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"Pentecost!"

MESSAGE for Sunday, November 22, 2009, Acts 2:1-13

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The Bible is a history of redemption and there are certain historical events that belong in the top 10 in terms of their importance within redemptive history.  One of those is recorded in our text for today in Acts chapter two.  As we have seen, 120 followers of Jesus including the apostles have been obeying Christ’s command to wait to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  It has been fifty days since Passover and the cross.  The Jewish feast of Pentecost has come as these people are gathered in some room in Jerusalem.  Luke says, 1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

          Luke includes the details surrounding this event to enable us to answer the question, What is Pentecost?  It is regrettable that this text has so often been primarily associated with the topic of spiritual gifts.  Although this text does marginally speak to that topic, if, when we read this section of Scripture, our mind immediately runs to questions about the gift of tongues or speaking in tongues, we have missed the meaning of Pentecost.  We want to see the importance of Pentecost within God’s redemptive plan and Luke places very clear clues within these verses to tell us that.  The first answer to the question--what is Pentecost is—Pentecost is a unique visitation of God.  One marker that is always present in the most important events in redemptive history is that for the really important ones—God personally manifests himself.         

Think about it—God is there in manifest presence at the creation and again in the fall.  He shows himself to Abraham when he constitutes his covenant people.  He is there several times with Moses—when he leads his people out of Egypt and when he gives the Law.  He appears twice to Solomon, the first son of David and he shows his glorious presence when the temple is dedicated.  He’s there at the call of some of the prophets and he again manifests himself around the birth of Christ.  Also, when Jesus begins his ministry and at his transfiguration he shows up in a manifest way.  We see the importance of Pentecost in redemptive history because God shows himself here. 

          We see at least two indications of a direct visitation from God here.  We see it first in verse two where we read, “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  All at once, God interrupts what we assume was a prayer meeting.  A sound that Luke says came from heaven filled the house and the sound was like a mighty rushing wind.  This is just the sound--people are not feeling the wind, but they are hearing something like it.  To us, this rushing wind sound may not seem like an indication of the presence of God, but for Jews steeped in the Old Testament, this would have been an unmistakable marker symbolizing the coming of the Spirit.  Perhaps the best known example is in Ezekiel 37—the valley of dry bones where God through Ezekiel breathes life into the dead, cursed nation of Israel and brings them to life.  Jesus used the wind as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  In John chapter three he is describing the new birth through the Spirit and he says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]  That is, God’s Spirit is like the wind and cannot be controlled or manipulated.  The main words for “wind” in both the Hebrew and Greek languages can mean either wind or breath or spirit.

          The hymn writer picks up this theme in the hymn we sang a few minutes ago.  “Breathe on me, breath of God.  Fill me with life anew.  That I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.”  That cry uses the Biblical image of breath for the Holy Spirit to plead with God that he again visit his people with the renewing wind of the Holy Spirit.  When Luke writes about this sound of a wind from heaven, (and not just any wind, but a “mighty rushing wind”) the people in that room would have made the connection and known that the promise of the Spirit was being powerfully fulfilled.

We see another clear symbol of God’s visitation in verse three.  “And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.”  Fire is often used in the Old Testament to symbolize the visitation of God.  In Genesis 15:17 God appears to Abraham as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.[1]  In the Exodus, God appears as fire within a burning bush and later as a pillar of fire.  Later in chapter 19, God descends on Mount Sinai in fire.  In Deuteronomy chapter four Moses warns the people of God not to make any carved images “for our God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”[v.24] Just as fire both purifies and destroys, so God purifies the righteous and destroys the wicked.[2]  Fire was a common symbol for the visitation of God and here at Pentecost, God comes as divided tongues as of fire that rest on those he fills with his Spirit. 

A second set of details within the text gives another answer to the question--What is Pentecost?  That is:  Pentecost foreshadows and empowers the apostles’ mission to the nations.  Based on the amount of space Luke gives to this matter of tongues, this is his main point of emphasis but the significance of this is often misunderstood.  Remember the context.  Jesus has charged his followers—apostles in particular, to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit so that they might be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.  When you think about that context of cross-cultural mission, its perfectly fitting that one of the signs of the Spirit’s outpouring would be this unique enablement to speak in other languages.  Verse four says, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”  The point is to show that the Holy Spirit who was promised as the One who would equip the apostles for this missionary activity has come.  And this supernatural endowment of language is a foreshadowing of his equipping work among them to go cross-culturally with the gospel.

It’s clear this is a genuine miracle because as the followers of Christ migrate out of the house and into the streets, we read in verse six that the multitude who witnessed this phenomenon react in amazement.  Verse six says, “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.  And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not these who are speaking Galileans?”  We know from both the gospels and Acts that their Galilean accents marked the apostles off as common, uneducated men (Acts 4:13).  But they had temporarily lost their Galilean accents and were speaking in these 15 or so foreign dialects.  This is like the Tower of Babel in reverse.  We must remember that this occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost-one of the three largest Jewish feasts in Judaism and Jews from all over this part of the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate.

There were Jews living all across this Persian Gulf area and the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea because when the Jews were taken into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians hundreds of years earlier, many of them did not come back to Israel, but lived as the “Diaspora”—the Jews who were dispersed throughout this part of the world.  Luke is speaking within this context when he says in verse five, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.”  To the Jews of this time, this was their world—the Roman and Parthian Empires from which these people had come to Jerusalem.  They had come into Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (and they could do that because most of them knew Hebrew) and they are met with these Galileans who were speaking the language of their native cultures.  Verse 11 says they were “telling…the mighty works of God.”  We can’t know all of what that meant, but it was preaching the truth about God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We know that this phenomenon is not the gift of speaking in tongues we read about in First Corinthians 12 and 14 because that particular spiritual gift, if it is to be understood, requires an interpreter who can tell the church what God is saying.  The manifestation of that spiritual gift of tongues is described by Paul in 14:2.  He says of the tongues-speaker, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”  Luke makes it clear that what was happening at Pentecost was not men speaking to God in mysteries.  It was men speaking to people who could fully understand them because they were speaking in their own native language.  The spiritual gift of tongues taught in First Corinthians was not what was manifest on the day of Pentecost.  Though these Galileans were speaking in tongues other than their own, they were not speaking in an unknown tongue.  That’s an important distinction because there are those in the church who believe this is the spiritual gift of tongues that in their view must accompany the filling or baptism of the Spirit.  They wrongly believe you cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit unless you manifest that by speaking in an unknown tongue.  That is not what Luke is teaching.

As we said earlier, it’s regrettable that this peripheral issue too often obscures Luke’s real point here.  That is--that this language-giving manifestation of the Holy Spirit is a foreshadowing of what will come later when it’s not only Jews who are the target of the gospel, but Gentiles who also speak these other languages.  We know this is God’s primary burden here at Pentecost for another reason.  That is—the feast of Pentecost was also known on the Jewish calendar as the “day of firstfruits” because at this festival the first fruits of the wheat harvest were presented to God.  This was a celebration of God’s faithfulness to provide for his people.  If the first fruits of the wheat harvest were good, that served as a guarantee the rest of the harvest would be good as well. 

It’s no accident that God chooses Pentecost—the day of first fruits to initiate his new people.  On this day of firstfruits, over 3000 people from several different cultures are saved and made people of the Spirit through Christ.  That harvest serves as a guarantee that the rest of the harvest among other ethnically and linguistically diverse people will be abundant—a promise to claim today as we send people out among the unreached peoples. Its clear from these clues that Luke’s main burden at Pentecost was to point toward the ongoing purpose of the Holy Spirit among the apostles and that was—to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

A third and final answer to the question—what is Pentecost is:  Pentecost is the fulfillment of the promise of the New Covenant that brings supernatural power for living to God’s people.  We mustn’t miss the fact that all this is miraculous.  Luke practically exhausts his thesaurus looking for words to describe the reaction of the multitudes to all of this.  They were “bewildered,” “amazed” (he uses that one twice), “astonished” and “perplexed.”  They were saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  The more cynical in the crowd mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine.”  It was clear that these Galileans were under the influence of something outside themselves.  These were people under the influence of the Holy Spirit and that empowerment pointed to the fulfillment of some glorious promises for which God’s people had been waiting for centuries.  The two most explicit ones are found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Jeremiah says in chapter 31:33, “33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” 

The miraculous empowerment of the Spirit of God at Pentecost begins a new age among God’s people where they are enabled to live at a new, supernatural level of righteousness through the New Covenant of the Spirit.  The Old Covenant was the covenant of Law.  Paul says in Second Corinthians chapter three that this covenant was dead because it calls God’s people to live righteously, but it cannot provide the necessary power to do that.  Paul says “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”[6b] The Law was external—outside us.  It commands us what to do, but it does nothing to empower our heart or will to do the will of God and in that sense it kills us.  The Old Covenant of Law was signified by an external circumcision that did nothing to impact the heart.  Paul says in Romans 2:29 that in the New Covenant “…circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter.”  Within the New Covenant, the heart is circumcised by the Holy Spirit.  In the New Covenant, which is made possible through Christ’s death, this prophecy from Jeremiah is fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit because for the believer the law no longer is on the outside as a requirement without power; it is written on our hearts.  Through the Spirit, we increasingly want to do it and through the Spirit we have the power to obey.

God through Ezekiel puts it this way in 36:26, “26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  Again, we hear this New Covenant will move beyond the externals and change our hearts to be careful to obey God’s rules.  In some ways, the Holy Spirit replaces the Law.[3]  Paul says in Galatians 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  The Law is still there to show us what God’s righteousness looks like, but it has been replaced with the internal Law written on our hearts by the Spirit who not only tells us God’s commands, but He also gives us the desire and the power to obey them. 

We see this new Covenant empowerment through the Spirit in the lives of the apostles.  Although the apostles we see in the book of Acts are not perfect, they are a very different group of men than we see in the gospels.  Those men left Jesus at his darkest hour and even denied they knew him.  But after Pentecost, they are willing to suffer persecution and even death for Jesus—preaching the gospel boldly--often among hostile people.  It’s clear from Luke the difference between the apostles we see in the gospels, who he regularly pictures as spiritually dull, fearful and full of themselves, and the apostles who he regularly portrayed in Acts as spiritually sensitive, bold and living as humble servants.  The difference is the New Covenant ministry of the Spirit.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Law has been written on their hearts and they live out these New Covenant promises of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.

But the question in light of all we have said about the transforming power of the gospel is—where does the Spirit of God fit in with that?  How does the Spirit of God’s transforming work within the New Covenant relate to Jesus, the cross and the gospel?  Jesus gives us the broad answer in John 16:14 where he speaks of the ministry of the Spirit.  He says, “He will glorify me…”  Stop there for a minute because just that much is important.  That tells us that the Holy Spirit will always put the spotlight on Jesus.  When we are sensitive to him, the Spirit of God always directs us to Jesus.  When we go off on the peripheral matters of the Christian life, we begin to falter spiritually.  When we major on the minors we get off track, but the Spirit glorifies Christ!  The Spirit brings us back again and again to Christ.  But he says more about the Spirit. “He will glorify me, for he will take what it mine and declare it to you.”  Jesus isn’t saying that the Spirit will simply parrot to us his teachings.  To “take what is mine” means he will declare who Jesus is and what he has done for us in the gospel and make it come alive to us.  The essential truths bound up in Jesus are found in the gospel.  The Spirit of God glorifies Christ by repeatedly, persistently reminding us of the manifold splendor of Christ’s greatest work—the cross.  The Spirit repeatedly reminds us of the gospel.  J.I. Packer tells us how the Spirit works in the life of the believer.  He says, “…the Spirit comes to him to show him what the cross reveals of Christ’s love for him, to bring home to him the pardon Christ won for him, to change his heart and to make him love the Savior.  The Spirit leads us to Christ’s cross, God’s guarantee to us that our sins, so far from bringing about our death eternally, shall themselves die, and brings the cross of Christ into our hearts, with its sin-killing power, so ensuring that our sins do die.[4]

The Spirit of God takes the promises of Scripture telling of what God has done for us in Jesus and with the white hot stylus of God’s love, burns them into our hearts—who we are in Christ—what he has done for us—how much he loves us.  The Spirit of God repeatedly brings that to life for us and gives us faith to believe the truths of the gospel—that we are dead to sin—that we are seated in the heavenlies in Christ—that we have been adopted by God our Father—that we are righteous in the sight of God because we are united with Christ.  And as the Spirit of God makes alive the heart changing reality of the cross, our love for God increases so that we want to obey him.  We want to show the fruit of obedience.  The Holy Spirit increasingly makes sweet to us the glories of the cross and what Jesus did for us there.  The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to believe those glorious promises, increasingly appreciate those truths and fills our heart with love for God in response to his grace.  As that happens, the fruit of the Spirit is increasingly produced in us.  When we pray, “Spirit of God make sweet to me the gospel and give me the faith to believe it and to repent of my treasured sin,” we are praying in the will of God and he will hear and answer that prayer.

