According to the liturgical calendar, almost 2,000 years ago a wonderful thing happened. No, it actually wasn’t Pentecost. Pentecost had been happening for centuries; it was nothing new. What I am speaking of just so happened to be on the day of Pentecost. Of course, most know what I am referencing by now. What happened is that the promised Holy Spirit was sent to the people of God, and the Church was born. If this has been happening for so long, why write a post about it?
In a day where there is much confusion (and division) over things such as the spectacular spiritual gifts (what many call today “sign” gifts: tongues, prophecy, and the gift of healing), what we need it more reflection upon Scripture—its teaching and its witness. One of my professors here at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School made a statement that I think is very important for us to remember: We are all Pentecostal Christians. No, he doesn’t mean that we are all Charismatics. What he is saying is that Pentecost gave birth to the Church, the body of Christ of which we are all a part today. If you are a Christian and went to church this morning, you owe that body’s very existence to what happened almost 2,000 years ago on the Day of Pentecost.
More than anything, that statement made me think about how Pentecost is so much more than what the name evokes today: people speaking in tongues. Frankly, I think the application of the name “Pentecostal” to a certain category of denominations has done great harm in the minds of modern Christians because of this. When people think of Pentecost, they either think of snake-handling fanatics or John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” conference. This is not good. This is not what Pentecost is about.
On both sides, I fear we have misunderstanding. One way or another, we tend to emphasize what happened in Acts 2:1-13. On the Charismatic side, we emphasize the fact that people spoke with tongues and were thought to be drunk. On the non-Charismatic side, we tend to emphasize the fact that the people spoke in actual human language.1 The point I am making is that both sides forget about what happens in vv. 14-41. Going strictly by verse numbers, we ignore almost 70% of the Day of Pentecost!
So, as I said, we need more and more reflection upon Scripture. So, below are some thoughts I had this morning before church that I think are important to remember about this day in history according to Scripture.
1) Christ was the focus, not the Holy Spirit.
Several times already I have seen posts on Facebook about Pentecost, and almost every single one of them only mentioned it in reference to Acts 2:1-13. I just recently had a friend post a question on Facebook asking if anyone knew what happened almost 2,000 years ago today, and someone responded, “Glossolalia!” Now, I am not faulting this person, but I think such a response reveals the sad reality that we don’t think about this day in our history well at all. If our only concerns what happened in vv. 1-13 (namely, speaking in tongues), I dare say we have missed the point almost entirely, if not completely. Christ is the focus of this passage. Just before Acts 2, we see Christ’s Ascension; following Acts 2, we see the preaching of Christ. Notice, when Peter preaches, he doesn’t hang out long to explain what was happening regarding the speaking of tongues. No, he uses what was happening to focus the audience on Scripture. He remarks that this is a fulfillment of what Joel prophesied. But, he doesn’t just quote Joel to explain what’s happening (the Spirit has been poured out), he tells why it is happening. The last line of the quotation is key: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”2 (Acts 2:21). After this, he goes straight into preaching Christ and him crucified.
Christ is the focus, folks, and this falls in line directly with the Holy Spirit’s role as spoken by Jesus himself. “When the Helper comes…he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). And again, “He will not speak on his own authority…he will glorify me” (John 16:13-14). If we are focusing on only a small part of what happened at Pentecost, we are missing the point.
2) The amazing thing was not the speaking in tongues, but the preaching of the gospel with power.
I think this speaks for itself. Why are we so slow to acknowledge the greatest sermon ever preached here? Really, ponder with me what has happened here, especially in regards to Peter. A man who has been known to put his foot in his mouth, and a man who denied Jesus three times as he was dying for fear of the Jews (despite his feigned gusto when he said he would never deny Christ), is now preaching the gospel of this Christ fearlessly before the Jews. I would say that is the point here. When Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8a), he’s not talking about the ability to spout off in another language. Frankly, that is paltry compared to what he is talking about. Look at what he says next! “you you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8b). That’s the point of Acts 2. It is the fact that 3,000 people were saved by the preaching of Peter, of all people! The tongues speaking is insignificant when compared to that.
3) The result was not excitement and hysteria, but conviction and conversion.
Again, people get hung up on how Pentecost began. Plus, many people seem to make the assumption that when the Spirit came, it looked like a modern-day Pentecostal service. The reality, however, is twofold: 1) we simply can’t know because Scripture doesn’t make it explicit; 2) Scripture doesn’t make it explicit because it’s not the point. This text, I think, is one of the cases where what is most important is said last: “There were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41b). I don’t think this statement strikes as much wonder in our eyes as Luke intended it to do. How many times do we hear about 3,000 conversions from a single sermon? No, I’m not talking about a Billy Graham crusade where thousands of people walk an aisle, yet later half of them prove to be reprobates. No, I’m talking about conversions—real softened hearts. That doesn’t happen often, if ever once again since Pentecost. And, as I said above, this happened at the preaching of a man who just before this denied Christ three times for fear of what might happen to him. That is truly remarkable, and I think that is the focus of this story—the result. We have a Church, and she is still here because of that day.
In conclusion, while speaking in tongues is certainly an integral part of the Pentecost story (because it fulfills prophecy), I think we really lose the power when we forget what happened afterward. So, when you reflect on Pentecost—and I hope you will—focus on what Scripture would have you to focus on. Think of Christ, his message, and his body that he is building here on this earth today.
- As full disclosure, I don’t think the Acts 2 passage can be read any other way than that they were speaking actual and known human languages. However, that is an issue beyond the scope of this post.
- Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.