1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!” (Acts 2:1-13)1
In one way, our text in Acts 2:1-13 describes something entirely new and amazing. And yet what we read should not come as a complete surprise. We might compare the Pentecost event to having a birthday. You know that your birthday is coming, and that someone who loves you has a present for you. You are not sure exactly what the present is (although you’ve been told you will really like it), and you don’t know exactly when you will receive it. You know it is something good, and that it is coming soon.
As we approach Luke’s description of the Pentecost event, we should do so fully aware that those who experienced it had been prepared for its arrival, even though they did not know exactly what it would be like. Let us begin by turning to Luke’s Gospel and his words regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist in chapter 3:
15 While the people were filled with anticipation and they all wondered whether perhaps John could be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” . . . . 21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, emphasis mine).
There are a couple of things that we should note from this text. The first is that John contrasts his baptism with that of Jesus. John baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire. Jesus will reinforce these words, affirming what John has said. By inference, it is clear that the baptism of Jesus is vastly superior to that of John, just as Jesus is vastly superior to John.
Second, we have here an account of our Lord’s baptism by John. On the one hand, Jesus identified Himself with John, his baptism, and his message. (After all, John was the prophet who designated Jesus as the promised Messiah.) On the other hand, Jesus was identifying Himself with us, mankind, and our need for a Savior.
What strikes me most about Luke’s account of our Lord’s baptism is that at our Lord’s baptism, God identified Himself with Jesus. In believers’ baptism, the one being baptized identifies himself or herself with Jesus in His saving work – His death, burial, and resurrection. The amazing and perhaps unexpected thing that happened at our Lord’s baptism was that God identified Himself with Jesus. The Father identified Jesus as His beloved Son in whom He was greatly pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). The Spirit identified with Jesus by appearing as a dove who descended upon Him and remained upon Him (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). You may recall this is how God indicated to John the Baptist that Jesus was the promised Messiah (see John 1:29-34)
I believe it is clear that this is the time when our Lord was endued with power from the Holy Spirit to carry out His earthly ministry. It was after His baptism that Jesus faced Satan in the wilderness and then commenced His ministry, with great power:
14 Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the surrounding countryside. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by all (Luke 4:14-15).
I believe that the baptism of our Lord is similar to the “baptism” of the church that occurs at Pentecost, but I will take this matter up later in this message. For now, let us observe that our Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, with the assurance that their prayers would be answered:
9 “So I tell you: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 What father among you, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13, emphasis mine)
Surely we cannot help but see the connection between Pentecost and this text in Luke, in which Jesus assures His disciples that the Father will give the Spirit to those who ask for Him. Does this not explain the connection between Acts 1:12-14 and Acts 2:1-13?
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 Now during the blessing he departed and was taken up into heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple courts blessing God (Luke 24:45-53, emphasis mine).
After His resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples. He explains His death and resurrection as the good news of the gospel, for by trusting in Him men can obtain the forgiveness of sins. He tells His disciples that their mission is to be witnesses to His resurrection and to the good news of the gospel. They are to take the gospel to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. This is Luke’s Great Commission and is very similar to Acts 1:8. Jesus also tells His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high, which occurs at Pentecost. Finally, we are told that the disciples joyfully returned to Jerusalem after His ascension, and there they spent much time in the temple courts, praising God.3
4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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 farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:4-8, emphasis mine).
We have now come to the Book of Acts and to the words which we considered in our previous lesson. Notice that Jesus once again reiterates the instruction not to leave Jerusalem until they have received what the Father promised, and what He had spoken about. I believe that by speaking of “what the Father promised,” our Lord is probably referring to those Old Testament prophecies which foretold the coming of the Spirit, especially those related to the New Covenant.4 When Jesus referred to the Spirit’s coming as that “which you heard about from Me,” I believe that He is speaking of texts such as John 14-16, where Jesus said much to His disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord’s words further indicate that the promise of the Father is coming shortly, “not many days from now” (verse 5).
Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1).
