glossolalia is such an important sign of one's salvation that the pressure to perform -- and thus the temptation to fake it -- must be incredible. Emily Dickinson rather famously refused to play along during a revival at college, which left lingering questions about her orthodoxy and her commitment. For many charismatics, speaking in tongues is a sign of God's favor as well as a portent of the end times.
For cessationists, one or both of these interpretations is problematic, rendering the glossolalia experience either dubious or diabolical. For me, the experience is plausible enough, but I am leery, for various theological and philosophical reasons, of attaching too much interpretive meaning to it. St. John of the Cross was skeptical of any kind of ecstatic manifestation (what he called "consolations") as inherently meaningful. "So you had a vision," he might say. "Whoop-de-do."
For Peter and company, however, or at least for Luke's readers, several powerful and significant interpretive frames were both available and plausible. The meaning of the story -- that is, the significance of the claim -- is threefold. One, it is a reversal of Babel; that which was scattered is being gathered back together. Two, this suggests that the ingathering, the eschatological harvest, has begun. The exile is effectively over: God has forgiven the sins of his people and redemption is nigh.
Third, and perhaps less obviously (or less consciously), glossolalia may have been a means of bypassing normal avenues of rhetoric -- avenues that were only available to the well-educated (which is to say, rich). Luke's gospel is the easiest to interpret in light of a "preferential option for the poor" and we should not expect Acts to be much different. So we have here, and in some of Paul's letters, the possibility that glossolalia afforded the poor and disenfranchised access to persuasive speech. Plus it had a certain amount of socioreligious cachet, in that the Oracle of Delphi received prophecies in the form of glossolalia.
Anyway, a bunch of Galileans are waxing eloquent in various languages, or at least people from various parts of the empire believe they're hearing their native tongue, and the crowd that has gathered thinks the Galileans in question are drunk. Because, you know, drunk people are always going around speaking foreign languages. Peter's rebuttal is classic: they can't be drunk because, after all, it's only nine o'clock in the morning. This is an answer only a drinker would give. I'm not saying he was a lush, just pointing out that it is not the possibility of being inebriated that he contests but the timing.
No, he argues, they are not drunk. Rather they are the heralds of an eschatological message: "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel," Peter tells them, and then proceeds to quote the passage in question. I dare you -- I double-dog dare you -- to read Joel 2 and tell me with a straight face that anybody could extrapolate Acts 2 out of that. We need Peter to say "this is that" because we weren't going to come up with it on our own. Sure, the basic idea is that this sort of spectacular event is a sign, but Acts 2 is not about young men dreaming dreams and old men seeing visions.
The implication of Peter's interpretation is that the Day of the Lord is upon them. This is good news, because the Day of Lord involves forgiveness for Israel. This is also bad news, because the Day of the Lord also involves, well, locusts and stuff. But ultimately, Joel tell us, "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." That's the NIV -- the NASB says "will be delivered" and "there will be those who escape," which I think is a clearer meaning.
In both Greek and Hebrew the words we translated "salvation" are generally ones that mean being rescued from some sort of calamity. It doesn't mean "go to heaven when you die" so much as it means escaping the locusts -- or, depending on context, being smart enough to get the hell out of Dodge when the Romans descend on Judea. Same thing, really.
Those who see the events of the Jewish War -- notably the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem -- as eschatological culmination have this going for them: their interpretive rubric is consistent with Peter's. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that some of the eschatological material in the New Testament could be a way in which post-temple Christians were saying "this was that."
Whether legitimate prediction or later attribution, the desecration of the temple and the Coming of the Son of Man are clearly linked in the words of Jesus. If Roman aggression seems a strange thing to which to attribute apocalyptic inbreaking, the crucifixion is a strange way to coronate a Messianic king. Everything about Jesus is a kind of inversion, and there is a certain consistency here.
One thing that is unvoidably problematic is that this leaves us with a picture of God sending the Romans to bring judgment upon his people. It's not that there isn't Biblical precedence for this assessment, it's just that if such an interpretation seems available to a Jesus or even a Josephus, both of whom were first-century Jews and thus no more open to accusations of antisemitism than Jeremiah might have been, the claim sounds awkward on the lips of a twenty-first century American.
Some of the broader political context is helpful here. It's not that God had brought judgment on the Jews or the temple per se so much as a divine referendum on the Hasmonean claims to messianic status that prompted the rebuilding of the temple in the first place. The true Messiah comes as a different kind of king to build a different kind of temple. Part of the New Testament witness is to the settling of the debate over the legitimacy of the Hasmonean project: God answers in the negative. Thank you for playing.
Peter's invocation of the prophecy in Joel is part of a larger rhetorical strategy that declares Jesus to be the Messiah, full stop. Whatever Jesus is or was or did, that's what the Messiah was supposed to be or do. This is that. To the extent that Jesus doesn't meet people's expectations for a Messianic king, it's the expectations that need to change.
The declaration of Jesus as Messiah confirms the path of the Suffering Servant as the messianic paradigm. The declaration of Jesus as Messiah confirms the people of God in their diasporic identity over against expectations of imperial triumph. The declaration of Jesus as Messiah claims as normative the way of the Cross.
However we might connect the theological dots, I don't think that eschatological hope means that Jesus is going to show up again as a conquerer lobbing off the heads of the impious. Those who are disappointed, then and now, are simply expecting the wrong sorts of things, either because we fail to grasp how the language was used, or because we fail to grasp the extent to which early Christian thinking inverted imperialistic assumptions and thwarted triumphalistic expectations.