At 4 AM on April 29, 2003 I was awakened by the house shaking and the windows rattling. In that early morning haze, I wasn’t sure what it was and eventually went back to sleep. Later on I found out it was an earthquake, but at the time I had no idea what was happening. One other time when we lived in Iowa, we were awakened at 3:30 A.M. by the drone of the police helicopter. Now the sound of the police helicopter was not that unusual for it frequently flew overhead. But that time, it seemed to be circling around our house and it kept this up for at least 10 minutes. Now at 3:30 a.m. having been awakened from a sound sleep, your mind starts doing strange things. Obviously the police are looking for someone, more than likely a burglar. But maybe he’s hiding by our house. Or maybe, he’s not a burglar at all, but some demented escapee on a rampage. At a more reasonable hour such thoughts don’t enter the mind, but at 3:30 a.m. one is more susceptible to them. I found myself wide awake and wondering, “What in the world is going on out there anyway?” I never did find out what had happened in that case.
I wonder if that may have been something of how the people in Jerusalem felt on that first Pentecost Sunday. Those men who had followed Jesus were really excited about something and were speaking in different languages so that everyone there could understand. Well, happily for them, they did find out what was going on that first Pentecost. And not only was their curiosity satisfied; many of their lives were changed forever. Let’s read Acts 2:1-21.
I. Let’s first look for a bit at the background of Pentecost.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival held 50 days after the first sheaf of barley was harvested. On that day, the people brought their first fruits as an offering of thanksgiving to God. In that sense, it was much like our Thanksgiving Day. Later on, the Jews also used it to remember God’s giving of the law to Moses on Sinai. And so the day itself is rich with meaning from Luke’s point of view. On this day, the church received the first-fruits of the Holy Spirit. On this day, instead of revealing himself through the law, God now reveals himself through the Spirit to his people.
On that day, many people from all over that region were in Jerusalem to celebrate. They came from Northern Africa, Rome, Asia Minor, and Arabia. All these people were of Jewish ancestry but they represented many nations. And on this particular day, the disciples were all gathered in one place. Fifty days after the resurrection, there were now 120 believers all together. They were likely gathered in or around the Temple, praying, praising God and eagerly awaiting what Jesus had promised them. And so now the time was right for all those people were there from all over the world. The people were thinking of God’s revelation of himself during Pentecost. The disciples were waiting for the promised comforter.
Suddenly, the peaceful holiday was disturbed for the disciples by some remarkable signs. First, there was the blowing sound of a violent wind. Not real wind like we have in a thunderstorm, but only the sound of wind. This sign was for the people’s ears. Secondly, they saw things that looked like tongues of fire. This was not real fire, but fire-like tongues which rested on each person’s head. The tongues of fire were something for each of them to see; a sign for their eyes.
Both of these external signs pointed to something that was happening internally. They were being filled with the Holy Spirit. Suddenly these weak and timid disciples became very bold and confident. And they began to speak in different languages as the Spirit enabled them. They were not “speaking in tongues” as some Christians believe. These men began speaking distinct languages which the pilgrims from the 15 areas could understand and which prior to this moment, they were not able to speak.
And as all this was occurring, the people of Jerusalem and all its visitors did, in fact, wonder, “What does this mean?”and “What in the world is going on?” Peter goes on to explain what has really happened in the rest of Acts 2. Peter said that something the people had been expecting for a long time, since the days of the Old Testament, had now come. The Spirit has been poured out and he has come because of Jesus. The bottom line is that all people should repent and believe. Let’s look at what Pentecost meant for the church then and now.
First, these signs of Pentecost all point to the powerful presence of God. The wind is a symbol of God’s power. We have seen the destructive power of wind in the force of a thunderstorm. The wind at Pentecost symbolizes the fact that God is powerfully present now with his people.
Fire is also a sign of God’s cleansing or purifying power. A few years ago forest fires raged through parts of Yosemite National Park. Forestry experts said that it burned the fallen timber and dead wood that had gradually been building up over the past many years. Even though the fire did much damage, the forest itself was cleansed from all the dead wood. Just as fire cleans out dead wood, God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit sweeps away the sins of those who believe in Jesus. Finally, the many languages show that the Gospel is not just for a few. God’s powerful presence and grace is intended for all peoples.
So what is Pentecost? The late pastor Jacob Eppinga summarized it in this way. First, Pentecost means that a fellowship of believers is created. The out-pouring of the Holy Spirit is not an individualistic thing. The Spirit binds Christians together in a special way. Ben Patterson gives an example from a time during the height of the school integration struggle in Alabama. A first-grader went on her first day to a newly integrated school and her mother worried about her all day. Finally when her little girl came home, she asked anxiously, “How did everything go, honey?” The little girl said, “Guess what? A little black girl sat next to me!” Fearful of trauma of some kind, the mother asked, “And what happened?” The little girl said, “We were both so scared that we held hands all day.” The Spirit bonds Christians together in a oneness that overlooks the differences.
Second, Pentecost means a witnessing fellowship. As soon as they were filled with the Spirit they began to tell others of Jesus. Powerful and bold witnessing is what Pentecost is all about.
Third, Pentecost means a joyful witnessing fellowship. Verse 13 indicates that the disciples were so joyful and excited that those who observed them thought they were drunk. We should experience joy as we sense the Holy Spirit working in our lives and in the lives of others.
Finally, Pentecost means a powerful, joyful, witnessing fellowship. Power is what the led to the conversion of 3,000 people on that one day. Pentecost means that the church of Jesus Christ began its mission to proclaim the joyful news of salvation to all peoples and nations.
“Roger, Five Zero Romeo,” came the controller’s voice. Turn left 30 degrees.” It was the controller’s way of getting the airplane out of the danger zone. Seconds later I heard the relief in the pilot’s voice as he responded, “Five Zero Romeo. Cessna just passed on my starboard side. Request permission to resume course.” May writes that all the rest of his flight, he kept thinking of the pilot’s words: “No joy!”
Without the Holy Spirit which powerfully unites all believers in a saving relationship with Jesus, there is truly “no joy” in people’s lives. Indeed without the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus and the working of the Holy Spirit, we are on a collision course with eternal death. There may be people you know; people who have “no joy” in their lives. Pentecost must also help us remember what the church is and what we as a church are to be doing: we are to be continuing the mission of proclaiming the joy of the Gospel.
IV. With the Spirit’s power, we must press forward with the church’s mission.
The church is be a place where people can find the answers to the questions of life. There are many people today who are open to talking about spiritual things. There are emotional and physical needs that we can be meeting. We have opportunities to be witnesses for Christ as a church. And, of course, each one of us must proclaim the good news of salvation to those around us in the power of the Holy Spirit.