Ten days after the Ascension, at the Pentecost feast, the promised Holy Spirit is given. Peter preaches to the crowd and three thousand join. This is the birth of the church.
Ten days after the Ascension, at the Pentecost feast, the promised Holy Spirit is given. Peter preaches to the crowd and three thousand join. This is the birth of the church.
Thank you for joining us again. This is the third episode in Series 1, as we move to Acts chapter 2 and to one of the major events of the book of Acts - the Day of Pentecost; in fact, one of the major events of the whole New Testament and an event that the Church thinks about continually, and has influenced us very profoundly.
Introduction and Background
We’re going to look at the story in its original context. The context is set by what happens in chapter 1. Luke has been setting the scene, recording the last resurrection appearance of Jesus; the ascension; the last command that he gave to his Apostles, recorded in Acts 1 verse 8, which is very important,
“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.”Acts 1:8, NIV
This is a key statement. Then Luke tells us about the ascension of Jesus, which brings to an end, dramatically and decisively, to his earthly ministry. In the last episode we saw how the Apostles gathered together and prayed. They prayed for about ten days awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t know exactly in what form this experience would take place. During that ten-day period they did one important thing, and that is, they replaced Judas Iscariot with a man called Matthias, who became the twelfth Apostle.
Day of Pentecost
We are at the beginning of chapter 2 and we’re in the city of Jerusalem. As we read the first few verses, we notice it starts with an expression ‘The Day of Pentecost’. We need to think about that for a moment before we go any further into this text. We need to remember some things about Judaism at the time: the Jewish people; the Temple, and religion, that are very important for this text. Many Jews didn’t live in the land of Israel. They lived in all sorts of other provinces in the Roman Empire; they lived in Egypt; countries to the east and to the north of Israel. Traditionally, Jewish people gathered from these countries, as well as from different parts of their own country, for a number of major occasions every year. The three principal occasions that caused the large gathering of people, were three religious festivals that we might be familiar with from the Gospels, or from studying the Old Testament. The first one, which was in March or April every year, was called the Passover. At this particular feast was the time when Jesus died. That’s when they celebrated the escape of the Jewish people from Egypt, of passing over and out of the country. The second feast is the one that we’re talking about now, Pentecost. This took place fifty days after Passover. This was a celebration of some of the early wheat harvest and there were other traditional things that were celebrated at this particular time. This would take place perhaps in May or June, the dates of course varying from year to year. Then they had a third religious festival towards the end of the year, in September or October, known as the feast of Tabernacles.
Pentecost was a time when Jews would gather in very large numbers in the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had a population at this time, we might estimate, at something around seventy thousand people. We don’t know for certain, but it is a big city, by the standards of the country, and of the age. But the population grew enormously through visitors coming. Every street would be crowded; every lodging house and guest house filled; every family home overflowing with relatives and friends who have come in from the provinces, or from other countries. The surrounding towns and villages filled up with pilgrims who were coming to the feast. That’s the context to keep in mind as we come to this account.
1 ‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came down to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues’ (or other languages) ‘as the Spirit enabled them.’Acts 2:1-4, NIV
Who was gathered together? At least the twelve Apostles and possibly up to the hundred and twenty of the wider discipleship community that Luke described in chapter 1, including family members; and male and female disciples who were part of the wider group. They were gathered in one place to pray. We don’t exactly know where this place was in the city of Jerusalem: some large building; perhaps on several floors; perhaps on the roof; perhaps in different places around the building. We don’t know the details but there was a gathering. What were they doing? They were praying. Why were they praying? Because Jesus had said “Wait in Jerusalem”, and they’d chosen to wait and pray. This is about the tenth day that they’d been meeting to pray and it happened to be the day of this festival, a moment of great excitement in the city, when thousands and thousands of pilgrims were crowding into the streets, and heading for the Temple, where there were sacrifices and worship, and other ceremonial events taking place during the day. But the action wasn’t in the Temple. The action was in the upper room, the house. This is the place where the power came.
The Promised Holy Spirit
They heard this wind, a supernatural wind, and they felt a sense of fire, or burning. They felt a sense of being filled or empowered. They found that they were spontaneously speaking in languages they had not learned; something we come to call ‘speaking in tongues’: a whole language which you do not know with your mind, and have never learned, but it is actually a language which others, potentially, may be able to understand if they know the language. This is the first instance of this miraculous phenomenon that recurs throughout the book of Acts and is discussed in Paul’s letters, notably in 1 Corinthians. Something dramatic was happening in the house, and the Apostles would have no doubt that this was the moment they’d been waiting for.
Crowds of People
They’re not alone because the city is full and it’s very cramped; properties are close together. What is happening in the house would be immediately evident to neighbours and passers-by. Luke introduces us to the wider gathering of people in the city in the next passage.
5 ‘Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”’Acts 2:5-13, NIV
Here is the dramatic circumstance. We know why all these people are here - because it’s a great religious festival. We know the Jews lived in all these different ethnic areas, and countries and provinces. Here they have come to worship. The interesting thing about this group of Jews is that because they live in so many different countries they speak many different languages: they speak the native language of those in that particular area; they might speak the common language in Israel at the time as well, which was Aramaic; they might also speak the religious language which was Hebrew, which was rather an academic language and not widely spoken; they might speak the common language of the eastern Mediterranean which was Greek; and they might speak some Latin, which was the formal language of the Roman Empire. In other words, there were many different languages represented because these people were not locals; they were from all over the place. They had a remarkable experience. Imagine, for example, coming from one of these provinces like Mesopotamia, where the language would be very different, and then you come into Jerusalem, and you hear your local dialect from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, being spoken by a Jew who is living in that country. You quickly find out they’ve never been to your country; they’ve never studied your language and yet, they’re speaking quite fluently in your language! That’s a dramatic experience. What are they saying? What are they speaking? It says here, they’re ‘declaring the wonders of God’. In other words, it’s a language being used to praise and worship. You come from another country, you have another language and you hear your language being used to worship God. There’s nothing that connects us more to God than being able to communicate in our native language. If English is your second or third language, you’ll quite understand this, because when it comes to prayer you might speak English reasonably well, but you’re more inclined to speak your first language. It’s a common experience around the world. This was exactly the experience that these people would have. Their spirits and hearts would be animated by a feeling that they’re not forgotten; their language is important and God is somehow reaching them, even though they come from a different place. God is doing something incredible. There’s a sense of them being open. Something’s happening, we want to find out what it is!
Now obviously a few people thought otherwise. The ones who were less discerning thought maybe they’d just had too much to drink because quite a lot could be drunk in those festival environments by some people. But the majority of people were very moved by this astonishing sign. God was reaching them. He was, so to speak, talking their own language and drawing them.
This triggered Peter’s response. Peter had been waiting for this moment. He must have thought during these ten days, ‘Goodness me! What am I going to do when this actually happens? It’s bound to fall to me, I’m the leading Apostle. Jesus says the Spirit is going to come, and then we’ve got to start preaching and they’ll be expecting me to preach first. What am I going to do? Who am I speaking to? What’s the context going to be?’ As this great outpouring of the Spirit was taking place, Peter undoubtedly was clarifying in his mind, ‘This is the moment’ and something needed to be done. He knew so clearly now, from his incredible encounters with Jesus after the resurrection, where Jesus spoke to him very tenderly and encouraged him in his ministry after he’d made a mess of things before. He knew from Jesus what he needed to do: take the lead, speak clearly and communicate the living faith. In a beautiful way, this is exactly what Peter does. He’s ready.
14 ‘Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”Acts 2:14-21, NIV
It’s interesting that Peter chooses to start his communication by quoting the Old Testament - the very text of the Hebrew Scriptures - the very thing that was cherished by all these people. That was the one thing they had in common. He pointed out here that Joel, one of the prophets, in his short book, which you can read in the Old Testament, predicted that there was going to be a moment when God’s Spirit would be poured out, universally across people - not selectively on individuals, which is what happened in the Old Testament. All sorts of people were going to experience God and prophesy: men, women, old and young. He’s basically saying, “What Joel says was going to happen is beginning to happen right now!”
In the second half of this prophecy, 19 - 21, Joel predicts: shaking of the heavens, troubled days, and a great and glorious coming of God into this world, the ‘great and glorious day of the Lord’. Now that event was not taking place on that day. Prophecy links things together by theme, not always by timing. The coming of the Holy Spirit means God’s Kingdom is breaking in, and the end consequence of that, in the future, will be the shaking of the whole earth to purify it, and God establishing his rule permanently. That’s basically the two parts of the prophecy. The first part is starting now; the second one will certainly take place in the future. But “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.
