Making Sense of Pentecost

St Barnabas 27th May 2012

Reading – Acts 2:1-13

Ever since I was very young, I’ve enjoyed the story of Pentecost. Who can fail to be excited about the story of the Holy Spirit coming on the first disciples, or Peter standing up to the address the crowd, or 3,000 people coming to the Lord in one day? It clearly was an immensely important event in the life of the early church and it’s no surprise that we gather to celebrate it year after year.

But the more you look at the story the more you end up with all kinds of questions. What exactly was going on that day in Jerusalem? What do we make of the violent wind from heaven, and the tongues of fire, and people suddenly and miraculously being able to speak in other languages? And why does Luke break up such an exciting story with a long and almost unpronounceable list of names?

Then there’s the question of what Pentecost is all about. Oh yes, everyone agrees it’s all to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But it’s amazing how many different opinions people have on what it all means. Some say Pentecost is about the gift of tongues. Some say Pentecost is about the Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel. Some say Pentecost is about the birthday of the church. I’m sure for some it’s all three.

So how do we understand what Pentecost is really all about? Well, I suggest if we’re going to make sense of it, we need to start right at the beginning of the story, at a verse we can all understand. That’s why today we’re going to focus in on verse 1: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. That’s not too difficult to grasp is it? And in fact I believe this simple verse holds the key for everything that happens next.

First of all, they were all together in one place. Nobody decided that morning to give church a miss, or to go shopping, or to have a lie-in. Every single one of Jesus’ followers were there – young and old, male and female – gathered in one place.

And does anyone know what they were doing? That’s right – they were praying. Look back at chapter 1, verse 14 which tells us: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

That must have been some prayer meeting! I for one would love to know what was going on. You had Jesus’ special friends who had followed Jesus faithfully for three years, starting in Galilee and finishing up in Jerusalem. You had Jesus’ brothers who up until His resurrection had refused to believe in Him. You had the women who stayed on at the cross when everyone had run away. You might have thought that with all this history there would have been arguments and division. But not a bit of it. They were all together in one place, praying.

And how were they praying? I guess when we think of prayer in church we think of praying for people who are sick or places where there is fighting or for the bishop and those in authority over us. Now that kind of prayer is important, and one important purpose of our gatherings is to pray for each other and for the world. But that’s not how these people were praying.

Let’s go back a little further to Acts chapter 1, verse 4 where the risen Lord Jesus says to His followers: Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For Jesus’ followers, waiting meant praying. You see, they weren’t content simply to sit around and see what God would do next. No, they had received a promise from Jesus and they spent all their time praying that this promise – the promise of the Holy Spirit – would come to pass. Each day, each hour they were watching and waiting, believing that Jesus would keep His word and asking that it would be fulfilled in them.

How would it be, dear friends, if we learnt to pray like these first disciples? If when we came together we pleaded with the God of heaven to fulfil His word for us? Now there is of course no magic formula that guarantees revival. As Jesus Himself said of the Holy Spirit in John chapter 3, verse 8: The wind blows wherever it pleases. But church history shows that God seems to be pleased to act when people wrestle with His promises of blessing, when instead of going through the motions they plead for themselves and for the world which is lost, when instead of being content with how things are, they wait together in one place for the Holy Spirit to break, mould, revive and restore them.

Back in the Old Testament Jeremiah prophesied that after 70 years of ruin Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Well, 70 years passed and there seemed little chance Jerusalem would be rebuilt. It was still a pile of stones. Its people were still in exile. The last king of Judah had died far from His homeland in captivity. So what did the people of God do? Did they simply go through the old rituals and complain how they couldn’t attract the young folk any more? No, they got down on their knees and prayed for God’s word to be fulfilled. At least, one man did.

Take some time later on, if you have the opportunity, to read the first part of Daniel 9. It is the most extraordinary prayer of confession written anywhere in the Bible. It expresses all the heartfelt longing of a man who wants, no passionately desires, to see God’s word fulfilled in his time. And it all comes to a climax with these words in verse 19: O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.

That, I reckon, is how the people gathered all together in one place were praying on the day of Pentecost – with a burning passion and fervent desire to see Jesus’ promises fulfilled in them. I wonder, is that how the Lord finds us praying as His people today? If not, we should not be surprised that the story of Pentecost remains strange and unfamiliar to us.

And in answer to their prayers the Holy Spirit comes. Now let’s not forget what a strange experience it would have been for the followers of Jesus gathered here in Jerusalem. Up until this point the Holy Spirit had only come upon certain people for a certain task and often for just a brief period in their life. But God wanted to show that from now the Holy Spirit would be available to everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus – not only leaders, or people with certain gifts – but on every man, woman and child who declares their faith in Him as their Lord and Saviour.

That’s why we have the violent wind from heaven and the tongues of fire. They were public signs that a new age had dawned, the age of the Holy Spirit, the age we will still live in today. We tend to get so hung up on how the Holy Spirit comes, that so often we miss the simple truth the Pentecost story is meant to show – that the Holy Spirit has come, and is available still today. And whether He comes to you in full power and might, and leaves you awestruck and broken before the might and majesty of God, or whether He comes to you quietly and privately, so that you are caught up in silent wonder and praise before the Lord Almighty is beside the point. The point of the story is not to leave us arguing about the details, but to make us realise the Holy Spirit is for you, for you, for you, for me.

So what about this long list of difficult place names that X did so well to read just now? How do these fit into the Pentecost story? Well, let’s turn our eyes briefly from Pentecost to think about the world around us. I don’t think you have to look too hard to see how our sin caused it to be a broken, divided place. Our hatred, our greed, our pride has all helped cut ourselves off from other people and even from God Himself.

But the good news we have to share is that God hasn’t let sin have the last word. He sent Jesus to draw people back to Him – a fisherman over there, a tax collector over there, a sinful woman over there. And steadily over the three years of His earthly ministry Jesus built up a group of followers who heard His teaching, who responded in faith and left everything to go after Him.

Yet the fact remains that after all that had happened, the group of people all gathered in one place at Pentecost still numbered only about 120. Luke is very careful to mention that fact back in Acts chapter 1, verse 15. From a numbers’ point of view Jesus’ ministry had only a limited long-term success. I guess there are some church planters who would think 120 people in 3 years is not very much. But there was a good reason for this. For while Jesus was still here on earth, confined to one place and to on particular point of time, He could only reach a limited number of people with the gospel.

But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, all this was about to change. And this is where this list of difficult names comes in. Because as Luke makes clear in verse 5 they stand for God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. He is making the point that thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit the good news of Jesus Christ really is for everyone. No matter where you come from or what language you speak the gospel is for you. And that’s what the gift of tongues in this passage is meant to signify. There is no nationality, no class, no background, no age that stops you receiving the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. All you need is the faith that Jesus died and rose again and He will make His dwelling with you. Forever.

And yet there is one factor that does stop people receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s us. It’s the times when we fail to tell other people the wonderful good news of Jesus, when we become too awkward or too shy to talk about our experience, when we become spiritual chameleons who change our appearance according to environment. Let’s be clear – God’s plan to spread the good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t involve sending Him back to earth to do the work for us. His earthly ministry is finished. Nor does it involve setting up a club of religious professionals who do all the work on behalf of the church. After all, if you know your New Testament, you will realise religious professionals aren’t always that good at obeying God’s commands. No, God’s plan involves ordinary people who have been so transformed by the Holy Spirit that they cannot help share what they have experienced of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This leads on to one final detail about Pentecost that perhaps you haven’t thought about that much. Where were the disciples gathered at the beginning of the passage? Where were they at the end of the passage? That’s right, the Holy Spirit had driven them outside. But then again, that should not surprise us.

At the end of most Communion services we pray this prayer:

Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. Amen.

Imagine what would happen if the Lord saw fit to answer us as He did at Pentecost The whole people of God going out of this building praising God and declaring His word to all around them – with no more arguments about mission or money or church buildings – but with such a move of the Holy Spirit taking place that this little part of the world would be radically and totally transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ. That would be thrilling, wouldn’t it?

So the question is: are we ready? When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. They were united. They were praying. They were longing for God’s blessing. And in answer to their prayers the Holy Spirit came. Brothers and sisters, let Pentecost be your vision for this church today. And let us keep watching and waiting for what the Lord will do.

Rev Tim


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