“What Does This Mean?” (Acts 2:1-21)
The Day of Pentecost (May 31, 2020)
What a wonderful day this is! First of all, at our second service this morning, our congregation will be blessed to witness something we have not seen for quite a long while, a whole family brought into the family of God at once. Ryan, Jessica, Riley, and Piper Rosencranz will each receive new birth through Holy Baptism. On top of this, what a joy it will be to hear in our public worship assembly Ellen Adcock join Ryan and Jessica, and each, as part of their Confirmation vows, confess Christ as their God and Savior, as well as publicly acknowledge the gifts of life and salvation their Triune God has given them in their baptisms! This is a big deal. Jesus has promised, “Whoever confesses Me before men I will confess before my Father in Heaven!” (Matt. 10:32). All this does not in any way take away from the fact that we are also blessed today to be able to recognize, Blake Herzog, Kelly Ellis, Mika Janshen and Isak Rice, who have, by God’s grace, reached a true milestone in their education, completing high school and/or junior High. It’s a great day!
All this on one of the most significant days in the church year! Today, we observe the Festival of Pentecost. This is a day that has been observed as a worship festival in the Christian Church, we know for sure, since the early part of the 3rd century A.D. But it’s history actually goes back even farther than that.
Pentecost actually has its foundation among God’s Old Covenant people, Israel. As part of the Mosaic Covenant, Israel was required by the LORD to have 3 major festivals each year, at which time all male heads of households were required to go up to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to God. The second of these religious festivals was known as The Feast of Weeks, or The Feast of the Ingathering. Worshippers were to offer to the LORD the first fruits of their harvest as a thank offering.
The appointed time of this ingathering of first fruits, as well as gathering of God’s people was preset as to always occur seven weeks from the Day of Passover. The festival itself would be observed the following day, the fiftieth day. Hence the name Pentecost, the Greek term for fiftieth.
This fiftieth day, however, has taken a whole new significance for you and me. As the Holy Writer, Luke, shows us, God chose this Pentecost Day to send His Spirit into the world in a very dramatic and visible way. For us Christians then, we observe Pentecost not as a day of thanksgiving for the first of the harvest of the grains of the earth but on this 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, rather as a day of thanksgiving that the Holy Spirit has come upon His Church to insure the harvest of souls for the Kingdom of God.
So, what makes Pentecost, or all the happenings of that first Pentecost, so special and significant for you and me? Taking our cue from the people of Jerusalem, who heard and saw all the fantastic events of this day almost 2,000 years ago, we ask the same question they asked: “What does this mean?” I love it! Surely they must have been Lutherans! Are we not trained through our catechetical instruction in the teachings of God’s Word to always ask the question “What does this mean?” This is how one learns, right? If you don’t investigate with an inquisitive mind , asking the right questions, you will only live in the knowledge and reality of what you can decipher and imagine for yourself. So, this morning let’s ask, seek and listen to what Pentecost means for you and me!
Just as the eyewitnesses to an auto accident or some cataclysmic event today can relate what they saw but not necessarily explain all the whats and whys of the event, so being an observer of all that happened in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost so long ago does not mean one automatically understood what he saw. All were left in a quandary, “What does all this we have witnessed mean?”
A proper understanding is vital. Over the course of the centuries, the events of Pentecost Day have been so misinterpreted and falsely taught that all kinds of divisions among Christians have developed. There have been those who, because they could not understand or explain the events as Luke describes them for us in a way they thought was rational, have instead chosen to ignore Pentecost altogether. Unfortunately, even some of our fellow Lutherans, have joined the ranks of this group. In fact, they have developed a whole theology absolutely void of the Holy Spirit and His work among God’s people. If it were not for the fact that they say they believe in the Holy Trinity, in teaching and practice it is almost as if they are some kind of dualists, they confess the person of the Father and the Son, but the person of Holy Spirit is almost relegated to being nothing more than a force from the Father or from the Son.
