The Day of Pentecost

The last century has provided the greatest shift and growth that Christianity has ever experienced. For the first time in history, Christianity is more prevalent in the developing world. Social and missiology scholars attribute this growth to what has been labeled the “Age of the Spirit”. The age of the Spirit was marked by revival and charismatic events that became known as the Pentecostal Movement. Central to the Pentecostal Movement was a rediscovering of Acts 2, calling the Church to be revitalized by the wind of Spirit and the endowment of its power. The leading charismatic leader T.L. Osborn once said that Pentecostal was a redundant nomenclature, for the whole Church, not only charismatic movements, has its roots in Acts 2. I applaud and uphold that position. Every Christian is a “Pentecostal” Christian, and so this post is to call every Christian to reflect on what makes them “Pentecostal”.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is perhaps one of the most vibrant and dynamic narratives in the entire Biblical canon. The author of Acts was Luke, a physician and self-admitted historian who also wrote the Gospel that bears his name. Acts serves as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel. It is full of great and wonderful stories about the Jesus Movement that first began with the calling of twelve misfit disciples three years prior. It depicts what happened after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and how those misfit disciples continued the mission Christ had started. We find the accounts of explosive Church growth, miracles, signs and wonders performed by the disciples. In Acts, we see that those misfit disciples became powerful leaders and preachers, declaring the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the world.

Pentecost in Acts 2 marks the exact transition between being a misfit and becoming a leader. Luke picks up where the Gospel bearing his name left off. Luke provides a continuity from Jesus’ death and resurrection, to his ascension and final instructions to his followers. Luke is keen to show that Christ’s resurrection was not God’s final act. A great mission was about to begin through the Church and so Luke registers in Acts 1 that Jesus spent his final days on Earth speaking about this kingdom. While some of the disciples were expecting a triumphant procession into Jerusalem, Jesus calls his disciples to wait in the city until they receive power through the Holy Spirit in order that they may be witnesses of Jesus, the King.

Pentecost was the founding of the Church and its mission. The Day of Pentecost was joyful occasion. For the first-century Jews it represented the beginning of the harvest festival. The Feast of Pentecost was a time of joy and thanksgiving where that agricultural society offered the first fruits of their harvest to God. The libations and bountifulness of the harvest energized a hope and expectation for the season to come. This cultural background behind Pentecost is almost assumed by Luke. The Jews knew what it meant and so it was no coincidence that God choose to pour out the Holy Spirit abundantly on this occasion. There are some remarkable resemblances in Luke’s account with the Feast of Pentecost. The disciples became overwhelmed with boldness, faith and joy when the Spirit came. To some, this resembled the effects of the new wine that flowed bountifully during the harvest festival. The Spirit came and produced a new power and hope, which marked the start of a new harvest season just like Pentecost.

And so the Spirit came in the form of wind and fire. This was indeed a new power and hope. Acts 2 accounts for the first time we see the apostles preaching the Gospel in public after Jesus’ ascension. Following the days of Christ’s death and resurrection, we find the apostles in hiding in fear of the threat of the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers. Although Christ appears to them publicly, we do not find the disciples doing any public ministry until they received power on Pentecost. At Pentecost, the disciples are endowed with a new power and boldness.

They also preached and performed their public ministry in a new way. The Word of God was generally read in Hebrew and taught in Aramaic. But on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit causes the apostles to declare God’s praises in a multiplicity of languages. God was extending his message to the nations, and most of the known world of the time heard the message in their own languages. The Spirit was calling, through the mouths of the disciples, for the nations to gather into a new community under the Lordship of Christ. This meant that the message of the Gospel was for everyone.

The Day of Pentecost marked something new, but was also a continuation of God’s greater salvific story. To first-century Jews, Pentecost also marked the fiftieth day after the original Passover and the exodus from Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Jewish tradition held Israel reached Mount Sinai after traveling through the wilderness for fifty days. On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Law, which was to act as the norm for how Israel was to live in their newfound freedom from Egypt. This again was no coincidence for Luke. His account of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost called Israel to understand that God was now delivering the world through Jesus instead of Moses, and giving a new norm for freedom through the living Spirit instead of the written Law. God’s Law was now being written on the very hearts of people, altering their very ontology.

Through the impetuous wind and tongues of fire, Pentecost formed a new community out of exile just like in Exodus. Jesus, the one Greater than Moses, was now delivering all peoples from the captivity of sin and death, and giving his Spirit as a sign of that covenant. In turn, the Spirit was the power for freedom, calling the nations to worship God in unison with Israel under single community of shared life and mission. Acts 2 then marked the inauguration of the Church as a new act in the continuation of God’s missional story.

Whereas exile served to disperse the people, Pentecost became a movement of gathering. Through it, the Spirit was gathering “every nation under heaven”, who heard the greatness of God, perhaps even the ineffable Name of God, being declared in their native languages. In the context of multiculturality, the Spirit creates a new metaculture under the banner of God’s Kingdom. Israel and the nations become one, and the people of God are now those who are freed from the slavery of sin through Christ and have received the Holy Spirit. It is a redefinition of the people of God through a multicultural expression. Christ unites Jews and Gentiles through the equal deliverance of sin and dispersing of the Spirit. Therefore, Pentecost reveals God’s intent for universal salvation and a global Church by uniting every ethnicity under Christ.

Although the Spirit unites different cultures as one through Christ, Pentecost reveals that God also cherishes cultural particularity. Many languages were being spoken at Pentecost, but Peter rises with the other apostles and preaches to the people in their vernacular. Though the public reaction was divided between awe and mockery asking themselves “what does this mean?” the Spirit uses Peter and the disciples to explain what God is doing in their midst. Unlike the Law that was given through one man, the Spirit was given to all who were present.

Peter then uses the common tongue to speak from their common knowledge based on their common history. Pentecost was embedded in the prophetic imagination that was common to all Jews. It had a basis of continuation, for the prophet Joel had foretold it. This was not a “new thing” that was to be segregated from their covenantal identity. Rather, it was the fulfilment of promises foretold in their common history. Pentecost was the continuity of what God always intended to do. It marked the coming of the last days, the climax of God’s story with God’s people. God was now using all of Israel, their sons and daughters, men and women, slave and free, to bring salvation to the world through Christ.

Finally, Peter presents Pentecost as a Christological event. The outpour of the Holy Spirit was a confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and his exaltation as Lord and Messiah. Peter brings in a new element to their proclamation. Christ is the legitimate King based on Davidic promises and lineage. The disciples were witnesses of Jesus the Messiah, and their testimony was validated through the supernatural manifestation of the Spirit. And so, Peter declares that Israel has been guilty of betrayal against the true Messiah.

He does not declare Israel’s betrayal as someone who stood above the people in judgment, but as someone who had also betrayed Jesus himself and experienced forgiveness, redemption and inclusion into God’s community. Therefore, he issues a call of for repentance for he knows God will forgive. Not only will God forgive all who repent, but will also redeem and include into God’s new community by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This convocation is not exclusive for Israel and its descendants, but for everyone whom the Lord would call.

Pentecost is the event that defines that defines the very identity of the Church. Christianity was born at the juncture of three continents surrounded by two empires. By the end of the first century, it had reached as far east as India through important trade and merchant routes of the ancient world. Along with their faith, early Christians took with themselves their culture, language and customs. Because of Pentecost, Christianity was a polycentric, polyphonic and multiethnic movement. It became not the product of a single ethnicity, but a multicultural expression of worship first demonstrated in Acts 2.

As noted, the early Christians were united under a single Christological faith that proclaimed Jesus as Christ and savior of the world. Those who adhered to the message formed a community of exile that was countercultural and against the norm. Their countercultural practices often incited persecution from Jewish leaders and later the Roman Empire. As Pentecost redefined the Church, the Church was now redefining society.

Luke closes Acts 2 by recording some of the countercultural practices within that new community. Although the Church was led by a group of lower class, uneducated Galileans, the apostles taught with power and authority. Although the Church was poor and oppressed, selfless generosity was prevalent among them. Although they were mocked, the community remained hospitable to all by meeting at the temple courts were both Jews and Gentiles could gather. All this made possible because of the power of the Holy Spirit that enabled all to live out their newfound freedom.

 

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