Pentecost

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This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

Acts 2:1

Pentecost is the exception. It is the one biblical holiday that many Christians do observe. In England, it used to be a national holiday, called Whitsunday, or White Sunday, because of the custom of wearing white after baptism. We were surprised on one visit to London when even the West End theaters were closed on Monday night after Whitsunday. Pentecost was a two-day holiday in England.

But many American churches seem to remain blissfully unaware of the Festival. “Pentecostal” is a word they connect with a charismatic movement that includes speaking in tongues, but has little to do with the Feast of Pentecost. Few think of it as a day to observe, and yet Pentecost is plainly a Christian holiday. It is the day the Holy Spirit fell on the church with power and the day the disciples baptized 3000 people. Some even call it the birthday of the church. You would think all Christians everywhere would have a major celebration on this day, if on no other.

As explained earlier, the word “Pentecost” is a Greek word that means “fiftieth,” because it is the fiftieth day from the day the firstfruits of the harvest were presented to God (see chapter seven). One curious thing about Pentecost is that unlike all the other biblical festivals, it was not originally established as a date on the calendar (see appendix one). But for the Christian, the resurrection of Jesus trumped everything. The day he first appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, as the firstfruits from the dead, was day one of the countdown to Pentecost, and so it has remained.

The first forty days from Jesus’ resurrection were days of learning for the disciples. Many things they had seen and heard from Jesus they had not understood. Now many of these questions were clarified and distilled. By the time they wrote their accounts of the Gospel, they had throughly digested what Jesus told them.

Among the things he told them was this: “Do not leave Jerusalem,” he said, “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” (Acts 1:4-5 NIV).

It is hard to imagine what the disciples thought Jesus meant by that. They could not have been completely clueless. The Holy Spirit had come upon men in time past, usually leading to significant prophecy. But there was no precedent for what would happen to them, a mere ten days later.

On their last day with Jesus, they asked a question which betrayed their expectations of what the Messiah would do. “Lord,” they asked, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). The conventional wisdom was that the Messiah would come, he would deliver them from the Romans, and establish an earthly kingdom right then and there. Jesus dismissed the question. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power,” he said. “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (vv. 7, 8).

One wonders what they thought of that last phrase, “unto the uttermost part of the earth.” To them, God was the God of the Jews and their religion was a Jewish religion. They had, for the most part, lived their lives in isolation from Gentiles, not associating with them nor worshiping with them. Their tradition did not even allow them to eat with Gentiles.i They kept themselves completely apart.

And most Jews would have thought that the work of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ would have been a work that they were supposed to do among Israelites. Not so. He said “you are going to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judaea, in Samaria [God forbid, the Jews despised the Samaritans] and the uttermost parts of the earth.” That last includes the Gentiles. We also know that Jesus told his disciples explicitly, “Go you, therefore, and make disciples of the Gentiles” (Matthew 28:19).

I know, every major translation of Matthew says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” But if you read Greek, you will see it immediately, the word that is translated “nations” is ethnos, a word that is elsewhere translated “Gentiles.” This will be pivotal to what comes later.

When Jesus had finished his instructions, while they watched, he was taken up and disappeared into a cloud. As they stood there, gaping, two “men” appeared by them, both clothed in white. “You men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here gazing up in to heaven? This same Jesus which was taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go unto heaven” (Acts 1:11).

So the disciples returned from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem to wait. Meanwhile, they had some unfinished business. They had to replace Judas to retain the number of apostles at 12, and, of course, there was Pentecost, fast approaching. There was hardly any point in returning home, because their attendance was required for the feast.ii And besides, the Master had told them to wait. They doubtless awaited Pentecost with some expectation. God always seemed to act in history on the dates of the festivals, his appointments with history.

So, it was only natural that when that day came, they would all be assembled together. They were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing. It was a time of one of the appointments of God. They had only ten days to wait.

There is, in some quarters, a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened next in Acts 2. The assumption seems to be that the disciples began to speak in unknown tongues, at least that is the impression conveyed by the tongues movement in charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues is seen in some quarters as evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is also seen as a kind of prayer language. It isn’t uncommon to hear some charismatic preachers lapse into tongues as they speak. Sometimes there is an interpreter present, sometimes not. As a rule, the person speaking in tongues has no idea what he is saying. For the most part, modern ideas on speaking in tongues are based on an interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.iii

But what happened on that first Christian Pentecost was something entirely different and is in no way related to what takes place among charismatic groups today. The first thing one should know in reading this account is that the common Greek word for one’s tongue, glossa, is a synonym for “language,” just as it is in English. And as the story proceeds, more information becomes available.

And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language (Acts 2:5-6).

The word for “language” here is the Greek dialektos, or dialect. These were Jews who had migrated back to the Holy Land from all over the Roman Empire. The question naturally arises, didn’t these folks all speak Hebrew? Apparently not. They had been born in, say, Arabia, and had grown up speaking Arabic. In any case, these men, born elsewhere in the empire, spoke other languages. Whatever you may believe about speaking in tongues, this event is not an incident of unknown tongues. These were recognized, identifiable languages and regional dialects, and they are named.

Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:7-11 NIV).

There are 15 named languages here, one of them a regional dialect. What is even more important, the message was understood: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.”

The gift of languages on this occasion was significant because it defined where the Gospel was supposed to go, and these were the languages of the nations, the ethnos, the Gentiles. This sharply underlines the meaning of the event. Jesus told them to wait until they were endued with power. The only power on display on this day was the power to proclaim the Gospel in lands and among people who did not speak Aramaic or Hebrew or even Greek, the lingua franca of the empire.

And so the instructions were clear. And the miracle was clear. And the miracle underlined the instructions. And I hate to disappoint, but there’s nothing in this passage that supports speaking in unknown tongues. That’s not what this was about. What it was about was left for Peter to explain to the assembled crowd.

i. Galatians 2:11-12.

ii. “Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16 NIV).

iii. See 1 Corinthians 14.

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart

People around the world have come to appreciate Ron’s easy style, his non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca