What is Pentecost? (Part 1)
This Sunday, May 28th, is when we recognize a special day known as Pentecost. This celebration lands seven Sundays after Easter, and Acts 2 provides the story of how this Jewish festival moved into the Christian tradition. Over the next couple weeks, we will walk through the account of Acts 2 and see what happened and what it means for us today. But before we get there, what is Pentecost?
The word “Pentecost” comes from a Greek word meaning “fifty days.” This was counted out from Passover as a set of seven weeks containing seven days, with the 50th day being the day of the celebration. We see the Old Testament tradition of the Feast of Harvest (or sometimes the Feast of Weeks) explained in detail in Leviticus 23, along with other celebratory days.
Leviticus 23:15-21- You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord. And you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one bull from the herd and two rams. They shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And you shall offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of peace offerings. And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. And you shall make a proclamation on the same day. You shall hold a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a statute forever in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.
In the New Testament, we know that Jesus and His disciples celebrated Passover the evening before Jesus was crucified. And in Acts 2 we read what happened that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection:
Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
We see in verse one that the believers are gathering. This tracks with the observance of the Feast of Weeks. But this celebration would be quite different than anything these Jewish believers had experienced before. Imagine the scene as described! Growing up in the Midwest, the sound of a mighty rushing wind means there’s a tornado and it’s time to hunker down. I doubt this would be the thought of the early church, though, as the most recent tornado in Israel was in 2006. But if that’s not surprising enough, there was also a light show! The entrance of the Holy Spirit is a wild and powerful display of God’s power. Did they know this was the Holy Spirit in the moment? Possibly. We know that Luke is writing this letter with the intent of seeing the Spirit entering the scene:
Acts 1:1-8- In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Following the timeline, Pentecost comes within a few days after Jesus ascends. So likely the anticipation of the coming Spirit would be on their hearts and minds. And we also know Jesus had mentioned the Spirit to come before his crucifixion:
John 16:7-15- Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
We see a clear description of the Spirit’s effective work in the life of the believer in this description. The Spirit convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment. This is why we share the gospel, because the calling out of sin shows our desperate need for salvation. Accepting Christ as Savior brings us to righteousness, because no one will avoid the judgment of the Father.
We also see the Spirit guides us into truth. He is the direct line of communication from the authority of Jesus and the Father. We don’t have to guess or figure out on our own what it is God wants for us, because His Spirit dwells in us and helps us to interpret His Word and produce fruit that glorifies Him. Continuing on, we see the inception of an incredible work of the Spirit:
Acts 2:5-13 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 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 all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Two important things to note here: First, the speaking of tongues here is used for the telling of the mighty works of God. This miracle is outward minded and tied directly to Jesus’ call to action of sharing the gospel to all nations. Second, some of the hearers rejected the message. Although we will see Peter address this in the next verses, it should not surprise us that the Gospel message has a negative reaction from the world. It is easy to look at the natural world and try to find a simple explanation. But the work of the Spirit is a spiritual work, not a natural work. And so Peter delivers a message in order to clarify exactly what is going on.
Acts 2:14-21- But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.
Notice that he is addressing everyone, not just Jewish people. He continues:
For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Peter is using Old Testament prophecy to point out what is happening is not a random act but instead is exactly what God had planned! And if this is true, then the events that had happened in the past couple of months are also vitally important to understand. So, only 50 days since Jesus died, Peter explains clearly the action of the Gospel story.
In the next installment, we will look at the rest of his sermon and see what response came out of this allocation of the Spirit into the lives of believers.