5. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.
Now, we are introduced to a new group of people. We must not think these were the only ones in attendance at this point. Rather, Luke draws our attention to them because of the special response they will have to the events that are taking place. This group of men are Jews who at this time were dwelling in Jerusalem, and yet who had not been born or brought up there. Rather, these men were from every nation under heaven. Yet they had not, in those years away from the land, given up on the law and the culture of Israel and become like the nations around them. No, these were men who were faithful to the God of their fathers, for we read that they were devout men.
This is not a reference to men who were currently dwelling in Jerusalem because of the feast of Pentecost going on at that time. This refers to permanent residents. These may have retired to that city, and were planning on living out their days there. We need to recognize that, for the devout Jews living outside the land, it must have been a constant frustration to them that they could not keep the law as they should as long as they were removed from the land of Israel. That law was meant to be kept in the land, and no one living outside the land could really keep it as was intended. One of the more significant things they could not keep is that they could not go up to Jerusalem three times a year to appear before God during the feasts. When you were living in a location that was months of travel away from Jerusalem, you could not just pack up to go there and back three times per year. These were a working people, and could not leave their jobs and homes to make such a journey. Since many of them were poor, or at least no wealthier than the average person around them, such a journey would just have been out of the question. To move to Israel permanently was also generally out of the question, for the economy of the land at that time was quite poor, and there were just no jobs to be found. Even if one could find work, the already impoverished people there would not be very appreciative of someone coming in and taking one of their precious jobs from them. So the devout Jew living outside the land was generally stuck. He could not please God where he was, yet he could not go where he could please Him.
Yet, the law of averages says some of these Jews, in whatever country they lived, would have become well-off. If they found themselves getting up in years and having acquired a significant fortune, we can well imagine that some of these devout Jews would make it their plan and goal to fulfill their lifelong dream to move to Jerusalem or elsewhere nearby in the land of Israel and live out their waning years in the land God had promised to their fathers. The locals would have been more receptive to this, as they were bringing money into the land, and not taking jobs away from those born there. Thus we set the scene, as this was probably the background of many of the Jews that are so mentioned here.
It is stated here that these Jews were from every nation under heaven. This is said to emphasize for us the fact that these men were from many places far and wide, and as such would have spoken many different languages. Most of them were doubtless fluent in Greek, and so could have communicated with anyone who knew that universal language of the Roman Empire. Also, being intelligent men, there can be little doubt that many of them were learning the local Aramaic that was spoken as the common language in the land of Israel. Yet it cannot be doubted that many of them would not have been fluent in it, and would have been most comfortable with the mother tongue which they had learned in the land of their birth.
We would note here before we move on to the next verse several significant things about this statement that they were from every nation under heaven. First of all, the word for “nation” here is the Greek word ethnous, which is often translated “Gentile.” Imagine how foolish it would be if we brought in the idea here of “every Gentile under heaven”! This word means “nation,” not Gentile, and it should be translated as “nation” in every occurrence.
This phrase “under heaven” seems to be a hyperbolic figure of speech to many, yet I do not believe that Luke meant it as such. If there is a word in the vocabulary of religious Christianity about which much is said but little is understood, it is this word “heaven.” The word means that which is lifted up or exalted, and thus that which is over and above other things. It is used not just of a place, but also of persons who are exalted over and above. For example, the phrase “Most High” as a name for God is interchanged with “the Heavens” in Daniel 4:25-26, showing that God Himself can be referred to as “Heavens,” since He is over and above all others. Thus, in this occurrence, I believe that “heaven” does not refer to a place, but rather a person. Without being inherently political, Luke refers to Caesar, and proclaims him to be the “heaven,” that is, the one over and above the Roman Empire. Thus, these Jews were out of every nation under the exalted one, Caesar; that is, they were from every place in the Roman Empire.
6. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.
Now we are told what took place when this sound occurred. This refers to the sound as of a rushing mighty wind that was set forth in verse 2. This sound had settled upon the place in the temple where the disciples were all gathered, and therefore all those who were in attendance in the temple were drawn to it. Thus the temple worshippers all gathered at this same location around the disciples. Yet it is not the average temple worshipper that Luke considers now, for he has already drawn our attention to one special class among these worshippers, and that is those who were from every nation under heaven. These are now thrown into confusion, and the reason is that every one of them heard the disciples speak in his own language.
Now this is a second and separate miracle from that set forth in verse 4. In that verse, they each began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Here, however, the miracle is not in what they spoke, but in what the people heard. We know from what we read above that these men were all speaking different languages, and so many different languages were being represented among them. Yet the startled onlookers find that whatever language is being spoken by these men, what they are hearing is their own language. By comparing notes with those around them from other countries, they find that their fellows are not hearing the same language they are, but rather are hearing their own native tongues speaking the same truths. Thus, though the apostles spoke with many languages, the onlookers heard only one, and that was the language that they had grown up speaking and considered their own. In fact, the Word of God is even more exact here, as it uses for “language” the word dialekto in Greek, meaning that they heard not only their own language, but also their own dialect, probably down to their own accent, perfectly spoken and setting forth to them God’s truth.
Again, this miracle foreshadows amazing truth about God’s future government to come. God does not even need to affect the language people speak to reverse His actions at the tower of Babel. He can also change what people hear to overcome the language barrier. The difficulty of communication is ever a concern in the relationships between governments. Yet no language difficulty will exist in God’s government. God introduced this great language barrier, and God is able to tear it down again.
Once more, what occurs here is entirely different from anything men experience today. In all the attempts of men today to speak in tongues, though some might claim that they attained to speaking some unknown language, no one can claim that others heard them at the same time speaking in their own language. This is a miracle that simply does not occur today. How, then, when everything about this event is different from what we experience today, can men insist that this was the beginning of God’s current work? However God’s work today began, it cannot have been like this!
7. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?
These devout Jews pass from confusion, as they hear their native dialects and yet compare notes with others who are hearing something else, to amazement. They marvel at this event, as well they might. Now, they seek information about these men. Who are these people who display such unusual power?
They determine, probably by their manner of dress, that these men who spoke were all Galileans. This would have made the miracle even more amazing to them. To understand this, we must realize that Galileans, as opposed to their Judean counterparts, were generally uneducated men. They would have been considered “country hicks,” to put it in modern terms, whereas the Judeans would have been more along the lines of “city slickers.” Thus, whereas Judeans would generally have been educated enough to know the Greek language, it is highly unlikely that the same would be true of a Galilean.
Now consider what this would have meant to these Jews who were not from the land of Israel. In the land, they would have been communicating largely in Greek. This was the obvious choice, as that was the universal language of the Roman Empire, and the language all of them could understand. Very few in the land, conversely, would have known their native tongues, or been able to communicate with them in those tongues. So they used Greek, and in doing so, they could have communicated just fine with most of the Judeans, as men in Judea were educated and knew Greek as well. Yet these devout Jews from outside the land by and large did not know Aramaic, and so any native Israelite who did not know Greek would not be able to communicate very well with any of them from outside the land. Thus, the experience of these devout Jews with Galileans would generally have been that these were the Israelites who did not speak Greek, and thus were those with whom they had great trouble communicating. No doubt many of them had experienced frustration in trying to use the few words and phrases of Aramaic they had picked up in the land to communicate with the Galileans who knew none of the languages in which they were much more fluent. Even the Aramaic they knew was probably spoken by these Galileans in a far different accent from that of Judea with which they were most familiar.
Thus for the average man among these devout Jews from outside the land, the Galileans would have been stereotyped as “the Israelites whom I cannot communicate with very well.” And yet now it is a group of Galileans, those ignorant and unlearned men, from whose mouths they are hearing words flawlessly spoken in their native accent, setting forth to them the wonderful works of God. No wonder this caused these foreign-born men to marvel!
