Acts 2:17-21: A Paradigm for Pentecostal Mission

By Robert Menzies

Originally published in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology 17 (2008), 200-218

Not long ago I had one of those epiphany moments.  A moment when, in a flash, previous perceptions are challenged and a new paradigm, a new way of looking at a particular issue, comes into focus.  It happened during a beautiful evening last May. Earlier that day I had presented a lecture for the Yong San Theological Symposium in Seoul, Korea.  Then, for the evening meal, the presenters gathered together around a large table with Dr. David Yonggi Cho and his wife.  Dr. Cho began to reminisce about the early days of his ministry and how, often through visions, the Lord had encouraged him to move forward in risky and surprising ways.  In preparation for the symposium, I had read a number of Dr. Cho’s works.  In his writings, Dr. Cho often highlights the importance of being led by the Spirit and spiritual vision.  That evening, as Dr. Cho was sharing one particularly inspiring story, I was drawn to the term ‘vision’.  As he spoke, the words of Acts 2:17 came to mind: ‘Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’  Of course, I knew the passage well.  It was like an old friend.  I had spent the better part of four years studying this and related passages in Luke-Acts during my Ph.D studies.  And yet, in that moment, I knew that I had missed something – something very important.

In the following essay I would like to share with you exactly what it was that I had previously missed and, in that moment in Korea, found.  I will begin by setting the stage, and then move on to discuss elements of Luke’s paradigm for Pentecostal mission.  These elements include, first of all, ‘visions and divine direction’; secondly, ‘prophecy and bold witness’; and finally, ‘signs and wonders’.

1. Setting the Stage

Every New Testament scholar worth his salt will tell you that Luke 4:16-30, Jesus’ dramatic sermon at Nazareth, is paradigmatic for Luke’s gospel.  All of the major themes that will appear in the gospel are foreshadowed here: the work of the Spirit; the universality of the gospel; the grace of God; and the rejection of Jesus.  And this is the one significant point where the chronology of the Gospel of Luke differs from the Gospel of Mark.  Here Luke takes an event from the middle of Jesus’ ministry and brings it right up front to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus.  Luke does this because he understands that this event, particularly Jesus’ recitation of Isaiah 61:1-2 and his declaration that this prophecy is now being fulfilled in his ministry, provides important insights into the nature of Jesus and his mission.  This passage, then, provides us with a model for Jesus’ subsequent ministry.

It is interesting to note that Luke provides a similar sort of paradigmatic introduction for his second volume, the book of Acts.  After the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter delivers a sermon (Acts 2:14-41) that in many ways parallels that of Jesus in Luke 4.  In his sermon, Peter also refers to an OT prophecy concerning the coming of the Spirit, this time Joel 2:28-32, and declares that this prophecy too is now being fulfilled (Acts 2:17-21).  The message is clear: Just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to fulfill his prophetic vocation, so also Jesus’ disciples have been anointed as end-time prophets to proclaim the word of God.  The text of Joel 2:28-32 that is cited here, like the paradigmatic passage in Luke 4, also shows signs of careful editing on the part of Luke.

Yet, in spite of these striking parallels, Peter’s sermon in Acts and, more particularly, the modified quotation from Joel, have not been widely recognized as having paradigmatic significance for the book of Acts and the mission of the church.  Many scholars simply miss the key role this passage plays in Luke’s narrative.  Some evangelical commentators, however, have noted the significance of Peter’s sermon.  Darrell Bock in his fine commentary on Acts refers to this text as a ‘fulcrum account in Luke-Acts’.[1]  And Ben Witherington III refers to this passage as ‘setting the agenda in Acts’.[2]  Nevertheless, while both Bock and Witherington stress the Christological significance of Peter’s sermon, they ignore the fact that Acts 2:17-21 represents a paradigm for the mission of the church.  Like most evangelical scholars, both Bock and Witherington view Pentecost largely in historical terms simply as a description of how it all began.  Thus, for example, Witherington highlights the unique nature of the Pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit.  He states that ‘in crucial ways it is unique’ and describes the event with non-inclusive pronouns: ‘It is the empowering of them [the apostolic church] to do their job.’[3]  For Witherington, then, the Pentecost narrative and the experience it describes do not really serve as models for Luke’s church or ours.

I will argue, however, that Peter’s sermon offers much more than simply a summary of apostolic preaching.  It provides us with more than merely the content of our message.  Indeed, the Pentecost narrative has more to say to the church than simply, ‘this is how it all began’.  In fact, I will argue that a careful analysis of Acts 2:17-21 reveals that Luke has carefully crafted this quotation in order to stress the missiological implications of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit for his church (and by extension, ours).  In short, the Joel quotation in Acts 2:17-21 provides us with a model, a paradigm, for the mission of the early church and for our mission as well.

Let me return to my epiphany moment.  There I was, thinking about the term, ‘vision,’ and the text of Acts 2:17-21 raced through my mind.

