We have come to the conclusion of our fifty day celebration of Easter. It is fascinating to me that our exit from Dr. Luke’s account of the spread of Easter faith is the on ramp to that whole story. With this Pentecost story, we loop back to where it all began. Even as Luke tells us that Jesus ministry began with that announcement of the Spirit’s empowerment (Luke 4:18-19), so the church’s ministry begins with the Spirit falling on the entire church. Jesus said that the church would go to the ends of the earth once the Spirit was given. As a sign of that, the ends of the earth came to the church when the Spirit was given. Luke’s artistry is impressive.
Verse one sets the stage. Jesus had told his disciples that the Father had “times and dates set by his own authority.” Clearly, the day of Pentecost was one of them. It was a day to celebrate the end of the wheat harvest, and now a day to celebrate the beginning of the world harvest. As one of the three major festivals to which all Jews were to make pilgrimage, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with God fearing Jews from all over the world.
Accordingly, the followers of Jesus, all 120 of them, were gathered in one place, possibly the precincts of the Temple where they spent every day (Luke 24:53), probably praising God for his mighty works in Jesus and praying for the outpouring of the Spirit that Jesus had promised. The stage is set. It’s the calm before the storm.
Suddenly, the storm breaks as “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Accompanying the wind was fire, or “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” God wanted this initial coming of the Spirit to be memorable for future generations, so he made it a major public event, rather than private mystical experience.
But the wind and fire were merely accompanying signs. The central event of Pentecost was the fact that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit,” all 120 of them (or just the 12?). From Peter’s subsequent sermon, I take it to mean all 120. All of those early Christians received the fullness of the Spirit, for one major purpose—so that they could prophesy and be witnesses for Jesus to the ends of the earth.
That’s the meaning of the much debated phrase, “and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Some charismatic Christians think this is the glossolalia debated in I Corinthians 12-14. But that was a heavenly language spoken for the benefit of fellow believers that needed translation before anyone could be blessed by it. These “other tongues” are foreign languages that enabled these disciples to speak to foreigners without the need for translation. This gift was given for the purpose of prophesying to unbelievers. While the New Testament mentions many other gifts of the Spirit, in the book of Acts this gift of prophesy is the main gift because it enabled the church to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Indeed, God had already brought the ends of the earth to Jerusalem as a foretaste of the final harvest. Granted, they were all adherents of the Jewish faith, but they represented the known world. Dr. Luke’s list of nations in verses 9-11 is one sign of his extensive research into the Jesus story (Luke 1:3). From India to Africa to Europe and all over the Middle East, people had come to celebrate the harvest. They ended up being the harvest.
Their conversion began with utter amazement at what they were hearing—not the roaring wind or the crackling fire, but the Gospel being preached in their own languages by people who were obviously Galilean. “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” But, as has always been the case, the wonders of God’s grace also drew mockery from some in the crowd. “They have had too much to drink!”
This combination of amazement and mockery was the occasion for the first sermon in the New Age of the Spirit, a sermon that set the pattern for all subsequent Gospel sermons. First, Peter explains the event that has happened, thus, contextualizing the message to follow. Second, he preaches Jesus Christ crucified and Risen as Lord and Christ. Third, he exhorts his listeners to repent and be baptized. He preaches in the power of the Spirit, and by the power of the Spirit, 3000 people become Christians that day. That is a summary of the story of Acts, and of the church throughout the ages.
Notice how Peter grabs their attention. Though he is a nobody to the crowd, he does not speak “as one without authority,” as Fred Craddock says we do today. He addresses both the amazed and the mockers, with a command to listen carefully and a semi-humorous put down of the mockers. Then he demonstrates the gift of prophecy. It involves careful exegesis of Scripture, creative exposition of what God has done in Christ, and bold application to people’s lives.
We see the exegesis in Peter’s explanation of what the crowd had experienced. Led by the Spirit, he turns to an obscure minor prophet; “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Using an alternative interpretation of Joel 2:28-32, Peter informs them that we have now entered “the last days.” He doesn’t mean that in the apocalyptic sense of the very last moments of planet during which horrific events will occur. He means that in the salvific sense of the long promised days when the Messiah will bring salvation to Israel and the world.
The “last days” are longer and more complicated than we might think. The early last days, referred to in verses 17 and 18, will see the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, the salvation of many, and the progressive coming of the kingdom. The final last days will see the judgment of the wicked, the end of the world, and the new heavens and earth. In between, we live in the last days in which “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We are no longer waiting for the Lord Christ to come. We are now on mission for him, empowered and led by his Spirit.
There are three things noteworthy about these early last days. First, the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh.” That doesn’t mean all human beings, but all kinds of human beings with no regard to sex, age, or rank. Not just men, not just old men, not just old men who occupy special offices like priest or king, but men and women, young and old, servants and masters—all receive the Spirit and prophesy. That’s how the Gospel will spread—when all God’s children testify about Jesus wherever they are in the world.
Second, there are two means by which the Gospel will spread—by the gift of prophesy (as explained above) and by signs and wonders. Now, the prophecy of Joel speaks of sign and wonders in the heavens and on earth, featuring especially apocalyptic things like “blood and fire and billows of smoke, the sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood….” Clearly some of that is a reference to the final last days, “the coming of the great and glorious (terrible) day of the Lord.”
But as we read through Acts, it is clear that other kinds of signs and wonders accompanied the gift of prophecy—healing the sick and raising the dead, taking care of widows and giving away money. There is much disagreement about the ongoing existence of those more miraculous signs and wonders, though the Bible nowhere says that they have ceased. But surely it is the case that the Gospel always proceeds most powerfully where God’s people demonstrate the power of the Spirit in acts of love and mercy as they pursue justice and peace.
Third, the main effect of the outpouring of the Spirit is conversion. The Spirit does many things in the lives of God’s people, but all of the Spirit’s work focuses on salvation. Thus, the first part of Peter’s sermon ends with the declaration that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And the second part of his sermon ends with a call to salvation, to which the Spirit moves 3000 to respond.
The main point of Pentecost is not the wind and the fire and the tongues. It is the Spirit empowered proclamation of the Gospel that will spread to the ends of the earth and finally save the world. Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. And that is the point of Pentecost. The greatest evidence of the Spirit’s filling is the gift of prophesy given to all God’s children, so that believers in other religions and mockers of all religion will “call on the name of the Lord Jesus and be saved.”
I’ve kept this illustration for years, so it may be too dated. I share it because it gives you a powerful picture.
”Ever since September 11, John Vigiano has visited the 70 foot deep crater that was the World Trade Center almost every day. He wants to be there when the workers make a discovery. You see, John Vigiano lost two sons in the terrorist attack. In October, a search and rescue dog found his son Joseph, a New York City police officer. But Vigiano is still waiting for someone to find his son John II, a New York City firefighter.
There are only a few hundred thousand tons of rubble left to be examined and hauled away. But Vigiano keeps hoping that they will find something, an arm, a finger, an ear, some little piece of his son that they might confirm with DNA tests. He know that the hopes are mighty slim, because the attack didn’t just kill; it shredded, it incinerated, it vaporized. The body of his son was disintegrated in the deepest sense of that word, dis-integrated, blown apart and scattered by the wind. And yet John Vigiano waits, because he wants to give his son a proper burial, a final farewell, so that in some sense his family can be all together again.”
When I read that story of a waiting father in the Washington Post, I thought of our heavenly Father waiting at the edge of the pit, peering into the rubble of a sin blasted world, waiting for someone to find his lost sons and daughters, his disintegrated and scattered people.
Of course, God did more than sit and wait helplessly. He sent his other Son, his only begotten Son, to seek and save the lost, to bring them home and make them whole. He sent his Son to re-integrate his dis-integrated children, to re-create for himself one new people out of the scattered human race. Jesus went into the pit, suffered with the lost and scattered ones, and died a horrible death to save God’s other children.
He left behind a handful of rescue workers who didn’t know what to do or have the strength to do it. Then came Pentecost. We all know what happened, but what was it about? That’s what the crowd asked. What does this mean? As the early Christians preached the Gospel in the languages of the nations of the earth, Jews from all over the world were gathered into one new family of faith. Verse 44 of Acts 2 summarizes the meaning of Pentecost. “All the believers were together….” After centuries of being scattered and lost, God’s children have been united again. The mission begun on Pentecost will end with John Vigiano’s wish fulfilled in a way he can’t imagine. They will all be together.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary