Sunday, May 15, 2016

THE ASTONISHMENT OF PENTECOST

In the Old Testament the Jews had a festival called “The Feast of Weeks," or Shavuot. It was an annual holiday that took place at the beginning of wheat harvest. The festival not only had the purpose of giving thanks for the harvest, but in Jewish tradition, it was also on this day in history that Moses was given the Law of God on Mount Sinai.

I give you this little background about this day, because it is this day that in the New Testament is called “Pentecost.” It is also the day we still observe today, fifty days after we celebrated Easter. The word Pentecost actually does mean “fiftieth day.” It also comes ten days after Ascension Day. Ascension Day was the day when Jesus ascended into heaven, as witnessed by his watching and wondering disciples. 

A Promise Given

On that day that Jesus ascended into heaven, before he did so, he told his disciples that he would be sending “the promise” of the Father upon them. They were to wait in Jerusalem for this promise, at which time they would be “clothed with power from on high.” That is the way he put it. Jesus spoke in reference to what the prophet Joel wrote. The promise reads, in part, “I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)
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Jesus then explained to the disciples, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). It turned out to be ten days, but the disciples did not know that at the time.

This promise of Jesus led the disciples to ask a rather strange question; at least it seems strange to me: “Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

I am not quite sure what the disciples meant by that question. At the time, the nation of Israel was under the Roman occupation, and for most of the people of Israel, “restoring the kingdom” simply meant regaining their independence from Rome. This topic came up often during the ministry of Jesus, but it seems surprising to me that the disciples would still be thinking merely in these terms. I think that probably they were speaking of the dawning of a new age, one in which the Messiah would return to rule.

“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority,” Jesus answered them. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8 NAS). 

Waiting for the Promise

So the disciples waited. They returned to the city to the same upper room where they had been staying, and they waited. They waited ten days. However, during this time they did not just sit around playing cards. They devoted themselves to prayer. They were also joined by others for these times of prayers. The women who had gone to the tomb on the resurrection morning joined them, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and also his brothers, who at first did not believe in him, but later became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. In all, there were about 120 people in that room. (It must have been a larger room).

When the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples were all together in that place. It is even possible that all 120 people were still there. It was true that they had been waiting in those days in a state of expectation, but there is nothing in particular to indicate that they expected the Holy Spirit to come on that specific day, and most certainly not with the manifestation of how he came. 

Communication Turns to Babbling

As you know, when the Holy Spirit came to those in the room, they all began to speak in tongues. That is, they spoke in languages that they did not know. But before we go on to hear about the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to again go back into history. This time even much earlier than the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The date of this earlier event is unknown, but perhaps it was about 2200 BC. It was after God had sent the great flood at the time of Noah. The flood had been a judgment on the wickedness of the people of that time.

After the flood, God told Noah and his family, eight people in all, that they were to be fruitful and multiply, and to “fill the earth.” This was a renewal of the blessing and commandment that he had originally given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had told them the same thing.

For some centuries after the flood, this was the intent of the families of the earth. It perhaps even remained the intention of many, but it was not so for every group of people. Some of these people, in their migration, decided that they did not want to follow these instructions of God.

Instead, when they came to a great plain called Shinar, they decided to all settle there, none of them wishing to continue on. They instead said to one another, “Let us build a city and tower with a top that rises high into the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4). 

Cities instead of Families

God’s intentions for the people of the earth was that they should be associated together as families. However, this idea of the people on the plain of Shinar was the first serious attempt to associate themselves instead by building great city. Instead of being known by their family, they wanted instead to be known by their celebrated city. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said.

The people put themselves to the task. The great tower that they began to build was to be a monument to themselves and to their achievements, rather than to what God had done. What they did was actually an act of rebellion against what God had told them. God decided to put an end to it.

He allowed these people to get good start at their task before he stepped in, but then he said, “They are one people and of one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they propose will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6).

You already know the story of God’s simple solution to put a stop to this rebellion. He again separated them into families by giving them each a distinct language, so that they could not understand one another. With that, the people were once again dispersed, eventually leading to the populating of every part of the earth.

One of their goals had been met, however. Although most or perhaps all of them had to abandon their city, at least it came to have a name. Babel. It means “confusion.” The common language that they all once spoke became confused. 

This is undoubtedly a very simplified abbreviation of the entire account of what happened during those years, but it is an accurate account of the beginnings of the distinct languages of the earth. It is a distinction that remains yet today. Differences in languages still present a very real barrier. 

Return to Understanding

Since we have gone into the distant past in our history, let us now look for a moment into the future. It may be our distant future, but also perhaps not so distant. This scene was revealed to the Apostle John and written by him in the book of Revelation. It takes place in the very throne room of God. John writes: 

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes. They had palm branches in their hands, and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. These fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12) 

You will notice that John mentions this great multitude was from “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.” They were all standing before the throne and worshiping God. Of course I do not know exactly what John heard, but from his description of the event, it would seem that the people in this great multitude were not speaking a single language, but instead spoke with many distinct tongues.

Even the angels and other living creatures were there worshiping God, presumably speaking in a way that would not be understood here on earth. Nevertheless, even with all of these distinct languages, there seemed to be no communication difficulties. John was able to understand not only the fact that they were worshiping God, but he even understood the words. 

Communication Upgrade

By looking at these two perspectives, both from the past in human history before Babel, and in the future in the throne room of God, we see situations where there is no communication problem. Men and women and children speak freely without the need for a translation dictionary or translating software. Well, perhaps I should say that in heaven we will have translating software, but that software will be hard-wired into each one of us. One may speak to me in a language as obscure as Finnish, for instance, and I will be able to understand him perfectly.[1]

Except of course, we are humans and not androids. This ability to communicate will not come from some great breakthrough with Apple computers. It will come from the hand of God himself. The barrier that he imposed at Babel will be lifted. 

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

And now finally we come to the subject of the day, the Day of Pentecost. As we already know, the disciples and others were gathered in the room, waiting for the promise of God – the coming of the Holy Spirit. Although the disciples had the promise of the coming of the Spirit, I do not know if they had any idea when this would occur. They had already waited ten days.

Since the Day of Pentecost was a significant holiday that had been initiated by God, the disciples perhaps suspected that it may be on that day. But we are told none of this. However, even if they may have had an inclination of the day, I am quite sure that they had no idea of the manner in which the Holy Spirit came upon them, and of the results.

I think that the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on that day was unlike anything that they had expected. Certainly, in their years of walking with Jesus, they had seen and heard many astounding things and had seen Jesus act in sometimes forceful and even violent ways, such as when he overturned the money changer’s tables in the temple and threw out others who were using the temple to conduct business. However, it is at least my impression that the daily ministry of Jesus was more low-keyed and unpretentious.

Jesus would sit down before the people and speak to them in parables. He told them stories. More than once, when some Jews formed a mob to try and kill him, he did not strike them back. He instead quietly passed through the crowd and exited the situation without them even noticing. He simply defused the situation.

Also, the arrival of Jesus onto this earth could not have been more uneventful. He was born into the humblest of families in an obscure stable. Sure, the angels appeared to a few shepherds, but other than that, almost no one in Israel noticed. 

Elijah Hears the Soft Voice of God

Concerning previous manifestations of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost, neither had these usually been especially impressive, at least in outward appearance. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was mostly seen as an influence. The case of Elijah the prophet is especially interesting in this regard.

Elijah himself was far from low-key. I don’t think that calling him bombastic would be too far off the mark. He appears abruptly on the scene by suddenly standing before the king Ahab and announcing to him that there was to be three years of drought that would be so severe that there would not even be any dew. Among his activities while serving as a prophet of God was that he challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a contest to give them the opportunity to prove the existence of their god, during which time Elijah called fire down from heaven to consume a sacrifice that he had made to show that his own God was real.

Nevertheless, despite his boisterous personality, when he was in a cave on Mount Horeb waiting for direction from the Lord, God told him to stand at the mouth of the cave so that the prophet could hear God’s word. While Elijah stood at the entrance of the cave, a great and strong wind began to blow. So powerful was it that it was slashing at the mountains, dislodging rocks and causing them fall, shattering them on the mountainside. One may expect God to speak in such a powerful way, but this was not the voice of the Lord.

Then a great earthquake occurred, but neither was this a manifestation of God. After that a fire. But as the text tells us, “Neither was the Lord in the fire.” These three powerful phenomena occurred, but God spoke through none of them.

Then after these three, there came then the sound of a gentle blowing. A soft breeze. With that breeze, the voice of God also came to Elijah. Accompanied by an almost silent breath, the Spirit of God spoke to the prophet. The Holy Spirit came with gentleness. (1 Kings 17-19) 

Descending Like a Dove

It was in this same gentle manner that the Holy Spirit came at the baptism of Jesus. John the Baptist testified to the fact that, after the baptism, he saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove out of heaven and then lighting upon Jesus. (Matthew 3:16; John 1:32) 

Descending like a Flaming Tornado

Consequently, given the examples of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the past, I think that the disciples, while they awaited the arrival of the Holy Spirit in their upper room, never expected the manner in which he came. There was no dove descending here, no gentle breeze at the mouth of a cave. 
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4) 

Predictability and Inconceivability (if that’s a word)

There are many things about God that are predictable. His faithfulness to his people is one of these things. Also his grace and his mercy for those who seek him. He is also predictable in regards to his opposition to all that is evil. Despite the greatness of his mercy, his retribution to those who persist in evil and especially on those who promote evil is also certain. These are truths about God that will remain. When all of history has concluded, we will see that God holds strongly to all of these qualities of his personality.

But there are other things in which God is far from predictable. The way that the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost is only an example of this. Once you decide to follow God, I mean really follow him, you can expect a wild ride.

This does not mean that if your idea of following God is merely to go to church most Sundays and say a table grace before you eat a meal, that you will necessarily see the unpredictability of God. If this is your idea of following God, you have all but locked yourself in to the very definition of predictability.

The level of following God that I am talking about is seen best in the disciples themselves. When these men left their fishing boats to follow Christ, when they left their tax collector’s table and their other work, who would have guessed what they had in store for their lives?

But God may just as likely call you to a very ordinary existence. The life that he has in store for you may mean for you a quiet and contemplative life, working a job and perhaps raising a family. The point is, when one decides to follow the Lord, one’s life becomes God’s, and he will call you to do things that you may never have otherwise expected. But one thing is certain, if it is God who is setting the agenda for your life and not some artificial standard of the world, you will live a life that is completely fulfilled. 

Next week I will talk about what happened in that upper room in the center of the town of Jerusalem, and how it forever changed the lives of those who were present.


[1] I said this tongue in cheek, because the community of Tripoli/Brantwood, where the Log Church is located, is largely of Finnish descent


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