Some Reflections on Pentecost
“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested 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 2:2-4, ESV)
“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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-49, ESV)
In the traditional liturgical calendar this Lord’s Day (May 15) is known as “Pentecost Sunday.”
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not require its churches to follow the church calendar, and in place of the liturgical calendar, which is of merely human origin, it emphasizes instead the importance of observing each week the biblically-mandated Christian Sabbath (or “Lord’s Day”).
At the same time, it seems a wise and helpful practice to periodically reflect upon epoch-making biblical events that impact our salvation. The event of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church on the day of Pentecost is just such an important event, so I thought it might be helpful to offer a few reflections upon this important event in God’s amazing plan to save us through His Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
If we want to fully appreciate what God was doing in the dramatic events of Pentecost as those events are recorded in Acts chapter two, then we must first of all understand that Pentecost was a one-time, unrepeatable redemptive-historical event.
The events of Pentecost are part of a complex of biblical events by means of which God through Christ accomplished the salvation of His people. Those events include such things as the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Christ, the eternal Son of God, secured our salvation by becoming Incarnate in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth; by living an obedient life as the new Adam (in contrast to the disobedience of the original, old Adam); by dying on the cross as an atoning, propitiatory sacrifice for sin; by bodily rising again from the dead on the third day; and by ascending to the right hand of God the Father, where He was coronated and enthroned as King of kings and Lord of lords, and where He intercedes for His people. On the Day of Pentecost our risen, reigning Savior poured out His Holy Spirit upon the church, thereby applying to His church the fulness of His saving work, and thereby ushering in the new covenant age, the messianic age of the Spirit! Therefore, Pentecost was a once-for-all, unrepeatable, redemptive-historical event. It was not a normative event that we are to expect to see repeated time-and-time again throughout church history.
This is an area where our Pentecostal friends completely misread and misunderstand the events of Pentecost. They regard the events of Pentecost to be normative, and thus for the church in all ages. But a careful reading of Acts 2 shows that the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the gift of tongues, is not intended by the author of Acts to be understood as a normative event that the church can expect to experience repeatedly. This particular baptism of the Spirit and the speaking in tongues that accompanied it will no more be repeated than the sound of the mighty rushing wind and the tongues of fire that also accompanied it (Acts 2:2-3).
If our Pentecostal friends claim that their version of the baptism of the Spirit and speaking in tongues is the same thing that the disciples experienced on the Day of Pentecost, then we may rightly ask them, “Where’s the mighty rushing wind? Where are the tongues of fire?” Certainly Pentecost introduced the age of the Spirit, and certainly all true believers in Christ have been baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). But this is signified and sealed in the waters of holy baptism, not by the ability to speak in tongues (Rom. 6:3-4; Titus 3:5; Gal. 3:26-29; etc.).
The gift of tongues spoken on the Day of Pentecost was not gibberish (or a “prayer language” as often claimed by Pentecostals). Instead, this gift was a miraculous ability to speak in a foreign language that you had never before learned (see Acts 2:6-12). Tongues was one of those miraculous revelatory and sign gifts that God gave to the apostles and their companions in order to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel during the apostolic era, before the new covenant Scriptures had been completed (Heb. 2:2-4) Now that the apostolic foundation of the church has been laid and the apostolic Scriptures have been written, there is no further need for such miraculous gifts (Eph. 2:20).
Another important truth to understand is the truth that Pentecost represented a reversal of the Tower of Babel judgment.
In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of how God judged a rebellious, proud humanity by confusing their languages and by dispersing them abroad. In this judgment event God divided their tongues and scattered them. But on the Day of Pentecost God brings people back together to hear of the mighty works of God, spoken to them in their own languages. Through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and by the subsequent spread of the gospel beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentile nations, God’s people are brought together into one Body through Jesus Christ! Christ came to redeem people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation (Rev. 5:9-10). The events of Pentecost are the first installment of this new covenant reality, as people (in this case mostly Jews – v. 5) from different parts of the Roman Empire who were gathered in Jerusalem heard about the mighty works of God in their own native languages (v. 11).
The Tower of Babel judgment shows that sin brings confusion, division and alienation. But the gospel (good news) of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, as that gospel is applied by the Holy Spirit, has the power to overcome the confusion, alienation and division caused by sin (Eph. 2:11-16; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; etc.). Pentecost is, at least in principle, a reversal of Babel.
Finally, it is important to understand that Pentecost signaled the beginning of the new covenant era, which is the age of the Spirit.
We believers living under this new covenant messianic era ushered in by Messiah Jesus have a much fuller experience of the Holy Spirit than did our brothers and sisters living under the old covenant administration. We now have the fullness of God’s Word, for we have the completed canon of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. And because Christ our Savior has completed the work of redemption and opened up to us direct access into the heavenly holy of holies (see Heb. 4:14-16), we have a greater boldness of access into the direct presence of our heavenly Father than did our old covenant brethren, and have much fuller communications of the Spirit of grace than they ordinarily enjoyed. We still await the final consummation of our redemption, which will happen when Jesus returns in glory, at which time faith will give way to sight. And God still uses ordinary outward means (the Word and Sacraments) to communicate to us by His Spirit the benefits of Christ’s redemption. But Pentecost was truly an epoch-making event in redemptive history, for it signaled the ushering in of the new covenant era, the age of the Spirit.
Let us rejoice in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit!