There are certain great memorable events in the history of God’s interaction with his creation that stand out as turning points in our history. The first of these is when God revealed himself to Abraham. As humans looked out at the world, they saw a lot they did not understand. There were powerful storms, tornadoes, earthquakes. There were solar and lunar eclipses. They observed the rising and setting of the sun. They observed comets in the sky. They saw the tide come in and then go out. There were illnesses that swept through communities of people. There were floods and famines. There were wars. There were rich harvests and infestations of locusts.
Humans knew that there was something greater than themselves and developed ways to worship the gods they imagined were out there. There were gods of the seas, gods of the mountains, and gods of the valleys. There were gods of fertility, gods of the harvest and gods of the underworld. They worshiped and sacrificed to these gods in a desire to be protected from all the dangers the world presented and to receive the blessing of the gods.
Into this world of many gods, the one true God made himself known to one of his human creation, Abraham. And then he began to work with Abraham to help him move from dependence on many gods to the worship of himself, the one true God. Over and over again when God provided for Abraham, gave him victory in battle, provided a ram for his sacrifice, he renewed his covenant with Abraham to let him know he was God of the valleys, God of the hills, God of fertility, God of all.
The next great memorable event in the history of God’s interaction with humans is when he met with Moses on Mt. Sinai and gave him the Law. God had worked with Abraham to wean him from reliance on other gods, but after four hundred years of his descendants living in Egypt with their plurality of gods, Israel had renewed its worship of idols and he needed to take the next step.
He gave specific laws that told Israel how to receive his blessing and avoid his curse. In great detail he laid out the way for Israel to move toward blessing. And then, as a precursor to what was to come, right at the outset, while Moses was meeting with God on Mt. Sinai, Israel messed up by creating a gold calf to worship because they feared Moses had died on the mountain and they were without a leader.
For the next few hundred years Israel moved forward and slid back. God led them through Moses and Joshua and then sent prophets to speak to the people he loved. Finally, after hundreds of years of stubborn resistance, God allowed Israel and Judah to be conquered and the people taken away into captivity. But even in the captivity, God continued to speak to the people he loved through his prophets.
His prophets spoke of a Messiah who was coming and then for four hundred years there were no more prophets.
And then came the Messiah, not as he was expected to come. He was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The angels announced his birth with great excitement and fanfare. We celebrate his birth each year at Christmas.
Thirty some years later Jesus was arrested, crucified, and buried. He died on the cross for our benefit, to save us from our sin. We celebrate these events each year during Holy Week: the Passover Seder and Good Friday.
On the day of resurrection Jesus burst out of the grave, giving new hope and joy to his followers. We celebrate this each year on Easter.
The next great memorable event in the history of God’s interaction with humans is the day we celebrate today, Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is not a Christian holiday like Christmas and Easter, but it should be. There are even some years we forget that it is Pentecost Sunday and move past without noticing.
But we worship a Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father send the Son to become man, to live among us, to teach us about the kingdom of God, to die for us, and give us hope of resurrection from the dead by breaking the power of death over us when he resurrected on Easter morning. We are not Binitarians; we are Trinitarians. We worship one God in three persons. The Holy Spirit is God present with us. The Father sent the Son and the Son sent the Spirit. This changed everything for us as followers of Jesus.
There is one last great memorable event in the history of God’s interaction with humans that is in our future and that is the Second Coming of Christ. That last great memorable event will be celebrated in heaven. This morning we will focus on the next-to-last great memorable day in the history of God’s interaction with humans, Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit features in the very first verse of the Bible. (Genesis 1:1–2)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The Holy Spirit is present in the Old Testament, but only in specific people at specific times. When the people of Israel were being led by Moses through the wilderness, the prophet Balaam prophesied about them. (Numbers 24:2)
When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him
After Samuel anointed Saul as king of Israel, Saul returned to his home and on the way, (1 Samuel 10:10)
When he and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he joined in their prophesying.
The Spirit came on people and then left.
Saul was succeeded by David and David by Solomon. After the death of Solomon in 931 BC, there were 344 years of rule by kings of the divided kingdom: ten tribes in Israel in the north and two tribes, Benjamin and Judah, in the south. Over those 344 years there were good kings and bad kings. There were prophets who tried to bring Israel and Judah back to the worship of God, but it was a losing struggle. The kings married foreign women and brought their gods into the temple. The gods of Canaan were never completely destroyed and kept reemerging.
