The Day of Pentecost
Sunday, May 23, 2010
“Tongues for Telling the Mighty Works of God” (Acts 2:1-21)
The Day of Pentecost was and is one of the most important days in the history of the world. You would not be here today if it were not for the Day of Pentecost. You would not have received the gospel–you would not be saved from the coming day of judgment–if not for what began there in Jerusalem on that day full of grace, the Day of Pentecost. For what happened on that day was that the Holy Spirit empowered “Tongues for Telling the Mighty Works of God.”
Here’s what happened. Let’s follow the story. Our text begins: “When the day of Pentecost arrived. . . .” Now this makes it sound like the day of Pentecost was already a known holiday. And it was. “Pentecost” is simply the Greek word for “fiftieth,” and it refers to the Jewish festival that came on the fiftieth day after Passover. And that was, as it’s called in the Old Testament, the Feast of Weeks. It came seven weeks after Passover–seven sevens makes 49, and the next day would be the fiftieth.
The Lord God had established, through Moses, the Feast of Weeks as a major festival for Israel. In the Hebrew calendar, it was one of three so-called pilgrimage festivals: Passover in early spring; Weeks, or Pentecost, in late spring; and the Feast of Booths in the fall. For those three festivals, all the men of Israel were to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship there at the temple. That explains why there’s a big crowd in Jerusalem on the Pentecost in our text.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” This is not yet that big crowd. This is a smaller group, the “they” mentioned here. It refers back to the group described in chapter one of Acts, the group of 120 believers, the first Christians who gathered together in Jerusalem in the days after Jesus’ ascension. The company of 120 included the twelve apostles, plus Mary, and other men and women who had followed Christ. Now here they are on the day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, all together in one place.
Then it starts. “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, “wind” is associated with the coming of the Spirit, and so it is here. The “sound of a mighty rushing wind,” a powerful wind, for Jesus had told them, before he ascended, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” and that Spirit-empowering is what is about to happen. Note, by the way, that this is the “sound” of a mighty rushing wind, not the wind itself. The sound was enough to make the association, and the loud sound is what will attract a crowd from the nearby area.
First the audio, now the visual: “And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.” Tongues of fire, little flames, as it were, appearing on the head of each believer, all 120. The power of the Spirit is going to enliven their tongues. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Witnesses use their tongues to tell others what they have seen and heard. And these 120 Christians now are about to have their tongues enlivened and empowered and enkindled by the Holy Spirit, in order to tell others the great things of God they themselves know. This is what we pray also for all of us Christians here today: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them”–kindle in us–“the fire of your love.”
We’ve heard the wind, we’ve seen the fire, both signs signaling the coming of the Spirit, and now that indeed is what happens: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This is the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised. Their tongues are fired up to speak. But the odd thing is, they begin to speak in other tongues, other languages, different from what they were used to speaking. Now these all, these 120, were all Jews from the land of Israel, and that means they normally spoke Aramaic–that was the vernacular they grew up speaking. But now, suddenly, they start speaking in all sorts of other languages, ones they had not learned. We’ll find out why in just a moment.
“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.” Now we get the why. There were lots of fellow Jews in the vicinity, religious Jews–that’s why they had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and were there to observe the Feast of Weeks–but they had come, as it says, “from every nation under heaven.” “From every nation under heaven.” You see, centuries earlier, through military conquests, the Jews had been dispersed throughout the entire Near East and North Africa and the Mediterranean world, and they settled down in those many lands. But the religious Jews would still make the trek to Jerusalem for the holidays, and some of them even retired there. They may have known some Aramaic, the language of the Jews. They may have known some Greek, the international language of commerce and culture. But coming from all those foreign lands, they probably were most at home in the language of the country that they came from.
“And they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” It was really quite amazing. Here were these folks from Israel, most all from the region of Galilee, this group of 120 Christians, and they are suddenly able to speak in all these strange and exotic languages! And here is where you get the tongue-twisting list of nationalities they’re speaking to: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” Jewish pilgrims from all those faraway places, people whose first language would have been the one from the place they came from, and here are these local Israelites able to speak to them in their mother tongue! Amazing!
So we ask: What is God doing here? What’s the point? Is God just “showing off”? No, of course not. What the Spirit is doing through this miracle becomes clear when they say, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
That’s it! The Lord wants people from every tribe and language and people and nation to hear the mighty works of God–in their own tongue! What God is signaling here in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost is the start of the worldwide mission of the church. The gospel will come to Phrygians and Cappadocians–in Phrygian and Cappadocian! The mighty works of God will be told to Germans and Swedes and Englishmen–in German and Swedish and English! That is why you are here today: Somebody went and told your ancestors the good news of God in their native language. You are here, and you are a Christian, as a result.
The speaking by the company of believers on Pentecost day, telling the mighty works of God to all those people–that is still happening today. You are part of it. Now you may not know Phrygian or Cappadocian–and there are not many Phrygians or Cappadocians here in town for you to talk to, even if you did know it–but you do know English, you do know the mighty works of God, and you do know people who need to hear these great things.
You know these mighty works, don’t you? Think of the mighty work of God when he sent his only-begotten Son into the world, the eternal Son of God incarnate, born of the virgin Mary. Think of the mighty works that Christ performed in his public ministry, healing the sick, restoring the sight of the blind, calming storms, raising the dead–all pointing to the marvelous work he was doing that would restore this fallen creation, the age of blessing that the Messiah would bring. Think of the mighty work of God when his own Son went willingly to the cross to suffer and die for the sins of world, your sins and mine, to crush the head of Satan and rescue us from the power of death. And think of the mighty work when God raised Christ from the dead, risen in triumph o’er the grave. Oh, the mighty works of God, mighty to save, saving lost sinners like you and me! Yes, you know these mighty works of God. You live because of them.
And the Holy Spirit has been given to you, too, just as he was poured out on those first Christians. No, you may not be able to speak in foreign tongues, but the Spirit has given you other gifts. And most of all, he has given you faith in your Savior, Jesus. The Spirit has opened up your ears to hear, and he will likewise open up your mouth to speak. You have been given a tongue to tell the mighty works of God. Now, who will there be for you to talk to? You’ll find out this week in the people you meet. May the Lord give you an occasion to use your tongue to tell of his mighty works, and may he give you the courage to open your mouth and speak.
The Christians at Pentecost telling others the great things of God–the Spirit certainly used their speaking to prepare the hearers to hear more. And then that’s when the preacher came into the act. Pastor Peter got up and started preaching. He went on in Acts 2 to tell the crowd the whole nine yards–more about Jesus, more about his death and resurrection, more on the fulfillment of Scripture, more directly calling the hearers to repentance and faith and the forgiveness of sins.
So it is to this day. All of us, laypeople and pastor alike, can use our tongues to tell others the great things of God we know. And we can also invite those people to church, where they can get more of the preaching and teaching in depth from the pastor. It’s a “both-and.” It’s all good.
But today, first of all, dear Christians–first and last of all, the Spirit is speaking to you. I am here to tell you the good news–for you! And the bottom line is this, the same one Peter used: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” This is a day of salvation for you! Yes, there is a day of judgment coming, that day when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. And you would not pass muster on that day, if left to yourself. Your sins would condemn you. But the day of Pentecost is a day full of grace. Full of grace! It’s a day for spreading the good news: Christ Jesus died and rose for your salvation, the Lord God makes his name known to you, and the Spirit quickens your heart so that you call on that name in faith. And so you will be saved! Thank God! The good news of Pentecost is this: The mighty works of God are still working today!