Before we close, let’s briefly do some thinking about what the meaning of Pentecost means to us. First, let’s think about the fact that after he has clearly made his presence known, the very first thing he does is cause his people to speak in foreign languages they don’t know to the astonishment of people who happen to be visiting and who not coincidentally speak those languages.  That ought to tell us something about his priorities.  John Piper is right when he says that the Bible gives three options to believers as it relates to the Great Commission.  First, we can help send believers to the mission field by giving and praying and encouraging them.  Second, we can leave our families and friends and go ourselves or third, we can be disobedient.  In light of this text, we could put it this way.  We can either go or send or be totally out of step with the Holy Spirit whose very first work manifests his burden for world missions. 

Where are you with this?  If the Great Commission is for someone else and has never had any appeal to you, that’s not just a comment on your personality or the busy schedule you keep.  That says you are out of sync with the Holy Spirit who is a missionary Spirit. And not just the Spirit of God, but all three Members of the Trinity.  The Father sends his Son, the Son goes and the Spirit empowers people to tell others about Jesus and then he gives them new life in response to the gospel.  If we claim to have the Holy Spirit, but are not either helping to send others and are not open to going ourselves, then we need to find out why because something is wrong with someone who claims to have a missionary Spirit inside them, but is not interested in reaching people in other cultures with the gospel.

Second, if we have the Holy Spirit—how are we different from people who don’t?  When the apostles received the Spirit, they were different.  They weren’t perfect, but the Spirit of God brought about a serious change in how they lived.  That makes sense.  If the third Person of the godhead takes up residence in you, it’s safe to assume he will make his make his presence manifest in your life.  Do you live like you’ve been given a new heart?  Do you live like the Law of God is written on your heart?  If you don’t, maybe you don’t have the Spirit.  Or, maybe you quench the Spirit by not listening to him as he prompts and woos and convicts you to make Jesus Christ-not your job, not your family, not your reputation, not your toys--Jesus the main thing in your life.  Jesus said of the Spirit, “He will glorify me.”  If Jesus Christ is not the main thing in your life, then the influence of the Spirit is at best, quenched in your life.

Maybe there’s little if any difference in your life because you are not paying attention to the Spirit as he works to make much of the cross in your life.  Packer is right.  “The Spirit leads us to Christ’s cross.” As you see your sin, do you experience godly sorrow and go to the cross with it, finding your heart filled with love for Christ for all he has done for you in the gospel?  Or, do you just try to live in oblivion to your sin?  Or worse, do you process it by beating yourself up?  As we allow the Spirit of God to show us the enormity of our sin, we see the enormity of our Savior and his cross and increasingly realize the power of his blood that can make the foulest clean.  In response to that, we love him more and more.  If you’re here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, do that today and receive the life-changing Spirit of God.  If you are a believer, then allow yourself to feel the Spirit-induced godly sorrow for not putting Jesus first in your life—go to the cross and receive genuine forgiveness and as the Spirit of God makes that miracle of grace sweet to you, then live in the joy of the Lord as you moment by moment discover what it is to live as a beloved child of God.  May God give us all the grace to do that today.


[1]Ryken, Leland ; Wilhoit, Jim ; Longman, Tremper ; Duriez, Colin ; Penney, Douglas ; Reid, Daniel G.: Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1998, S. 287

[2]Ryken, Leland ; Wilhoit, Jim ; Longman, Tremper ; Duriez, Colin ; Penney, Douglas ; Reid, Daniel G.: Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1998, S. 287

[3] Fee, “God’s Empowering Presence”, p.813-816.

[4] Packer, J.I., “A Quest for Godliness,” p.201.

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