Who doesn’t love a birthday party? It’s fun to celebrate another year of a friend’s or family member’s life, especially when there’s cake and ice cream involved. Make mine chocolate cake with white icing and vanilla ice cream please. This is all good fun, but understanding and participating in the birthday of the Church is infinitely more important. Sadly, many evangelical Christians miss the significance of Pentecost, and the annual celebration this week that’s familiar to Anglicans and Roman Catholics. This post aims to change that!
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Go here for an unedited audio teaching on Pentecost and Acts 2.
Go here for links to audio and powerpoint of a sermon on the importance of Pentecost.
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Reading Acts 2 with the church calendar in 2021
Easter isn’t over! This year the eight Sundays of Eastertide began on April 4. The Church’s calendar is tied to the Jewish calendar, with the fifty day period of Pesach (Passover) to Shavuot (Weeks) corresponding to the period from Good Friday to Pentecost (Lev 24; Deut 16). Jesus’ resurrection led forty days later to his ascension (Acts 1:3), celebrated this year on Thursday May 20 in some Christian traditions. Jesus’ ascension led to the Spirit’s coming not long afterward on Pentecost (Acts 1:4). As Jesus’ glorious resurrection validated his crucifixion, so his ascension confirmed his victory over sin and death. With the ascension Jesus assumed his exalted session at God’s right hand. Soon he sent the Spirit to begin the church, and one day he will come back to rule forever. The ascension is the key link between what Jesus has already done on earth and what he has begun to do in heaven. Jesus went up from earth to heaven so that he could send the Spirit down from heaven to earth.
Reading Luke-Acts Together: Jerusalem at the Center
The prophet Isaiah envisioned the day when the Torah would go out of Zion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isa 2:3). Jewish tradition views Shavuot/Pentecost as the anniversary of Moses receiving God’s instructions on Mount Sinai. Perhaps Luke had both in mind when he composed his two-volume narrative of the gospel spreading from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 1:8). The graphic above shows how Luke-Acts, considered together, centers on Jerusalem. When we notice that Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51, seventeen chapters of Luke-Acts (Luke 9-Acts 1) are occupied with Jesus focused on Jerusalem. When we notice that the church is in Jerusalem for the first eight chapters of Acts, and that Acts 21-23 portrays events that occurred in Jerusalem, we find that 27 chapters of Luke-Acts, roughly half of it, is centered in Jerusalem. In this light, Pentecost is the pivotal event in the whole composition. Jesus’ ministry leads up to the ascension and Pentecost in Jerusalem, and the church’s ministry leads westward away from the ascension and Pentecost to the Mediterranean world and Rome. Just as the earthly Jesus’ ministry began when he received the Spirit (Luke 3:21-22), so the church’s ministry begins when it receives the Spirit from the exalted Jesus.
Reading Acts 2 as a Story
Acts is meaningful history. It’s not merely a chronicle to inform us, although it portrays real events. It’s certainly not a fictional novel to entertain us, even though it’s an exciting story. It’s not a how-to-do-it manual for us to mimic step-by-step, even though it contains many helpful principles and patterns. Acts is the second volume of Luke’s story of the missional movement of God, written to inspire and equip the church for its own chapter in the continuing Jesus-saga. Are we engaged in writing the next chapter, our own Acts 29?
What happened (Acts 2:1-13)? Simply put, tongues happened (cf. Acts 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor 12-14). 120 Jesus-followers were prayerfully waiting together on the fulfillment of God’s promise through John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 3:16; 24:44-48; Acts 1:4-8). On Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks (Lev 23:15-21; Deut 16:9-11; Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8), it finally happened, signaled by a sound like a rushing wind and the appearance of flames over the heads of the disciples. Jews from all over the Roman empire were present in Jerusalem to observe the coming of the Spirit. Gentile proselytes (converts to Judaism; Matt 23:15; Acts 6:5; 13:43) were also present in the crowd. Their presence foreshadows the mission to the Gentiles pioneered by Peter (Acts 10-11) and continued by Paul (Acts 13-28). As Luke’s narrative unfolds, other Gentiles with a looser connection to Judaism play a prominent role). Many of these “God-fearers” respond to the message of Jesus (Luke 7:4; Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 46-49 [Isa 49:6]; 17:4, 12, 27; 18:7). Their conversion would lead to problems with assimilation into the church in Acts 11:1-18; 15; 21:20-25.
All of these Jews and proselytes, on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Shavuot, miraculously heard the disciples’ testimony to God’s mighty works in their own languages. Some were amazed and wondered what it all meant; others were cynical and mockingly attributed the tongues to drunkenness. Who would explain the meaning of the miracle?
What did it mean (Acts 2:14-36)? Peter stood up to unpack the miracle. First he silenced the mockers (Acts 2:15). Then he spoke from the Old Testament to explain the significance of the wind, fire, and tongues. Peter’s “sermon” revolves around his messianic interpretation of three Old Testament passages:
- Joel 2:28-32. In Acts 2:17-21 Peter countered the inebriation hypothesis by identifying the coming of the Spirit with the promise of Joel 2:28-32. Peter clearly thought and taught that the last days or messianic era had been inaugurated were inaugurated by Jesus’ passion and ascension (cf. Acts 3:17-26).
- Psalm 16:8-11. In Acts 2:22-28 Peter spoke of God’s vindicating Jesus by the resurrection. Although Jerusalem’s leaders had rejected Jesus, but God endorsed him by raising him from the dead. Peter linked the resurrection to Psalm 16, where David reflects speaks of his hope of living in God’s presence after death. Peter understands this hope in light of God’s promise to keep a descendant of David on the throne of Israel (2 Sam 7:12-16).
- Psalm 110:1. In Acts 2:34-35 Peter explained the ascension of Jesus in terms of Psalm 110:1, where David spoke of his Lord’s exaltation to God’s right hand. Peter’s gained his understanding of Psalm 110 from Jesus, who used the same verse to silence his opponents during the passion week in Jerusalem (Matthew 22:41-45/Mark 12:35-37/Luke 20:41-44). There are frequent echoes of Psalm 110 in the New Testament (e.g. Matt 26:64; Mark 14:62;; Luke 22:69; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12-13; 12:2).
Peter’s sermon comes to a dramatic conclusion: Jerusalem must realize that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. God has exalted the Messiah whom Jerusalem rejected. The risen and ascended Jesus is the Lord Messiah. He has begun to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of the messianic age by filling his followers with the Spirit of God. How will the audience respond to Peter’s message?
What was the outcome? (Acts 2:37-47)? The Holy Spirit used Peter’s message to pierce the hearts of many in the audience. Peter told those who were convicted of their sin of rejecting Jesus to repent and be baptized. When they responded, they received the Holy Spirit, just like the original followers of Jesus did. The church’s number was now at 3,120 and counting! The new converts gathered in community for teaching, fellowship, a meal that likely included remembering the Lord with shared bread and wine, and prayer. The early believers shared their possessions, enjoyed the favor of the larger community, and saw additional conversions on a daily basis.
Peter probably did not fully realize the full implications of his words in Acts 2:39: The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call (NIV). Soon Peter would be jolted out of his social-ethnic comfort zone by a vision that led him to a soldier’s home in Caesarea where God-fearing Gentiles were waiting for the message of Jesus (Acts 10). While Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon his audience, and believing Gentiles who were not proselytes joined Jews in the body of Christ for the first time. This led to questions in the church (Acts 11:1-14; 15:8-9), as some of the Jewish believers insisted that the Gentile believers be circumcised and follow the Torah. This tension continued for some time, leading to the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) and Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The surprising work of the Spirit continues today as God continues to call people to himself who are deemed problematic by some in the church.
Reading Paul’s Reflection on Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost
Like Peter in Acts 2, Paul had much to say about Jesus as the one who fulfills the promises God made to to his ancestor, King David (Acts 2:25-36; 13:22-23, 32-37; Rom 1:3-4; 4:6; 2 Tim 2:8).