[v. 17] In the last days, God says,        [Joel: ‘after these things’]
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy
Your young men will see visions,   [Joel: these lines are inverted]
Your old men will dream dreams.
[v. 18] Even on my servants, both men and women,   [additions to Joel]
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
And they will prophesy.
[v. 19] I will show wonders in the heaven above
And signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billows of smoke.
[v. 20] The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
Before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
[v. 21] And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
(Acts 2:17-21; modification of Joel 2:28-32 italicized).[4]

Ever since my days of study at the University of Aberdeen, I had recognized that Luke carefully shapes this quotation from the LXX in order to highlight important theological themes and truths.  Three modifications are particularly striking:

First, Luke inserts the phrase, ‘And they will prophesy’, into the quotation in v. 18.  It is as if Luke is saying, ‘whatever you do, don’t miss this!’  In these last days the servants of God will be anointed by the Spirit to proclaim his good news.  They will prophesy!  This is what is now taking place.  As we shall see, this theme of Spirit-inspired witness runs throughout the narrative of Acts.  I was aware of all this.

Secondly, with the addition of a few words in v. 19, Luke transforms Joel’s text to read: ‘I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below.’  In this way, Luke consciously links the miracles associated with Jesus (notice the very first verse that follows the quotation from Joel: ‘Jesus…was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs’, Acts 2:22) and the early church (e.g. 2:43) together with the cosmic portents listed by Joel (Acts 2:19-20).  All are ‘signs and wonders’ that mark the end of the age.  For Luke, ‘these last days’ – that period inaugurated with Jesus’ birth and leading up to the Day of the Lord – represents an epoch marked by ‘signs and wonders’.  Luke, then, is not only conscious of the significant role that miracles have played in the growth of the early church, he also anticipates that these ‘signs and wonders’ will continue to characterize the ministry of the church in our day (‘these last days’).  Again, I was aware of all of this.

However, there is one other alteration that we need to consider.  In v. 17 Luke alters the order of the two lines that refer to young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams.  In Joel, the old men dreaming dreams comes first.  But Luke reverses the order: ‘Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’ (Acts 2: 17).  In my earlier days of study, I had noted this modification of Joel’s text.  However, I did not feel that this reflected any significant theological or literary motive.  I felt that it was purely stylistic.  Perhaps Luke simply wanted to go chronologically, moving from young men to old men.  It really wasn’t clear why this change was made, but it didn’t amount to much.  That was my thinking and that is what I wrote.[5]

Yet, in that moment in Korea, as I listened to Dr. Cho speak of visions and divine direction, the thought came to me.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this earlier.  It’s actually a bit embarrassing to reveal how slow I was to pick up on this point.  But the thought came to me (20 years later, but it came none the less): visions play a huge role in the story of Acts!  God uses visions to guide the church at key, pivotal points in its mission.  What about dreams?  Dreams are not so prominent in Luke’s narrative.  Perhaps Luke’s alteration here serves to highlight what he thought most important, a theme that would recur throughout his story: the Lord will direct his church, and he often does it through visions!  It all made sense; particularly, in view of the significance of the other alterations to Joel’s text.  So, it came to me in a flash: the entire quotation is shaped in order to foreshadow key motifs that can be traced throughout the narrative of Acts.  Furthermore, Luke understands that the motifs associated with these three alterations not only characterize the mission of the church past, but he affirms that they should also characterize the mission of his church, our church – the mission of the church in ‘these last days’.

Let’s take a closer look at these three themes and examine how Luke develops them in the book of Acts.

2. Visions and Divine Direction

‘Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams’ (Acts 2:17).  I have already noted that Luke rearranges these two lines drawn from Joel so that the reference to ‘visions’ precedes the comment about ‘dreams’.  A survey of Acts reveals, I would suggest, that this alteration is not simply an insignificant stylistic change.  (O.K., I admit it.  I was wrong to draw this conclusion in my previous writings).  No, this is not merely a whim or slip of the eye.  On the contrary, this subtle shift is intentional.  Luke gives the reference to ‘visions’ pride of place in order to emphasize its importance.  With this modification of the LXX, Luke highlights a theme that he sees as vitally important and which recurs throughout his narrative.

A survey of the key terms is instructive.  First, we find that the terms associated with dreams and dreaming occur only here in the book of Acts.    The term translated ‘shall dream’ is a future passive of ἐνυπνιὰζω.  This verb occurs only here and in Jude 8 in the entire New Testament.  The noun, ἐνύπνιον (‘dream’), is found nowhere else in Acts or the rest of the New Testament.  Clearly, Luke is not big on dreaming.[6]

Luke, however, loves to recount stories that reference guidance through ‘visions’.  At first glance this may not appear to be the case.  The noun translated ‘visions’ in v. 17, ὅρασιϛ, occurs four times in the New Testament and only here in Acts.  The other three occurrences are all found in Revelation.  But appearances are often misleading and this is the case here.  Luke uses another term, a close cousin to ὅρασιϛ, the neuter noun, ὅραμα, often and at decisive points in his narrative to refer to ‘visions’.  The noun ὅραμα occurs 12 times in the New Testament and 11 of these occurrences are found in the book of Acts.[7]  Luke is, indeed, fond of visions.  Although in Acts 2:17 Luke retains the language of the LXX, elsewhere in his narrative he employs his preferred, very similar term, to speak of ‘visions’.

