Pentecost is much more than the beginning of the New Testament church. It’s a day of change that includes reversals, firsts, fulfilled prophecy and promises, identification, affirmation, and power.
I’m one of those odd persons that loves change. Not all changes, mind you, but I love the challenge of moving forward, trying something new, doing things differently. I love what change can bring – a new outlook, new understanding, new methodology, new perspectives. Pentecost brought all this and more to the disciples and followers of Christ. And truth be told, I would have been just as excited, overwhelmed, and scared as they were. Let’s look at what Pentecost brought.
The great reversal
One of the most common understandings of Pentecost is it brought the great reversal of the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9). The story in Genesis tells us that the people settled in a plain and decided to build a tower that would reach into the heavens – “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” In other words, they said they didn’t want to do what God told them to do: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1 NRSV). They wanted to stay put and do things their way. God had a quick answer; he gave them different languages and scattered them all over the earth.
On Pentecost, God enabled all to hear the same message in their own language. The great reversal isn’t that we all have one language again, but we have one gospel for all people and all languages. It is what brings us back together, this time though, under God’s plan and not our own.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Another great reversal is what this day points toward. The Holy Spirit is not just for a select few, but for all. Believers from every nation present heard the gospel in their own language. Christ died for all – all have the same opportunity to live in him and participate with him in doing what he is doing. The disciples, and later Paul, learned from this event and began sharing the gospel with Gentiles. Paul later made this very clear:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Through the Holy Spirit, all are included. In Paul’s day there were only Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles), so Paul is making it clear no one is excluded. All of humanity fits into these six classifications. In Christ, all are seen, valued, and heard. All of humanity died with Christ, all are risen with Christ, all are forgiven. Pentecost gives us a message of unity and inclusion.
Amid this great miracle, some scoffed and blamed the disciples for drinking too much wine. We can only surmise their hearts were so hardened against Jesus and the disciples that they were unable to hear the message. Peter stood up and said:
Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Acts 2:14-16)
He went on to share how David’s prophecies about the Messiah being resurrected were also fulfilled; then Peter continued to preach Jesus and him crucified. I can only imagine that Peter and the other disciples were recalling Jesus’ words about fulfilling the law and the prophets; they were only beginning to understand.
They must have also recalled Jesus’ last night with them in the upper room as he told them he would not leave them orphaned or comfortless, but he would send the Holy Spirit. They were experiencing this in real time – wind blowing, divided tongues of fire appearing and then resting on the 12, people hearing in their own languages. They knew this was from God; they knew this was what Jesus had promised. He was true to his word – he said he would send the Spirit and he did.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. (John 14:16-17)
But there is more. The disciples had spent three years with Jesus. They recognized him as their teacher, their Rabbi. I’m sure there was a question about who would take over their teaching, who would continue to train them. Jesus told them he would not leave them as orphans, without someone to teach them, to guide them into all truth.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
It must have been a great relief to the disciples to experience the arrival of the Holy Spirit in such an extraordinary way. They were experiencing the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in real time. We still experience this in real time. The Holy Spirit is our teacher, the one who guides us into all truth, the one who reminds us that it is in Jesus that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Holy Spirit continually points us to Jesus and reminds us he is the center of the center, the one we are to preach, teach, and follow.
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)
Peter responds right away and does exactly what Jesus said the Spirit would lead us to do – testify about him. And the results were astounding. People asked what they needed to do. Peter responded by telling them to repent – metanoeō – to change the way they think about God. He is not against us; he is for us. He isn’t just for a select few; he is for all of humanity. The Father is not mad at us; he sent his Son to save us. Jesus didn’t come to condemn; he came to save.
When you change the way you see God, it is then you can receive the forgiveness he offers through Jesus Christ. It is then you can see that all the prophecies were about him, and he came to fulfill them for us. It is then you can see the Old Testament wasn’t about Israel’s failure; it was about God’s faithfulness to his beloved. It is then you begin to feel more like someone God cares about, pays attention to, loves – you begin to feel like a child of God. Peter calls us to repent – to change the way we view God, which will lead to change in the way we respond to God.
When we change the way we view God, and we accept the truth of our fallen nature and the blessing of our forgiveness, we want to respond in joy and gratitude. We ask, what can we do? Peter tells us to participate in Jesus’ baptism and to live in the reality that he did not leave us, rather he lives in us through the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost reminds us in a powerful way that the crucifixion was not the end of Jesus’ ministry – it was the beginning of a far-reaching ministry. It reminds us that we are never alone – God is always with us via the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that we are invited to participate in the communion shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that Jesus’ prayer with his disciples was answered.
Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:1-3)
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
May God remind us of all that Pentecost fulfilled and looks forward to. May the Holy Spirit continually remind us of who Jesus is, who we are in him, and how he has called us to participate with him.