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.
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 these 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.”
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. 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.” (Acts 2:1–21)
The whole account of Pentecost is well known: tongues of fire; speaking in many foreign tongues; and a sermon from Peter which resulted in three thousand converts. I do hope that familiarity with the events doesn’t lead to a deadening of their impact, that the extraordinary nature of what occurred is not dampened by their annual telling. In many ways we can trace our own place in the Kingdom of God to what occurred on that long passed date.
Yet we might find in the passage more than the events themselves. In fact within these verses we might find the joining together of things which are often separated in the life of the church. Three pairs of things, in fact. Which means that this will be a somewhat classic three point sermon! So, to point the first: Word and Spirit.
Pentecost, of course, is a festival most closely identified with the Holy Spirit. Here is the occasion that the Spirit was poured out upon the church, when he became to the church another like Christ. An inspirer, an equipped, a motivator, a guide. Under this influence, Peter stands and preaches. The Holy Spirit undoes the curse of the Tower of Babel, and all peoples hear the praise of God in their own mother tongue.
In recent decades, there has been a fresh focus upon the Holy Spirit in much of the church and a welcome desire to have a richer and closer experience of the presence of God. Yet, this has often led to a downplaying of the Bible. “Yes, the Bible says this but I feel the Spirit is leading us elsewhere”. Worse, at times the Spirit of God becomes reduced to a feeling or an emotion rather than being God himself.
Against all this, it is worth noticing in this passage that when Peter - filled with the Spirit - preaches, he turns to the Old Testament. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. Peter understands that the Old Testament is a collection of books written by people inspired by the Holy Spirit, as he describes in 2 Peter 1:21 - “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”.
So it is that Peter realised that if you want to understand what the Holy Spirit is doing, it’s best to turn to books inspired by that self-same Spirit. Allow you experience of God to be interpreted by the word of God, and you will be on more secure ground. Peter then turns to the book of the Prophet Joel. Which brings me to the second point.
If some try to separate the Spirit of God from the Bible, then still others attempt to divide the Bible itself. In the same way that New Improved Persil is seen to replace the old Persil, the Old Testament is understood to be replaced by the New Testament. This is profoundly unhelpful, and also not what we find in the New Testament itself.
When you read the New Testament, you discover that the writers are seeking to understand all that Christ said and did by turning to the Old Testament. In fact, this pattern goes all the way back to Jesus himself who used the Old Testament to explain himself to those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And their hearts burned within them.
The truth is that there is one set of Scriptures, which exist as a coherent whole. Together they bear witness to an unfolding of God’s great plan of redemption. The Old Testament provides the background for the New, and the New interprets the Old. God first deals with an individual, then a family, then tribes, then a nation and then the entire world. Which brings me to my final point.
The other great division tackled at Pentecost is that of local and global. As the disciples got up and spoke, the unpronounceable list of nations heard what was being said. No local, national deity here but a God of the whole world. No God simply for one people or grouping, but a God who created all and therefore calls out to all. People from around the known world were amazed at what they heard, and soon in the book of Acts we discover that both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God through faith in the work of Christ.
At its heart Christianity is a missionary faith, the first such faith the world had seen. Ours is not a gospel to be hoarded, polished and displayed on a shelf but rather something to be shared. Yet this sharing itself is undergirded by the Spirit of God, who gave wonderful utterance to the disciples. It was as he was filled by the Spirit that Peter spoke. As you look at the history of Christianity there are times of great growth, springing from situation which seem hopeless. Situations, in other words, like our own. Here, surely is a prompt for prayer. A petition to take to the throne of God. That his Spirit would once more fan into flame the witness of the church.
So it is that Pentecost burst onto the world, bringing together word and Spirit as Joel’s words pointed to what was happening. Bringing together Old and New Testaments that selfsame prophet’s prophecies were fulfilled. Bringing all peoples together as they shared in the joyous call of God. We may long for such days again, but don’t simply long. Allow that longing to turn you to prayer, prayer that God’s church might once more be revived.