April 2, 2020

Pentecost: The Third Great Day

pentecost10.jpgAct 2:1-8 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. (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. (4) And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (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?

We had our Pentecost worship gathering at soli deo this week, and I once again was amazed at what bad press the Feast of Pentecost usually gets among most evangelical Christians. How did such an important part of the Christian story become so lost and muddled?

For example, if you read the Gospels, you are bound to notice that no matter what happens, Jesus never tells his disciples, “OK…that’s all there is. Time to get to work.” There is always something more to come.

The disciples not only saw some incredible demonstrations of power, they experienced some of that power working through themselves on the two occasions when Jesus sent them out on missions “two by two.” I’m sure that after seeing the miracles of Jesus, the disciples would have said, “the Spirit of God is here. What are we waiting for?” Jesus said things about the presence of the Holy Spirit in his ministry that sounded like the age of the Spirit had arrived. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” What more could anyone ask for?

Of course, that was exactly the point. There WAS more to come. The Spirit that the disciples experienced in Jesus was coming to everyone in the people of God in fullness. In John 14 and 16, Jesus said that it would actually be better for him to go away so that the Spirit could come to all of his disciples in an intimate, advocating, comforting and consoling way. The Holy Spirit was coming upon the church in a way that had been predicted in the prophetic scriptures and previewed in the ministry of Jesus.

Even after the resurrection, the disciples are being prepared for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The resurrection does not do for the church what the coming of the Holy Spirit does for the church. Imagine setting around with Jesus for those 40 days after Easter, being told, “Wait. Not yet. The Spirit hasn’t yet come.” If we put the overlap of the book of Acts onto the end of the Gospels, then the disciples believe the Kingdom simply needs to be announced by Jesus, but he is saying, “Wait until the Holy Spirit comes. Then you will be my witnesses everywhere.”

In other words, the entire Bible is waiting for the day of Pentecost to arrive, for all the work of Jesus to be completed and the church to be born. What an incredible event! It is the church’s “Third Great Day.”

It seems odd that non-liturgical churches marking the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus often lose Pentecost completely. The coming of the Spirit is a major event in the New Testament; a defining event in the history and identity of God’s people. For Christians, the first great act of the ascended, reigning Christ was to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church. The gathered disciples are really not the ekklesia of Jesus Christ- the New Covenant people of God- until the Holy Spirit comes. It is the birth of the church.

How unfortunate then that evangelicals either lost Pentecost or put the focus entirely on the wrong aspects. For example, I recall being in a large church where the pastor- with a seminary doctorate- was preaching that the point of Pentecost was….to draw a crowd. Yes, Pentecost was a way for God to create some fireworks and get a crowd together for the first big church event. It’s almost comedic to think of Pentecost being an attendance stunt. While Acts tells us that the crowd in the temple that heard the first Christian sermon was amazed at what they heard, how did the emphasis ever fall on Acts 2 as a lesson on justifying whatever we need to do to get a lot of people in the building?

Of course, the recent Azusa Street Revival Anniversary celebrations remind me that there are millions of Christians who see Pentecost primarily in terms of the arrival of power for the operation of the Gifts of the Spirit. The increasing influence of “Pentecostal” evangelicalism brings with it many positive contributions in worship, body life and evangelism, but the over-emphasis on spiritual gifts makes the letters to the Corinthians more pertinent than ever.

While the Holy Spirit is the author and giver of gifts, the place of spiritual gifts in the church seems to be one of the most distracting, misunderstood issues among Christians. I believe the New Testament compels us to be open to all the giftings and operations of the Spirit that God may send to his people as they witness, minister and serve. At the same time, the Holy Spirit does not give gifts as a way to divide the church into the “spiritual” and the “unspiritual.” Incredibly, some of those evangelicals who most loudly proclaim the heritage of Azusa Street seem determined to view the Holy Spirit in terms remarkably similar to the divisiveness and immaturity of the Corinthians.