Acts 1 serves as an introduction to the Book of Acts, as well as an introduction to Pentecost. In Acts 2:1, Luke sets the scene for Pentecost. Notice first of all, how brief his description is. He is informing the reader that it is not an event that has been brought about by the apostles and the other believers, but that Pentecost is the sovereign activity of God. There are, however, several observations worthy of note in this one short verse.
First, the Spirit came upon these saints on the Day of Pentecost, the celebration that came some 50 days after the celebration of Passover.5 This was the day God had purposed to fulfill His promise of the Spirit. Thus, there must be a connection between the Old Testament Feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. I will take this matter up later.
Second, I believe that the wording of most translations of verse 1 does not do justice to Luke’s carefully crafted account. I prefer the wording of the King James Version or the New King James Version here:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1, NKJV, emphasis mine).
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1, KJV, emphasis mine).
A marginal note at Acts 2:1 in the NASB informs the reader that the text literally reads, “was being fulfilled.” My Greek-English lexicon defines this word, “to arrive as the timely moment for an event to take place.” 6 I am reminded of the statement in Galatians 4:4:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4, NAU; emphasis mine).
But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4, NET Bible; emphasis mine).
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law (Galatians 4:4, NIV; emphasis mine).
Luke is surely seeking to tell us that the Feast of Pentecost was to find its fulfillment in time, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost at this exact time. It didn’t “just happen” on Pentecost; it happened on Pentecost to fulfill its eternally determined destiny.
Third, the setting Luke describes is very basic. He tells us simply that “they were all together in one place.”7 I think there is a reason for this: Luke is seeking to inform us that the Spirit came upon them because it was the right time (Pentecost was “fully come”), and it was the sovereign work of God. They did not bring God down by their actions; God came down upon them unexpectedly.8 God does not want to give us the impression that if we simply repeat the same steps they took we can have the same experience. This was all God’s doing. As we will see throughout the Book of Acts, God is sovereign. He sovereignly bestows His Spirit on whom He wills:
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:4, emphasis mine).
Later on, Paul also emphasizes the fact that spiritual gifts are sovereignly bestowed:
It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:11, emphasis mine).
There are two additional indications of God’s sovereignty in bestowing the Spirit in close proximity to verse 1. Both of these are found in verse 2. First is the word “suddenly”:
Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:2, emphasis mine).
The Spirit did not come after some agonizing effort on the part of the believers in Jerusalem; He came suddenly, and I think we could infer “unexpectedly.” Second, Luke informs us that the Spirit came while they were “sitting.” Now why would he bother to include such a detail as this? Perhaps it was because one usually sits when he is inactive or at rest. If they were sitting, the inference may be that they were not doing anything to induce the Spirit to come.9
2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:2-4).
I would first like to point out the brevity of this account. There is no emphasis on the sensational, no lengthy or embellished description of the unusual phenomenon. Nothing is said about how those on whom the Spirit descended felt. The emphasis will fall on those who witnessed this event, and on the occasion it brought for the proclamation of the gospel. Put differently, the spectacular events were not primarily for the benefit of the believers, but for the edification of those who witnessed this miraculous moment. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:
What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis mine).
In addition to the brevity of this account, take note of its uniqueness. Nothing like this has ever happened before. While a few similar incidents are described later in the Book of Acts, only here do we read of the “sound of a violent wind” and the appearance of something like tongues of fire being distributed on those present. Only here is there a large gathering of devout Jews from various parts of the world. Only here do those looking on hear the praises of God in their own mother tongue.
An auditory and a visual manifestation accompany the filling of the Spirit. In both cases, Luke is clear to indicate that it is not a literal wind or a literal fire. It is a very loud sound that is something like a violent wind. It is something like tongues made of fire. But it is neither wind nor fire, literally, so far as the account informs us.
The Gulf Coast of the United States recently experienced two major hurricanes. The news media coverage included the attempt of some to describe the sound and the sights of these disastrous storms. There was no way to adequately describe them. Someone might liken the howling winds to the sound of a freight train, but this cannot do justice to the actual event. So Luke’s account is an attempt to describe the awesome sound that drew people from all over the city of Jerusalem. (So far as I can tell, the appearance of “tongues like fire” was only seen by those on whom the Spirit descended. It would seem that those who spoke with tongues left their original location in the “house where they were sitting” and went outside, where the crowds had gathered.)
