We’re in the midst of the countdown to Pentecost, which this year falls on May 28 (just one week before my wedding!). Last weekend, I woke up very early Saturday morning and as I lay there staring toward the ceiling, Acts 1 and 2 started running through my head. I thought about all the women who were there at that first Pentecost after Jesus’s death, and I felt a need to write about them. And if you wake up at 4:00 am with a fully-formed Bible study idea in your head, it doesn’t seem right to just ignore it. I didn’t know where the study was going until I was polishing it up yesterday morning, but as you’ll see this isn’t just about women.
There were actually quite a few people there at that first New Covenant Pentecost, but we usually focus only on Peter and those listening to his sermon. To take note of the other people there, we need to do some close reading. Let’s begin in the first chapter of Acts. Here, Jesus spoke with his eleven remaining disciples before ascending to heaven and told them, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5, NET). We pick up the story after they return to Jerusalem.
When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James were there. All these continued together in prayer with one mind, together with the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.Acts 1:13-15, NET
They were there “together with the women.” It’s plural, so there were more women there beyond Mary the mother of Jesus. We know it was “a gathering of about 120 people” (Acts 1:16, NET), but we don’t know who most of those people were or how many of those gathered were women. It’s interesting too see there are women there, but it shouldn’t be surprising; Jesus spoke with and included women throughout His ministry.
The next order of business was to appoint someone to take Judas Iscariot’s place as the 12th apostle. “The lot fell on Matthias” (Acts 1:26, WEB), and then they all continued waiting for Pentecost. Let’s jump back into the story at the start of chapter 2.
Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.Acts 2:1-4, NET
There’s a chance that the “all” and “each of them” spoken of here only refers to the 12 apostles, but I don’t think that’s the case. There is no mention of the remaining 120 disciples leaving the gathering. And just because it’s “Peter, standing up with the eleven” (Acts 2:14, WEB) who addresses those in Jerusalem that questioned this miracle doesn’t mean there’s no one else there. In fact, by using a prophecy from Joel to explain what’s going on, Peter indicates that the “all with one accord” who received the spirit “on each of them” did include women and unmentioned men as well.
But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel:
‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says,Acts 2:16-21, NET (bold italics are a quote from Joel 2:28-32)
‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
And I will perform wonders in the sky above
and miraculous signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and clouds of smoke.
The sun will be changed to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes.
And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
God’s gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on sons and daughters; on both men and women. This isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it’s amazing how many people throughout the years have overlooked women’s inclusion in the church as prophets and servants. I wrote last year about Christian women in the 17th century arguing for the right to teach using many of the same arguments I still use today to defend my ability to write this blog.
Women in Acts
As the book of Acts continues, we see women intimately involved in the early church. The apostles continued preaching, and “More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women” (Acts 5:14, NET). When Philip shared “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12, NET). When prominent women in a city began following Jesus, it was worth writing down in the Acts account (Acts 17:4, 12). Some of the believing women were mentioned by name, including Tabitha who “was full of good works and acts of mercy which she did,” “Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth,” and “a woman named Damaris” (Acts 9:36; 16:13-15; 17:33-34).
Some of the women took an active role in preaching the gospel. Lydia, whom we’ve already mentioned, provided a safe place for believers to rest and gather (Acts 16:14-15, 40). Priscilla and her husband Aquila worked together to share God’s word (Acts 18:2, 18-19, 26; Rom. 16:3). “Philip the evangelist … had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9, NET). And they’re just a few examples of the women who speak in scripture.
Just as women participated in the early church as disciples, servants, and teachers, so they had a share in the hardships as well. When persecution arose, Saul “dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” and asked for letters granting him permission to keep searching other cities “if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 8:3; 9:2, NET). Saul (who later became the apostle Paul) certainly thought the believing women were just as involved in this “new” religion as the men. Evidently he didn’t change his mind about that later, since Paul’s letter to Rome highlighted women who served in the church congregation (Rom. 16:1-7).
And you know what? There are a lot of “overlooked” men here in Acts as well; it’s not just women who might disappear into the background of the stories. We have records of “crowds of both men and women” converting to the faith and Paul dragging unnamed men and women to prison, but most of these men don’t show up joining the ranks of the apostles or mentioned as key teachers. There were a lot of people who don’t make it into the Bible accounts by name, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t notice them or that they didn’t play key roles in their local church gatherings.
God is Not Unjust
When I began this post, I wasn’t sure what my concluding point for this post should be; just that I needed to write and share it. However, as I kept pondering and praying about it I realized it isn’t just about women. What I’m taking away from this reflection is to remember that God values, notices, and involves the people who seem to fade into the background behind someone who’s more famous and gregarious like Peter (1 Cor. 1:18-31). They’re there, they matter, but they only occasionally show up later in other accounts as people teaching and serving in church.
For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises.Hebrews 6:10-12, NET
As I write this final section, I’m realizing this is a message for everyone in the church who doesn’t do the showy things. It’s for those who quietly run the sound system and go unnoticed unless something goes wrong. It’s for those who set things up before services start and put things away after others go home. It’s for those who quietly visit widows during the week. It’s for those who don’t serve in a role with a title, but show up every week to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” and contribute to the community with their faithful presence.
God doesn’t forget this sort of service because He’s not unjust. If we wish to imitate Him in being Just, we also will not forget the people who serve like this nor undervalue the hidden or “little” ways that we ourselves serve.
Featured image by José Roberto Roquel from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “City on the Hill” by Casting Crowns