Why the Apostles’ transformation at Pentecost was so extraordinary

The events after Pentecost showcase the extraordinary courage among the disciples of Jesus following his death and resurrection.

Jul 05, 2020

By Anil Netto
The events after Pentecost showcase the extraordinary courage among the disciples of Jesus following his death and resurrection.

If we know the brutality of the Roman Empire in suppressing rebellion or even dissent, we would realise the extraordinary transformation of the disciples.

From cowering in fear, they stepped out bravely and bore witness to the triumph of life over death in Jesus’ resurrection.

The Holy Spirit unleashed a different sort of power from what the Roman Empire was accustomed to.

Let’s go back in time a little: Jesus’ death on the cross was not the first crucifixion. Far from it.

In 73 BC, 70 slave-gladiators escaped from a gladiator-slaves school and led a huge rebellion against the Roman Republic in the Third Servile War. Roman soldiers initially despatched to quell the rebellion proved no match for the skilled gladiators.

The slave rebellion, led by Spartacus and others, soon swelled to a force of 120,000 men, women and children. Those numbers should not come as a surprise: one out of every three people in Italy then was a slave.

The Roman Senate grew alarmed. Finally, Rome sent eight legions, led by the influential Crassus, to confront this rebellion, with another Roman general, Pompey, also closing in. Spartacus and his forces were utterly defeated by Crassus and his troops. Almost all the slaves were killed.

But here comes the even crueller part: The 6,000 slave rebels captured by Crassus’ forces were crucified along the 200 km route from Rome to Capua, known as the Appian Way, one of the most strategic roads in the empire.

Pompey, anxious to capitalise on this Ro man victory, captured another 5,000 slaves and killed them all.

Both Crassus, who had access to money, and Pompey, a powerful general, were influential and ambitious in Rome. But it was the even more ambitious Julius Caesar who brought them together in a triumvirate, with Caesar gradually taking control over the Senate through scheming, brute force and lengthy wars to expand the republic. To cement his standing among the people, he introduced populist policies and launched lavish games as entertainment spectacles. Eventually, in 44 BC, Caesar had himself installed as dictator in perpetuity.

The stage had been set. Caesar was regarded as a divine being, and Caesar’s successor Octavian, or Augustus, was regarded as the son of the divine one, or a son of god. It was the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

It is against this backdrop that the courage of the disciples in proclaiming Jesus as the son of God, their Lord, should be viewed.

Imagine a 200 km road lined with crucifixions along the Appian Way in 71 BC. That’s about one crucifixion every 30 metres! Rome did not take kindly to any form of rebellion, and even until the time of Jesus, such crucifixions were used as a deterrent to any form of rebellion against Roman rule.

The Apostles were fully aware of this, and their fear immediately after Jesus was crucified was understandable. Who would want to  be associated with a ‘rebel leader’ who had just received the ultimate punishment reserved for rebels – crucifixion?

But the power of the Holy Spirit is a different sort of paradoxical power – a gentle wind yet fiery enough to consume the Apostles and Mary with courage, wisdom, healing, and discernment. It fired them up to proclaim the new kingdom that Jesus had heralded. They were bold and unafraid of the consequences.

This juxtaposition of the power of the Roman Empire and the power of the Holy Spirit provides a fascinating backdrop to the New Testament.

One of the mysteries of the Gospels is why the representative of the Roman Empire, the prefect Pontius Pilate, appeared so indecisive during his interrogation of Jesus. He was hesitant, almost anxious to get Jesus off his hands.

Now Pilate did not get to where he was through such passive traits. He was brutal, a butcher even – and he was eventually removed from his position because of such horrible brutality. He knew he had insufficient troops to quell a major rebellion during the Jewish festival of liberation. That explains why he was anxious to placate the crowds by releasing Barabbas, who was imprisoned with other rebels against Roman rule.

Still, you have to wonder what transpired between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus, filled with the Spirit, had the capacity to discern spirits. He didn’t have to say much; but when Pilate  confronted him, the Roman prefect, presumably skilled at ruthless interrogation, quickly found the tables turned.

Pilate was the local face of the Roman Empire, whose superficial peace was derived from violence and military conquest. But here he was confronted by the real thing: the incarnation of the divine, a different kind of king. What do you do when the prisoner you are interrogating knows the very depth of your own soul?

This is what a film series I watched recently portrayed when a fictional modern-day Messiah turns the tables on skilled interrogators from present-day intelligence agencies. They are taken aback when their handcuffed prisoner seems to know their names, their pains, their worries, even little bits of their personal life. It really affects them to the core.

Maybe this is why Jesus is passed from the high priest, to Pilate to Herod Antipas – each of them anxious to pass him on to the other to carry out the dirty work, with none of them willing to take complete responsibility. And this is why the Apostles, after Pentecost, showed little fear of being hauled up to account for their words and deeds in front of worldly rulers.

Earthly power is no match for quiet divine power and is often exposed for its violence, greed, corruption, authoritarianism. It may hold sway for a while, but as Julius Caesar discovered soon after he declared himself dictator for life in February 44 BC, with plans for a bold new war with Parthia to enhance his popularity among the people, unlimited earthly power is fleeting and often an illusion.

Despite all his monumental battle victories against fearsome foreign armies, the end, when it came, was swift and unexpected – 23 stab wounds at the hands of a faction of Roman senators he was familiar with on the Ides of March, a month later.

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