As I have noted, references to visions are not only plentiful in Luke’s narrative, they also come at strategic moments.  Paul’s ministry is launched by means of a divine encounter brought about by visions.  Ananias is led to Paul by means of a vision (Acts 9:10).  In this vision Ananias is told that Paul has also received a vision, revealing to him that Ananias will come and pray for the restoration of Paul’s sight (Acts 9:12).  Of course, all of this transpires.  Paul is healed, filled with the Spirit, and begins to preach with great boldness that Jesus is the Son of God.

The pivotal event recorded in Acts 10, the conversion of Cornelius and his household through the preaching of Peter, is also facilitated through visions.  The narrative begins with a description of Cornelius’ vision, which directs Cornelius to seek out Peter (Acts 10:3).  Just as Cornelius’ emissaries arrive, Peter too has a vision (Acts 10:17, 19; 11:5).  This vision prepares Peter’s heart for the ministry that God has in store for him.  Peter, directed by the vision, will be an agent through which God shatters barriers of prejudice and hatred, and the early church, at this point still entirely Jewish, will begin to embrace Gentiles.

During Paul’s second missionary journey, just as it appears that Paul is hopelessly lost and doesn’t know where to go, he receives his Macedonian vision (Acts 16:9, 10).  This vision represents a significant turning point in Paul’s ministry.  In the face of great opposition, strong churches are planted in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth.  In Corinth, in the midst of hostility and abuse, in a vision Paul is encouraged to remain there and to keep on preaching, for, he is told, ‘no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10).

Certainly the Lord uses other means to direct his followers as they seek to proclaim the gospel.  For example, Philip is directed to the Ethiopian eunuch by an angel (Acts 8:26) and by the leading of the Holy Spirit (8:29).  So, visions are not the only means that God guides his church.  Yet Luke’s point seems to be very clear.  The early church was led in remarkable ways by visions and special instances of divine direction.  In was led to break through barriers of fear and prejudice.  Oh, how we need this today!  Oh, how we need to be sensitive to his leading, so that our fears, our prejudices might be shattered.  But the really powerful point that Luke makes is this: God delights to do precisely this for us.  Just as he led them (the apostolic church), so also he will lead us.  He will guide us in very personal, special ways, if we are open and listening.  The crucial point cannot be missed is this: By linking the ‘visions’ of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:17) with the visions of the early church, Luke is in effect saying that in ‘these last days’ (remember Luke’s church and ours is rooted firmly in this period) the mission of the church must be directed by God, who will lead his end-time prophets in special ways, including visions, angelic visitations, and the prompting of the Spirit, so that we might fulfill our calling to take the gospel to ‘the ends of the earth.’  In short, for Luke, the experience of the early church, a church that is supernaturally led by God, serves as a model for our church and for our mission.

Luke’s call for an openness to God’s special leading – a sense of expectancy that God will guide us in very special and personal ways, even through visions, angelic visitations, and the leading of the Spirit – has not been readily received by many Protestants.  The Reformers taught that we could hear God by studying Scripture, but they were reluctant to acknowledge that God still speaks and guides in subjective, revelatory ways.  For example, Martin Luther and John Calvin both discounted contemporary prophecy.  Luther, in particular, was not happy with what he perceived to be the subjective excesses of prophets, whether they were attached to the Roman church or the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation.  Thus, Luther sought to root prophecy in the objective ground of the Word of God.  He wrote, ‘When Paul or the other apostles interpreted the Old Testament, their interpretation was prophecy (On Joel 2:28).’[8]  For Luther, prophets were those ‘who can expound the Scriptures and ably interpret and teach the difficult books.’[9]

John Calvin’s position was similar to that of Luther.  He too felt the need to curb the abuses of subjective revelation.  In his Commentary on Romans (12:5) Calvin wrote, ‘Prophecy…is simply the right understanding of scripture and the particular gift of expounding it.’[10]  C.M. Robeck notes that Calvin’s ‘emphasis was placed on the prophetic as something that did not occur spontaneously….It did not seem to be fresh revelation but primarily correct understanding and application of existing revelation.’[11]  In short, both Luther and Calvin were uneasy with talk of God speaking to, leading, or guiding believers in direct and personal ways.

This reluctance to make room for the leading of the Spirit in direct and personal ways has, at times, been read into the text of Acts.  Eugene Peterson’s translation of Acts 20:22 in The Message is a case in point.  In this passage we read that Paul is ‘compelled by the Spirit’ (δεδεμένος ἐγὼ τῷ πνεύματι) to go to Jerusalem.  Yet The Message has Paul declare, ‘I feel compelled to go to Jerusalem.’[12]  Clearly Peterson understands πνεῦμα here to refer to Paul’s spirit rather than the Spirit of God.  On this reading of the text, Paul is not explicitly directed by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, rather he ‘feels’ deeply about this matter.  Although this interpretation is grammatically possible and followed by a few other English translations,[13] it is almost certainly wrong.  Luke’s tendency throughout his two-volume work to present the Spirit as the driving and directive force behind the mission of Jesus and the church as well as the immediate context, which highlights the Holy Spirit’s role in guiding Paul (‘in every city the Holy Spirit warns me…’, Acts 20:23), speak decisively against it.

This judgment is confirmed by Acts 19:21, which is the earliest reference to Paul’s compulsion to go to Jerusalem.  Here, Paul ‘resolves in the Spirit (ἐν τω πνεύματι)…to go to Jersualem’ (Acts 19:21).[14]  Again, Peterson translates the reference to πνεῦμα as referring to Paul’s state of mind: ‘Paul decided it was time to move on to…Jerusalem.’[15] Yet this verse goes on to quote Paul’s declaration that his trip is based on much more than a personal plan.  Paul declares, ‘I must visit Rome also’ (Acts 19:21).  The term δεῖ, which refers to the necessity of an action or event, is used here.  In Acts, Luke frequently uses this term to refer to divinely ordained happenings.  Martin Mittlestadt correctly notes, ‘the fact that δεῖ is used as part of [Paul’s] proposed travel itinerary lends itself in favor of a purpose which is divinely inspired.’[16]  A future use of δεῖ also occurs at Acts 23:11 (as well as 27:24, 26) where Paul receives assurance from ‘the Lord that his journey is indeed under sovereign direction.’[17]  Mittlestadt aptly concludes that Luke would hardly suggest that the trip to Jerusalem and Rome, which is clearly described as a divine necessity in Acts 23:11, began purely as a human intention.  Indeed, throughout Paul’s journeys in Acts, his course is directed by the Spirit of God (Acts 13:1-4; 14:26; 16:6-10).[18]  It is safe to say, then, that the occurrences of πνεῦμα in Acts 20:22 and 19:21 refer to the Holy Spirit leading Paul, not merely to Paul’s own personal convictions or feelings.

Certainly we can understand the concerns of Luther and Calvin.  Scripture must be our final authority.  All of our subjective leadings must stand under its authority.  But we must also resist the temptation to arc over into a form of sterile rationalism that discounts God’s desire and his promise to speak to us, to lead us, and to guide us in very personal ways.  And we should never forget that he delights to lead us down challenging, risky, and surprising roads.  Indeed, if the early Christians had relied simply on a rational analysis of the needs and opportunities before them, they would have never turned the world upside down for Jesus.  They would have remained bound by their own prejudices and shackled by their fears.  Can it be any different for us?

Let us open our hearts and ask God to break through in our lives.  May our prayer be,  ‘Lord, guide us, lead us, use us.  We are open. We are available.  Reveal our blind spots, our prejudices, and our fears.  Send us out and direct our paths.  We want to be the witnesses, the prophets, that you have called us to be.’

3. Prophecy and Bold Witness

In Acts 2:18 Luke continues with his record of Peter’s quotation of Joel’s prophecy.  The text reads:

[v. 18] Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

As we have noted, Luke here inserts the phrase, ‘And they will prophesy’, into Joel’s quotation.  This insertion simply emphasizes what is already present in the text of Joel.  The previous verse has already reminded us that this end-time outpouring of the Spirit of which Joel prophesies is nothing less than a fulfillment of Moses’ wish ‘that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ (Numbers 11:29).  Acts 2:17 quotes Joel 2:28 verbatim: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy.’  Now, in v. 18, Luke echoes this refrain.  Luke highlights the fact that the Spirit comes as the source of prophetic inspiration because this theme will dominate his narrative. It is a message that Luke does not want his readers to miss.  The church in ‘these last days’, Luke declares, is to be a community of prophets.  We are called to be a light to the nations, to bring the message of ‘salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6).  And now Luke reminds us that we have also been promised power to fulfill this calling.  The Spirit will come and enable his church – Luke’s and ours – to be bear bold witness for Jesus in the face of opposition and persecution.

This theme of bold, prophetic witness is anticipated in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus is anointed with the Spirit so that he might ‘preach the good news to the poor’, so that he might ‘proclaim freedom for the prisoners’ and ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Luke 4:18-19).  The parallels between Jesus’ experience at the Jordan and that of the disciples at Pentecost are striking and should not be missed.  Both occur at the beginning of the respective missions of Jesus and the early church, both center on the coming of the Spirit, both are described as a prophetic anointing in the context of a sermon that cites Old Testament prophecy.  Through his careful shaping of the narrative, Luke presents Jesus, the ultimate prophet, as a model for all of his followers, from Pentecost onward.  We too have a mission to carry out, a message to proclaim.

This motif of bold, Spirit-inspired witness is also highlighted in the teaching of Jesus.  Luke foreshadows events that will follow in his second volume by relating the important promise of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:11-12: ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’

Immediately after Pentecost, in the first story Luke recounts, we begin to see how relevant and important this promise of Jesus is for the mission of the church.  Luke describes the dramatic story of Peter and John’s encounter with a crippled beggar and the beggar’s miraculous healing.  A large crowd gathers, gaping at this marvelous event.  The story builds to a climax as the Jewish leaders arrest Peter and John for preaching about the resurrection of Jesus.  ‘You killed the author of life,’ Peter declares, ‘but God raised him from the dead.  We are witnesses of this’ (Acts 3:15).  The Jewish leaders, upset with this turn of events, move in and arrest Peter and John.  After spending the night in prison, Peter and John are called before the leaders and questioned.  Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to bear bold witness for Jesus (Acts 4:8).  Peter and John’s courage is so striking that it leaves the Jewish leaders astonished and amazed.  Finally, after deliberat-ions, the leaders command the apostles to stop preaching about Jesus.  But Peter and John reply with incredible boldness.  They declare, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:19-20).

This is merely the beginning of the persecution the church must face.  Very soon the apostles are again arrested.  The Jewish leaders interrogate the apostles and angrily declare, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name [the name of Jesus]…Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching’ (Acts 5:28).  Peter and the apostles incur the wrath of their opponents when they declare, ‘We must obey God rather than men!  The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead…We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 5:29-32).  The apostles are flogged and warned not to speak about Jesus.  But the beatings do not have their desired effect.  The apostles rejoice that they have been ‘counted worthy of suffering’ for Jesus and continue to proclaim ‘the good news that Jesus is the Messiah’ (Acts 5:41-42).

The persecution intensifies.  What began with warnings in Acts 4 and led to beatings in Acts 5, now extends to Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7.  Just as the apostles were strengthened by the Spirit to bear bold witness for Jesus, so also Stephen’s witness unto death is inspired by the Spirit (Acts 6:10).  In the midst of his sermon to his persecutors recorded in Acts 7, Stephen declares, ‘You always resist the Holy Spirit!  Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?’ (Acts 7:51-52).  The powerful irony should not be missed, for this same crowd moves to kill Stephen, a man ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 7:55).  The witness of another prophet is rejected.

This pattern of bold, Spirit-inspired witness in the face of opposition continues with Paul, the dominant character in the latter portion of Acts.  Paul is chosen by the Lord to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  We are told that his journey will not be easy.  The Lord, speaking to Ananias, declares, ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’ (Acts 9:16).  And suffer he does.  Yet, in the face of mind-numbing opposition, Paul is guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.  A trail of churches filled with believers who worship Jesus are left in his wake. The narrative of Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome, where he ‘boldly and without hindrance’ preached about Jesus (Acts 28:31).

Luke’s motive in presenting these models of Spirit-inspired ministry – Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul, to name a few – should not be missed.  Luke has more in mind than simply declaring to his church and ours, ‘This is how it all began!’  Certainly Luke highlights the reliability of the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus.  And he wants to be sure that we are all clear about their message, which is to be handed on from generation to generation, people group to people group, until it reaches ‘the ends of the earth’.  Yet Luke also narrates the ministry of these end-time prophets because he sees them as models of missionary praxis that his church (and, indeed, our churches, situated as we are in these ‘last days’) should emulate.  These characters in Acts show us what it truly means to be a part of Joel’s end-time prophetic band and challenge us to fulfill our calling to be a light to the nations.  As they face opposition by relying on the Holy Spirit, who enables them to bear bold witness for Jesus, no matter what the cost, these end-time prophets call us to follow the path first traveled by our Lord.

Many evangelical scholars dismiss the notion that Luke intended his narrative to serve as a model for the mission of the church.  They insist that Luke wrote to provide his church with a record of the beginnings of the church so that they would know that the message about Jesus is reliable and that the origins of the church were indeed a part of God’s divine plan.  With these purposes in mind, they insist that Pentecost is a unique event that can never be repeated.  The Holy Spirit inspired the apostles for their special function as eyewitnesses to the ministry and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21-22).  So also the Lord validated this apostolic preaching with signs and wonders unique to the early church.  Although we are called to faithfully pass on the apostolic message, the missionary methods of the apostolic church, we are told, are unique and not paradigmatic for later generations.[19]

Yet three aspects of Luke’s narrative should encourage us to question the reductionistic perspective espoused by many evangelicals.  First, Luke 11:13, which forms the climax to Jesus’ teaching on prayer, testifies to the fact that Luke does see the work of the Holy Spirit described in Acts as relevant for the life of his church.  He is not simply writing wistfully about a long past era of charismatic activity.[20]  Luke 11:13 reads, ‘If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!’  It is instructive to note that the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel contains slightly different phrasing: ‘how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!’ (Mt. 7:11).  It is virtually certain that Luke has interpreted the ‘good gifts’ in his source material with a reference to the ‘Holy Spirit’.[21]  Luke, then, provides us with a Spirit-inspired, authoritative commentary on this saying of Jesus. Since Jesus’ disciples did not receive the Holy Spirit until after Pentecost, it is evident that Luke here is writing with the needs of his post-Pentecost church in mind.  The inescapable conclusion is that with this interpretative alteration, Luke calls his church to pray that they too might be empowered by the Holy Spirit.  It would seem that for Luke there is no neat line of separation dividing the apostolic church from his or ours.

Secondly, it should be noted that Joel’s promise, amplified in Acts 2:18, ‘and they shall prophesy’, characterizes potentially every member of the church – young and old, men and women – in the period described as ‘the last days’.  According to Luke this epoch begins with the miraculous birth of Jesus and extends until his second coming, the climax of God’s redemptive plan.  This promise of prophetic power is thus applicable to Luke’s church and ours, not simply the apostles.

Finally, this conclusion is supported by the fact that Luke’s description of Spirit-inspired prophetic witnesses is not limited solely to those who are apostles in the Acts 1 sense of the word (that is, those who were with Jesus during his ministry and witnessed his resurrection and ascension, Acts 1:21-22).  Luke repeatedly describes how the Spirit comes upon the entire community of believers and not just the apostles, first at Pentecost and then in response to prayer in the face of persecution.  The latter account explicitly states, ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly’ (Acts 4:31).  Although Peter, John, and the rest of the twelve bear witness for Jesus, so also do others who are not a part of the apostolic band.  Stephen, Philip, and Paul – none of whom qualify as apostles according to Acts 1:21-22 – they are all anointed and directed by the Spirit to bear bold witness for Jesus.[22]

Luke’s narrative, and particularly Acts 2:18, challenges each of us to reconsider the nature of our prophetic calling.  The call comes to every follower of Jesus, young and old, male and female.  It is a call to follow Jesus down dangerous and difficult roads.  But Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit will direct our paths and grant us the strength we need to be his faithful witnesses.  I believe that it is imperative for those of us that live in a stable and affluent West to reconsider Luke’s call, because it is especially easy for us to rationalize away our relative lack of boldness and power.  Persecution and suffering have a way of reorienting one’s vision.  Our lack of experience in this regard may serve to constrict our vision.  One Chinese house church leader put it this way, ‘When Chinese believers read the book of Acts, we see in it our own experience; when foreign Christians read the book of Acts, they see in it inspiring stories.’  His point was clear: our experience of opposition and persecution, or our lack of it, impacts how we read Luke’s narrative.[23]  Luke did not intend for us to read his narrative simply as an historical account of inspiring stories.  He desired that we would find in his narrative a paradigm for our lives and mission.

This leads us to our third theme, ‘signs and wonders’.

4. Signs and Wonders

[v. 19] I will show wonders in the heaven above
And signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billows of smoke.
[v. 20] The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
Before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Joel’s text only refers to ‘wonders in the heavens and on the earth’ (Joel 2:30). Yet Luke’s skillful editorial work enables him to produce the collocation of ‘signs and wonders’ found in Acts 2:19.  By simply adding a few words, Luke transforms Joel’s text so that it reads: ‘I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below’ (Acts 2:19).  The significance of this editorial work becomes apparent when we read the verses that immediately follow the Joel quotation. Peter declares, ‘Jesus…was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22).  The significance of Luke’s editorial work is magnified further when we remember that Luke also associates ‘signs and wonders’ with the ministry of the early church.  In fact, nine of the 16 occurrences of the collocation of ‘signs and wonders’ (σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα) in the New Testament appear in the book of Acts.[24]  Early in the narrative of Acts, the disciples ask the Lord to stretch out his ‘hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders’ through the name of Jesus (Acts 4:31).  This prayer is answered in dramatic fashion.  A few verses later we read that ‘the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people’ (Acts 5:12).  Similarly, Luke describes how Stephen, one outside the apostolic circle, ‘did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8).  The Lord also enables Paul and Barnabas ‘to do miraculous signs and wonders’ (Acts 14:3; cf. 15:12).

All of this demonstrates that by skillfully reshaping Joel’s prophecy, Luke links the miracles of Jesus and those of the early church together with the cosmic signs listed by Joel (Acts 2:19-20).  Each of these miraculous events are ‘signs and wonders’ that mark these ‘last days’.  Luke, then, is not only conscious of the significant role that miracles have played in the growth of the early church, he also anticipates that these ‘signs and wonders’ will continue to characterize the ministry of the church in our day.  We too live in the ‘last days’, that epoch bracketed by the first and second comings of Jesus.  According to Luke, it is an era that is to be marked by divine guidance, bold witness, and signs and wonders.

In spite of Luke’s rather transparent message, many evangelicals have rejected the notion that the miracles of the early church recorded in Acts were intended to serve as models for the post-apostolic church.  Keith Hacking has written the most recent critique of the ‘power evangelism’ position.  His book, Signs and Wonders, Then and Now,[25] seeks to demonstrate that Luke did not view ‘signs and wonders’ as an important aspect of Christian discipleship.  He also suggests that the miracle stories in Acts should not be viewed as a paradigm for the mission of the church today.  Let’s examine his arguments.

First, Hacking argues that Luke does not present Jesus’ reception of the Spirit as a model for later disciples.  He presents this argument in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Hacking ignores the fact that Luke has crafted his narrative in such a way as to stress the parallels between Jesus’ reception of the Spirit at the Jordan and the disciples’ reception of the Spirit at Pentecost. As we have noted, both receptions take place at the outset of their respective ministries; both experiences are accompanied by visible manifestations; both are interpreted as a fulfillment of OT prophecy in the context of a sermon that closely follows the event.  Hacking’s judgment at this point is impaired by his tendency to accept the notion that Luke has a rigid, fragmented view of salvation-history.  Hans Conzelmann’s three-epoch view was discredited long ago, but Hacking still operates with a slightly modified version of Conzelmann’s scheme.  Martin Hengel gave voice to a virtual consensus in Lukan scholarship when he wrote some years ago that Conzelmann’s view ‘that Luke divides history up into three periods…was…misleading….In reality, the whole double work covers the one history of Jesus Christ, which…includes the interval between resurrection and parousia as the time of his proclamation in the “last days” (Acts 2:17).’[26]

