‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 34. The Uncertainty of Pentecost
Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
More Whaaat? The Day of Pentecost and the record of Acts 2 is both amazing and glorious AND a source of uncertainty, questions and doubts in many. Was this a one-off marker-in-the-sand event or did it have greater ongoing significance? Was it just for those caught up in it, or does it have meaning for us today as well?
Personal Testimony: I need to make a confession before I go any further. I come from an Evangelical, Pentecostal, Brethren, Baptist, Free Church, Charismatic, Restorationist background. I have had the privilege of having friends from each of these areas and experiences within them in the Christian Church. I was filled with the Spirit, rejected the experience, came back to the experience, spoke in tongues and have a reasonable gift of prophecy. My biggest concern in these studies is that we study what the Scriptures actually say and if our experiences don’t match the word, we pray that God will bring us in line with His word. I believe in all the Eph 4:12 ministries and all the 1 Cor 12 gifts.
Yet today I am retired and part of a church that would like to think of itself as charismatic but isn’t. I know of Elim Pentecostal churches that would like to think of themselves as Pentecostal but aren’t. As I look around the Church I don’t think many of us are doing what Scripture reveals. When it comes to the Spirit, I believe we often talk the talk but rarely do the real stuff – and I include myself in that. It is probable that in these studies about the Holy Spirit I am going to ask some awkward questions, but I ask them equally of myself. There are rumblings in the Christian undergrowth that God may be coming in worldwide revival – and don’t we need it – but mostly although my heart feels it, my eyes see little signs of it yet. (April 2020) I am uncertain where we are going, both in these studies and in the Church. I do not stand on a high place and preach down, but I do believe we each need to be honest as we face what the Scriptures actually say. Can we try and do that? Let’s consider what happened to the disciples first.
First the Disciples: They have received Jesus’ marching orders – or to be precise his ‘sitting and waiting’ orders (Acts 1:4) – they have been waiting and wondering in Jerusalem, praying much of the time. What else can you do when the Master has left you and you feel helpless? Peter tries to bring a semblance of order and normality to reinstating the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26), according to scripture you understand (Acts 1:20). Yes, they have and know their scriptures, and they have their marching orders. That ought to be enough surely? We’ve got the completed canon, we’ve got the Great Commission, what more do we need? They organised and appointed a twelfth apostle, so we’ve got the leadership sorted out. We’re ready to go. What more do we need? But the Master spoke of waiting for power (Acts 1:8), saying we will be baptised (immersed) in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). How long do we have to wait for that? He just said, “in a few days” (v.5). How long is that? What does it actually mean?
The Pentecost Experience: What then followed on the Day of Pentecost….. hold on, Pentecost? There were three annual feasts all Jewish men were required to attend: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Tabernacles. (Deut 16:16). Unleavened Bread followed Passover, as we’ve seen, and the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as the Feast of Harvest or Pentecost, came fifty days after Passover (Gk. pentekostos means fiftieth) and celebrated the completion of the grain harvest. In God’s economy this was a day of harvest, at the end of which at least 3000 souls had been brought into the kingdom. What a harvest!
But what happened? First of all the experience: This is a preacher’s delight – there was a sound, a sight and strange speech. There was “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) The sound is of a violent wind and wind signifies power. Then, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (v.3) Now fire normally burns up but when, like the famous burning bush of Ex 3, it doesn’t destroy, it is a sign of the holy presence of God. Finally, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (v.4) They were empowered to do something they were not naturally able to do. These ‘tongues’ were languages that visiting foreigners could identify as being their own native languages (v.8) and so they were empowered to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries – the curse of Babel (Gen 11:7) appears to be removed supernaturally.
Second, the effect: First of all note the disciples. It is often thought the disciples were in the upper room, hence “the whole house” of v.2 but the fact that Jews in the neighborhood heard it all suggests the disciples we impelled out of the house by the Spirit into the open, out of their place of security, out of their place of quiet prayer, into the public forum. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power he bursts into and through His people into the public domain, the same domain where Jesus ministered.
But then notice, second, the watchers and listeners. They come to see what is going on, they are attracted by the noise and want to see what it is all about. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power, the world will beat a path to our door to see what is happening. But then don’t expect them to come clear-headed: “a crowd came together in bewilderment.” (v.6a) Why? “because each one heard their own language being spoken.” (v.6b) When they see the power and presence of God it will leave them bewildered. How can these things happen? Moreover, “Utterly amazed, they asked…” (v.7) This bewilderment will turn into amazement as they take it in and that in turn will provoke questions, and then more questions: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (v.12) Amazed speaks of surprise, perplexed speaks of being puzzled, even baffled, by events that are beyond them. So don’t be surprise when some will jump to wrong conclusions: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (v.13)
So then note again, third, the disciples again. Questions need answers. “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.” (v.14) The fact of Peter standing up may negate the earlier comments of being expelled from the house, but not necessarily. The fact that this experience went on and on for at least a short while, may mean it was somewhat overwhelming requiring them to sit down again. His standing “up with the crowd” may simply be a description of him moving into the midst of the growing crowd. However, whatever is the truth of the situation, the fact that the crowd are acting this way, and jumping to wrong conclusions, provokes Peter to get up and speak out loudly and boldly presenting an answer to the questions and confusions of his fellow Jews. We are given the main gist of his ‘first Christian sermon’ but he obviously goes on – “with many other words” (v.40) – warning and pleading with them to repent (see v.38) and some three thousand responded to his word (v.41). Although the words are not there, it is obvious he is speaking under great anointing, with the Holy Spirit so empowering his words that this large number responded.
To Recap: Now before I recap, I realize this will raise many questions and perhaps it is right to suggest that this is a unique day but a day that demonstrates perhaps true revival, the coming of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and the effects of this, which we will need to consider before we finish. But what have we seen?
- The Spirit: came with the sound of power, came with the sight of the holy presence of God, came releasing supernatural speech
- The disciples: were empowered to do something not possible before, were expelled from the place of safety to the public arena, were anointed to preach with power that brought a great harvest.
- The ‘world’: heard what was going on and were perplexed, confused, amazed, asked questions and jumped to wrong conclusions, listened to anointed answers, and responded in large numbers.
Questions that Arise: The presence and the work of the Holy Spirit has always been controversial, both outside the church as on this day, and inside it, sadly, as people have struggled to cope with a sovereign work of God that bypasses intellect and opens up the supernatural power of God in and through the body of Christ, the church. I suspect many of us would respond positively to what we have read here but will question, if this happened then, why doesn’t it always happen and is there anything we can do to make ourselves available to God for Him to do it regularly? Some would describe this unique day as the first Christian revival taking place and perhaps that is true, which means it is a sovereign work of God that cannot be repeated, and we certainly can’t make it happen, only God can. However it is not the only picture of the coming of the Spirit in Acts, so perhaps we should lay all our uncertainties on the table and simply see what Scripture says as we move on in the next study.
In the meantime, as we look at the world around us and the relative ineffectiveness, in the West at least, over the past fifty years say, of the Church, can we see the effect of that? Can we see that the world has moved steadily away from God with the result that self-centred godlessness prevails and brings behaviors throughout society that are unrighteous and self-destructive? What is the answer to all this uncertainty? It is that we pray for God to come in power again, in and through us (which means making ourselves available to Him) to change the Church and challenge the world. Can we do that – daily?