1. Visiting the Past
There are certain periods or events in history that for some reason appeal to me. Events like the Crusades, the signing of the Magna Carta, the Reformation, etc. And if it were possible, I would like to go back in time and witness the events first hand to discover what really happened.
Of course, if it were possible to go back in history, it would be possible to meet people like Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, and a number of other people, and find out what they were really like. Because the problem with recorded history is that it invariably doesn’t tell you the whole story. The writers of history only tend to pick out the edited highlights—and from the perspective of what interested them. So, in a real sense, it would be good to be able to go back in history and be able to witness events first hand.
2. Visiting Pentecost
And one of the biblical events that I would like to go back to is not a war, or a tragedy, but the Jewish festival of Pentecost—or the “Feast of Weeks” or “Feast of Harvest” as it was more popularly known. But not just any of the annual celebrations, but to one celebration in particular. The one that followed immediately after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
1. Background to the Jewish Festival
Because imagine the scene. The festival was the second most important festival on the Jewish calendar. The city of Jerusalem would have been thronging with people who had come to celebrate not only the thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, but to acknowledge that they were, indeed, the chosen people of God—with all the ramifications that that entailed.
The city would have been abuzz with excitement. Because at the time, the Jewish people were living in all parts of the known world, and many would have come on a pilgrimage to be there for the feast. Indeed, it has been estimated that there would probably have been around one hundred thousand Jewish pilgrims in the city, who would have come especially for the feast. And they would have come from all over the known world—from Rome in the west to Iran in the east, from North Africa in the south to Turkey in the north. As a consequence, the hubbub and the excitement, as they gathered waiting for the festival to begin, would have been something to have seen.
2. Background to the Disciples
And yet, despite that, there would also have been a small group of followers of a man named Jesus who had gathered together on their own. They had seen the resurrected Jesus ascend to heaven just ten days earlier. And they were obediently staying in the city, devoting themselves to prayer, and waiting, expectantly, for the promised Holy Spirit—which Jesus told them would be given within days.
3. The Events of Pentecost
Now I don’t know, of the two groups, who would have been the most excited. The large and growing crowd coming to celebrate their, sort of, harvest festival, or the much smaller, but expectant, group of disciples, who even then, didn’t really know what it was all about.
However, the day of the festival finally arrived and the waiting for both groups was over. And for the disciples who were gathered together, somewhere in Jerusalem, they heard a sound like the mighty rush of a wind which filled the house where they were sitting. And they saw tongues of fire appear and resting on each one present. Signs they would have recognised from their religious background as signs of the presence of God (Ex 19:18, etc), and signs of God’s cleansing and judgement (Lk 3:16).
And as each one present sat there, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. And they began to speak in languages they would not otherwise have known.
4. The Reaction of the Crowd
Now, after that, and perhaps as the followers moved out of the house, they were met by at least some of the crowd that had gathered for the festival. They too had heard the sound—like the mighty rushing of wind—and had come running to see what was going on.
It must have been quite a scene. The crowd were at least initially bewildered and astonished by what they saw and heard. Particularly when they saw uneducated men speaking their own languages—languages of countries many miles away. And while many were amazed or puzzled, others would have been soaking in what was going on. As a consequence, it didn’t take long for some to seek a more rational explanation to the events they were witnessing.
To which the Apostle Peter, with a new found confidence he had not before portrayed, responded. No, they weren’t drunk, and no, the crowd couldn’t so easily explain away the events of that day. What they had seen had been prophesied, not only by Jesus and John the Baptist, but by the Old Testament prophets as well.
And in response to the primary reaction of the crowd—of incomprehension—the significance of the events in terms of Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 32:15 & Joel 2:28-32) were then explained. And, as the implications sank in, the indication that a new age had dawned and that the kingdom of God had come—and come in power—would have been very real.
Now, after all that, perhaps you can see why if it were possible to go back in history and witness events, why the celebration of Pentecost—and in particular the one that followed immediately after the Ascension of Jesus—would have to be my first choice.
To me, this is one of the most exciting events in history. To have been there with the crowd, not only to experience the excitement of the crowd—gathering to celebrate the second most important festival on the Jewish calendar—but to see the promises of God being fulfilled, promises which from the prophet Joel alone had been around for at least six hundred years—would have been a sight to see.
C. THE MEANING OF PENTECOST
But, of course, like all stories, the press or the particular emphasis or bias that a story gets is not necessarily one that reflects the total picture. And the story of Pentecost has often got bad press, particularly in regard to those who emphasise the fact that the followers all spoke in different tongues. For that was a big, divisive issue in the Corinthian church in New Testament times, as it remains a big divisive issue today too.
But that is not where the emphasis in the story should really be. Because the story of this particular Pentecost, is primarily about God equipping and empowering his people to be men and women of faith. And to enable them for the task of witness and mission in the world. A task, which the early church, proceeded to straight away.
Having said that, however, the supernatural (the wind, the tongues of fire, and the speaking in tongues) is not an insignificant part of the story. Because, firstly, they were a necessary part, in terms of demonstrating to the disciples and the others around that the Old Testament prophecies and what Jesus had promised had come true. That, indeed, that the promised Kingdom of God had come and had come in power. But secondly, they gave an indication of the power of God, and the power that was available for God’s people to use with the gifts that the Spirit brought. Gifts that would be given to all who believe for the benefit of the church.
The story of Pentecost, then, an event in history that we could easily say, “I wish I’d been there. I wish I’d seen it and experienced it for myself.”
Now, of course, for us, we only have the basic facts recorded by Luke, and we’re left to fill the gaps. Despite that, there are many things about what he has told us that we can apply to our own lives. And taking the gift of the Holy Spirit alone, there are at least four things of which we can take particular note:
1. The Gift for All Believers
And the first is that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by God for all believers.
On that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t just rest on one or two people—maybe on the main leaders, and no one else. No! The Spirit rested on all the faithful who were present. And that is consistent with Jesus’s teaching. Because Jesus had said to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter God’s kingdom.” (John 3:5). According to Jesus, then, to be a Christian one must have received the Holy Spirit. There simply is no other way.
Being born naturally in this world, and having made a decision of faith, which is then sealed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, are the two things that make one a Christian. So to be a person of faith, one has to have the Holy Spirit living inside them—a gift from none other than God the Father himself.
2. The Gift of Empowerment
The second is that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given by God to empower his people.
And that is demonstrated by the fact that the disciples were very dependent upon Jesus when he was around in his ministry years. They got things wrong, but they always had Jesus to fall back on. Then, after his arrest, they fell to pieces and ran away. Furthermore, after his crucifixion, they huddled together in a room not knowing what was going on and in fear of their lives. And even after Jesus had made several resurrection appearances, they still were not confident about what was going on.
But ten days on from Jesus’s Ascension, and having received the Holy Spirit, the story is very different. We suddenly see a group of people who are confident in what they believe. And a group who were actively telling others all they had experienced and learnt.
The Holy Spirit, then, enables his people to be confident in their faith, to know what they are expected to do. It empowers them to go out and share their faith. Something that should be part of our experience too.
3. The Gift of Discovering New Talents
The third is that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given by God to show his people talents they didn’t know they had.
Now the group of disciples who stood up at Pentecost to tell others about Jesus were generally not educated men. And the Apostle Peter—one of the inner circle of three—was the kind of person who opened his mouth only to put both feet in. He often got things wrong, he often got the wrong end of the stick. And yet here in this story, having been filled by the Holy Spirit, he is confident, he knows what he is talking about, and he is able to quote scripture to prove his point.
And this is a side of Peter, that had never been seen before. He’s a completely different person to the Peter who was seen following Jesus around. He had always been a leader. But a man who knew what’s what, and could confidently stand up in front of a crowd and open his mouth without putting both feet in? Well, this is a completely different man all together.
So when God calls us and we say to him “I can’t do this… I can’t do that…” then maybe, we should sit up and take note. We need to remember Pentecost, and the day that many people found talents and abilities they never knew they had.
4. The Spiritual Gift
And the fourth is that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by God to encourage his people to embrace his more spiritual gifts.
On the day of Pentecost, the one gift of the Holy Spirit that was evident was the ability to speak in other languages. However, the Apostle Paul, taught that this was only of the many gifts.
As the Apostle Paul said: “A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given to one through the Spirit; a word of knowledge to another through the same Spirit. Faith is given to another through the same Spirit; gifts of healing to another by the same Spirit. Miraculous powers are given to another; prophecy to another. Discernment of spirits is given to another, various kinds of tongues to another, and interpretation of tongues to another. All these are the work of the one and same Spirit, and he distributes to each person as he wishes.” (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). And that was not intended to be an exclusive list.
With the gift of the Holy Spirit, then, embracing spiritual gifts should be part of our experience. However, we won’t all have the same gifts. And not everyone will have the ability to speak in foreign tongues.
The Feast of Pentecost, the first feast after the Ascension of Jesus, then, was a feast to remember. Apart from the natural hubbub of the crowd, it was the time that marked the birth of the church. It was the day that God sent his Holy Spirit upon his people. And that in turn enabled his people to go out and share their faith with the world.
It’s a particular event where, if we could, I believe it would be good to go back and experience it for ourselves. But on the other hand, we probably don’t need to. Because the gift that God gave his people then is exactly the same as the one he gives his people today too.
The Holy Spirit! God within us! The gift for all believers, and the one thing which ensures our place with God. The gift that empowers his people, helping us to learn and to be confident in our faith—and helping us to go out and to share the good news with those who do not know it. The gift that shows us talents and abilities we never knew we had. And the gift which encourages us all to embrace the spiritual gifts which are given for the benefit of all.
For the early church, that particular feast of Pentecost, was life changing. And while the prompting of the Holy Spirit can be resisted, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be life changing for us. Indeed, it should not just make a dramatic difference to us as individuals, but it should ensure that our churches are lively, growing, and life changing too.
Posted: 9th April 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis