I think it is both important and helpful for us to try and understand the context and significance of this awesome event known as Pentecost, which some refer to as being the ‘birth of the Church’.
However, if we were to look solely at the set reading for today, we would miss out on that context because it only gives us a glimpse at part of the story or account. Therefore, I have included the remainder of the chapter so that we might be able to consider the account in all fullness.
In Jesus’ time, the Jews observed three great annual pilgrimage festivals, when many would travel to Jerusalem and worship in the Temple. These pilgrimage festivals are:
- The Festival of Passover, comprising the spring feasts of:
- Passover (14th day of 1st month (March / April))
- Unleavened Bread (15th – 21st of 1st month (March / April)), and
- First Fruits (The day following the Sabbath during the feast of Unleavened Bread (March / April))
- The Festival of Weeks (Pentecost, 50th day after First Fruits, at the end of the grain harvest), and
- The Festival of Booths / Tabernacles (Shelters, 15th-21st days of 7th month (September / October))
I may return to these pilgrimage festivals at some other point; what I would like us to concentrate on today is the Festival of Weeks or Pentecost. This was celebrated on the sixth day of the third month (May/June), some seven weeks after Passover – typically on the 50th day after the feast of First Fruits. Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival. The Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and we know that Jews from every nation across the empire would have been present in Jerusalem at that time, all speaking their native tongue.
On that decisive day, when the disciples and Jesus’ followers were united and expectant as they gathered for prayer, the Holy Spirit came and filled the gathered believers. It is incredible that when the Holy Spirit came upon those gathered, which from Acts 1 we can understand to be 120 people, they “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” That is a good number of people and not surprisingly hearing the commotion “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
It’s interesting to see that people responded in one of two ways. We are told that “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”” Even though God was at work in such a powerful way, sending of Himself once again, as the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had promised, there were still some who rejected Him, just like they had rejected Jesus.
It is at this point that Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, stepped forward and addressed all who were gathered. The heart of his address is about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how Jesus fulfilled all of the promises about the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter and the other apostles were eyewitnesses of that and were prepared to testify about its truth. There is a sense that Jesus fulfilled the first three feasts, in His death, burial and resurrection (Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits). The Feast of Weeks is fulfilled through the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower and equip the Church to bring the harvest of the Gospel.
We know that when those present who heard Peter’s address they were cut to the heart and then responded… “Brothers, what should we do?” There will be many times when we too might be convicted by something we hear in Scripture, and we are always invited to respond. There may be those God-given moments when we encounter someone who doesn’t know Jesus who wants to know more; we have more opportunities to share our testimony than we perhaps first realise, whether with family, friends or the wider communities we find ourselves part of. Are we perhaps ready? Are we in a position to respond to that question – “Brothers, what should we do?”
The message Peter brought was simple:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
We are told that “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
There are some important points to draw out of this account:
- When the law was given to God’s people, 3000 of them fell (Exodus 32:28), but here in this account, when the Holy Spirit was given, 3000 were saved. The law is overcome, fulfilled, or taken to its conclusion by the grace of Jesus.
- In Genesis 11, when the people built the Tower of Babel to ‘make a name for themselves’, the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” The people had become full of pride and idolatrous, and God’s response was to confuse their language and scatter them. Yet in this account in Acts, at Pentecost, the people gathered and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” It is like a great reversal or a great restoration.
- The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. He never left. It may be that we don’t understand the Trinity; it’s something that we can explore together on Trinity Sunday next week. It may be that we relate better to God as Father, or God as Son and less so to God as Holy Spirit. I think it is spiritually healthy to understand the Trinity and not to be hesitant about the Holy Spirit. He wants to bless us with gifts, to equip us, to ‘be’ Church and to edify God. The Church would not have come into being without the Holy Spirit being at work. And of course, in being obedient to God and embracing that enabling of the Holy Spirit we know that it leads to the Fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
- I don’t know about you, but I think that is an amazing list and I would like more of that in my life. Let’s bow our heads to pray, and open our hearts to receive God in all fullness and as I bring each section of prayer to a close with “Come Holy Spirit”, let our response be “Come Holy Spirit, come”. Amen