May 2008 - Vol. 19
 
The Grace of Pentecost

What happened to the human race on the Day of Pentecost and what does it mean for us today?

by Steve Clark

 

The Christian feast of Pentecost fulfills the old covenant feast
For Christians, Pentecost commonly refers to the event that is described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.  It is the day on which the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples of Jesus, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection. It is, in other words, the day referred to in John 7:39 in which the Holy Spirit was given, that is, was given in an abiding or ongoing way to human beings who had come to believe in Christ.

Pentecost was instituted in the Old Testament. In fact, it is only a Christian or new covenant feast because the new covenant is built upon the old and fulfills what is in the old, including its feasts. Most of us can look through the whole Old Testament in the Bible we normally use and not find any references to Pentecost. That is one of the reasons why we are surprised at the idea that Pentecost is an old covenant feast. But it is mentioned somewhat often in the Old Testament under the name of the Feast of Weeks. Pentecost means “fiftieth,” and the day marks the festal conclusion to the week of weeks that made up Passover season (see Leviticus 23:15-16). Most English Bibles, following the Greek text, translate the name of the feast as “Pentecost” in the New Testament and, following the Hebrew, “the Feast of Weeks” in the Old Testament, but they are the same feast.

Pentecost was a harvest feast, the feast in which the first sheaf of the wheat harvest was offered to the Lord in thanksgiving for the harvest, acknowledging him as the giver of the harvest. At the time of Jesus and the apostles, however, it also seems to have been understood as the feast that celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which occurred about fifty days after the Exodus. That means that we can read about the first Day of Pentecost in Exodus 19 and 20. In doing that, we learn a great deal about the new covenant Day of Pentecost.

It is important that the original Day of Pentecost occurred right after the Exodus. It is also significant that it occurred on the mountain of Sinai, which in Exodus 24 is called “the mountain of God.” It was a mountain that belonged to God, one on which he was especially present. Mount Sinai, therefore, was a natural temple. The people of Israel were encamped before the place where the Lord was especially present.

On the Day of Pentecost at Sinai, then, God established a relationship with a people, the people of Israel. That relationship was covenantal and corporate, a committed relationship with a body of people. It involved how they lived their ongoing daily life. This, then, is what God was about when he redeemed his people. Redemption is not an end in itself, but it is for a purpose. God redeems people so that they might come to him and live as his people. This was the purpose of the redemption that occurred at the Passover and in the Exodus. This, as we shall see, is the purpoe of the redemption that occurs in the new covenant as well.

The Event of Pentecost in Acts 2 (The Experience)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

(Acts 2:1-4)
 
 

 

The second chapter of Acts begins with the description of the outpouring of the Spirit. While the first disciples were together, something striking happened to them. It had some notable similarities to what had happened on Sinai. 

There was a sound like a mighty wind, a strong blowing sound. There was also, even more important, fire, the sign of Gods presence when he appeared in the burning bush and in the pillar of fire. As we have seen, fire is a symbol for God. It is powerful enough to destroy. For those things ready to receive it, however, it can purify or refine. It can heat something up, giving a knife, for instance, the ability to burn or a pot the capacity to cook. It can unite things when, for instance, it bakes bread or fuses two pieces of metal together. Just as God descended in fire on Sinai to manifest himself to his people, so he descended on Mount Zion.

This time, however, God's descent was different. At Sinai he stood before them so that he might speak to them externally. On Mount Zion, however, the fire parted into separate flames, everyone will make it through that time of trial, because not everyone will have experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and so be prepared. Only those who ”call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter then explained who the Lord is whom people need to call upon:

They showed that Jesus was not just a condemned insurrectionist or blasphemer but the Lord and Christ. Only the Lord and Christ would be in the kind of relationship with the Father that meant he could pour out the Holy Spirit.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." (Acts 2:37-39)
The cause of what had happened, of the experience that drew the crowds attention, was the Lord himself. More precisely, it was the resurrection and ascension of the Lord, which put him in a position to pour out the Holy Spirit. The fulfillment of the Promise, then, came through the resurrection and ascension of Christ, events human beings could not see but which produced results in our world human beings could and still can see. It was those results that impressed the crowd.