Paul unpacked the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the work of the exalted Jesus who had begun to form his church. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul teaches the erring Corinthians about the proper ways they should exhibit the gifts of the Spirit, through whom Jesus had baptized them into his body (1 Cor 12:13). Paul taught that this mutual experience of the Spirit transcended ethnicity, gender, and social standing, forming a united body—a new harmonious community composed of diverse and formerly warring humans who now work together to continue the mission of God. Paul also spoke at length of how God unifies diverse people through the Spirit for mission in Ephesians 2:11-20 and 4:1-16.
Paul’s references to Jesus’ ascension and heavenly session are also prominent. Paul taught that followers of Jesus participate in the story of Jesus—his death, burial, resurrection, exaltation to God’s right hand—even in Jesus’ glorious coming back to the earth. Of the many passages that should be pondered on this point, Romans 6:1-11, Galatians 2:19-20; Ephesians 1:19-2:6 2:11-3:7; Philippians 3:10-11; and Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1-4 are probably most important. This participation or union with Christ, often described today as cruciformity, is the key to Christian identity and lifestyle.
Reading Ourselves in the Light of Pentecost
Reflecting on the miraculous Ascension of our Lord and his sending the Spirit on Pentecost should lead us to consider ourselves. Are we actively participating in God’s Spirit-empowered mission in the world? Here are a few points to ponder.
To our shame we have all too often reduced our reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit to petty debates over speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts. Although it’s fine to have a view on speaking in tongues, from the amount of time some people spend on the topic one would think it is the heart of the Spirit’s ministry rather than a mere sign of the Spirit’s more intensive and comprehensive post-Pentecost ministry. Paul emphasized Christ-like character traits as the fruit of the Spirit in a disciple’s life (Gal 5:22-23). He valued all the gifts as necessary for the healthy functioning of the body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:14-26; Eph 4:7-16). Fullness of the Spirit may lead some to speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:5, 39), but Paul valued the prophetic heralding of God’s word more highly because it built up the church (1 Cor 14:12, 19, 23-25). It’s way past time that charismatics and non-charismatics alike get past the sign of tongues (1 Cor 14:22) and focus on the reality of the Spirit’s ministry in producing Christlikeness and empowering the advance of the Gospel.
Pentecost tells us about the heart of God and calls us to become more like God. God is faithful in keeping his promises, in this case his promise through Joel (2:28-32) to pour out his Spirit on all humanity. God’s promise to bless Abraham in Genesis 12 may appear at first to be ethnically exclusive, but in reality it is inclusive: God will bless will bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s descendants. In keeping with this promise to Abraham, God poured out the Spirit on Jews and proselytes from all over the Mediterranean world at Pentecost. The gospel-promise is for everyone, far and near alike. Our calling as the church is to mimic this love of God for all people. We cannot do so without jettisoning our social, ethnic, and gender biases.
Any reading of Acts 1-2 cannot miss the connection between the coming of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the church. Jesus counsels his followers to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the empowerment of the promised Spirit (Luke 24:48-49; Acts 1:8). On the one hand, mission cannot be done apart from the Spirit. On the other, those who have received the Spirit must be engaged in mission. As the story of Acts unfolds, the Spirit regularly prompts the church to proclaim the gospel and to engage in mission (Acts 4:8, 31; 5:32; 6:3, 5, 10; 7:55; 8:29, 39; 9:17, 31; 10:19; 11:12, 24, 28; 13:2, 4, 9; 15:28; 16:6; 19:21; 20:22, 28; 21:4, 11). If we claim to be mission-minded today, we must similarly be in tune with the Spirit. This means being sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings as well as being knowledgeable in the Scriptures, so that we may distinguish real spiritual promptings from our own selfish plans.
Pentecost was the birthday of the church. We need to to remember it, celebrate it, and get in step with the Spirit whose coming inaugurated the church’s participation in the mission of God. We need the Spirit like a turbine needs the wind.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on us. Everything else can wait.