The Holy Spirit did not come to divide the church, but to birth it, equip it and unite it. In I Corinthians 12, Paul says that the one thing all members of the body have in common is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is a clear reference to Pentecost, and the promise that the same “Pentecostal blessing” that came on the Apostles will come on all who believe. (Acts 2:38-39) Pentecost itself is repeated in Samaria, in the home of Cornelius and in the case of disciples of John the Baptist, not to teach a universal experience of tongues, but to show the apostles that the same Holy Spirit that came from Jesus to them was given to all peoples, just as the old covenant had promised.

The clear purpose of Pentecost was to bring into birth a new people of God, the beneficiaries of the ministry of the one mediator between God and man and all that he accomplishes in his life, death, resurrection, ascension and session. Pentecost is not a show or the dividing of the church into a spiritual competition between those with spiritual gifts and those not yet blessed. Pentecost is the creation of the people of God that scripture has always looked toward, from the covenant with Abraham until the consummation in the Kingdom.

The celebration of Pentecost should be among the church’s most important days because everything that it means to be the church- election, inheritance, salvation, empowering, community, mission, hope- all comes in the Holy Spirit that is poured out on Pentecost. Let’s reclaim the meaning and significance of this day, and make it a day that belongs to all Christians as our joyful, common birthday.

Comments

  1. As a Pentecostal, I have to say you’re right on about how we overemphasize the Spirit’s gifts. The Spirit gives gifts to whomever He wants, and this shouldn’t make us proud, but humble, because we both recognize our unworthiness to bear His gifts, and our unworthiness to accept praise for something He does. The fact that many Pentecostals brag about their gifts just goes to show us that the Spirit is still willing to work with unworthy, immature people (and that is, ultimately, a good thing) but perhaps we should look at the other side of it: Perhaps the lack of mature Spirit-empowered people is because a lot of the so-called “mature Christians” suffer from pride in their maturity and orthodoxy, as if THAT wasn’t likewise a gift from God.

    Oddly enough, my church didn’t even mention that it was Pentecost Sunday. It rarely does. We don’t celebrate the day so much as we celebrate the Person in our midst on a daily basis.

  2. To further illustrate your point, Michael, a few years past, I bought one of those “Christian” calendars on the market. You know, the ones with the modern Christian poster art illustrating each month of the year.

    To my surprise, the feast of Penecost was not even marked on the calendar. It had each and every secular holiday and Christmas and Easter, but no Pentecost! I even wrote to the publishers asking about the issue, but got no response. I check each year and the feast has yet to be added.

    And now my favorite liturgical calendar is no longer being sold at my favorite bookstore, so I am stuck with these pablum calendars each year that I have to manually mark with the Chritian holidays.

    Truly an odd situation.

  3. Touchstone Magazine publishes a wonderful Christian calendar, with superb art. I get it as a Christmas gift. It’s cheap now, and ther 07s willbe along soon.

    http://www.fsj.org/newsite/pages/cal.html

  4. I’m not really surprised at the treatment and interpretation evangelicals give to this feast and event.
    In my experience serious evangelicals do not celebrate Christmas and Easter for their intrinsic value and meaning either, but because in our culture they still provide a religious talking point. Pentecost seen theologically doesn’t, so it’s ignored. That also explains why the have no problem with dropping Christmas Day services in favor of evangelistic Christmas Eve services. And less serious evangelicals only celebrate Christmas and Easter as cultural ‘holidays’, and there Pentecost qualifies even less.

  5. I think wnpaul has probably hit the nail on the head. In the UK, Pentecost (or “Whitsun”, as it used to be known) has plummeted in its cultural importance since it ceased to be a public holiday about 30 years ago – to the extent that Walsingham hosted a “national pilgrimage” recently that took place on the bank holiday weekend before Pentecost, rather than (as might have seemed more logical) at Pentecost itself.

    Previously it was quite a significant weekend – my mother remembers it was traditional to get new clothes to celebrate Whitsun (so that young girls would compare one another’s “Whitty dresses”).

    Now, Pentecost is probably celebrated with the greatest fervour in charismatic churches, which is a shame, because it feeds into the perception (fostered by many charismatics) that only charismatics/pentecostals pay any real attention to the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit was largely ignored by the church until 1906 – a charge that the very existence of Whitsun in the church calendar should refute.