The question is, “What do these phenomenon symbolize?” What is the meaning of these symbols? We should begin by pointing out that in both Hebrew and Greek (the languages in which most of the Old and New Testaments were written) the word for “spirit” is also the word for “wind.” Wind is often a symbol associated with the Spirit of God:
Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water (Genesis 1:2).
1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. 2 He made me walk all around them; there were many bones in the valley and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said to him, “Sovereign Lord, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and tell them: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live. 6 I will put sinews on you and flesh over you and will cover you with skin; I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. There was a sound when I prophesied—a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I saw on them sinews and flesh, and skin covered over them from above, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look, I am opening your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. 13 Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. 14 I will place my Spirit in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord—I have spoken and I will act, declares the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, emphasis mine).
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-8).
It would seem, therefore, that the sound like a violent wind signaled the descent of the Spirit in a mighty way. Luke is careful to inform us that the sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven. In Luke’s account of the baptism of our Lord, he is careful to tell us that the heavens were opened, and the inference is clear that the dove that descended came from heaven, to rest and abide on the Lord Jesus. So, too, the words of the Father came from heaven. All of this is to make it very plain that what happened at our Lord’s baptism and what happened at Pentecost originated with God.
Fire is frequently a symbol of God’s presence. We see it when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus 3. We see it again with the fire at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:18. We see it in the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites (Exodus 13:21ff.). From the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), we see that fire is also a means of divine judgment (see also 2 Kings 1). That is how John the Baptist seems to think of our Lord’s baptism of fire, at least in part:
11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
As I was studying this text, a passage in James 3 came to mind, which might be related:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual, able to control the entire body as well. 3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: Though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination directs. 5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions. Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence—and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:1-8, emphasis mine).
The human tongue is a reflection of what is in our hearts:
33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart. 35 The good person brings good things out of his good treasury, and the evil person brings evil things out of his evil treasury. 36 I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37, emphasis mine).
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person (Matthew 15:18, emphasis mine).
Is it not significant that apart from divine intervention the human tongue is a destructive fire, but once the heart is renewed and the Spirit empowers the tongue, it becomes an instrument of salvation? Thus, tongues of fire seem to symbolize the tongues of the apostles, empowered by the Spirit, which speak of the glory of God, and this leads to the conversion of thousands.
We should take note that the “tongues” spoken here are languages unknown to the speakers, but which are the native languages of the hearers. I have tried to mentally picture what must have taken place at Pentecost. The awesome noise (like a violent wind) attracted the crowds. They heard those who were empowered by the Spirit speaking in various foreign languages. I can imagine individuals hearing their own native tongue somewhere in the crowd, and after a search, finding the speaker. I can likewise imagine the speaker, wondering what he is saying. Since they could communicate in a common tongue (Aramaic or Greek?), they could discuss what was being said, and thus the hearer could inform the speaker about what he was saying, and even the language in which it was spoken. What a wonder that must have been for both speaker and hearer.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!” (Acts 4:1-13, emphasis mine)
We should begin by taking note of the emphasis Luke gives to the audience and to their response. This section (Acts 2:5-13) is considerably larger than the setting (Acts 2:1) and the spectacular phenomenon (Acts 2:2-4). The interpretation of these things, contained in Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-36), is even larger. This should serve as an indication of where Luke wants to put the emphasis.
I must confess these verses are perplexing to me. Where did all these “devout Jews” come from? Where were these many “devout Jews” in the Gospels? Why did they not protest when Jesus was on trial? And yet Luke writes that there were devout Jews from every nation residing in Jerusalem. The term Luke employs to refer to these “devout Jews” is not the term used for Gentile proselytes – Gentile converts to Judaism – folks like Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2) or the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-27). Only Luke uses this term, which is found four times in the New Testament. In addition to our text (Acts 2:5), it is found in Luke 2:25, where we are introduced to Simeon. It is also employed to designate those who came forward to bury Stephen (Acts 8:2). Finally, it is used of Ananias, who was sent to speak to Saul (Paul) at the time of his conversion, as recorded in Acts 22:12.
So where did these “devout Jews” come from? Where were they before this? Some of them were probably devout Jews who made their way from distant lands to come to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Pentecost (see Acts 20:16). I suppose that some might have come for Passover and stayed on until Pentecost. We know that many did make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feasts, especially the three mandatory feasts (see Exodus 34:23-24):
“The Passover festival at Jerusalem in the days before the temple was destroyed was an impressive occasion. Perhaps the only comparable event in the modern world is the annual Haj to Mecca. From all over the Eastern Mediterranean world, wherever Jews had settled or foreigners had embraced the Jewish religion, they came each year. Nobody knows exactly how many came. Ancient reports range from half a million to twelve million! A more conservative modern estimate reckons that Jerusalem, quite a small town by modern standards (perhaps 30,000 inhabitants), was swollen to six times its normal population at Passover time. The city itself could not hold them, and they filled the surrounding villages, while large numbers set up tents outside the city” (emphasis mine).10
It seems to me that this was a period of great messianic expectation. The disciples kept pressing Jesus about how soon the kingdom of God would be inaugurated (see Luke 21:5-7; Acts 1:6). Others must have sensed that the time was nearing as well. Perhaps there were many who, sensing that that kingdom was near, determined to be in Jerusalem, where such things would commence.
Think, too, of the things which had taken place in recent times. Surely word must have gotten out about the birth of Jesus and about the magi who came from afar to worship Him (Matthew 2:1ff.). Then John the Baptist came, promising that Messiah would soon appear (Matthew 3:1-2). He drew crowds, even in the wilderness. Jesus then commences His public ministry, which is authenticated by many miracles (Matthew 4:23-25). For three years, His ministry continues. His appearances in Jerusalem create a considerable stir. Then Jesus is crucified as a criminal. That would seem to be the end it all, but it is not so.
Our Lord’s death was far from typical. Something about His death caused those who witnessed it a great deal of distress:
47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts (Luke 23:47-48).
At the time of His death, a number of very unusual things occurred, things which could not be quickly and easily explained away:
50 Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. 51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. 53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) 54 Now when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, “Truly this one was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:50-54)
Even the unusual death and burial of Judas, who betrayed Jesus by handing Him over to the authorities, caught the attention of those in Jerusalem:
(This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”) (Acts 1:19)
Messianic expectation was at an all time high. Word about Jesus had spread abroad. Surely the “devout Jews” heard of such things, and just as surely, they would have made every effort to relocate to Jerusalem, hoping to be on hand when the kingdom of God was inaugurated.
Here, as before, the response of the audience was mixed. The “devout Jews” sensed that there was spiritual significance to these events, and they sought to know what it was: “What does this mean” (verse 12)? But others dismissed these miraculous events as the babblings of those who were drunk: “They are drunk on new wine!” (verse 13)
I am somewhat inclined to think that those who dismissed this great miracle as the result of excessive drinking were mainly “native Hebrews” (see Acts 6:1), while those who were sincerely seeking to discover the meaning of these events were primarily Hellenistic Jews. The native Hebrews would have had more exposure to Jesus, and thus their rejection of Him would be more culpable. The Hellenistic Jews, however, would not have seen as much evidence of our Lord’s identity as Messiah. More than this, the native Hebrews would likely not know the foreign languages spoken by the Spirit-empowered apostles, while the Hellenistic Jews would recognize their native tongue spoken flawlessly by Galileans (those not considered the educated elite, and those with the strongest accent).
As we seek to conclude this message, let us consider what Pentecost means. In the following verses of Acts 2, Peter will explain the meaning of Pentecost for those who witnessed it. These were folks who needed to place their trust in Jesus as the promised Messiah. But Luke wrote the Book of Acts for folks like us, many of whom have trusted in Jesus. What is the meaning of Pentecost for us? I will attempt to explore the meaning of Pentecost for us by examining from three dimensions:
(1) Its similarities to the baptism of our Lord by John.
(2) Its relationship to the Great Commission.
(3) Its relationship to the Feast of Pentecost.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Luke 3:21-22).
Consider the similarities between our Lord’s baptism by John and the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Luke 3, the Spirit comes upon Jesus after He has been baptized by John and while He is praying. In Acts, the apostles and others have also been praying, and the Spirit comes upon them. In Luke, a voice (the voice of God the Father) comes from heaven; in Acts 2, a great noise comes from heaven. In Luke, the Spirit comes in the form of a dove and rests upon Jesus. In Acts 2, the Spirit’s coming is seen in the likeness of tongues of fire, which come upon all those gathered together. The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus in Luke 3 is the event that preceded the commencement of our Lord’s ministry, a ministry which was marked by manifestations of power. In Acts 2, Pentecost is the event that preceded the going forth of the apostles in power, as they proclaimed the gospel.
I would like to suggest that the baptism of our Lord in Luke 3 is essential and foundational to our understanding Pentecost. In our Lord’s baptism, Jesus certainly identified Himself with John, his ministry, and his message. Further, in our Lord’s baptism, He identified Himself with lost sinners – He identified Himself with us. But this is not where I see the emphasis falling. At the baptism of Jesus, we see God identifying Himself (Father and Spirit) with the Son, and with His ministry. We see that it is from this point on that Jesus is endowed with power from on high to conduct His earthly ministry.
When we come to Pentecost in Acts 2, we see a similar event taking place with our Lord’s earthly body, the church. At Pentecost, God identifies Himself with the church, the body of Christ. It is one thing to identify ourselves with Christ (which we do in believer’s baptism). It is another thing for us to claim that God is with us. (Many are those corrupt governments and rulers who have claimed God was with them in their evil causes.) But it is a most unusual thing when God personally identifies Himself with us. That is what He has done at Pentecost. God identified Himself with the church, and specifically with the apostles. The things our Lord Jesus began to do and to teach (Acts 1:1-2), He continued to do and to teach through His apostles. Just as Jesus did not begin His public ministry until the Father identified Himself with Him by bestowing His Spirit on Him, so the apostles were told to wait until He identified Himself with them at Pentecost.
I do not think that we fully appreciate what it meant for God to identify Himself with the church. This is a distinctly New Covenant event. I am reminded of the events of Exodus in chapters 32-34. While Moses was on the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments in stone, the Israelites are down below (in full view of the manifestations of God’s presence on the mountain) worshipping the idol they had instructed Aaron to fashion for them. The initial issue was whether or not God would wipe out this entire nation and raise up a new nation through Moses (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses successfully (humanly speaking) interceded for the nation, and God spared them. Now, the issue was whether God would be present with His people as they went forward to possess the land of Canaan:
1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:1-3, emphasis mine).
Once again it was through the intercession of Moses that God promised to go with His people:
12 Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 And now, if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people. 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you,11 and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For in what way will it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:12-17, emphasis mine).
God did go with His people. According to Paul, even our Lord Jesus was present, although not recognized as such (1 Corinthians 10:4). But God was not intimately indwelling His people. There were always barricades, always barriers which separated men from God. While He was with His disciples, our Lord spoke of a time in the near future when He would dwell within His disciples in an entirely new and much more intimate way:
15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you. 21 The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him” (John 14:15-21, emphasis mine).
From Pentecost on, God has come to dwell in His people, manifesting His person and presence in a way that is more intimate than we ever find in the Old Testament. God now identifies Himself with His people in a most intimate way. This is only possible because our sins have been dealt with on the cross of Calvary. Pentecost can come because our Passover has been sacrificed:
Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49, emphasis mine).
8 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 farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis mine).
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus claims all authority. He commands His disciples to make disciples of all nations, and He promises to be with them always, to the end of the age. At Pentecost, the power and authority of God are bestowed upon the disciples in the coming of the Holy Spirit. His presence, through the Spirit, is assured until this age is past.