On the other hand, there have been others, who have totally ignored God’s clear testimony as to the intention and purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming. For them, it’s all about the Holy Spirit, almost to the exclusion of Jesus Christ. They have simply looked upon the happenings of that day as some kind of blueprint for what every Christian, if they are genuine, ought to expect to happen in their lives. This has led them to concoct fanciful delusions that every Christian is to have some kind of “filling with the Holy Spirit” that enables them to speak in tongues.” In the process, they have missed the Pentecost boat entirely. In fact, they are leading people away from Christ, His grace, and the salvation He has come to bring them and toward a spiritual elitism that causes them to imagine that they alone are genuine Christians and the rest of us as unborn infants in the faith and, perhaps, as unsaved. If you have ever been around any of these so called “Charismatic,” or what they consider themselves to be as the “baptized by the Holy Spirit,” then you know exactly what I’m talking about. You have also come to know how they can make you feel “sub-Christian.”
So we ask: What do these events of the First Pentecost actually mean? How do we understand all these strange and wonderful things that happened? What purpose did God have in mind with this whole bizarre and miraculous event? What significance does it have for us today?
We do not need to speculate as to the answers to these questions. Nor do we need to consult what modern day, so called Bible experts, hypothesize what it all means. One of God’s foremost, and in fact, actually anointed theologians has already given us the answers. His name is Peter, the holy apostle of the Lord, who himself was called and catechized by none other than Jesus Himself. Besides this, Peter was one of those right there when it all happened. The Holy Spirit had actually come upon him and he gave this inspired response to all visitors to Jerusalem that day who were totally bewildered by all that they had seen and heard with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Peter, standing up before all said, “…These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…”
So, What does this mean? First of all, it means that for the first time the Holy Spirit had come into the world, not just to be upon a few selected persons, but to be upon all people. His coming was made visibly and audibly noticeable through some pretty spectacular and miraculous signs.
The first sign was a great “noise” that attracted the attention of the whole city. Luke describes it as being “like a mighty rushing wind. Everyone who heard it came rushing to where the apostles were to see what all the commotion was about.
Actually, this was a truly appropriate sign of the Holy Spirit’s coming. In Greek the word for wind is the same word for spirit and for breath. It is the word “pneuma.” It forms the root of such English words as pneumonia and pneumatic: words having to do with breath or wind in one’s lungs.
Jesus had in His discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus made us of this connection between wind and spirit. Attempting to explain the invisibility of the Holy Spirit and His work to give spiritually dead human beings new birth, Jesus had said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8).
The second sign of the Holy Spirit’s coming was quite visible. Luke describes that tongues as of fire were distributed on the apostles’ heads. Again, one should not be surprised that God chose such a means to depict the Holy Spirit’s presence. Fire has always been associated with the working of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptizer had foretold concerning Jesus: “He will baptize with Holy Spirit and Fire.” Fire depicts well the work of the Holy Spirit to purify and to give light.
But, arguably, the most strange of all was the third sign: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Clearly, from the context we can infer that this “tongue speaking,” (Grk: glossolalia) was not some sort of babbling of gibberish, or nonsensical phrases, as it is sometimes observed among those today who claim to have the ability to speak in tongues. Neither was it even some miraculous ability to speak in the language of angels as some describe their ability today. Instead, this speaking in tongues was the immediate ability to speak in another human language that you had never before learned. The eyewitnesses were amazed because as they testified, “we hear, each of us in his own native language.” The curse of the Tower of Babel had been removed… reversed so all could hear God’s true voice.
What did it all mean? These signs were God’s way of attesting that He had indeed sent His Spirit in fulfillment of His promise given centuries ago through the mouth of His prophet Joel: In the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Without these very visible and audible signs, how would anyone even know that the invisible Holy Spirit had come? But as they stood, these miraculous signs firmly declared that the Holy Spirit had come within full observation of all of Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit was now on His people.
There are still, no doubt, questions in our minds. We still want to ask: “Why was the Holy Spirit poured out? What does it mean for me living in the 21st century of the Church of Christ? Again, the answers are right before us. Quoting Joel, Peter relates the LORD saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”
The Holy Spirit was poured out so all God’s people could prophesy. The word prophecy means to proclaim, or to tell forth something. In this case, just as the Holy Spirit had come upon the prophets of old to proclaim God’s Word to His people, specifically His promise to save them, so on Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon His New Testament people to empower them to proclaim the Message of Christ so that people could be saved.
