The Day of Pentecost

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 2:1-6, 12-13

Of all the days in the life of the Christian church during its nearly 2,000-year history, none was as exciting and dramatic as the very first one – the day of Pentecost.

Luke’s description of the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is the story of what is sometimes called the birthday of the church. Pentecost means “50th” in Greek. This was the Greek name given to the important Jewish festival which was held each year on the 50th day after the Passover Sabbath. Pentecost was an agricultural festival, a time of celebration when the first fruits of the wheat harvest were offered up at the temple. In Jewish tradition it had also been associated with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, because the Bible records this event as taking place roughly seven weeks after the first Passover (Exodus 19:1). The predominant theme of the festival of Pentecost was celebration. The predominant mood was joyful, as Jerusalem was thronged by vast crowds of worshipers who returned to observe the holiday from all over the world.

It was at one such celebration, on the day of Pentecost in about the year 30 A.D., that something happened which would forever leave the world a different place. A new kind of community came into existence that day, one that transcended the old, distressing human divisions based on race and language and culture. This new community was an international fellowship of believers in Jesus, formed through the power of the Holy Spirit. Its birth came about in such a way as to be forever memorable. The story of the first Christian Pentecost is the formative event in the history of the church, and in the lives of the first Christians.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Jesus’ followers – about a hundred and twenty strong – were gathered together, Luke tells us, “in one place.” He refers to the “house” where this group of disciples was meeting, which seems to indicate a place similar to the upper room where the Lord had shared in his last Passover (the Lord’s Supper) a few weeks earlier, and where he had met with his disciples after his resurrection. Perhaps this was the very same house, the very same room. Some scholars, though, have thought that the “house” to which Luke refers was actually the temple in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus may have been meeting in one of the temple courts, based on what occurred and the sort of attention that it drew. The temple square would best fit the requirements of being public enough to immediately attract a large and diverse crowd of curious onlookers, and big enough to hold an assembly of which three thousand were converted by Peter’s sermon that day.

Wherever the disciples were, they were staying together, obediently waiting for the arrival of the special power that Jesus had promised them. Luke does not say specifically what they were doing as they waited, but if later accounts of church gatherings in the book of Acts are any indication, what they were doing together was praying. While the disciples were gathered in worship strange things began to happen. There was an unusual sound, a mighty rushing noise like that made by a powerful wind. (The same word is used by Luke in his gospel to describe the roaring of a storm-tossed sea.) Then sight was added to sound, as dancing tongues of fire-like flame appeared above their heads. Both these phenomena were signs pointing to the coming of the Spirit of God. Wind is an obvious symbol for the Holy Spirit. In fact, the word spirit also means “wind” in both Hebrew and Greek. And throughout the Bible fire is a symbol for the presence of the holy God.

But that wasn’t all. After the Holy Spirit came upon them, filling them with special power, Jesus’ followers were moved into action. Rushing out into the open, they began to speak about all the mighty things God had done through Jesus, about his saving acts. This testimony struck the varied listeners of that crowd with particular astonishment because it was offered in each one’s native language. So the crowd was amazed both by the medium and the message: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” they exclaimed (v. 11). “Amazed and perplexed,” Luke reports, “they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (v. 12).

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

That’s a good question. What does it mean? There were two main answers which were offered to the question right then and there on Pentecost day, and in one form or another they are the two alternative explanations still being given today. The first came from the hostile skeptics in the crowd: They’re all drunk, they said (verse 13). Skeptical people are always quick to sneer at anyone who shows enthusiasm for Jesus Christ. It’s a typical rationalistic response. “There is a reason, a perfectly understandable reason,” say the critics, “for the way these men and women are behaving. They have simply had too much to drink, that’s all. Nothing to worry about. There are no miracles; this is not the hand of God at work.” But that insulting explanation for the disciples’ unusual behavior wasn’t true; in fact, it was ridiculous. It was probably meant as a mocking joke. But, as Peter said a few minutes later, Jesus’ followers hadn’t had anything to drink; after all, it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! (See v. 15.)

We should observe that miracles, even great and powerful miracles like the day of Pentecost, or like Jesus’ resurrection itself, are never proved beyond the shadow of a doubt to everyone. They always meet with criticism and rejection. There are always those who refuse to believe. For people who choose to reject him, there is always an alternative, humanistic explanation for the work of God. At the resurrection, opponents claimed Jesus’ body had been stolen; on Pentecost, they insisted that his followers were just drunk. So a miracle by itself is not enough to persuade an unbeliever. What is required is the work of the Holy Spirit within that person, to convince of the truth and create faith in the Lord.

FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT

Now the other alternative explanation, the true explanation, is the one that Peter offered for the meaning of the remarkable events of Pentecost. The key to what happened on that day, he said, could be found in scripture, specifically in the prophecies of the Old Testament. “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel,” Peter declared to the assembled crowd (v. 16). In other words, Pentecost is the fulfillment of God’s promise to come personally in the last days to live within his people by his Holy Spirit. The phenomena of wind and fire are signs of the presence of the living God.

This was a new thing, but not totally new. The difference between the New Testament experience of the Spirit and the Old Testament is one of degree rather than kind. For the Old Testament believer the Spirit’s indwelling was occasional, sporadic, and intermittent. For the New Testament Christian his presence is universal and permanent. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has received the Holy Spirit. That happens when you become a Christian. Of course this doesn’t mean we all experience the Spirit always in his fullness. It doesn’t mean that we are always fully sensitive to him and in tune with him. In fact, there may not be the experience of him doing extraordinary things in us or through us. Or there may be special times and seasons when God does send the Spirit with particular power and blessing, as he did on Pentecost itself. When that happens to a number of believers at the same time in the same place, it’s called revival. But even if we do not experience special signs of the Spirit’s power, that doesn’t mean he is not with us. Faith in Christ unites us with him, and is itself a sign that his Spirit lives in our hearts. A Christian, by definition, is a person who has received the Holy Spirit.

PROMISES TO KEEP

Here is one more aspect of the meaning of Pentecost. When the Lord poured his Spirit out upon his followers that day he was engaged in one of his most characteristic activities. He was promise-keeping. Think of just two of Jesus’ promises to his disciples. One is found in Acts 1:8. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses. . . .

They did, and they were. Look how the disciples were changed. They were transformed from a tiny band of frightened men and women, huddling behind locked doors for fear of the same authorities who had crucified Jesus, into bold apostles who communicated the gospel to the ends of the earth. What made that happen? It was the resurrection of Jesus, followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit’s power. The rapid coming into being of the Christian church in the first century pagan world is, humanly speaking, an event of such unlikeliness that it has only one possible explanation: God did it. He did it through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which turned ordinary men and women into effective, fruitful witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ.

The spectacular gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was clearly supernatural in origin. Luke says that Jesus’ followers were enabled by God’s Spirit to speak in foreign languages. But the key point is that the reason for this miracle was so that they could tell people from many different lands about what God has done for salvation – namely, Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. Those mighty acts grant forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in Christ. So the primary purpose of the Holy Spirit’s gift of power is to enable Christians to tell the whole world about Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s power is power for preaching the gospel to the nations, in every language on earth. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to do this instantly as a miraculous sign of what was to come. For us, the task is longer and more laborious. We use translators, interpreters and teachers. Missionaries spend years learning another language and culture. But the purpose and result is the same as on Pentecost: the peoples of the world hear the good news in their own native tongues.

The second promise fulfilled on the day of Pentecost is the very last one Christ made before his ascension. Behold, I am with you always (Matthew 28:30). Just how does the Lord keep that promise? Through the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit does not come on his own, for himself. He comes both to bear witness to Jesus and to be the presence of Jesus. He is the Spirit of the Lord. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples that it would be to their advantage for him to leave them (John 16:7). While here physically he could only be at one place at one time, but through the Spirit he can be everywhere with every one of us, with every believer at every time (cf. John 14:15-21).

This is the deep and abiding reality of the miracle of Pentecost. When the excitement died down, when the noise and hubbub subsided, after the crowds melted away and the streets of Jerusalem returned to normal, Jesus remained with his people. His Spirit was living inside them. And when you go back home again, when the worship service is over and the church empties, or after the program is finished and you have switched off the radio, he can remain with you too. If you know and love Jesus Christ, his Spirit lives within you. Whether your life consists of days and nights of laughter or loneliness, busyness or boredom, whether you are living on the mountaintop or walking through the dark valley of the shadow of death, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the world.”

Believe this good news of the gospel. Trust in Jesus Christ, who always keeps his promises. And live in peace.