8. And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?
This is what causes these men to marvel. They were hearing from the mouths of these Galileans, the ones from whose mouths they were used to hearing unintelligible Aramaic, their own native language spoken flawlessly in their personal accent in which they were born. Again the word here in Greek is dialekto. They heard these men in their own dialect in which they were born, even speaking with their own familiar accent.
9. Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
This shows the wide spread of territories, and therefore of native languages, which were represented among these men here. This spreads from Persia to Babylon, through Israel, along the Mediterranean even to Asia Minor.
Notice that Jews from Judea are mentioned here as well. These native born Judeans also heard the apostles speak. For them, the less impressive miracle was hearing a Galilean speak without a Galilean, but rather with a Judean, accent.
10. Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Parts of the southern coast of the Mediterranean are here mentioned, and again on the northern coast as far as Rome. Both Jews and proselytes from Rome are mentioned. For these converts to the law of God, it must have been a dream retirement also to come to Israel and live out their days in the land God chose and promised to His people Israel. These are probably both specifically mentioned because, though they both would have spoken Latin, the Jews from Rome would have had a slightly different accent from the non-Jews there, and yet each heard them speak in their own peculiar dialect.
11. Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The list of nations here ends, completing a great circle around the land of Israel. This list, comprising sixteen or seventeen languages, describes what would have been most of the major languages spoken around the Roman Empire at that time. Yet all of these foreign-born Israelites, no matter which one of these languages they were born speaking, hear from the mouths of the apostles their own native language, spoken in perfect accent, words describing the wonderful works of God. Notice this, for its significance cannot be ignored. They did not hear unintelligible sounds from the mouths of these men. They all heard languages, even the very languages that they grew up speaking, and which they could not mistake. And the words they heard in their own language were setting forth a cohesive message, a declaration of the wonderful works of God.
12. So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”
Their amazement continues as they confirm what is happening. Now, they seek an explanation for it, and are perplexed to find it. What could this thing mean? Perhaps the words of Isaiah 28:11 might have come to their minds, “For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people.” Hundreds of years had passed since Isaiah wrote those words, and these men who were descendants of those to whom he spoke could not speak the native language of the land of their fathers. Yet now God was speaking to them in a language they all understood, the languages of the nations around Israel, where the Lord had scattered them in His wrath. They may thus have remembered this verse, yet if they did, even this would not explain everything to them. It would let them know that this event must have great significance, but it would not have told them what that significance was. Why was God now speaking to them this way? What was it He wanted them to know? For they rightly guessed that this was about far more than simply them hearing of the wonderful works of God in their own native tongue. Thus they asked this question, yet they did not know the answer to it. Yet these devout men were willing to wait for the answer, rightly guessing that it would soon be supplied to them from God.
13. Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”
Others in the crowd were not as noble as those who realized the importance of this and were willing to wait to learn its meaning. These did not want to be challenged by such a new and amazing work of God, and preferred to turn their minds off and mark the whole thing down as some entirely normal event with a flippant remark. They scoffed at the work that God was doing, and tried to just pass the words of these men off as being the ravings of those inflamed by new wine. Now this makes no sense, as wine in itself certainly does not increase the intelligence of men, though it might increase their personal estimation of their intelligence, and it certainly has no power to impart to the one who drinks it the knowledge of some formerly not understood language. Nor does such an explanation make any sense of the fact that the hearers each heard a different language from those around them. Yet for men who do not want to see the manifest truth of God or acknowledge what He is clearly doing, any explanation, however nonsensical and inappropriate to the situation it may be, will do to excuse them from mental exercise and being challenged regarding the truth.
Alas, how many with this kind of spirit do we find as we seek to set forth the wonderful works of God as they are written in His Word! Many there are to whom we would wish to communicate a truth plainly set forth in the Scriptures, and yet find that their response is not to examine or consider the clear testimony of the Word, but rather to find some label to attach to the one who showed it to them. If they can find some fringe group to place us in or some disparaging title to label us with, they will consider our arguments answered and the matter settled. Never will they aspire to start the rusty gears of their minds to moving in an attempt to comprehend the truth that is set forth before them in black and white on the page. The precious truths that we have labored to gather from the Word are thus dismissed with a flippant remark. O the lengths to which men will go to keep from having their nicely ordered system of beliefs upset by the truth of God!
