I had the opportunity to preach yesterday on Pentecost, so of course that was the topic of my Sermon. I very nearly turned down the opportunity due to a persistent eye dryness problem that made it very difficult to prepare for it, but that has cleared up today, so I am grateful for all of your prayers for me on that issue.
The book of Acts is one of the greatest adventure stories in history, a small band of the faithful begins to overcome the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, but not through military force. There are spectacular reversals and transformations, of individual lives and of communities. Powerful men are humbled, captives are freed, there are riots and imprisonments, intrigues and conspiracies, shipwrecks, storms, journeys and spiritual battles. And miracles. Lots of miracles. All of this started with Pentecost, or rather it began with the crucifixion and resurrection, where Jesus paid for the sins of the world and proved once and for all that he was who he claimed to be—the Danielic Son of Man, Messiah of Israel and Eternal Son of God— but it was Pentecost that fully equipped and empowered the Early Church to begin the Great Commission.
The Jewish festival of Pentecost (otherwise known as the feast of weeks, since it was a week of weeks or 49 days after Passover) was a celebration of the first harvest of wheat, and over time also became a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses, so was fairly significant in the Jewish calendar, though far less so than Passover, obviously. This meant you would have to be a particularly pious Jew to travel to Jerusalem for both festivals when they were only seven weeks apart. The crowd that witnessed the speaking in tongues that were from all over the known world, even beyond the Roman Empire, were mostly people who had permanently migrated to Jerusalem from those other countries rather than just visiting for the festival (though some were described as being visitors from Rome), so they most likely already spoke Aramaic or Greek and didn’t absolutely need to hear the message of God in their own language, though this no doubt had a great impact on them to hear God being glorified in their own tongue, indicating that God’s Kingdom was about to spread far beyond the borders of Israel and be just as present and at home in those other nations as in Jerusalem. Since the Christian Pentecost and giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church occurred at the Jewish Pentecost, which celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses, let’s quickly compare the two events.
First, from Exodus 19:5-6,16-25(NIV):
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”
The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”
So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Now Acts 2:1-24, 36-41(NIV):
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
In both events, we have a public and spectactular show of God’s power, heralded by a great noise, God appearing in the form of fire and also the sound of a voice, and both were connected with the establishment of a new covenant between God and man. There are important differences, however.
In the giving of the Law to Moses, only Moses (and later Aaron) were allowed up the mountain, the ordinary folk were forbidden to approach. The great noise scared the people gathered there. God appearing as fire remained where He was, as one entity, undivided, and spoke with one mighty voice. The law and covenant that was set up established intermediaries between the ordinary folk and God (Moses, Aaron, and the priests).
At Pentecost, the noise drew people towards it. The fire split and rested upon everyone in the upper room, and the voices were many, that of the people present in that upper room giving all of them new languages to speak and glorify God, and everyone was given direct access to God through the Spirit.
This was like a temporary reversal of the Curse of Babel, where instead of people speaking new languages they’d never learned to prevent them from understanding each other and force them to disperse, people were speaking new languages they’d never learned so that everyone could understand the good news of God’s Kingdom and know they were invited to join and become part of God’s chosen people, no matter who they were or where they were from.
Some in the crowd joked that the disciples were drunk. We can’t tell whether this was a mean-spirited jibe meant to discredit them or just a playful jest at the joy in their hearts. What we do know is that Peter doesn’t take it personally, maybe even laughing along and responding with a little joke of his own. If he had been as concerned for his own honour as some of the chief priests and Pharisees of his day, he could have easily reacted with, “How dare you accuse us of drunkenness! We are holy men of God!” And immediately a barrier would be raised between speaker and listener, and genuine conversation would become more difficult. When we can laugh at ourselves, it disarms insults, whether intended or not, it brings us closer to people and we can move on to more important matters. It’s a very important skill (and attitude) to practice.
The passage that Peter quotes from Joel speaks of God’s spirit being given to those who would never be normally allowed to be priests, those who were too young or too old, girls and women, and the note that whoever calls on the name of the Lord being saved now carries extra weight. God’s kingdom is now not just for the Jews—everyone is to have access to God and to share His love and His Kingdom with the wider world. They really are becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, just like God planned for Israel as he was giving the law to Moses.
It could have been easy for Peter to soften his message to avoid offending the crowd, but he didn’t hold back. He started with what the crowd themselves knew, since they lived in Jerusalem and had no doubt heard of Jesus and what happened to him, plus some of the rumours—a number of them had probably even heard Jesus teach. Peter then added what he and his friends had witnessed and learned, and led them to the logical conclusion, the harsh truth. In this the Holy Spirit was working, not giving him new knowledge, but guiding Peter in what to say, and the spirit was also working in the hearts of those listening, convicting them of their condition before God.
And three thousand were added that day. The church that Jesus builds, that the gates of hell will not prevail against, got going in earnest.
What about us? We aren’t personally surrounded by miracles, signs and wonders. What can we do to spread God’s Kingdom? We can tell the truth, even when it seems people will hate us for it. We can admit when we make a mistake or don’t know something or don’t understand something. We can keep learning, listen to people around us and start with what they know, trying to lead them to the full truth. When we hear a lie being spread, we can counter it. Maybe people won’t believe us, maybe they’ll want nothing to do with us afterwards, but it’s still the right thing to do.
The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is a very interesting individual. He’s not a Christian, but many of us think (and hope) that he is not far from becoming one. He often defends the Bible and Christianity and its part in Western civilization from attacks by Marxist activists, he gave a series of lectures on the Bible in which he highlights the healthy wisdom, deep spiritual truths, and good life advice it contains. Many young men have come to Christ through his lectures, despite the fact that he is not a believer himself. On the verse “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” he had this to say (I’m paraphrasing and combining with other comments, but I hope he’d agree that I’m not totally misrepresenting his positions):
What some people call courage is actually just being afraid of the right thing. Each time a person fears what people will think of them, deciding to not cause trouble by standing up to something they know is a lie, they shrivel a little inside. If this pattern continues, they grow old bitter and full of regrets and resentment. When you tell the truth in a given situation, then that will result in the best possible long-term outcome overall, even if the short-term outcome is very unpleasant, or the outcome for you personally is very negative. When lies are allowed to spread unopposed, then that leads to tyranny, to societies where everyone lies about everything all the time, and that is hell. I’m afraid of reaching old age, and looking back at all the times I could have stood up to evil and lies, but didn’t. That’s what I’m afraid of.
How much more should we who believe practice looking at our situation from the perspective of eternity, and consider what opportunities we’ll be ashamed to admit we didn’t take when we stand before the throne of God? It is an unsettling thought that should motivate us to action, a struggle that should accompany us our entire lives.
So let’s learn from our mistakes, learn from each other and learn together. Let’s be glad for the chance to laugh at ourselves. Let’s be filled with the spirit of Truth, overcome our short-sighted fears and tell people the truth, guide them from where they are towards the source of all truth, to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.