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Bible Study Guide for Sunday of Pentecost, Year A

May 28, 2023

[Acts 2:1-21,  Numbers 11:24-30,  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13,  John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39,  Psalm 104:25-35,37]

In the various readings for Pentecost, we have a narrative throughline in which Acts fulfills the promise of Numbers, and Corinthians explains how to interpret it and alludes to how a false interpretation could be drawn.

In Numbers, we have a story of how the Spirit disperses some of Moses’s spiritual authority among seventy of the Hebrew elders, allowing them to prophesy once. It goes on to touch on Joshua’s reaction to it and Moses’s rebuke. For the majority of Numbers, Moses is a rather tragic and lonely figure. He is responsible for the spiritual well-being and temporal leadership of the Hebrews, two roles that are as fruitful and as enjoyable as herding cats. Throughout the book the Israelites rebel or are obstinate, so Moses is usually irritated and feels put-upon. In the Chapter following today’s reading, Moses is described as a very “humble” man, which is rather amusing as Numbers was traditionally ascribed to Moses and describing yourself as humble is oxymoronic. But according to one of my old professors, a different more accurate translation would be that Moses was a very lonely man. Regardless he has led the Israelites in the desert for decades and is extremely tired of it. However, Joshua, his successor, is annoyed that Moses is now less “special” than he used to be. Moses on the other hand is overjoyed. Besides lightening his burden and lessening the impact of his rather alienating destiny he is happy that God is having more direct contact with the Israelites. Moses wishes both personally and spiritually for God to shed His Spirit on the people.

The reading from Acts is the story of Pentecost. This is effectively the fulfillment of Moses’s wish. Being a major feast day and the birthday of the Church, it is a reading we return to every year. But in the context of the reading from Numbers there are a few things to note: First, unlike the division of Moses’s authority, this is a permanent change. The elders were only able to prophesy once. Here, while there is a very dramatic moment of speaking in tongues, the disciples retain the gifts of the spirit indefinitely. Second, it is much more ecumenical and multi-ethnic. The elders of the Israelites were rather obviously Israelites. They were Hebrews, worshiping a Hebrew god, prophesying in a Hebrew tongue, to other Hebrews. While there is a greater dispersal of God’s presence throughout the tribes, there is no pretense that this is
worldwide, or even multinational. During Pentecost everyone in Jerusalem is Jewish or a God-fearing gentile, but they all primarily speak other languages and have multi-ethnic identities. This then is a much more extreme form of the spiritual dispersion in Numbers. The Holy Spirit is given to the church to inspire it across national, linguistic, cultural, and temporal boundaries.

However, in the church in Corinth, new boundaries would arise. One thing that has captured my attention ever since I first learned about it is that this passage of Corinthians is a subtle dig against some of the elite of that church. Corinth had long been a city of extreme wealth in the Hellenic and Hellenistic worlds. As such it had a very pronounced class divide, and when the church was established in that city it began to divide over who was holiest. Specifically, the parishioners who could speak in tongues were convinced that they were superior to their brethren who received other spiritual gifts. Here Paul rebuked them, telling them that they are part of a whole. Although they are separated by some one thousand two hundred years, the members of the church at Corinth spiritually and socially hold similar beliefs to Joshua.

There is still church leadership in place in all three stories, Moses, The Apostles, and Paul are still spiritual authorities. Moses and Paul are able to rebuke Joshua and the church at Corinth and are right to do so. Nevertheless, the thematic throughline is apparent: the church becomes broader and more inclusive through these events, and its members become more interdependent, interlinked, and responsible for each other’s spiritual well-being and the well-being of the Church as a whole.

– Ben Watts




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