As a result of Peter's preaching, many of those who had heard him were “cut to the heart,” affected in a way that meant they were ready to change. They desired to turn to the Lord. Peter then explained to them how they could do that. They needed to repent and be baptized, not with the baptism of John but in the name of Jesus Christ. As a result of that they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift was available not just to the original disciples but to everyone whom the Lord calls to himself.

The Result
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.

(Acts 2:41-43)
 
 

 

Many accepted what Peter said and were baptized. Then it says, “There were added” three thousand people. They were added to a community, the body of believers in Christ, the Christian people, the first Christian church. A description of this community follows in Acts 2:42-47. A very similar description can be found in Acts 4:32-37.

The first item in the description of the first Christian community, the apostles' teaching and fellowship [community], possibly refers to the common life created by the teaching about Christ and the new covenant in him, possibly to the regular gatherings with the apostles. The breaking of bread probably refers to what we would call the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. The prayers is probably the regular daily and weekly prayers celebrated by the old covenant people, a pattern of prayer that was continued by believers in Christ. The grace of Pentecost, then, produced a renewal in worship of the Lord God.

The result was powerful witness, something that produced the fear of the Lord in others. This was reinforced by “many signs and wonders done through the apostles” because of the new power they had received through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
The description continues by saying that all the believers were together and had all things in common. The early Christians did not scatter, filled with the Spirit and directed by him to go out into the entire world. The opposite happened. They came together and formed a community that was more united than human beings had been since the Tower of Babel or, more likely, since the Fall itself. Their oneness was a sign of the Spirit's being in them.

They were together. Even though, as is clear from the description of the first Christians in the early chapters of Acts, they all did not live in one building or on one plot of ground, they came together regularly and shared their lives in various ways. They also had “all things in common.” This probably did not mean that they had the equivalent of one bank account, a system of common finances, but that they recognized the claim that their brothers and sisters in Christ had upon their personal finances and so were willing to share what they had when others had need. The first Christians had become “spiritual” in a new way, and this was not just expressed in direct relationship with God but also in relationship with one another. The grace of Pentecost, then, produced a renewal in community, what we might speak of as Christian community.

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
The new life of the first believers was expressed partly in sharing in the temple prayers and partly in eucharistic gatherings among themselves. They were visible enough to those around them, and their spiritual commitment was obvious enough, that their life had an impact on others. No doubt there was individual evangelism, but the account in Acts 2 emphasizes that it was their life together that impacted others. The result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a community living “in the Spirit,” and this drew others to the Lord. The grace of Pentecost, then, produced effective evangelism.

The New Covenant blessing
Pentecost occurred because the Lord had a purpose in redeeming us. The Holy Spirit was poured out not just so that our sins could be forgiven, although they needed to be forgiven for us to receive the outpouring. The Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost on Mount Zion almost two thousand years ago – so that the purpose of Pentecost on Mount Sinai could be accomplished effectively – so that there could be a redeemed people in covenant relationship with God, a people who love God and love their neighbor.

The gift of the Spirit makes a change so that Christians should not be just a people who read the Law, the expression of God's will, and then try to live it on their own. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 3:3, new covenant people who have received the gift of the Spirit should be “a letter from Christ delivered by us [to be known and read by all men], written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts [literally, hearts of flesh].” A body of Christians should be a people in whom the prophecy of Ezekiel has been fulfilled. The law should be written inside of them and should change the way they live. As a result, others should be able to "know and read" their lives and come to know the truth of the gospel. 

We have “a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life“” (2 Corinthians 3:6). 

[Steve Clark is President of The Sword of the Spirit. This article is adapted from his book Charismatic Spirituality: The Work of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and Practice, copyright © 2004 by Stephen B. Clark and published by Servant Books, a division of Saint Anthony Messenger Press. Used with permission.]
 

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