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Pentecost: A Promise Across Time

The Pentecost of Acts 2 is a packed event that looks back on its past, clearly begins a new spiritual community, and focuses forward to the future, indeed to the end of time.

The story of Pentecost, called the Festival of Weeks in Hebrew, begins in Exodus 32 as part of a second chance. Coming down from Sinai to the debauchery of the golden calf, Moses threw the divinely inscribed Ten Commandment tablets shattering to the ground. Metaphorically, Israel, at the bottom of Sinai, had chosen to shatter its own divine-human covenant by idolatry. The young nation was already in crisis. In a miracle of grace, two chapters later, “The Lord came down in the cloud and proclaimed Himself…compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and, sin.” (34:5–7). In this conversation of love and forgiveness, tablets of the law are restored to the community and the celebration of “the feast of weeks and the first fruits of the wheat harvest” is introduced. (vs. 22).

There are parallels between the origin of the Festival of Weeks and its transitional celebration described in Acts. Luke opens the tale in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Six weeks before, the One who declared Himself Ruler of the universe and Savior of a lost and suffering planet had been crucified as a malefactor and danger to society. As far as many could tell, His followers had been scattered or were hiding in fear of Roman and pharisaical reprisals. The tales of a healer who was not stopped by leprosy or death had changed to the anguished cries of those who had nowhere to reach for help. Observant Jews, thousands, from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) followed their ancient mandate to appear in Jerusalem for this festival. The gossip must have been running rampant. The community was in disarray. In a reflection of the events in the Sinai desert, God was, again, about to shower grace and give the Jews, and untold others, another chance to accept the truth for their time.

Moses had made his preparations to meet with God in Sinai, after the apostasy. Those preparations included a request for a greater revelation of God’s presence and wisdom for the journey to Canaan. After Christ’s ascension, His followers began to prepare for what we now know as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A group of women and men gathered together in one place to pray. Remembering what I’ve read in the gospels about the conflict and relational difficulties between some of Christ’s followers, I can imagine what kind of Divine and human work had to have happened to make it possible for them to be together in close quarters. Using a nominating committee, prayer and, the casting of lots, they closed the leadership gap made by the betrayal of Judas. That done, they continued to gather together in one place and to pray.

Fire that doesn’t burn, violent wind that does no harm; that’s quite an anointing. Clearly the people gathered in the upper room knew that God called Moses to his ministry with a fire that did not destroy. They knew Jesus had stood calmly in the face of Galilean storms. They knew the word for wind (pneuma) was also the description of God’s Holy Spirit. These people in the upper room felt the wind, they saw the flames and they, who so desperately wanted to share the story of a risen Savior, began to hear each other speak in the languages of Jews who had gathered for the feast. They left the room with excitement, with evangelistic tools, and with the courage to share their truth.

The cosmopolitan, international gathering was “amazed and perplexed” (vs.12) to find poor Jews from a backwater province speaking to them with erudite linguistics. I have learned over the years that confusion is a great learning opportunity. It was at this educational moment of confusion that Peter stood up to address the crowd.

In a Pentecost sermon that takes four minutes to speak, Peter laid out several points. In answer to the comment “they have had too much wine”, he began by pointing out Joel’s prophetic announcement: “On my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (vs. 18) This was both an explanation and an entitlement to go further. Peter’s mission statement was Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, “by God’s deliberate plan.” (vs. 23). Peter added that Jesus proved God’s character by “miracles, wonders and signs.” (vs. 22). As did Moses in the desert, Peter points out Israel’s sin: “You, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing him on a cross.” (vs. 23) Then he describes divine power greater than their sin: “But God raised him from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (vs. 24). Peter concludes his talk with reiterating data from a beloved king and prophet.

Convicted of personal and corporate sin, indeed “cut to the heart, the people said, Brothers, what do we do?” (vs. 37). Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 38).

The result of this Pentecost message was astonishing. 120 people left the upper room. “About 3,000 were added to their number that day”. In a time that was known for selfishness and fear, the new followers “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching… to sharing meals, to community prayer, and sharing ‘everything in common.’”

Pentecost in year 33 CE was an extraordinary event. But Peter’s sermon indicates it was only a beginning. “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are afar off–for all whom the Lord will call.” (vs. 39). Pentecost has no limits of distance or of time. The prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted included “the last days” (vs. 17) when the “sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord.” In those days “your sons and your daughters will prophecy.” Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, said, “those who prophecy speak to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (14:3). Peter instructed listeners to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In biblical history, names often represent the character of the person who carries them. Jesus or Joshua means “Yahweh saves,” Christ means “the anointed one,” “the Messiah.” Baptizo means “to immerse,” like the biblical mikvah baths.

In our time of religious and political crisis, if we are immersed in the character of Jesus and covered by Him in our motives and actions, if we “prophecy,” speaking to strengthen, encourage, and comfort, then we are truly people of the Pentecost. Who knows what miracles may follow!

Image credit: Unsplash

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