In both Luke and Acts, we see that our Lord promised power through the coming of the Holy Spirit, with the result that the gospel would be proclaimed to all the earth, beginning at Jerusalem. Is it not striking that our Lord has orchestrated Pentecost in such a way that (so to speak) all the nations of the earth are present and represented by those who were dwelling in Jerusalem when the Spirit was bestowed on the church? God has seen to it that the first fruits of His sovereign purposes are harvested on the very day that the Spirit is given to the church.
It is my understanding that God purposed to send His Spirit to the church during the Feast of Pentecost because this Old Testament feast foreshadowed Pentecost. Paul calls attention to this relationship between Old Testament institutions and New Testament realities in Colossians 2:
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days— 17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ! (Colossians 2:16-17, emphasis mine)
The writer to the Hebrews says the same thing:
For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship (Hebrews 10:1, emphasis mine).
Let us take note of these Old Testament texts which speak of the Feast of Pentecost:
You are also to observe the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors that you have sown in the field, and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year when you have gathered in your labors out of the field (Exodus 23:16, emphasis mine).
22 And you must observe the Feast of Weeks—the firstfruits of the harvest of wheat—and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year. 23 At three times in the year all your men must appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel (Exodus 34:22-23, emphasis mine).
11 And he must wave the sheaf before the Lord to be accepted for your benefit—on the day after the Sabbath the priest is to wave it. . . . 15 “‘You must count for yourselves seven weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the wave offering sheaf; they must be complete weeks. 16 You must count fifty days—until the day after the seventh Sabbath—and then you must present a new grain offering to the Lord. 17 From the places where you live you must bring two loaves of bread for a wave offering; they must be made from two tenths of an ephah of fine wheat flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 Along with the loaves of bread, you must also present seven flawless yearling lambs, one young bull, and two rams. They are to be a burnt offering to the Lord along with their grain offering and drink offerings, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord. 19 You must also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two yearling lambs for a peace offering sacrifice, 20 and the priest is to wave them—the two lambs—along with the bread of the first fruits, as a wave offering before the Lord; they will be holy to the Lord for the priest’” (Leviticus 23:11, 15-20, emphasis mine).
26 “‘Also, on the day of the first fruits, when you bring a new grain offering to the Lord during your Feast of Weeks, you are to have a holy convocation. You must do no ordinary work’” (Numbers 28:26, emphasis mine).
9 You must count seven weeks; you must begin to count them from the time you begin to harvest the standing grain. 10 Then you are to celebrate the Festival of Weeks before the Lord your God with the voluntary offering that you will bring, in proportion to how he has blessed you. 11 You shall rejoice before him—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites in your villages, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows among you—in the place where the Lord chooses to locate his name (Deuteronomy 16:9-11, emphasis mine).
We can see that the Feast of Pentecost was known by several names: the “Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), the “Festival (or Feast) of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10), and the “day of the first fruits” (Numbers 28:26).
The Jewish feasts are observed according to the Jewish calendar. As many know, the Jewish calendar is very different from our own.12 The first spring holiday is that of Passover (see Exodus 12:1-14; Leviticus 23:5). Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage at the exodus. Passover recalls the ten plagues, the observance of the first Passover meal (by means of which the first born males were spared), and the crossing of the Red Sea. Passover commences on the 14th day of the first month of Abib, which falls in our months of March or April. The day after Passover, the 15th day of the month, was the beginning of a one week celebration of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Exodus 12:15-20; 13:8-9; Leviticus 23:6-8). All leaven was to be removed for a period of one week. One of the seven days of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” would naturally be a Sabbath. The day following this Sabbath there was to be the celebration of the wave offering of Israel’s “First Fruits” (Leviticus 23:9-14). The first sheaf of the new spring barley crop was brought to the priest who waved this offering before the Lord.
The Feast of Pentecost (or, more commonly in Old Testament terms, the “Feast of Weeks”) was to be celebrated 50 days after the offering of the first fruits. In this way, we can see that Pentecost followed Passover, but was actually 50 days after the offering of first fruits. It occurs in the third month of the Jewish calendar, which would be during the months of May or June on our calendar.
