I have always understood Pentecost to be a celebration of the “birth of the church”. I am not sure if I should continue to affirm this. Now the word “church” in modern discussions may be distant from the biblical concept of ekklesia. It seems to me that this word does not carry as much baggage as the modern word “church”. In fact, it is hard to determine whether or not we should continue to think of the pre-Pentecost people of God as anything less than the “church”. I guess it really depends on what we mean by the word.
What we can confidently say about the Day of Pentecost is it is the full inauguration of the New Covenant. The Spirit is equated with the New Covenant in the writings of the Hebrew prophets, Johannine literature, and Pauline literature. The New Covenant does not exclude the people of the Old Covenant. In fact, it is an invitation to those very people to renew their covenant with God.
According to the narrative of the Book of Acts the Gentiles are a later addition to a Covenant offered first to Jews who understood themselves to be in covenant with God already. It is renewal, not discontinuation. This is the “Israelology” of Rom. 9-11 as well. Paul sees Gentiles as being grafted into a people of God that already exists. Those Jews who rejected the new covenant were broken off of the tree. What Pentecost was not is the end of one people of God in favor of the beginning of another.
Even Paul’s understanding of a new humanity consisting of “neither Jew nor Gentile” does not mean that this is a “new” people of God. Rather, it means what defined the people of God over and against those who were not the people of God has been redefined. Those who failed to transition from one covenant to another exited the people of God that continued.
I am inclined to think of Pentecost as the inauguration of the New Covenant. The people of God already existed. For some the New Covenant was a renewal. For others (esp. Gentiles) it was a new invitation. Even if we use the word “church” to define the new people of God consisting of Jews and Gentiles we cannot think of Pentecost as the day this happened for it took some time for the Jesus sect to realize that Gentiles were now welcomed freely.
Very nicely done. Thank you for this.
It’s tricky! I would probably argue that the last supper/passion/ressurection is the inauguration of the New Covenant. “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant of my blood.” Pentecost is the fulfillment of OT promises, and is especially empowerment for witness, but I wouldn’t say it’s the inauguration of the New Covenant
I’m sticking with birth of the Church. Maybe I’ll add a NT before Church though. 😉
I probably wouldn’t call it the “inauguration” of the new covenant either, since there are aspects of new covenant fulfillment before Pentecost. The inauguration of the new covenant would have to be the entire nexus of events that comprises incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost (at least). So, you could say that Pentecost completes the inauguration of the new covenant.
What about “new covenant people of God”? We could calls ourselves the NCP (which could also mean nincompoops).
I would agree with Marc here that it is probably better to say it completes the inauguration. While I appreciate the point Alex made about the Last Supper/Passion/Resurrection it does not seem that Luke or Paul understood the process to be complete without Pentecost. As I mentioned Paul sees the New Covenant as the Covenant of the Spirit so it would not seem possible for their to be a fully inaugurated New Covenant without Pentecost.
What about the statement Jesus made in Matt 16:18 “…I will build my church…”?
Let us replace church, for the sake of this conversation, with the phrase “people of God”. The “people of God” already existed. Jesus was born a Jew amongst Jews. Nevertheless, the eschatological reality is that with the coming of Messiah the people of God were going to be redefined with a new identity that is distinct from the covenant given at Sinai.
Those who participated in this redefining of the covenant around Jesus entered into the “new covenant”. Those who refused this new covenant refused to continue as the people of God. When Jesus says he will “build his ekklesia” or his assembled people or the people of God this is not speaking of something from scratch, but a redefining.
To a lesser extent when the Hebrew prophets threw down the gauntlet a similar thing happened. This did not start a new people, but it created a remnant. What already existed has some cut away. The difference with Messiah is he is the central figure around whom the new covenant forms. He is the one whose allegiance determines the “remnant”. It is only with those who pledge allegiance to him (think Ps. 2) that God offers this new covenant which begins its inauguration at the Last Supper and finalizes at Pentecost.
Jesus started something new, yes. But it was new in the sense of reform more than discontinuation.
Brian, thanks for the explanation.
I do agree with what you are saying about the Church (founded by Jesus) being a continuation of the previous “Church”. I guess i still like to think of the day of Pentecost as being the day that the church was finally totally out of the womb… Every peace was now in place…
I think you have to deal with Acts 2 on its own terms, not from the definition of ekkleisia. The new thing here is the poring out of the Spirit “on all mankind” (fulfilling Joel’s prophecy). Luke’s list of people’s and regions represented (both Jews and proselytes) also makes it clear that the first task of the spirit-inspired disciples is the proclamation to of good news about Jesus to the whole world – not just Jews at this stage. The Apostles then have to go back and learn the lesson that they should have seen from the beginning. There’s some more on this at my blog. Blessings,
Even in Luke’s paradigm it does not seem to me that this is necessarily the “birth of the church”. I still think the language of the “full inauguration of the new covenant” is better. Yes, Gentile incorporation would have been made a reality at Pentecost in principle, but not yet in reality. It seems to me that the fact of the matter is this is the renewing of a covenant with Israel (the new covenant) which was foretold (as you noted) but that came to be seen as Gentile inclusive. Nevertheless, unless we are refering to the “church” as the “new covenant people” I think speaking of Pentecost as the “birth of the church” is a bit too simplistic.
I would be more comfortable speaking of the new covenant being fully inaugurated redefining the people of God as those who follow the Messiah and who are filled with the Spirit. This action did not “create” the people of God, but it did create new (to use Dunn’s terminology) “boundry-markers” for who is in and who is out.
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