Unfortunately, this faulty presupposition also encourages Hacking to emphasize discontinuity between the charismatic ministry of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and ministry in Luke’s church and ours on the other.  Hacking frequently argues for the uniqueness of the miracles of Jesus and the apostles.  He states, ‘signs and wonders in Acts are to be understood as being instrumental in the formation of the infant church.’[27]  Hacking builds on this by arguing that Luke restricts signs and wonders to a chosen few, a select group of designated individuals who are set apart and commissioned, initially by Jesus, but later by their local congregations.  He concludes, ‘Luke associated signs and wonders only with those who had a transparently authoritative role to play in the missiological progress of the church.’[28]

Yet these conclusions again run counter to the evidence from Luke-Acts.  The sending of the 72 (Luke 10:1-16) is a case in point.  Hacking argues that the instructions given to the 72, which include ‘heal the sick’ (Luke 10:9), were limited to the earthly ministry of Jesus and were ‘not intended by Luke to provide an ongoing contemporary paradigm.’[29]  This text, however, has important parallels to Numbers 11:24-29 and should be read with Moses’ declaration, ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ (Nu. 11:29), in mind.  The manuscript evidence, divided as it is between a sending out of 70 or 72, attests to the fact that the early church understood the text in this way.  The actual number of the elders who were anointed in Numbers 11 is somewhat ambiguous, depending on whether or not Eldad and Medad are included in the original 70.  This accounts for later scribal discrepancies.  This passage then, which expands the group of empowered disciples beyond the Twelve and echoes Moses’ wish for a prophethood of believers, finds its fulfillment in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit.

Luke could hardly have stated the matter more clearly than he does in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost.  Peter declares to the amazed crowd that the events of Pentecost that they have just witnessed represent the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (2:28-32).  The universality of Joel’s promise is highlighted in Acts 2:17-18 with the reference to ‘all people’ and the poetic couplets that follow (sons/daughters; young men/old men; men/women).  The point should not be missed: in the last days the Lord will pour out the Spirit on all of God’s servants.  In view of the manner in which Luke links the ‘signs and wonders’ of Jesus and the early church with Joel’s prophecy, it should be apparent that Luke anticipates that ‘signs and wonders’ will continue to characterize the ministry of the church – potentially anyone in the church – in these ‘last days’.

Nevertheless, Hacking seeks to argue that Luke restricts the working of miracles to the apostles and a few heroes of the Spirit who received special commissions.  Yet the very fact that Hacking has to expand the ‘limited’ group beyond the apostles to other heroes of the Spirit should serve as a warning.  Other questions emerge as well: Are we really to understand the prayer of Acts 4:29-30 – ‘Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders…’ – as limited to a select few?  Stephen, who ‘did great wonders and miraculous signs’ (Acts 6:8), is not an apostle, nor is Philip.  Both were commissioned to help with the distribution of food, not pioneer churches, and yet miraculous signs accompany their proclamation.  Similarly, Paul and Barnabas work miracles, but they are not apostles by Luke’s standards (Acts 1:21-22).  How does this fit with Hacking’s thesis?  Apart from the apostles and other heroes of the Spirit, what other characters could Luke use to make his point?

All of this indicates that key aspects of Hacking’s thesis – that Luke was largely uninterested in ‘signs and wonders’ as a significant component of Christian discipleship, that the miracles of Jesus and the apostles were not intended to serve as models for the post-apostolic church, and that the commissioning accounts are relevant to only a select few who are specifically commissioned to engage in pioneer work – are built on a selective reading of the text and faulty presuppositions.

Yet Hacking’s question cannot be ignored: Should we – all of us, every believer – expect to see ‘signs and wonders’ as a part of our Christian lives and witness?  I have no doubt how the vast majority of my Christian friends in China would answer this question.  And a recent survey of Pentecostals from ten different nations concludes that a very high percentage claim to have personally witnessed or experienced instances of divine healing (87% in Kenya, 79% in Nigeria, 77% in Brazil, 74% in India, 72% in the Philippines, 62% in the U.S.).[30]  Perhaps it is time for those of us from increasingly secular and skeptical Western countries to learn from our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  After all, aren’t their cultures often closer to that of the biblical authors than our own?  It seems to me that their experience and perspective point to significant weaknesses in the presuppositions that often guide our socio-historical, linguistic, and literary-critical methods.

5. Conclusion

One of the great strengths of the Pentecostal movement is that it has read the promise of Pentecost contained in Peter’s quotation of Joel (Acts 2:17-21) as a model for the mission of the church.  I have argued that this approach to the text, although it runs counter to many evangelical interpretations, captures well Luke’s intent.  Luke has indeed skillfully edited the quotation from Joel.  A careful analysis of the text reveals that Luke has modified the Joel quotation in three significant ways, and each modification serves to highlight an important aspect of the mission of the church.  The church’s mission is to be characterized by visions and divine guidance, bold witness in the face of intense opposition, and signs and wonders.  These three themes run throughout the narrative of Acts, and Luke anticipates that they will continue to mark the life of the church in ‘these last days’.

