RPM, Volume 17, Number 3, January 11 to January 17, 2015

To the End of the Earth (3): Pentecostal Fire

Acts 2:1-13

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now, if you have your Bibles with you, turn with me once again to The Acts of the Apostles, which we began to look at a couple of weeks ago; and this evening we find ourselves in the opening verses of chapter two. We're going to read from verse one through to the thirteenth verse, and the description of the Day of Pentecost. Before we do so, let's come before God in prayer.

Lord, we need You every hour. We especially need Your help as we turn to the Scriptures, for though it is "given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, and reproof, and instruction, and correction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work", unless You come, Holy Spirit, and illuminate these words, give us understanding, and write them upon our hearts, and give us holy desires to implement all that it teaches us, it is in vain. And so we cast ourselves upon You, Lord, for without You we can do nothing. Add Your blessing, we pray, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.

Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?

Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God." And they continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others were mocking and saying, "They are full of sweet wine."

Amen. May God bless to us this reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Now, the disciples had been bidden by our Lord to wait: to wait in Jerusalem, to wait for the promise, the promise of the Father, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And since Jesus' ascension into the sky into a cloud, that's what they had been doing. They had been told that Pentecost...which, of course, would follow in a few days' time (Pentecost is fifty days, precisely fifty days after Passover)...and these disciples had now witnessed something of extraordinary import: the bodily, physical, ascension of Jesus into the sky and disappearing into a cloud, signaling all at once a number of things: the glorification of the human body of Jesus, that the dust of the earth (as Robby Duncan was wont to say)...that "the dust of the earth now inhabits the very throne of God" that we do not have an high priest who is not touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but, at the right hand of God, there is one with human frame...in human frame... who knows our weakness. It was, of course, a signal of the way in which the Father was exalting Him and giving Him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and tongue confess that He is Lord of all.

Jesus had said to His disciples, "I will go away, but I will come to you again." And He had promised in the upper room a few weeks earlier that He would send to them another paraclete, another comforter, another supporter and advocate, one just like Him: one who would minister to them and uphold them and strengthen them, and give them words to speak, and encourage them and motivate them, and give them extraordinary power. And they're waiting and they're praying, and they're meeting in an upper room somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. As the second chapter opens, we're not sure where this one place is. "They were all together in one place," and it may now have moved from the upper room in Jerusalem, and it may now be an antechamber of the temple somewhere, because all of a sudden crowds will appear, and Pentecost has come.

Pentecost, you understand, is one of those epochal moments in the history of redemption. It's right up there with creation, and the incarnation, and the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus. It's one of those epochal moments in the course of the history of redemption and the work and ministry of Jesus Christ on behalf of His people. Jesus has ascended, and having ascended gives gifts to men. And He sends the promise, the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, on His disciples.

Pentecost is known in the Old Testament as the Feast of Harvest, or the Feast of Wheat, or even the Firstfruits of Wheat Harvest. Pentecost was indicative to Old Testament Jews of what firstfruits would signify, and firstfruits would signify the beginning of much more to come — like a down payment, like a little taste, an hors d'eouvre, if you like, but much more to come. And Pentecost is the beginning of much more to come.

I want to ask three questions of this passage that we have read tonight. I want to ask first of all, what did they see and hear? And I want to ask, secondly, what does it mean? And I want to ask, thirdly, what was the response?

I. What did they see and hear?

They saw and they heard four things. The first thing that they heard was a noise like a rushing, mighty wind. Now, you get the impression that Luke is struggling to find words to describe Pentecost, because it's not always clear in the English, but he keeps adding this little word: it was like a rushing, mighty wind; the tongues were like cloven, divided tongues that rested on each one of them. There is something extraordinary here. This wasn't exactly a rushing mighty wind, but it was like a rushing mighty wind. There was a sound that resembled a rushing mighty wind. Now, in Greek and in Hebrew, the word for Spirit and the word for wind or breath is, in fact, the same word, and Luke is, I think, deliberately trying to remind us of the very way that the Bible opens. In the first few verses of Genesis 1, we read in that primordial state of creation that the Spirit or the wind or the breath of God hovered...hovered...over the face of the waters. And Luke is perhaps suggesting to us here that Pentecost has something of creation about it, of re-creation about it: that that which had fallen and that which was under the curse is now, by the power of God, being restored and regenerated, and reformed; that the beginning of that work which will culminate in the new heavens and the new earth is dawning on the Day of Pentecost. The old is giving way to the new.

Isn't that how Paul interprets the new covenant era? That if any man be in Christ...new creation...he says. And something of the breath of God, the wind of God, the Spirit of God, is now coming at Pentecost and beginning that process of forming a new creation for His people to dwell. We are those, you and I, upon whom the end of the ages has dawned. There is something of the very end. And something of the very terminus has broken in now to this world, and there's been almost like a rent in space, and this wind has come; and it's suggestive of new creation.

And the second thing that they saw were these...well...strange tongue-like fiery objects that were divided and rested on each one of them. It's a very strange sight, isn't it? Fire, of course, is often a symbol of the presence of God. God led the people by a fiery pillar, you remember, in the period of the wilderness, and that may be of significance here: that as the people of God moved through the wilderness of this world towards that new creation in all of its completion, they will do so led by the very presence and fire of God Almighty.

But perhaps, too, there is symbolism in the fact that these tongues rest on each one of them. Perhaps the symbolism is suggestive that whereas the presence of God under the old covenant was confined to one physical locality in the temple in Jerusalem, now under the new covenant we are all temples of the Holy Spirit. And they appear as tongues, because the most significant thing of all about The Acts of the Apostles and the way in which God will cause His kingdom to grow is through the vocalization and verbalization of His word and gospel: that men and women will speak of the glory of Jesus Christ. And it's almost as though through the "eye gate", as Bunyan would say, that God is giving them a visual picture that the power of God will be manifest through their speaking, and thus the kingdom will be enlarged and grow. The tongues seen and resting on each one....

But now a third thing that they saw, I suppose, but especially heard, was the fact that these men and women gathered at Pentecost began to speak in tongues - in foreign languages, that is to say. And Luke gives us, I think, in verse 6, the interpretation, because what they say when they gather together is that they all heard these disciples speak in his own language. It was a miracle of speaking. It was like as though suddenly you could speak fluent Swahili, or Urdu, or Chinese, having never studied so much as a five-minute lesson in Swahili or Urdu or Chinese.

It was deeply significant, because Luke provides what to all intents and purposes (in verses 8-12) is a list of all the dwellers who have gathered to Jerusalem, and they've gathered of course because it's Passover season, when the population of Jerusalem according to some would quadruple, and according to others could increase tenfold. All of the diaspora Jews coming back for the festival of Passover and Pentecost...and they'd come from all over the then-known world, and it looks as though Luke is giving to us a table of nations here—very similar, in fact, to a table of nations that you find in Genesis 10. And Genesis 10 comes immediately after the chapter that speaks of the Tower of Babel, and the Tower of Babel is, of course, that moment in the history of redemption when God confused the nations by sending languages and causing the different peoples and ethnic groups to speak in a different language so that they couldn't understand each other.

And it's as though—do you see?—it's as though there is a reversal of the curse of Babel taking place at Pentecost! It's as though God is saying when the Holy Spirit comes, He will undo the curse; and, for a moment at least, all of these people who are gathered in Jerusalem heard the word of God. They heard the gospel in their own native language.

And you know—well, maybe you don't as much here, perhaps, but when you speak English as a second language—do you know? I remember being in Pakistan, and... (if there's anybody from Pakistan here, I don't mean to be offensive in any way, shape or form. I was just there for a month, and after a month of listening to people speak Pakistani, and I didn't understand a word of it) I just longed to hear one sentence in a language that I understood. I thought at times if I preached another sermon and all of this language was coming across as it was being translated...I thought I was being driven mad! And the relief of being able to go just for one evening to a home where everybody spoke the same language...!

And here at Pentecost the middle wall that divides is being broken down, and for a moment a little glimpse is being given of God's great intent and purpose: that the gospel spread to the end of the earth; that every tribe, and nation, and tongue, and people would come and bow down and acknowledge Jesus to be Lord. It's just a little cameo of what the new covenant age is all about, and it's all about mission, and it's all about the spread of the gospel to the end of the earth. And here at its inception is the power of God manifest as these disciples are now given this extraordinary ability to speak in other languages.

Of course, it's a double-edged sword, isn't it, that just as the gospel is now being sent to the ends of the earth, so (as Paul tells us in I Corinthians 14, citing as you may recall from Isaiah 28) it was at the same time a curse to the people of God in Israel: that instead of concentrating now on this small little tribe of people in a very small physical locality, the gospel is now in fact spreading to the Gentile nations of the world. A hardening, in part, is coming upon Israel until all Israel shall be saved.

But there's a fourth thing, and it's by way of a comment by Luke himself. And he tells us in verse 4 that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

If you have your Bible with you, look back at chapter one and verse five, and I want us to see the various terms that Luke employs with regard to the ministry of the Spirit. In chapter one and verse five, he talks about being baptized with the Spirit. In chapter one and verse eight, he talks about the Holy Spirit coming upon them. In chapter two and verse 38, he talks about receiving the Holy Spirit; and here in verse four of chapter two, he talks about being filled with the Spirit; and, you understand, the Bible is talking about the same experience here, so that being filled with the Spirit, or being baptized with the Spirit, is not some extraordinary work of the Spirit that comes after we are converted.

Now, to be sure, that was the case here. These Christians are spanning the old and new covenants. These Christians are living at the very time when the Holy Sprit is being sent down from heaven. But Luke wants us to see as he uses these various terms that receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized with the Holy Spirit is the same thing. And Luke says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit—not just some, not just an elite group of Christians, not just those who had consecrated themselves, not just those who had prayed earnestly for the Spirit to come. In fact, Luke merely tells us that they were there. He doesn't even begin this chapter by suggesting that they had just engaged in an extraordinary season of prayer, for example. They were there in Jerusalem, and suddenly the Holy Spirit came and filled all of them.

You see, it's part of the fulfillment of what Moses had longed for: that all of God's people would be prophets. It's what Paul will later interpret by saying to the Corinthians that "we have all been baptized into the one body, and all will be made to drink of the one Spirit."

So, what did they see and hear? They heard a rushing, mighty wind, and they saw these cloven tongues of fire resting on each one of them, and they witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of these Christians gathered in Jerusalem speaking in foreign languages, and they were all filled—every single one of them—with the Holy Spirit.

II. But what does it mean? What does Pentecost mean?

Let me suggest to you that it means several things. It means, first of all, that God's glory is passing by - the wind, the breath of God, the fire, redolent as it is of the presence of God. And this age of the Spirit, this dawning of the new covenant age, is one that is inaugurated by this extraordinary thing: that God has come down, that God is present here. And there is something supernatural about this, and unless we are totally committed to supernaturalism there is no way we're going to understand Pentecost.

What does it mean? It gives us, I think, a little insight into how the great commission is going to be fulfilled. Jesus had said to His disciples before He ascended that they were to go into all the world and to make disciples, and the great question that must surely have been weighing upon them was how in the world were they going to be able to do that? How is this small, insignificant band of disciples that so miserably failed our Lord during His earthly life...and some of them had never even crossed the border of the land of Israel, let alone gone into all the world...how in the world was this going to be accomplished? And here is the answer: "It's not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit," says the Lord.

It is by the forth-putting of the mighty power of God. And here's a little glimpse — here's a little glimpse that God is going to accomplish this; that the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, the representative agent of Jesus Christ, is going to accomplish this. He is going to come, and He is going to gift, and He is going to enable, and He is going to strengthen, and He is going to motivate, and He is going to challenge, and He is going to send, and He is going to accomplish that. It is by God's power—the extraordinary power, sovereign power, omnipotent power of God.

What's the difference between the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament? Let me suggest to you an analogy to illustrate the experience of the Spirit before Pentecost and the experience of the Spirit after Pentecost.

Picture a huge dam, hydroelectric power, under construction — like the Aswan High Dam on the Nile, 375 feet high and 11,000 feet across. Egyptian President Nasser commissioned its construction in the very year that I was born, in 1953. And the dam was completed in 1970, and in 1971 there was a grand dedication ceremony and the twelve turbines with their ten-billion kwh capacity were unleashed with enough energy to give enough power to every house and citadel in the whole of Egypt.

Now, the whole time that dam was under construction, not all the water of the Nile was being diverted into this dam. Some of it was still being diverted along its usual channels. The whole time this dam was being built they drank this water and they bathed their feet in this water, and they washed their clothes in this water, and they grew food from this water. And you understand, when that hydroelectric power switched on...do you see something of the difference? And that's what Pentecost is like. It's like the turning on of this enormous resource of divine power.

There's a ninth century hymn, and it's often employed in texts—musical texts...Mahler's Eighth Symphony, for example...Veni Creatus Spiritus... "Come, Holy Spirit." It's a very powerful hymn. "Come, Holy Spirit." And I wonder tonight, despite all of the uniqueness of Pentecost—and Pentecost is unique, you understand; you can no more repeat Pentecost than you can repeat the incarnation or the resurrection or the ascension. Pentecost comes because Jesus has ascended. You can't repeat that. The Spirit comes down, but there's a sense in which we call upon the Holy Spirit to come and enable us: to enable us individually and to enable us corporately as a church. And I wonder tonight if we're ready to pray that prayer: Come, Holy Spirit. Veni Creatus Spiritus.

