Can you imagine sitting in this room at Pentecost? ‘What is going on?’ you wonder. Has anyone been sitting in a room and it sounded like a tornado ripped through? Kids, have you ever seen flames float above someone’s head? Further, imagine if one section of our sanctuary was filled with people you knew were Minnesotans who suddenly were speaking Spanish, French, German and Russian. And then you realized you were understanding them in English! What a scene! This is a unique scene in the Bible and even more importantly, it’s a unique point in the history of redemption too.
Good morning, today is Pentecost Sunday. It marks the 50th day after Easter. At Grace Church we don’t often recognize a lot of liturgical events on the calendar. We observe Easter and the Advent season leading up to Christmas, but not a lot beyond that. Some denominations observe lots of dates on the church calendar, but that hasn’t been part of our tradition. As I’ve thought and studied this week, it struck me that the events of scripture should inform our calendar more than they do. I don’t exactly know how, but maybe next year we have some kind of church feast or something for Pentecost. Think about how many man-made holidays that we observe every year. How many days do you get off from work or school? How many weekends do you have some kind of feast because it’s Memorial Day or the 4th of July. Nothing wrong with celebrating most National Holidays, although some of the more recent ones that we’re told to celebrate you probably shouldn’t. How much more should we arrange our calendars around God’s calendar? If you want more information on the Church calendar, talk to David Oman. He’s a wealth of information in this area.
Anyway, this morning happened to fall on Pentecost Sunday and as it was my opportunity to preach, I thought it was worth looking deeper into Pentecost and its significance. So we’ll actually spend two weeks in Acts chapter 2. This morning we’ll look at the actual events at Pentecost and next Sunday we’ll look at Peter’s sermon in verses 14-41.
When we hear the word Pentecost or look at a passage involving speaking in tongues, that might evoke different responses for different people here. You might think of the Pentecostal Denomination where there is a heavy emphasis on speaking in tongues or even an over-emphasis on the Holy Spirt that minimizes the work of the Father and Son. For some hearing about speaking in tongues brings you back to an experience at a charismatic church, whether good or bad. For others maybe it’s a time to remember that the Holy Spirit is a vital part of the godhead. One theologian I follow wants us to reclaim the word Pentecostal for all Orthodox Christians. The focus shouldn’t be on our conviction about Spiritual gifts, but about the Holy Spirit filling believers for the work of the gospel. That’s my hope too. I hope we would all come away marveling at the power of God and being more motivated to help carry out the Great Commission.
Throughout the Bible there are all kinds of incredible scenes filled with unusual events, signs and wonders. At least they look unusual or wild to us, but they are never without purpose. It is interesting to look at what actually happened and picture everything. But understanding the significance of the events and how they fit into the bigger picture of God’s story is even more important. And that’s what we’ll do this morning with our passage. The first section, verses 1-4 describes what happened at Pentecost and the second section, verses 5-13 will pull out the significance of this event. If you don’t have the sermon outline, the two basic questions we’ll answer this morning are What is Pentecost? And Why Pentecost Matters?
Before we do that, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand, and apply this passage to our hearts.
Prayer: LORD of heaven and earth, we gather this morning to hear from you. Thank you for your Word that we can know you and what you require. Thank you for your Son, the living Word who reveals you to us. Thank you that your Word really only makes sense when we know the Son and his atoning work and mighty reign. And thank you for your Holy Spirit, who worked powerfully through men to write your Word. And now I ask that your Spirit would make this sermon clear to our hearts. Help us understand what you have to say to us this morning through this text. Spirit, apply this passage to our hearts, and strengthen us for the week ahead. Amen.
I. What is Pentecost? (1-4)
Before we get to our actual passage let’s set the context of our story. Pentecost was one of the three annual festivals that Israel was to observe. The other two were the Passover and the feast of Booths.
In the Old Testament Pentecost is called the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Firstfruits. It took place 50 days after Passover, which was also connected with the barley harvest. Pentecost also coincided with the giving of the law at Mt Sinai, which was 50 days after the very first Passover when they left Egypt. So it was a festival tied to several things: their farming season, especially the harvest. It helped the people remember their exodus and the giving of God’s law, and it had a tight connection with the Passover.
All Israelites would gather to feast, offer sacrifice and give thanks for God’s provision. And this is what the disciples were doing here in Acts 2.
Jesus’s death brought new significance to the Passover, and as we’ll see the Holy Spirit will bring new significance to the Pentecost festival as well. These are both one-time events in the history of salvation, and therefore the world, that we can look back on and marvel at God’s work.
Second, we need to go back to Acts 1 to better understand what is about to happen in Acts 2. After Jesus rose from the dead, he ministered and preached for 40 days and prepared the disciples for what was about to happen next.
Acts 1:4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Jesus said that he would go away, but he would send the Holy Spirit. It will be a kind of baptism, just like John the Baptist himself had promised. John baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. And the Spirit would come with power. And the power would serve a purpose. It would be power for the Great Commission to witness to the end of the earth.
With the background set, let’s look at our passage starting with verses 1-4:
Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.
So the disciples did as they were instructed and remained in Jerusalem and as faithful Jews, they prepared to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. One piece that isn’t as clear in our passage is where exactly they were during Pentecost. Acts 1 tells us that they were in the Upper Room, probably the same Upper Room where they celebrated Passover with Jesus. That passage also notes that there were 120 people present. But by the end of the scene at Pentecost the crowd is mentioned as at least 3000. For that many people to be in one area they were probably in the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. There are two theories on where they were during Pentecost. The first idea is that the entire thing took place in the courtyard, first the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and then a crowd gathers. The second thought is that verses 1-4 occurred in the Upper Room, but then as they made their way to the temple, they were speaking in different languages and this drew the crowd to the temple court. Either theory is trying to make sense of how so many people could be in one spot.
Rushing Wind and Flaming Tongues
2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
Imagine sitting in your house, you’re reading a book or having dinner and suddenly it sounds like a hurricane is in your living room. It is the sound of power, like the power Jesus promised would come upon the disciples.
Notice that it fills the entire house, similar to the way that God’s glory filled the tabernacle and the temple. In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God’s glory too. Ezekiel has a vision of the heavens opening and seeing God. listen for the similarities with our text:
Ezek. 1:1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
Ezek. 1:4 As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal.
Notice that there was stormy wind, a great cloud and fire all coming together to mark the presence of God.
The second part of this picture of the presence of God is the visible fire that fell and rested over the heads of the disciples. Fire can represent a few things in the Bible: judgement and destruction, like when the Bible speaks of burning up chaff or ultimately hell. It can also mean purification like the purification of something valuable and lasting like gold being refined by fire. But it can also show God’s holiness and presence. In this case it represents God’s holy presence.
This is especially clear when the two images, sound of wind and the fiery flames come together. to highlight the presence and work of God. A further clue is that the sound came from heaven. Throughout scripture, sound, wind and fire set the stage for God’s work, especially as it relates to redemption. Abram saw a flaming pot and fiery torch when God spoke to him and made covenantal promises to him and his offspring. Moses encountered God’s holiness in the form of a burning bush. The Lord was present with Israel and led them by a pillar of fire. Later, and relevant to Pentecost and remembering Sinai, Israel witnessed God’s presence when God gave the law. Listen to this description from Exodus 19:
Ex. 19:16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.
Israel saw the presence of the LORD in fire, accompanied by smoke and mighty sounds like a trumpet. It was glorious and frightening at the same time. This points out the other side of God’s holy presence. Judgment is part of his holiness. God’s holiness, his perfection is the standard. And we all fall short of that standard on our own. Have you ever had a skill or talent that you thought was pretty good until you compared it to someone else? I used to think I was a good basketball player until I went up against better competition in school than was in my little neighborhood growing up. Suddenly I’m going against other kids who were bigger, faster, and more skilled. I couldn’t describe it at the time, but I was very aware how short I fell of the standard of the better players. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience where you thought whatever work or skill you were performing was of an excellent level only to realize that you fell short when compared with others.
How much more when a sinful people see God’s fiery, presence, it should cause them to tremble realize they fall short of that standard.
So even in a glorious scene like the one at Pentecost, there is still an aspect of judgment. You can see that in the following passage that we’ll look at next week. After Peter’s speech explaining the gospel, the people are cut to the heart. Those people recognized that apart from Christ they stood condemned. The same goes for everyone in here today. Apart from putting your faith in Jesus Christ and repenting of your sins, all the glorious scenes in the Bible only indict you before this holy God. So repent and believe.
The final piece of this incredible scene is that the Holy Spirit fills the 120 disciples of Jesus and they begin speaking in tongues. Look at verse 4.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
I already mentioned how the wind filled the entire room, and now we see that the people are filled with the Holy Spirit. And then they immediately begin speaking in different tongues, which can also simply mean languages.
The main point isn’t the speaking in tongues, it is that the Holy Spirit came in power, just as Jesus and the prophets promised would happen. The speaking in different languages is simply evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now, the Bible has more to say about speaking in tongues. Paul addresses this in first Corinthians for example. There are many questions around the gift of tongues. What does it mean to speak in tongues? Are they a normal thing we should expect as Christians or not? Were they merely used for a time in the early church? These are all questions we can work through and discuss, but these questions aren’t the point of this sermon. I did want to address one thing related to tongues: Some Christians believe that speaking in tongues is a requirement as proof that you have the Holy Spirit. They see the disciples being filled with the Spirit, then speaking in tongues and conclude that all Christians must have this experience too. In other words, unless you have spoken in tongues, you should question whether you have the Holy Spirit. This is just not true. We must be careful to not look at a narrative like Acts and build doctrine from it. Further this is an extraordinary scene. Visible fire rested on the people’s heads. This is not normal, so let’s be really careful reading more into it than we should.
Now, back to what is clear. The Holy Spirit filled the disciples and they begin speaking in different languages than their own native tongue. This moves us to the next part of the text in verse 5 where we can start to try and understand the meaning of all of this.
II. Why Pentecost matters? (5-13)
As I said earlier, it’s one thing to see the events of Pentecost and focus on the unusual pieces, but we still have to understand the significance of God’s signs and wonders. So, as the crowd asks in this second section, we have to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ It is one thing for the disciples to witness flaming fire and speaking in tongues. They had followed Jesus, some for years. They had seen some things. But now this crowd arrives. That’s another level. We will look at three ways that the falling of the Holy Spirit is significant: it’s a reversal of the curse of Babel, it is the church’s power for ministry, and it ushers in the New Covenant. First, Pentecost undoes the curse of Babel.
Reversal of Babel
Let me give a quick summary of the curse back in Genesis 11. This is the story of the Tower of Babel.
Genesis 11 describes the building of the tower of Babel. It says that the whole earth had one language and they gathered at Shinar to build a tower to heaven. They had a common language and a common goal. The goal was to make a name for themselves. Because of their pride, the LORD sends them into confusion by giving them different languages. And the LORD scatters them all over as a curse.
Now look at the parallels with Acts 2 and how they get reversed:
Acts 2:5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?
Verse 5 mentions that the God-fearing Jews at Pentecost were from every nation under heaven. And they all have different languages. When they hear the 120 speaking in different languages at first they are bewildered or confused. Why are they confused? Because they could hear them in their own language. The result at Babel was confusion because no one understood the other. Not they are confused because they can understand one another. And while the men at Babel were trying to go from earth to heave, now the Holy Spirit has come from heaven to earth. God’s purpose is to dwell with man, but it has to be according to God’s purpose, not man’s. We cannot ascend on our own terms, but must depend on God to descend to dwell with us. In descending, the Holy Spirit reverses that curse and fills the people with a new purpose and unity. Instead of working for our own glory, like the people at Babel, the Holy Spirit fills people with a new mission for God’s glory. Instead of trying to consolidate in one place, the purpose of the church is to disperse into all the world. We are commissioned to be witnesses to Christ and go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to end of the earth.
This purpose brings us to our second reason the Holy Spirit came: to be witnesses to the Mighty works of God. As the Jews hear the disciples and understand what they’re saying, what exactly are they saying? They are telling the Mighty Works of God. Look at verse 11.
Mighty Works of God
we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
It’s pretty cool to hear a bunch of people speaking in a language you miraculously understand. But what is the point? The disciples are telling the mighty works of God. As Jesus said in Acts 1, “you will be my witnesses.” Here the disciples are witnessing of God’s mighty works, including and especially the works of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, this is the purpose of ministry, that the mighty works of God would be known and God alone would get the glory. That’s worship. That’s discipleship. That’s missions. We are called to witness to God’s glory. Now you probably won’t speak in tongues this week in front of 3,000 people, but what in your life would make another ask, “what is the meaning of this?” What things in your life would others see that point to the mighty works of God?
Maybe it’s the simple fact that you have 5 kids and enjoy being around them. That is increasingly strange to the world. Use it as a chance to tell more about God’s work in your life.
Maybe it’s taking a different job because it frees you up for doing ministry. An unbeliever might wonder why someone would do that.
Maybe you are an empty nester who, instead of coasting in retirement, are spending your time pouring into younger families at Grace.
Maybe it’s simply be able to handle hard things while still seeing God’s goodness and strength.