First Christian Message
He goes on, in the next part of this passage, to preach the first Christian message. Verses 22 to 36:
22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him: ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body will also will rest in hope, 27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ 29 Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and he’s poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”Acts 2:22-36, NIV
There’s an incredible irony to this. Peter is speaking within one kilometre of the events of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. He is in the exact proximity of where these events took place; the exact place where the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, condemned him to death; the exact place where the Roman governor Pontius Pilate signed his death warrant, so to speak, and where he was put on the cross under the watchful eye of Roman soldiers; the exact place where the stone was rolled away by the angels on Easter Sunday morning. All within a few hundred metres or so, of the place that Peter is speaking. People in Jerusalem knew what had happened. It was only six weeks before and they knew that no one had found Jesus’ body in the tomb. When the claims of resurrection took place, nobody could bring any counter evidence. Peter was quite confident of that. No one could contradict the fact that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb and that hundreds of people had seen him - literally hundreds of people - had seen Jesus alive. Peter goes through the story of Jesus, telling of his incredible miracles in his three-year ministry, some of which were performed in Jerusalem; telling of his death and his suffering; explaining, in verse 23, that Jesus’ death was a combination of the will of God and the decision of evil people. People did an evil thing but God knew he was going to use that evil event for some great salvation. Jesus had to die. It was God’s deliberate plan because there was going to be salvation through that death. As we looked at the death of Jesus, in the Life of Jesus Series on Word Online, we looked at the sense in which Jesus’ death was a substitutionary event on behalf of others. Then he speaks of the resurrection and the ascension, which we mentioned very clearly in the first episode.
Call to Believe
He concludes with a call to the people to believe in Jesus; to accept that he is the coming Lord of Israel; the Messiah; the one who is promised in the Old Testament. This leads us to a most dramatic conclusion. All these events have happened quite suddenly. Out there in the public in a chaotic context, there’s a house with all these Apostles and their friends experiencing the Holy Spirit, and on the street crowds gather and Peter spontaneously speaks. This is not organised. There’s hundreds and hundreds of people coming to listen. The crowd increases in size as time goes on. We realise by the end of the story that thousands of people are involved in what happens on this day.
Peter, in these decisive words, which conclude our passage today, tells people what they need to do next.
37 ‘When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.’Acts 2:37-41, NIV
This spectacular experience that the Apostles and others had of the Holy Spirit was not to be confined just to them. “You’re going to receive this Holy Spirit too, if you repent, believe and are baptised.” This astonishing response took place. Baptism, as we’ll discuss in our reflections in a moment, is a key moment - being immersed in water. Near the Temple, around the edge of the Temple compound, there were, carved into the stone, ritual bathing areas which were filled with water during festival times and people ritually cleansed themselves as they went up to the Temple. So, there were places with water in them which they could use for baptism nearby. There was no river in the city, but there were places where people could be baptised.
What reflections do we have on this incredible, remarkable, outstanding story? First of all, it’s obviously the birth of the Church. This is the moment the Church is born.
This passage helps us to understand what the process of conversion, or becoming a Christian, involves. There are four elements in Peter’s message. There is the necessity of what he describes as repentance, which basically means turning away from your independence, your wrong understanding, and your wrong lifestyle, and turning to God. The second element is faith. Repentance, a turning away from what used to be, faith, which is an active trust in the person of Jesus. He’s outlined what they need to do. They need to trust his death and resurrection as a method and a means by which they can be saved and freed from their sins. Repentance. Faith. Thirdly, baptism. Baptism in water, preferably by immersion, which is what they would have practised then. Fourthly the conscious receiving of the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s really helpful to remember this framework, which is used in all sorts of different ways in the New Testament.
Becoming a Christian is not about fulfilling a moral code, joining a denomination, becoming christened, although that’s a step on the journey, but it’s not a conscious step. What is necessary? Peter told them necessary things. People need to understand and believe what Jesus has done for them. Not only do they need to understand it, but they need to respond by changing their mind; changing their thinking and aligning themselves to this reality. That’s repentance. It’s a change right from the heart, and in the mind. Thirdly he encourages people, as an act of obedience to that faith, to be baptised at that point of believing. Finally, he encourages them to pray for the receiving of the Holy Spirit into their lives. In our study guides we’ll have some questions you can consider about these four ingredients: repentance, faith, baptism, and being filled with the Holy Spirit.
My final point, by way of a reflection, is that this process of becoming a Christian, as described here, was not just a momentary event - an exciting moment, or a response to human need. It was a permanent change that Peter had in mind. He went on to say in verse 40, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,” and he warned them with many other words. In other words, as soon as you believe, you start reconsidering the whole framework of your life: how you live; what your values are; what you picked up from your family or your culture; what things need to change; which bits are corrupt and against God’s way. This is what we call ‘the path of discipleship’ - joining a community and learning more. Becoming a Christian is not a solo event on your own and you live independently after that. As we will see in the next episode decisively, a community was born and people committed themselves to that community and its commitment to that community that makes faith strong and robust, and makes us really effective as followers of Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re going to discuss in our next episode. So, thanks for listening to this episode and I hope to see you for the next one.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What expression of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power have you known or witnessed?
- Where are you on the path of discipleship?
- What are 4 elements of becoming a Christian? Be clear on each part.