III. And what was the response?

Did you notice the response? There was a twofold response. Luke tells us in verse 6 and again in verse 7, and again in verse 12. He employs four different words: bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed. (You'd have been, too! I've never seen anything like cloven tongues of fire moving around a building and lighting on people's heads. Never seen it!) No wonder they were amazed, and no wonder they were perplexed. No wonder when they heard these disciples speak in foreign languages that they did not know...and it's the response, do you see, of being found in the presence of Almighty God.

You know, sometimes when we worship and there's a certain stillness, and the word of God is coming home to our hearts, and the Spirit is moving amongst us, and there's a sense of reality and urgency and sincerity, and that these things are true, and you can almost sense the very presence of God...well, you multiply that by 10,000, and that's what was happening here, because God had come down. The very presence of God was in their midst.

But, you see, my friends, if you say tonight 'If only we had that again, everyone would believe' - and you look at this passage, and what does Luke tell us? What does Luke tell us in verse 13 of the response of some of them? That while some of them were perplexed, and while some of them were amazed, and while some of them were struck by the presence of God, others mocked, and they said, 'These men and women [at nine o'clock in the morning, you understand]...these men and women are filled with sweet wine. They are drunk.'

You see, my friends, in the very manifest presence of God, their hearts were so given to sin that they could not even perceive God's presence. Such is the hardness of the natural heart.

Oh, my friends! We are powerless without the Holy Spirit. Unless the Spirit comes, and unless He comes into our hearts, and unless He changes our hearts, and unless He moves our affections, and unless He frees our wills to run after Him, we are powerless.

May God give us a desire for the Spirit, that the Spirit would empower our worship; that the Spirit would empower our evangelism and witness and mission; that the Holy Spirit would empower us as believers, as a corporate body at First Presbyterian Church, to live out and out for Jesus Christ.

Come, Holy Spirit...come, Holy Spirit. Let's pray.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Come, Holy Spirit!

Quite a few of you have asked some important and searching questions about the Holy Spirit following Sunday evening's sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2). Here's a part of what I said. Well, maybe not exactly what I said since I didn't have these notes with me at the time! But this is what I meant to say!.

On the Day of Pentecost, "all" the disciples present were "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:4). This is particularly significant given recent claims as to the significance of being filled with the Spirit. It is important to note the interchangeability of terms employed for this phenomenon in the first two chapters of Acts. The Holy Spirit "baptizes" (Acts 1:5), "comes upon" (1:8), is "received" (Acts 2:38), and "fills" (Acts 2:4). To seek to distinguish different experiences by these various expressions, hinting that some may only be achieved after a particular ritual, is a fundamental mistake. To suggest that all who receive the Holy Spirit are not necessarily "baptized in (or with) the Holy Spirit" or even "filled with" the Holy Spirit as has been suggested by some branches of the church in the latter part of the twentieth century especially. To insist that "Holy Spirit baptism" or "filling" is a post-conversion experience in the sense that it is possible to be born-again and not be filled with the Spirit is to overlook the very nature of what true conversion is. Holy Spirit filling or baptism is one of several designations in Scripture to describe the initiatory experience by which the Spirit takes up residence in the believer as Christ's representative agent. It is, in some ways, another way of expressing what Paul often gives voice to—union with Christ.

Every believer was filled with the Spirit, not just those who had engaged in some special act of consecration. Indeed, the entire emphasis given by Luke suggests that the only thing that can be said the disciples themselves is that they were there! The stress lies on the sovereign God's initiative rather than on some effort of holiness on the part of the disciples. It was, as Peter's sermon will make clear, what the prophet Joel had promised: that male and female, young and old, bond and free will experience this together (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-18). What Moses had longed for—that all the Lord's people would be prophets has come true at last (Numb. 11:29). "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and all…made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13).

It could be any other way, of course. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are united together in one plan of redemption and one method of accomplishing it. It is not possible to be in union with Christ and not be in possession of all that is Christ's. We are rooted in Christ and those roots tap into the fullness of the Spirit that is his. So close is this relationship that Paul can say in one place, "the Lord (Jesus) is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:17).

We'll return to this theme again as we traverse Acts.

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