Jesus had ascended into heaven just 10 days earlier, signifying that His work of the salvation of sinners was complete! From His cross He had proclaimed: “It is finished!” Through His suffering and death , the sins of all of humanity were atoned for. God raised Jesus from the dead, not only to declare that Jesus was indeed His Son and the Truth, but also to signify to the whole world that He had accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for us all. Easter morning God declared that He had in Jesus Christ justified us before Him (Ro. 4:25). Jesus had ascended into heaven, lifting our humanity to the right hand of the Father. There He is always before the Father to intercede for us and to rule all things for the sake of His Church. All has been completed in Jesus.
But imagine if no one ever heard of what Jesus had done for them? It would be as if all that Jesus did would be in vain. The Good News of Jesus Christ, The Gospel, has to be proclaimed if anyone is to be saved. The apostle Paul wrote: “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. How shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have no heard? How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Ro. 10:13, 14)
The Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to preach their “eyewitness” of what Jesus did and what He had taught. He had hand-picked them for this task. This is why He called the Twelve my apostles, my “sent ones.” Jesus was sending them into all the world to proclaim what they had seen and heard. But they needed the Holy Spirit to accomplish this great task. Jesus had said to the Twelve: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:46-49)
Without the Spirit of God, the words of the apostles are just words. The words of men cannot save… cannot create faith… cannot convert or bring life. But the witness of these men, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is the witness of Jesus Christ and, therefore, it can do all these things. For the witness of Christ, the Gospel, is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Ro. 1:16).
But the business of prophesying does not merely rest with the apostles. God said in these last days He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to put God’s saving Word on the lips of all His people so that they might proclaim it. And indeed, the inspired testimony of the apostles has been handed down to us all in the Holy Bible.
That is why it is so crucial that we all, (like these confirmands today), be given careful instruction in that testimony. As we hear it and learn it, the Holy Spirit is upon us also to share that Good News with our family members, our neighbors, our friends. We have not been personally sent by Jesus as His apostles. Those positions have already been filled and their mission fulfilled. We have not all been called to be pastors to publicly preach the Word and rightly administer the Holy Sacraments, but the Holy Spirit has brought the Word of the Lord to each of us through the Apostles and our pastors to privately share it with others.
The bottom line is, after all, saving souls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are accustomed to hearing about the “bottom line” when it comes to business affairs and profits and losses. But how much more crucial is the bottom line of Pentecost: “that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Pentecost is not, as some have suggested, the birth of the church, but rather it is the birth of the mission of the church. There was already a body of believers in Jesus Christ before Pentecost. In fact, in the preceding chapter, Luke talks about there being a group of about 120 believers gathered in one place (Acts 1:15). But God’s mission for the church was not yet born in the hearts of His people. In fact, Jesus had already told His disciples that they were to be His witnesses in all the world, but He had also told them to wait until they were empowered from on high. This empowering came when the Holy Spirit came upon them and the whole church through them on Pentecost. Now they could prophecy the Gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness, confidence, and all truthfulness in order to bring other sinners into the saving barn of God’s salvation.
It was not an accident then that God chose the Festival of Pentecost for His special outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church. There were people there in Jerusalem that day from “all nations” of the inhabited world. They would all be going back to their native lands. Through them God could truly spread the word near and far.
What does all this mean for you and me at Trinity, Miles City, Montana? Pentecost gives our congregation purpose, the reason for our existence in this place. The Holy Spirit is upon us through the word of the apostles of Christ and Holy Baptism, not so we can become infatuated with miraculous signs and wonders…. Not so we can somehow be more spiritual… not so we can become some kind of club that is only concerned about our “felt needs….not so we can establish various social programs to meet the needs of our community… but so we can prophesy: share the Gospel that saves sinners.
As I mentioned earlier, Pentecost was originally known as the Feast of Ingathering. The Holy Spirit was poured out on this day to bring to Him from every nation the “first fruits” of the harvest of souls for salvation. 3,000 souls were converted and added to the Lord’s church that first Pentecost through the Spirit-filled prophecy of the apostles. That same Holy Spirit is still empowering that same “prophetic” message of the Gospel that we have to share today. The harvest of souls is continuing. (So we see this morning as the Holy Spirit has brought five more souls to join us in confessing Jesus Christ as our God and Savior.) We are “Pentecost people;” that is, we are the “harvest people.” That’s what Pentecost means for us!