One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to fill us with power for ministry. We are all called to share the gospel with people around us. We are all called to help in the work of discipleship. That might look like teaching or learning about scripture. It might be leading a ministry, or simply meeting with someone else informally. It might be praying for the saints in the church or serving one another with meals. We are all called to do ministry. Some of us like elders and deacons have a formal office where we focus on particular aspects of ministry. Others like our missionaries are called to a particular place. But all Christians are called to ministry. Because all Christians have the Holy Spirit who empowers us. There are a number of different ways that ministry is accomplished, but the Holy Spirit is the power for any of it.
Grace Church, we need the Holy Spirit to share the gospel with others and love our neighbors. This is not only an individual Commission. We are called as a church to go and make disciples.
Kids, listen to this too. You are not excluded from going and telling the mighty works of God. Many of you have already been baptized. That means that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you too. That means that you have the power of the Holy Spirit to do ministry. Ask your parents what kind ways you could begin to do ministry?
For everyone, ask yourself: what does this look like in my life? Where am I ministering now, what areas do I need to press in more?
What does this look like in your family? Where am I ministering now, what areas do I need to press in more?
What does this look like in our church? Where am I ministering now, what areas do I need to press in more?
I’m the pastor of discipleship, but I don’t have all the answers. Ask the Holy Spirit, and ask one another, where do we need to press in more as a church?
New Wine of the New Covenant
12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Some mocked this amazing scene and tried to explain it away thinking the disciples were drunk. This is something that even Christians are prone to. We want a rational, natural explanation instead of recognizing that God works supernaturally. Are they drunk? Peter immediately refutes that and says that they aren’t drunk. But in a bit of irony, he doesn’t say they are not filled with new wine. Because they were filled with new wine: the wine of the New Covenant. At the Last Supper Jesus said, this cup is the new covenant. And the coming of the Holy Spirit is the seal of this New covenant.
God works through covenants, by making promises with conditions to his people. It all begins with faith that God will do what he has promised. If you trust the Lord and obey, you will be blessed. If you disobey there are curses. When Israel was under the Old Covenant they were unable to keep their end of the covenant. So they were cursed and sent into exile. While in exile prophets like Ezekiel spoke of a new, better covenant that God would make.
Ezekiel 36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
God would wash his people clean. He would give them new hearts. He would remove the heart of stone that we are all born with and replace it with a heart of flesh. A new living heart. And he would send his Spirit to dwell in that new heart of flesh. And through the power of his Spirit, cause his people to actually obey. Again we see the power and work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. When we believe in the promises of God, that we will be made clean through the cross of Christ, we will receive the Holy Spirit. We are brought into the covenant people of God, for the purpose of enlarging the covenant people of God.
This covenant will go out to the whole world. All nations will be brought into the New Covenant. This is where the New Covenant picks up on the reversal of Babylon. While we don’t have one universal, Christian language, the thing that unites us is the Word of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings a bond between all people who have faith in the gospel.
So, in conclusion, we return to our original questions: what is Pentecost and why does it matter? What started as the yearly observance of a harvest festival and the giving of the law, is now changed into a momentous event where the Holy Spirit fills the church with power for a harvest of souls and a new way to remember the law. In the New Covenant the law is now written on our hearts.
Pentecost marks the day that the Holy Spirit came to dwell in the hearts of God’s people, to undo the curse of Babel, empower the church for ministry and usher in the New Covenant.
It’s the moment that the Holy Spirit came down to the church with power. Power to undo curses, power to do ministry and power to bring in the New Covenant. God’s presence and power still dwells in a temple. Only now that temple is us, the people of God. The Holy Spirit coming was incredibly important. Jesus said so himself.
Pastor and author John Stott says this about the Holy Spirit:
‘Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from his fruit, and no effective witness without his power. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead.’ John Stott (Acts commentary p.60)
Without the Holy spirit the church is dead. Think about that. If we want to see Christ’s church grow and expand, and see this world come from death to life, we need the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that the Lord would continue to fill us with the Holy spirit and empower us to bring his Mighty Works to the world.
Heavenly Father, creator of all things and giver of good gifts, we thank you for sending your Son to redeem a people from sin and death. We thank you for sending the Holy Spirit. You give us everything we need to know you and live righteous lives of obedience to you. Help us to understand this passage and apply it in ways that are pleasing to you and that would strengthen not only Grace Church, but your universal church. May we see other churches empowered by the Holy Spirit come to greater health. May we see people come to faith and be filled with the Holy Spirit. May we see our missionaries have increasing success