There was no Holy Spirit to speak to them so all they had was the Hebrew Bible. But even this gathered dust and was lost. Josiah became king of Judah at the age of eight when his father was assassinated. In the eighteenth year of his rule when he ordered the temple to be restored, the Book of the Law was discovered. (This was the first five books of the Bible: Genesis to Deuteronomy.) When it was read to him he repented and called all of Judah to listen to the Book of the Law to be read. They repented and the Passover was once again celebrated.
What is remarkable is that Josiah knew nothing of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. When it was read to him, it was the first time he had ever heard it.
Without the Holy Spirit to lead and guide, worship of God rose and fell. Idols competed with God for adoration. The Bible was read for a time and then set aside where it gathered dust and eventually was forgotten.
God began with Abraham, weaning him from his worship of many gods. God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and instituted regulations for worship in the tabernacle. God agreed to allow Israel to have a king like all the other countries around them. God’s prophet, Samuel, warned the people of the consequences of what they were asking for, but allowed them to choose a king. God sent prophet after prophet to help the kings rule justly and to lead the people into worship of himself.
And then the prophets began to talk of a time coming when there would be a Messiah who would lead them, who would be their king.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
We celebrate the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. We know his name, Jesus! Jesus announced the start of his public ministry by standing up in the synagogue and reading from Isaiah 61:1–2
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
The Messiah had come.
The prophets also began to speak of a time coming when the law of God would be written on the hearts of men and women. God wrote the Law on stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. Moses wrote down the Law God gave to him. But this law was written down on a document that had to be read by a priest. It was accessible only through the priests who read it. The Law was in the hands of a few but Jeremiah saw into the future a time when every person would have the Law written on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:31–33)
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
This is not a prophecy about the Messiah who was to come. Jesus was born, he died, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven and this prophecy still had not been fulfilled. This is a prophecy about something else. This is a prophecy that would come in what the prophet Joel foresaw. (Joel 2:28–29)
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
The Spirit that came upon Samson and Saul and endowed Bezalel with artistic talent was to be at work among all of God’s people.
It is helpful to think of these events: God with Abraham, God giving the Law to Moses, God becoming flesh, Jesus dying on the cross for us and then rising from the dead, and Pentecost as a strategic movement of God to accomplish his purposes. These events are connected. These events are not to be examined by themselves. When you look at them as connected events, they reveal a steady progression in God’s plan of salvation. The are connected and have at their root the one driving purpose of God which led to the creation of the universe and the creation of us. As Randy Alcorn writes: “We are created for a person and a place. Jesus is the person and heaven is the place.” This is what lies at the root of each of these great events in God’s interaction with humans.
As we move from an examination of one major event after another, we see how God has been at work bringing us into his family, into his eternal kingdom.
There is one final great memorable event in God’s interaction with his creation and that is the promised return of Jesus. We wait for that but will celebrate it in heaven, not on earth.
With this as background, let’s take a look at the account of Pentecost in Acts 2.
The Feast of Harvest was the second of three annual festivals in Jerusalem when Jews from Palestine and Gentile lands came to celebrate. It coincided with the harvest of wheat and was also called Pentecost which in Greek means “fiftieth.” This was because the Feast of Harvest began seven weeks plus one day (7×7=49+1=50) after the second day of Passover.
So the disciples and family of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus had promised and it was during this festival when Jews from Israel and Gentile countries were gathered, that the promised gift came.
Jews today celebrate the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai during the Feast of Harvest and it is interesting to see the similarities of the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In both cases unusual wind, fire and voices were present. In Hebrews 12:18-19 the writer is comparing Mt. Sinai where Moses received the law from God with the promised Mt. Zion which we will experience in heaven, and in talking about the experience of Israel at Mt. Sinai he wrote:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them,
In Acts 2, Luke wrote about Pentecost where wind, fire and voices are again featured:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
In each case there were three supernatural events: sound, fire and speech. The symbolism is striking. At Mt. Sinai, God wanted to make sure Israel understood he was not a God who could be played with. He wanted Israel to have a holy awe and respect for him. So when the Israelites looked up at the mountain they were not permitted to touch, they saw darkness, gloom and a storm, complete with lighting and thunder. At Pentecost, the disciples and those around them heard a sound like the blowing of a violent wind. This sound was loud enough that those in the area came to the house where the disciples were sitting to see what was happening.
As in the case of Moses, who saw a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire, those who came to the house heard a wind that was not blowing and destroying the house.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was announced with a loud noise to indicate the power of the Holy Spirit. As the writer of Hebrews pointed out, the difference between the noise Israel heard and the noise the people in Jerusalem heard was that at Mt. Sinai, God sent the message to stay away under threat of death. In Jerusalem, in anticipation of Mt. Zion, the message sent was to come and approach God through his Holy Spirit. But in both cases the message was sent that God is powerful.
The second supernatural sign was fire. When Moses saw the burning bush and turned off the path to see what it was, God told him to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground. When Isaiah received his call from God to be a prophet to Israel, (Isaiah 6:6-7)
one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
The fire of the bush and the fire of the red-hot coal spoke of the purity of God. When the disciples looked around at each other, they saw on the head of each person fire that like the burning bush was not consuming them. As with Isaiah, the fire served a purifying function.
When John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness he announced the coming of Jesus. (Luke 3:16)
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
In fulfillment of John’s proclamation, the coming of the Holy Spirit was announced with fire, sending the message that through the Holy Spirit, we would be made holy in what Paul taught as the second stage of salvation, the doctrine of sanctification. We are viewed by God as holy by the death of Jesus for our sins, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit that helps us become, in actuality, more holy.
The third supernatural sign at Pentecost was speaking in other tongues. This is not the tongues we are familiar with in prayer meetings and worship services. This was a much more rare event, speaking in the languages of the world. Peter Wagner tells stories of people who were able to speak in a language they did not know. On a visit to England he heard this story.
A monolingual British pastor was ministering to a multilingual Arab who happened to be serving as the principal translator in England for the OPEC oil cartel. The pastor sensed that God wanted him to pray about a certain physical ailment the man was suffering, and as he did so, he prayed some in tongues, as was his custom. The Arab was amazed, just as were the unbelievers on Pentecost. The pastor had first prayed in fluent Iranian, then later in fluent Ugaritic, an obsolete language! The meaning of the prayers in the two different languages was identical. In this case, the Arab acknowledged it as a miracle of God, was born again, and is now a strong witness among fellow Muslims.
I have my own story. Phil List was living in Rabat when I first arrived and took me under his wing to help me adjust to life in Morocco. His father was a charismatic personality, a missionary in Zimbabwe. One day, when Phil was a teenager, his father went out to preach to a tribe who spoke a dialect he was not fluent in. So he spoke through a translator. As he was preaching, he knew enough of the dialect to know the translator was not doing a good job translating. So, Phil told me, his father bowed his head and prayed, and then began preaching fluently in this dialect.
As I spent years trying to learn to speak French I wished that I had what I have called the Pentecostal shortcut to language acquisition.
This is what happened at Pentecost in Jerusalem. Most of the disciples were Galileans who were viewed as being unsophisticated and uncultured and easily identified by their speech. When they spoke they had difficulty pronouncing guttural sounds that are spoken in the throat and they often swallowed syllables.
So imagine the surprise of the crowd when they heard these Galileans speaking words of praise to God in other languages. It was not just that these Galileans began speaking without an accent, but that they began speaking the language and accent of each person who was there. If you had been there, they would have spoken the Indian dialect you grew up with or the native language in your area of Nigeria or South Korea or the Philippines. They would have spoken with the dialect of French or Spanish you learned as a child. You would not have heard just English, but your Australian or British or American or South African accented English would come to your ears.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was announced with this third supernatural sign that indicated this would be a universal church. Although the disciples did not grasp the significance of this until later, Luke makes it quite clear that this would be a universal church. In his listing of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the feast, representatives of the whole known world were there.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia,
This first group came from the area of the Caspian Sea and westward. Countries today in that region are: Jordan and Iraq.
Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia,
This second group included the whole of Palestine and Syria and up into Asia Minor, what is today Turkey.
Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene;
This third group are the countries of North Africa.
visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism);
Luke now moves across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome.
Cretans and Arabs
Finally Luke competes his tour of the known world by including those from the island of Crete and the Arabs of the Arabian peninsula.
In all the languages of those present, the disciples, both men and women, were praising God.
