Christopher Trodden* (THQ Mission Resource Production Manager, Australia Southern Territory) explores Pentecost and the birth of the Church**
Birthday surprise - I stood there as organised chaos erupted all around me. There was a complication. More than 10 people flooded into the room—midwives, nurses and doctors—all with the intense focus and energy you can feel when a unexpected event grips your heart. The head midwife turned and yelled, ‘I’ve got her, everyone out!’ And no sooner had they all come rushing in, they all went rushing out again. Apparently, your second labour can happen much quicker than your first! On each of her birthdays, my second daughter likes me to retell the story of how she came into the world, and how her mother and I were not quite expecting an entry like that. Forever burned into my memory banks, I will never forget the events of that day. Certain days tend to stand out in our memories more than others. Some of them bring happy memories, some of them sad. Some of them make us laugh, others make us cry. Etched into the fabric of God’s redemptive calendar there is a certain day that has been forever marked as eternally significant. Without this day there would be no power available to us for the Gospel mission (Acts 1:8), no second covenant (as mentioned in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel), no ongoing proof of the resurrection (Acts 2:33), and no fulfilment of what Jesus promised (Luke 24:49, John 16:7). This day is so important because it highlights how salvation and the receiving of God’s Spirit is for everyone: every age, every gender, every background and every race. This is the day of Pentecost.
Pentecost - Pentecost is the name for the second harvest festival in the Old Testament that began 50 days after Passover (Pente means fifty). Specifically, it was a wheat harvest. When the harvest began, Jewish farmers would offer the first bundle of harvested wheat to the Lord as thanksgiving for his provision and as a prayer, faithfully trusting that the the rest of the harvest be gathered in safely (Leviticus 23:15–22). The Pentecost harvest also had a form of social justice built into it. The Lord required the edges of the wheat fields to be left unharvested for the poor, widows and foreigners in the land. They in turn could harvest as much as they were able and feed themselves and their families. All people were to partake in the harvest blessing. As one of three mandated pilgrimages, God required all Jewish men to journey to the temple in Jerusalem each year and present their offering to the Lord on that day. It was sanctioned as a holy day and therefore no work was allowed. Because of the way the Jewish calendar works, Pentecost would always follow a Sabbath, thus forming a long weekend. It was on this long weekend when the events that we celebrate today on Pentecost took place.
Special days - Special days often have significant features or ceremonies tied to them which help us highlight the importance and meaning of that day. For example, a wedding day will typically feature the exchanging of vows, the giving and receiving of rings, speeches and the bridal waltz. When a baby is born, people often celebrate by giving teddy bears, flowers, warm blankets and nappies—lots and lots of nappies. Then there are birthdays. This event is celebrated quite differently around the world. In Denmark, if you reach the age of 25 and are unmarried, people traditionally throw cinnamon on you. In Nepal, children have rice yoghurt and milk put on their head for good fortune. In Canada, people place butter on your nose. And in Brazil, they pull on your ear lobes for each year of your life! As we can see, not all birthday celebrations are the same.
The birth of the church - Pentecost has often been described as the birth of the Church. It is when God poured out his promised Holy Spirit so people could be ‘born again’ for the first time (John 1:12–3, 3:3–7). In common with other birthday celebrations there were some significant events. First, a violent wind howled through the place where the disciples were meeting. There was the appearance of fire as the Holy Spirit entered the room. The disciples, filled with the Spirit, began to declare God’s wondrous plan through the supernatural ability to speak in foreign languages and other tongues (see Acts 2:1–4, 5–12, 13–21). As we zoom into the details of this event, we shall see what these strange birthday features meant for those present—and what significance they hold for us today.
The meaning for the disciples - The disciples had been hearing prophecies surrounding Jesus regarding these events for some time. John the Baptist had declared ‘He will baptise you with fire’ (Luke 3:16). Old Testament prophets had also foretold of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people (Jeremiah 31:31–4, Ezekiel 36:26). Isaiah specifically declared ‘with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people’ (Isaiah 28:11). Jesus also prepared them for these events, saying ‘Wait in Jerusalem until you receive the promise of the Father, power from on high, the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4–5,8). These strange events were Jesus fulfilling his word to his disciples—for them, this was a day of fulfilled promises.
The meaning for the crowd - In Acts 2:5–12, we see the reaction of the crowd. The crowd didn’t know Jesus had made the promise of sending the Holy Spirit. They had travelled from near and far—some from overseas—and most of them would never have heard Jesus preach or his teaching on the kingdom of God. As the disciples were filled with the Spirit and began ‘declaring the wonders of God’ in more than 15 languages (Acts 2:11) the crowd was in a state of wonderment. The disciples were Galileans, and as such, were people who received no formal education and didn’t travel—so, how could this be possible? And more specifically—‘what does all this mean?’ (Acts 2:11). In verse 16, Peter begins to explain these foreign birthday features by quoting prophecies from Joel, a prophet in the Old Testament scriptures (Joel 2:28–32). But he does something very interesting. Instead of reading it word for word, he changes what it was saying—‘and afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…’ (Joel 2:28)—to ‘In the last days I will pour out my Spirit…’ (Acts 2:17). The term ‘the last days’ refers to a time when God will raise up his ruler, the Messiah, to bring peace to all who call on him. For Peter, these events clearly signify the last days have begun. He uses this premise to talk about another special day in God’s calendar.
Insights to another great day - God has had many ‘days’ in the past in which he has performed amazing feats on the Earth, and continues to do so. But there remains a specific day in the future when he shall personally, powerfully and unmistakeably make himself known to the whole world—it is known simply as the great and glorious ‘Day of the Lord’ (Amos 5:18, Acts 2:20). All Jewish people in Peter’s time understood the meaning of this phrase, ‘the last days’. It would be a day of judgement when God’s appearance will cause terror, panic, hiding and trembling. But, it would also be a day of hope, a day when God acts to protect those who believe in him.
The crowd’s choice - Peter ties both of these concepts together to provide a rich and confronting meaning for the crowd: this is a day of choices. Will they allow God’s redemptive plan to take place in their lives through the saving power of Jesus Christ? Or will they, like the Scribes and the Pharisees, reject him? It would have been a powerful moment. The crowd is hearing Peter’s testimony with the evidenced power of the Holy Spirit being demonstrated among them. The last days have now begun. Only two options stand—salvation in Jesus or impending judgment for those who have not received his Spirit. Peter boldly declares the central message of Christianity and its meaning to the crowd; ‘And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Acts 2:21).
The meaning for today - As a result of these events, more than 3,000 people put their trust in Christ that day and were born again—celebrating their first spiritual birthday. Since that time, billions have done the same and received the Holy Spirit. This same question is posed to us all; will we make Jesus our lord and saviour? Will we trust him in our daily lives? Will we enter into God’s redemptive plan of salvation? Or will we reject him and live life in our own strength?
A second birthday - For us living in Australia, when someone has a birthday we often celebrate with a cake, candles, games, balloons, songs, presents and lolly bags. It’s normal at the end of a child’s birthday party to be given a party bag filled with treasures to open later. Likewise, it is the same with the infilling of the Spirit. In the initial gift of salvation the Bible teaches that we receive ‘the Holy Spirit as the seal of redemption’ (Ephesians 1:13–14). Yet there remains another experience for believers where we enter into a fuller relationship with the Holy Spirit, and like the party bag, there are more gifts to receive (1 Corinthians 12). The promise of Pentecost—salvation through Jesus Christ and receiving the infilling of the Holy Spirit—is still available for us all today.
RSVP - At the birth of the Church, God sent a loud noise, a violent wind—almost like an announcement proclaiming ‘The celebrations are about to begin’. He sent fire, he sent spiritual gifts, but these were only possible because he sent his son. We too can experience the same events of Pentecost in our own lives. Jesus continually fulfils his promise of baptising people with the Holy Spirit, but—like the crowd—we must make a choice. The last days have begun. The invitations have been sent out and RSVPs are due. It’s time to choose to be filled with his Spirit once again.
*Christopher Trodden's sermons are available on www.sarmy.org. He is a ministry team member at www.davidmccracken.org
**Article originally published in the OnFire Magazine (16 May 2015) and used with permission