1. The lesson for this morning is Acts 2 and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It’s difficult to understand the meaning of Pentecost (Greek for 50th day) unless we look first at the chapter that precedes it. What is the context of the 50th day?
While there were a number of feasts and festivals in the life of Jews, there were three main solemn feasts in Jewish life for which every adult male we required to make the trip to Jerusalem. The first was Passover, the second was the Feast of Weeks seven weeks later and, third, in the fall the Feast of Tabernacles. To each of them was attached an offering of first fruits related to the season. For Passover, they would bring barley. For the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) they would bring two loaves of bread and for the Feast of Tabernacles they would bring olives and grapes. Pentecost was also a special kind of feast in that it included everyone. Look at Deuteronomy 16:9-12: “Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you. And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.”
Look at Leviticus 23:22. It was a special kind of harvest as well. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.”
This would be the celebration of the beginning of the harvest. That’s important to remember. The first fruits were given at the very beginning of the harvest and not at the end. They were given whether the harvest was good or bad. They were not a tithe or a percentage of the total at the end of the season but an offering at the beginning. They marked the first of the harvest and not the end. We have reversed that in some ways. Most giving to churches and non-profits comes at the end of the year and not at the beginning.
Nearly 30 percent of all annual giving occurs in December.
Over 12 percent of all giving happens in the last three days of the year.
Almost 30 percent of non-profits raise between a quarter and half of their annual funds in November and December.
It makes a difference in the way we see God’s provision. Do we give in advance or wait until we see what happens during the year?
But that’s not the main point. Just an aside. The main point in our text this morning is taken from an event that followed two other events. The first was Passover (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) followed by his being with the disciples and others for forty days before his Ascension into heaven. That means Pentecost came 50 days after his resurrection and ten days after the Ascension.
Let’s look briefly at Acts 1:1-8: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
2. What is their question? What were they expecting next? “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It would have been natural to see the connection between his resurrection and the restoration of King David’s kingdom. In ten days, Pentecost, they would celebrate not only the Feast of Weeks but it was also the day when all of Israel remembered the death of King David. It is called a “yahrzeit” and it means an annual celebration of the life of an important person. No one could have been more important to those who were looking for the restoration of the former kingdom.
They still had no idea what he had in mind. For them, like for us, we live in hopes of restoring kingdoms – of making things the way they used to be. We want to live again in a world that is no longer there or if it was it was not nearly as good as we remember. It’s not just restoring good times, is it? It is restoring a kingdom when we were in charge and the majority. No one wants kingdoms restored unless they were in charge of the kingdom. No one wanted the exile of Babylon or the bondage of Egypt restored. They wanted the return of the time they had been told about and what they thought they had been promised. I suspect they would not have stuck around Jerusalem if they had known what life was going to be like for them in the future. It certainly was not a restored kingdom. It was something else entirely. In a sense, Pentecost is an answer to their question about the restoration of the kingdom. We’ll see how in a minute.
3. But they did wait for the ten days. What was the church like in the interim? In some ways it was the ideal church. It was a church that might well be the envy of any church today. But, like the rich young ruler, one thing it lacked.
It was a praying church. All of them prayed. There was not Wednesday night prayer meeting. There were no prayer warriors. The whole meeting was prayer and the prayer room was the only room. They were all together all the time and in prayer.
The church was of one mind. They were first-rate examples of Paul’s command to the Corinthians, “Be of one mind.” They were held together by a single purpose and a fellowship that overcame their differences. Rich and poor, skeptics and believers, men and women, dreamers and dogmatics, were all in one accord. They cared about and valued the same things.
The church gathered together frequently. Their attendance was not just out of loyalty or responsibility but necessity. Many of them had no other community. They had left everything. Some, like the disciples, had left their livings completely and were supported by the church.
The church had the benefit of the purest form of theological training, sound doctrine and Biblical interpretation. There were no heresies or denominations. They could still remember all the words of Jesus as he spoke them.
The church was well-organized. They had an active personnel committee who immediately filled a vacancy. They had members like Barnabas who made sure they had adequate financial support. They had no liabilities, nothing tied up in real estate or debt retirement. Management and member turnover was low.
But, like the rich young ruler, they lacked one thing. Like the new believers in Ephesus we meet later in the book of Acts, who had received the baptism of John for repentance but nothing after that. For ten days the early church functioned almost perfectly as an organization but they lacked the one thing they needed to fulfill their purpose. The power to be witnesses. The power to be the Church. The power to do what Christ commissioned. The power to do what Christ told them they would do after waiting ten days. All those four things I described are good but they are things we can do on our own with enough effort – but only God can make us witnesses.
The defining work of the church is not prayer or attendance growth or good deeds or a clear mission or sound doctrine or preaching or fellowship or being organized. The defining work of the church is not spotless lives or sacrificial service. These things are good but not adequate. The work of the church – to be witnesses (literally martyrs in Greek) – only gets done through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit we can do all these other things but the thing to which we are called – to be his witnesses. My father would say there are three types of churches. Badly run human institutions. Well run human institutions. Spirit led congregations.
And witnesses to what? They were not witnesses to what God had done for them. It was not their personal testimony or polished speeches or sophisticated systems. Five times in the book of Acts they describe what they are witnesses to: Acts 2:32; 3:15; 4:20; 5:30 and 10:40. Each time they say essentially, “God raised Jesus from the dead and we are witnesses.” The message of the church is not a better life or the restoration of the kingdom. It is not, as Oswald Chambers says, to be made “a speciment of holiness to be put in God’s museum or a trophy to be in His show case.” You could easily argue they had a terrible life of witnessing. The unique message of the church was not what God had done for them but what God had done in Jesus – resurrection from the dead. In other words, “you will receive power to simply tell the truth. Otherwise, you will do it on your own and just start another religion.” That is why something as simple as being a witness requires the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
4. Pentecost is not about restoring a kingdom. It is redefining the Feast of Weeks from a Jewish observance to a global mission…but not really a mission of “soul-winning.” It is a mission of harvest and that is a different mindset. Pentecost marked the beginning of the harvest – not planting. It marked celebrating what God has already done – not what we are doing. Too often we make the assumption that God is not present until we bring him. As I’ve said before, there are two phrases I hesitate to use. First, “what would Jesus do?” and second, “Find out where God is moving and join him there.” Where is God not moving? Where is God not planting? Where is God not active in his world? Why does Paul say in Romans, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”? Yes, belief comes by preaching but it is more like announcing and less like arm-twisting. It is not pleading or frightening or brow-beating. It is recognizing that there are no methods we can devise that will produce the unique work of the Holy Spirit. We are witnesses to what God has already done in Jesus.
5. But there was something else about Pentecost or The Feast of Weeks. It was the one time a year when Jews recognized the most important event in their history: the giving of the Law to Moses. Yes, the rescue from Egypt was central but it was the giving of the Law that created their identity as a special people set aside for a holy purpose. It was the Law that gave them their unique mission and the purpose of being a nation of priests and a light to the Gentiles. Pentecost was when they re-affirmed their designation as the people of God who were separated from all others. Yes, it was fine to include the aliens and strangers in a meal. That was part of the responsibility of being special. A sort of noblesse oblige. But those people could never be Jews.
6. Jesus took all of this and turned it on its head. A better way of saying it is he fulfilled the original purpose of these festivals – especially Pentecost. Instead of the giving of the Law it became the giving of the Spirit. He did not create something out of nothing. Instead, he took something they all understood and redefined it. Totally. For some, he stretched it beyond all recognition and they could not handle it. In fact, it might have been easier to start new and throw everything out. But he didn’t.
Pentecost became the announcement that the Gospel is to all nations and no one was more surprised than the early church. They never expected to go anywhere except to Jews – probably not even beyond Jerusalem. After all, kingdoms reside in capitals. They would be local witnesses in a local kingdom. How could you be special if the Gospel was for everyone?
Pentecost became the announcement that it was not the Law that defined the people of God but the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and the receiving of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost became the announcement that there are no more walls that divide us. What does Paul say in Galatians 3:23-29:
“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
7. So, what does it mean then to be a Pentecostal church? It doesn’t mean what we have made it to mean, does it? It means not just a church that emphasizes certain gifts of the spirit but a church that fulfills the original purpose of Pentecost.
It is a church that recognizes a unique purpose – to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ. It may do many good things in addition to that but it is first and foremost a martyr in the world.
It is a church that is not homogenous – but diverse. It celebrates the destruction of barriers and distinctions.
It is a church that is not interested in restoring a former kingdom or creating a Christian kingdom here on earth.
It is a church that includes the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. It takes seriously its responsibility to these.
It is a church grateful for what God has done and does not make itself the center of the story.
It is a church that recognizes it can be a successful church, an organized church, a church on a mission, a growing church (in fact, the church at Pentecost grew from 120 to over 3,000 in one day) and a unified church and still lack one thing – the most important thing of all – the power to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus and a light in a dark world.
Finally, it is a church that amazes, perplexes and is criticized. G. Campbell Morgan put it this way, “Amazement, perplexity, criticism – if these impressions are not produced, it is because the Church is not Spirit-filled. Is the Church amazing the city, perplexing the city, making the city criticize? The trouble too often is that the city is not at all amazed, not at all perplexed, not at all critical; because there is nothing to amaze, to perplex, or to criticize.”
So.. How can we be Pentecostal people and a Pentecostal church? We don’t have time for that this morning but we will come back to it time and again throughout the book of Acts.