What Does This Mean?
Background Scripture: Acts 2:1-36.
Devotional Reading: John 125:1-7.
When I was a first-year student in seminary, the book that we used for our first course in theology was “An Outline of Christian Theology” by William Newton Clarke.
Recently, I found it on my shelf and perusing it, recollected that although I appreciated it and learned much from it, I even then resisted the conclusion that Christianity could be reduced to a system of some kind.
It appeared to me that Clarke and many other theologians were trying to define the Holy Spirit, while both the Old and New Testaments were content to present a chronicle of what the Holy Spirit did.
I have raised this issue because over the 20-plus centuries since the first Day of Pentecost, many Christians have attempted to make a system out of Acts 2, which is, perhaps, an unconscious attempt to control the Spirit of God, something I believe is quite beyond the powers of any human mind.
Actually, I believe it is really a denial of the Spirit.
The Church’s Birthday
Before we consider what Acts 2 is telling us about the meaning of Pentecost for the earliest disciples, we need to understand what it meant for Jews before that day.
This was not the first observance of Pentecost, for Jews traditionally celebrated this 50th day after the Passover as the Feast of Weeks in celebration of God giving Moses the law on Mount Sinai and in thanksgiving for the safe harvest of the first crop of barley, part of which was offered to God.
According to the law (Levit. 23:21, Num. 28:26), no one should labor on that day.
Because it was as important as the Passover and seasonal traveling conditions were at their best, it drew Jews from many locations in the Mediterranean.
Just as Israel became a community on the day the law was given, so disciples of Jesus became a community on the Day of Pentecost. A promise had been given the disciples in Acts 1:8 and the promise was fulfilled on that day.
It is difficult to totally understand what happened on that Day of Pentecost.
This was not the first time the power of the Holy Spirit was experienced. We tend to think of the Spirit as a New Testament term (365 mentions), but there are 222 mentions in the Old Testament.
I cite these statistics only to indicate that this event in Acts 2 is not the first time the Spirit is bestowed, but it is probably unique in that it happened to all, or most, of those assembled and was a group, rather than individual event.
The power of the Spirit on Pentecost is often assumed to be identical to the experience of glossolalia, “speaking in tongues.”
Glossolalia, described as “the outpouring of inarticulate sounds under the stress of an overpowering religious emotion” is not what Acts 2 indicates, for it says that various people in Jerusalem “were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6,7).
Glossolalia, on the other hand is speech which is not understandable to the ordinary listener.
Although the media use “Pentecostal” only with those who speak in tongues, I believe that all followers of Jesus Christ are Pentecostal — even if they are unaware of the term.
In Paul’s time, there were a growing number of Christians who spoke in tongues and exhibited the evidence of spiritual empowerment, but Paul found that some of these were causing problems in the churches because they encouraged a pride that became divisive. (See 1 Cor. 12,13,14).
A relative who was a tongue-speaking Pentecostal told me my mother would go to Hell because she was not “Pentecostal.” I think by implication she was making the same judgment about me.
How ironic that the issue of “Pentecostalism” should prove to be divisive, when on the Day of Pentecost the outpouring of the Spirit came upon those assembled because “they were all together” (2:1).
The Spirit came upon them because they were of one accord, not of one opinion. Is it possible that Pentecostal experiences are rare today because Christians are so often not of one accord?
That “accord” is to follow and serve Christ, not to agree on one definition of the work and nature of the Holy Spirit. Those who heard the Gospel being proclaimed in their native tongue wanted to know “What does this mean?”
It means the Spirit of God enables us to experience the power of spiritual realities — the unseen and immaterial.
The Holy Spirit is manifested in many different ways to different people — but there is but one Spirit.