“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven”. Acts 2:5
I’ve been reading in the book of Acts recently. This book tells of the establishment of the church as believers in Jerusalem begin to form a community of followers of Christ, and then move outward to surrounding regions. Often the teaching focus of the chapter centers on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the resulting empowerment of the early believers. I want here however, to explore the significance not of these events upon the early church, but of the nations gathered in Jerusalem.
The events recorded in chapter 2 take place on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, as the disciples of Jesus are empowered by the Holy Spirit and begin to preach the message of salvation. The gathering of Jews in the city came from many places and spoke many languages, yet all heard the preaching in their own language.
Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish festival known as Shavuot, or the feast of weeks. This festival, celebrated fifty days, or seven weeks, after the Passover, commemorated the giving of the law of Moses (which of course followed the exodus from Egypt which is commemorated in the Passover). It was also a celebration of the climax of the grain harvests, most specifically the first wheat harvest of the year, following the weeks since the barley was first harvested.
It was one of the festivals when Jewish pilgrims would come to Jerusalem for the celebration. Jerusalem was their special city, the home of the temple and an object of their earthly affections for their heavenly God. So, we read a list of peoples from every nation under heaven, within the worldview of the New Testament writer. Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:9-11) were among those who heard the preaching of Peter. An example of such a visitor would be the Ethiopian eunuch, who had himself been to Jerusalem to worship when he encountered Philip early in his journey home. He was someone who had come up from the nations to visit Jerusalem.
God had called Abraham to become a great nation: a nation through whom all peoples on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3) Successive dispersions of the descendants of Abraham from their promised land meant that there were Jewish communities in many parts of the known world. These communities maintained their religious distinctives, even having converts from the surrounding peoples joined to them, yet presumably were also a blessing to the peoples among whom they lived. It would be from among these diaspora Jews that worshippers would go up to Jerusalem, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies[i].
Yet that fulfilment would be incomplete. It would be primarily from among those who already claimed to be God’s people, and not from among the Gentiles. However, in that way, the gathering in Jerusalem at Pentecost is a prophetic foreshadow of that which God has planned for the role of His people through the great commission. We are commanded by our Lord to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28:19) Furthermore, New Testament prophecy confirms what the Old Testament has already spoken about, of people from every nation, tribe and tongue gathered before the throne of God in eternity. Revelation 7:9 echoes Daniel 7:13-14, as the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language worshiping before the throne and the lamb, remind us of all the peoples, nations and languages who are brought before One like the Son of Man to serve him.
There is a redemptive thread through this event that draws from even the pre-Abrahamic Old Testament experience. We find in Genesis chapter 10 a table of nations. Noah’s family have come out of the ark, a means of salvation from a sinful world. His sons have families from whom the nations spread out over the face of the earth. The names listed, with one exception, are not the same as those from which people came up to Jerusalem. However, Egypt, the regions of Mesopotamia, the coastlands and the Arabian peninsula are referenced. Reading chapter 11 alongside chapter 10 we come to the story of the Tower of Babel. The world had one language and a common speech. Working together men decided to build a city with a tower to make a name for themselves. God saw what they were doing and said: If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other (Genesis 11:6). Then He scattered them over the face of the earth.
Just as the sin of Adam and Eve, trying to be like God, had consequences, so the sin of the descendants of the Ark had consequences. Christ, not considering equality with God something to be grasped, appeared as a man to reverse the curse of Adam’s sin. So also, in this first moment of the history of the church the nations come together united in their worship of God, and, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, able to understand one message across all language barriers.
In a moment commemorating the first appearance of the law, the message of the now delivered grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is first preached. In celebrating an earthly harvest, a heavenly harvest of the nations is heralded.
Paul tells us later in the Acts of the Apostles: From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:26-27). Seemingly not part of God’s original plan, nations with all their diversity become an integral part of God’s redemptive plan to draw all peoples back into fellowship with himself.