Luke’s narrative, then, is much more than a nostalgic review of how it all began.  Although Luke is concerned to stress the reliability of the apostolic witness, his purposes go beyond this.  Luke’s narrative also provides us with much more than merely a summary of apostolic preaching.  Although Luke desires to affirm the content of our message, again his purposes are larger.  Through Peter’s sermon, and particularly his quotation of Joel, Luke declares that the church, by virtue of its reception of the Pentecostal gift, is nothing less than a community of prophets.  It matters not whether we are young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, the Spirit of Pentecost comes to enable every member of the church, each one of us, to fulfill our prophetic call to be a light to the nations.  Acts 2:17-21 is a paradigm for the mission of the church.  In this passage, Luke speaks directly to his church and to ours.  Luke calls us to be attentive to the leading of the Spirit, who delights to direct us down risky and surprising roads.  Luke challenges us to bear bold witness for Jesus, irrespective of the obstacles or opposition before us, for we can rely on the power of the Spirit to sustain us and grant us strength.  And Luke encourages us to expect ‘signs and wonders’ to accompany our ministry.  May our prayer be that of the early church, ‘Lord, …enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness….Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus’ (Acts 4:29-30).  And may God shake our places of meeting as well.


[1] Darrell Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 92.

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 69 (with reference to Acts 2:1-21).

[3] Witherington, Acts, p. 132.

[4] All English Scripture citations are taken from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[5] See Menzies, The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology with special reference to Luke-Acts (JSNTSS #54; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p. 218.

[6] Note how Luke describes revelatory experiences at night, which might have taken place during sleep, as ‘visions’ and not ‘dreams’ (e.g., Acts 16:9-10).

[7] Acts 7:31; 9:10, 12; 10: 3, 17, 19; 11:5; 12:9; 16:9, 10; 18:9; and then also in Mt. 17:9.

[8] I am indebted to C.M. Robeck for this reference.  See C.M. Robeck, ‘Gift of Prophecy’, The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal Charismatic Movements, Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M van der Maas, eds., (revised and expanded; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 999-1012; quotation from p. 1010.

[9] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.  Robeck cites the preface of Luther’s On Zechariah as the source for this quotation.

[10] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.

[11] C.M. Robeck, p. 1010.

[12] Acts 20:22 in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, translated by Eugene H. Peterson (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).

[13] See, for example, the New American Standard Bible and the King James Version.  Both of these translations read, ‘bound in spirit’ [note ‘spirit’ is not capitalized].

[14] I am following Marty Mittlestadt’s fine work and translation at this point. See Martin Mittlestadt, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology (JPTSS 26; London: T&T Clark International, 2004), p. 122.

[15] The Message, italics mine.  See also the NIV translation of Acts 19:21: ‘After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem.’

[16] Mittlestadt, Suffering and the Spirit, pp. 122-123.

[17] Mittlestadt, Suffering and the Spirit, pp. 123.

[18] Mittlestadt, Suffering and the Spirit, pp. 123.

[19] See, for example, Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Darrell Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); and Keith J. Hacking, Signs and Wonders, Then and Now: Miracle-working, commissioning and discipleship (Nottingham: Apollos/IVP, 2006).  We have already noted how Witherington highlights the ‘unique’ nature of Pentecost.  Bock also fails to develop the theological implications of Acts 1-2 for the missionary praxis of the contemporary church (see my review of Bock’s commentary in a forthcoming issue of Pneuma).  Note our comments on Hacking’s monograph below.

[20] Contra the judgment of Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987 [German original, 1963]), pp. 15, 159-60.

[21] Reasons for this conclusion include: (1) the fact that the reference to the Holy Spirit breaks the parallelism of the ‘good gifts’ given by earthly fathers and ‘the good gifts’ given by our heavenly Father; (2) Luke often inserts references to the Holy Spirit into his source material; (3) Matthew never omits or adds references to the Holy Spirit in his sources.

[22] My conclusion at this point is supported by Roger Stronstad in his fine work, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (JPTSS 16; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).  For a dissenting perspective, see Max Turner’s two articles, ‘Does Luke Believe Reception of the “Spirit of Prophecy” makes all “Prophets”? Inviting Dialogue with Roger Stronstad’, Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 20 (2000), pp. 3-24 and ‘Every Believer as a Witness in Acts? – in Dialogue with John Michael Penney’, Ashland Theological Journal 30 (1998), pp. 57-71.  Turner argues that only a select group is empowered for prophetic witness.  Yet I would suggest that his discussion fails to take seriously my three points and the related Lukan texts cited above.

[23] Luke Wesley argues this thesis with reference to the Chinese church in his book, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPS 2; Baguio: AJPS Books, 2004).

[24] Acts 2:19, 22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 14:3; 15:12.

[25] Keith J. Hacking, Signs and Wonders, Then and Now: Miracle-working, commissioning and discipleship (Nottingham: Apollos/IVP, 2006).  Although Hacking’s book treats the commissioning accounts and teaching on discipleship found in the gospels and Acts, here we will focus on the material relevant to Luke-Acts.  For a fuller analysis of Hacking’s book, see my review in EQ 79 (2007), pp. 261-265.

[26] Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1979), p. 59.

[27] Hacking, Signs and Wonders, p. 257.

[28] Hacking, Signs and Wonders, p. 257.

[29] Hacking, Signs and Wonders, p. 195.

[30] See the Pew Forum Survey at



Post a comment

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.