This was the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis. In that case, people had united to build a stairway to heaven and God frustrated their efforts by confusing their speech. God frustrated man’s efforts to build a bridge to himself but now that God himself had built a stairway to heaven by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that all ethnic groups would be gathered together in Christ as written in Revelation 7:9
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was announced with the wind of power, the fire of purity and the speech of a universal church that would be gathered to worship Jesus.
At the end of this message, let me make three comments.
First, what would it be like if the Holy Spirit had not come at Pentecost? What if Jesus was born, died, resurrected, and ascended, but the Holy Spirit was not poured out on Pentecost? There would be no church. The disciples would have gone out with what they knew and understood but without the power of signs and wonders that announced the coming of the kingdom of God. They would have attracted some followers but these would have faded away with time and today there would only be an obscure, ancient, Jewish sect that claimed Jesus was the Messiah.
There would be no spiritual gifts to fuel the church. We would not have the spiritual understanding of the scriptures that comes from the Holy Spirit. Our faith would be a dead, distant faith.
It would be like having a beautifully wrapped box that could be admired but with no way to open the box and experience the love and power inside.
The church would be like the people of Israel and Judah during the reign of kings. There would be a Bible, but that could be placed on a shelf and forgotten. The church could limp forward with tradition until that was lost and the Bible had to be rediscovered. Truth would be distant, not personal. We would drift toward the time of the judges when “everyone did as they saw fit.”
Jesus knew how much we needed the Holy Spirit. This is why he told his disciples, (John 16:6–7)
you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for our sin. He rose from the dead, giving us hope that we too will rise from the dead and enter the kingdom of God, our eternal home. And then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to help us as we follow Jesus. The death of Jesus is sufficient to pay the price of our sin and bring us into his kingdom, but Jesus knew we needed help if we were to grow in faith.
It is for our good that Jesus ascended and sent the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he was not in Jerusalem. Jesus was limited to being in one place at one point in time. As the gospel was taken to the nations of the world, because of the Holy Spirit, God was present with each person in each place at the same time.
Without God’s presence with us, without the law being written on our hearts, we would not be able to live the life Jesus calls us to. Our life and the life of the church comes through the Holy Spirit. That is why the observance of Pentecost Sunday is worthy of celebrating.
Second, remember that the Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit is not a lesser being, not a mere messenger. He is God. In the mystery of the Trinity, he, along with the Father and the Son is the preexisting creator God. Submit to him. Seek him with all your heart, soul, and mind. Put your trust in the Holy Spirit. Open yourself to any spiritual gift the Holy Spirit wants to bless you with.
Jesus said, (Matthew 7:9–11
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
There are deep divisions in the church concerning the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Move past those divisions. Don’t let the theological arguments divert you from your personal relationship with God. Don’t let those theological arguments close you to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Third, If you ever doubt the love of God for you, think of all God has endured over the ages to make it possible for you to come into his heavenly kingdom, into his family, to become his beloved daughter, his beloved son.
God has endured insults, indifference, and rejection. He has blessed and protected his chosen people only to see them prostitute themselves to idols. He led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. He promised them prosperity and then watched as they sacrificed children to the Canaanite god, Baal.
In the history of the church, sometimes God is honored and lifted up. In other times it is the church leaders who take the throne. The people God loves have suffered at the hands of the rich and powerful inside and outside the church. Church leaders have used and abused the gospel, the good news of Jesus, to make themselves rich and powerful, to build their own kingdoms.
I think about all of this and am overwhelmed by how difficult a task God has had over the centuries and I am amazed that God is patient, enduring the suffering of his people so that more can be brought into his kingdom.
God set his plan of salvation in motion with Abraham and has steadily moved forward ever since, loving his creation, grieving for his creation, longing for his creation to submit and follow him.
It is highly distressing to me that the gift of the Holy Spirit which was meant to unify us has been such a destructively divisive gift.
Any of us would have given up long ago, but we do not have the powerful love of God that keeps him extending mercy and grace to us over and over and over again.
Celebrate the good news! God is present with us! We do not have to go to a temple or a church to worship God; he is present with us. We, the body of Christ, are the temple of God.
Give thanks! Give honor! Give glory! Thank you Father for sending us your Son. Thank you Jesus for sending us the Holy Spirit. Thank you Spirit for working in us, blessing us, drawing us into truth, giving us life, transforming us to be in the image of Christ.