14. But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words.
Remember that the temple worshippers were all drawn to the place where the disciples were assembled, and where, as we read in verse 2, they were “sitting.” It seems that, as this great manifestation of power was taking place, the men who were speaking forth the wonderful works of God may not even have left their sitting positions, but had been speaking to each other these things, and the crowd had, as it were, been listening in. Remember, too, that the position they would assume for teaching was a sitting position, as we see the Lord Himself doing in John 8:2. Now, however, Peter stands up along with the eleven other disciples with him. Generally they would stand up when delivering an oration, which is what Peter was going to do here. These twelve standing up were the men whom Christ had chosen to “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” according to Matthew 19:28. Now, the Spirit is introducing them to those over whom they are to rule.
Peter raises his voice, commanding the crowds’ attention, and begins his proclamation. He addresses his words to the men of Judea, as well as all who dwell in Jerusalem, which of course includes those Jews from every nation under heaven who were now dwelling in Jerusalem, as we read in verse 5, as well as the proselytes who had identified themselves with the nation of Israel, as we saw in verse 10. He is going to set forth to them things they should know, and words to which they should take heed.
15. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.
Peter flatly denies the charge brought against them by those scoffers in the crowd, insisting that they were not drunk, as these had supposed. Their actions must have given positive confirmation of this, for they were not staggering, shouting, slurring, or otherwise acting as men drunk would do. Men who are drunk exhibit a lack of control, but those inspired by the Spirit of God exhibit complete control. These men behaved as those moved by God, and not as those drunk with wine.
Regarding this charge of drunkenness, Peter refers them to the strict custom that the Israelites had, that they would not drink alcohol in the morning, and it was still only the third hour of the day. Remember, they counted their days by twelve hours of night followed by twelve hours of day. Thus, the third hour would be approximately from our 8:00AM to 9:00AM. No good Israelite would have been drinking at this time of day.
The drinking of alcohol was strictly regulated by the Hebrew culture. Alcohol was used by the Israelites to maintain the fruit juices they drank. They fermented their fruit drinks as a means of preservation, for this was long before the advent of refrigeration or preservative chemicals. The use of alcohol by the Israelites has often been pointed to by those who seek support for their “social drinking,” or even their drunkenness. Yet it is doubtful that the Israelites viewed alcohol’s main attraction to be the entertainment value of intoxication.
We in our western culture have probably never felt the effects of starvation, or imagined what it is like to eat merely to keep yourself alive. For us, food and drink are entertainment, and so we whine unceasingly about foods we “don’t like,” as if God has tried to pass substandard goods off on our discriminating pallets. Our consumption is largely for the purpose of entertainment, not survival. How a food is preserved does not matter to us, merely how well we are amused by it. With most things the amusement is in the flavor, but with some things, and with alcohol in particular, the entertainment is found in the intoxicating effects it offers.
Thus, we in our society drink alcohol for a purpose that would have been foreign to the thinking of a survivalist society like that of the Israel of the Acts period. To them, those who drank alcohol to enjoy its intoxicating effects were the drunkards, outcasts from society who refused to abide by its norms. Those who drank did not do so “socially,” but to avail themselves of what was a major source of liquid sustenance, yet a source which involved a certain danger which must be avoided by following the social customs surrounding it and prohibiting its misuse. No such customs surround the consumption of our far more intoxicating drinks of today, and the imbiber is left to his own judgment as to how to avoid the dangers that are inherent in alcoholic beverages. The obvious lack of success on the part of so many in society around us should give every believer fair warning. In the words of Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Far better that the believer never indulge in alcohol at all than that he fall prey to its vices and so fall into the sin which so easily besets us.
For a further discussion of this matter of alcohol and the believer today, see my series on “Alcohol and the Believer.”