Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Day of Pentecost: What Are We to Learn?

Anthony van Dyk, Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.  (Acts 2:1-4)

The dramatic entrance of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost caused quite a stir: sound like rushing wind, tongues as of fire, people speaking in other languages.  This was an exciting time, so much so that church bodies for centuries afterward continued to consider these manifestations to be normative for the Christian life: if it was good for the believers at Pentecost, it is good for us now.  Is this really the main takeaway of the great event, or are we missing something?  Should we dwell on the signs, or is there more to the story?

When reviewing the events at Pentecost, we concentrate on the aforementioned manifestations while ignoring or misunderstanding a key part of Luke’s account:
And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”  (Acts 2:12-13)
What induced these reactions?  Was it the ability to speak different languages or the preparatory actions signaling the Spirit’s arrival or a combination?  Some might posit that the multiple supernatural phenomena, and while this is plausible, if we read carefully, it does not give a sufficient explanation.  Rather we must look at the listeners’ testimony just preceding: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”  What was communicated in the tongues-speaking that caused the former group to pause and question, while the latter responded with derision?

Pentecost (or Feast of Weeks) was a day set apart for a holy convocation dedicated to worship (Lev 23:15-21), part of which involved a public reading of God’s word:
Some of the important sections are read in full, as follows: the days of Creation (Gen. i. 1-ii. 3); the Exodus and the song at the Red Sea (Ex. xiv. 1-xv. 27); the giving of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai (ib. xviii. 1-xx. 26, xxiv. 1-18, xxxiv. 27-35; Deut. v. 1-vi. 9); the historical review and part of "Shema'" (ib. x. 12-xi. 25).  The same method is used with the excerpts from the Prophets: the important ch. i. of Ezekiel (the "Merkabah") is read in full.  The Minor Prophets are considered as one book: the excerpts are from Hos. i.1-3, Hab. ii. 20-iii. 19, and Mal. iii. 22-24 (A. V. iv. 4-6).  Ruth is read in full; and of the Psalms, Ps. i., xix., lxviii., cxix., cl.

The reader will note that many of these passages deal with His mighty works.  If this was a common occurrence, we can deduce that the two groups of listeners reacted so strongly as a result of new input: the long-honored and remembered mighty events under the old covenant now found their culmination in a crucified and risen Messiah.  This conclusion finds corroboration in a similar encounter by Paul on the Areopagus.  There, the apostle spoke of Jesus’ office as judge at the final resurrection.  The response from the Greeks was familiar:
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.  But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”  (Acts 17:32)
We see, then, that both Jews and Gentiles responded similarly.  Spectacular signs did not convict and divide the audiences, but the work of Christ having been proclaimed as discovered when Peter proclaimed: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).  Then too was Paul’s wont: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).  When Christ is proclaimed as the One crucified, buried, and risen for our sin, a choice is forced upon the listeners.

Returning to the issue of the Spirit-given manifestations, what use did they serve, and are they pertinent for today?  Certainly, signs have had their place in gathering attention to the person and work of the Lord Jesus: they could attest to the truth but not deliver it.  The same may be said for today.  Exceptional manifestations and spiritual gifts do not deliver the saving work of Christ, therefore, while spiritual gifts are useful for the body life of believers, they are not to remove the focus of Christ in gathering together.  The same can be said of the meeting content and practice.  While free, in some aspects, to worship as they will, care needs to be taken to do only those things that edify the body and glorify the Lord.  Paul made this clear when he told the church in Corinth: “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40).

Looking, then, at the spectrum of church practice, at one end we find those holding to some form of historic liturgy which repeatedly brings Scripture to the congregant throughout the time of gathering, however, performed in ritual in rote fashion with little care whether or not The Holy Spirit will lead the attempt, thus making mockery of what our Lord has so richly provided, even as Malachi demonstrated in his prophecy against Judah.  At the other end we find what appears to be an attempt to allow a freedom for the Spirit to act, but instead finding church attenders motivated (manipulated?) by spiritual overseers seeking to assist the working of the Word and Spirit by introducing or allowing features appealing to the audience but communicating nothing of sin and the need for salvation.

In both cases we find a lack of regard for the assembly of believers, demonstrating that Western Christians have lost sight of the reason the Holy Spirit was given—to whom and to what He attests.  This should not be, since we have clear instruction, both before and after the crucifixion and resurrection, of the Holy Spirit’s work.

In the Upper Room discourse, Jesus told His disciples:
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  (John 14:26)

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  (John 15:26)

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  (John 16:12-15)
After His resurrection, Jesus came and said:
Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.  (John 20:22-23)
Then before His ascension He left instruction:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  (Acts 1:8)
To summarize, the Spirit’s mission is to help the disciple (as one called aside; also translated counselor, comforter, advocate), witness of Jesus, communicate Jesus’ teaching, and glorify Him.  While these activities are certainly found in our individual lives from day to day, they will all be particularly found in the worship meeting wherein Christ is to be exalted in all facets.  We must understand that the purpose of worship is neither a free-for-all of expression nor entertainment for the audience, but rather the intentional immersion of the believer in God’s Word through purposeful repetition—via consistency in practice, sound hymnody, and adherence to the whole counsel of God—with the intent that the Holy Spirit will bring these things to remembrance at time of need.

What, then, is to be the great lesson of Pentecost?  It is not the miraculous signs, however exciting and flashy they might be, but the effective message of the gospel that went forth and continues to go forth through the consistent disciple-making process of baptizing and teaching all that Jesus commanded us.  Rather than seek for measures that allure, let us boldly tell of a crucified and risen Savior.  The first disciples were considered drunk for speaking such a foolish thing.  Let us be so foolish to follow suit.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Excellent post!

Steve Bricker said...

Thank you, Glenn. It feels good to be writing again.