There are several things I believe to be significant about this holiday which serve to foreshadow the Pentecost of Acts 2. First of all, Pentecost marks the transition from Israel’s barley harvest to her wheat harvest. If I understand correctly, the wheat crop would ripen just as the barley harvest has ended. Thus, it marked the transition from harvesting barley to harvesting wheat. Wheat appears to be regarded as the more highly prized crop. Is this somehow a fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to His disciples?
12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. 15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you (John 14:12-18, emphasis mine).
Whatever the “harvest” had been during the life and ministry of our Lord, it would suddenly increase, beginning with Pentecost.
Second, Pentecost was unique in that the grain offering was in the form of two loaves,13 both of which were made with leaven (Leviticus 23:17). What a contrast to Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, where no leaven was tolerated! What has happened so that the Feast of Pentecost actually requires bread made with leaven? How can that which is leavened be presented to God as a sacrifice?
I’m inclined to see the interpretation in terms of the sequence of spring holidays we have seen thus far. Passover clearly anticipated the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross of Calvary. He is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Feast of Unleavened Bread follows Passover, and all leaven must be removed. The death of our Lord Jesus at Calvary removes the guilt of our sins, and thus we must come to hate sin and desire that it be put far from us:
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the offering of Israel’s first fruits followed shortly after the observance of the Passover meal. The presentation of the first fruits always occurred on the day after Sabbath, or Sunday. Sunday after Passover was also the day our Lord Jesus rose from the dead, the first fruits from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). Fifty days later, Israel celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. This was the end of the barley season (the Old Covenant?) and the beginning of the wheat harvest (the New Covenant?). It was the time when God identified Himself with the church, the time when He endowed the saints with power so that they could carry out the Great Commission. It was the time when God came to indwell His saints in a way that was more intimate than any saint had ever experienced it. It was the time, thanks to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, when God could now indwell those who were not yet free from sin and its corrupting influences. God dwells among and in His people, sinful though they will be, because of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.
Matthew’s Gospel began by telling us that in Jesus, God is with us:
20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:20-25, emphasis mine).
When the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission, we find these words of our Lord, reassuring His disciples that He will be with them always, to the end of the age:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
What does Pentecost mean to us? The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 tells us how our Lord is now present with His church – through the Holy Spirit, whom He has sent. Pentecost assures us that God is present with His people, even though we are not yet sinless. We are forgiven sinners, who will one day be freed from the suffering and groaning that is the result of sin (Romans 8:18-25). But through the atoning work of Christ and the abiding of the Spirit, God is with us in a way that no Old Testament saint ever knew. He is with us, not only to teach, comfort, and guide us, but also to empower us to carry out the Great Commission. What news could be better than this? To God be the glory.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 3 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 2, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
3 This qualifies our understanding of Acts 1:12-14 (and what I said of these verses in my previous lesson). While the disciples and a few others spent much time in the “upper room,” they also spent a great deal of time at the temple. They seemed to alternate from one place to the other. No doubt, they retreated to the upper room in the evening and spent some of their daylight hours in the temple.
5 Technically, Pentecost comes 50 days after the offering of the first fruits of grain. Since this comes toward the end of the nearly two-week long celebration of Passover (including the Feast of Unleavened Bread), some consider this whole period as Passover.
6 BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, Copyright 2000, The University of Chicago Press.
7 I can’t help but wonder if they were “all together,” celebrating Passover.
9 I realize that Jesus, like the rabbis of His day, may have sat when they taught, but I think it is still true that one normally does not sit when they are working at something. For example, I think that it may be true that when folks prayed, they often (though not always) did so standing (see Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11).
10 R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 126. It should be noted, however, that Joachim Jeremias (on whose calculations France rests his estimate of 180,000 people) later suggested that this estimate might still be a bit too high. Cf. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 84.
11 The “you” here in verse 14 is singular both times. God is promising Moses that He will go with him personally, but He is not promising to go with Israel.
13 Much has been made of the “two loaves.” Some think they signify the two tablets on which the Law was written (later Judaism saw Pentecost as the celebration of the law being given to Israel). Some think that one loaf symbolizes believing Jews while the other believing Gentiles. To be honest, I have no strong convictions on what the symbolism stands for.