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Lesson 4: The Meaning of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

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When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and the other believers on the Day of Pentecost, those who heard them speaking in tongues were perplexed and asked, “What does this mean?” (2:12). The question persists in our day. Many claim that the meaning of Pentecost is that we should have the same experience as the disciples, namely, that we are to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit and to speak in tongues. You have probably had other Christians ask you, as I have, “Have you received the baptism of the Holy Spirit?” If you have not spoken in tongues, they are eager to help you have this experience for yourself. We all need to answer biblically, in light of the context, What is the meaning of Pentecost?

Acts 2 must be interpreted in light of Acts 1:4-8, where the risen Lord Jesus instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit. Jesus explained that they would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (1:5) and they would receive power to be Christ’s “witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (1:8). Just as the ministry of Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit descending on Him at His baptism, so the ministry of the disciples depended on them receiving the Holy Spirit and relying on His power. While they had experienced a measure of the Spirit’s power before (John 20:22), now He would come to dwell in them permanently (John 7:37-39; 14:17).

Thus Acts 2 must be interpreted as a special historical event, signifying a new period in God’s dealings with His people. Pentecost signals the dawning of the age of the Holy Spirit. And the fulness of the Spirit in God’s people is to empower them for witness to all the nations. Thus,

The meaning of Pentecost is God’s equipping His church with the power of His Spirit so that He will be glorified among the nations.

The point of Pentecost is mission, and the goal of mission is that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). If we properly understand this great historic event, our hearts will be enflamed with cause of seeing some from every tribe and tongue and nation bowing before the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Note four things:

1. God’s plan for being glorified among the nations was to form the church.

To understand this event, we must understand the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. It was not by coincidence that God poured out His Spirit on the disciples on that day. There were three great Jewish feasts each year: Passover (in the spring), celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, followed immediately by the Feast of Unleavened Bread; Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, which occurred 50 days (seven weeks) after Passover; and, Tabernacles (in the fall). Pentecost was an initial harvest feast, where the Jews were to offer to the Lord the first fruits of the new grain. Among other rituals, they were to wave before the Lord two loaves of wheat bread, made with leaven (Lev. 23:15-21).

This picture came to fulfillment in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Until this time, the Lord’s people consisted of Israel, along with a few Gentile proselytes. Not all in Israel were believers, but it was through that nation exclusively that God worked through His covenant promises to form a people for Himself. But now the Lord formed the body of Christ, the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles on equal footing. Paul calls this inclusion of the Gentiles in the church a mystery, meaning that it had not been formerly revealed (Eph. 3:4-7), although it was typified in this Jewish feast with two loaves. That these two loaves were made up of leavened bread pictures the fact that although we are redeemed in Christ, we are still sinners who must learn to get along with those who, in the flesh, are very different than we are.

You will recall that the Lord had told Peter that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Thus the church, founded on the apostolic confession and witness of Christ, is God’s means of taking the gospel to the nations, resulting in His being glorified in all the earth.

We need to remember that our purpose as the Lord’s church is not to focus on ourselves and our own happiness. Our purpose is to spread the knowledge of God to all the nations, beginning here in our own “Jerusalem.” If we lose our outward focus, with the overall purpose of God’s glory, we have lost our reason for existence.

2. The scope of God’s plan is all the nations.

As I studied this portion of Acts, I wondered at first why Luke goes through this long, somewhat tedious list of nations (2:9-11). He starts east of Israel and ends up encircling the land. While most of the men mentioned were Jews (a few were Gentile proselytes), they are representative of the nations that the Lord wants to reach. The key to the list is in verse 5, that it represents “men from every nation under heaven.” They were devout men, meaning God-fearing, as is obvious from the fact that they had made this pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this feast. But they did not yet know that their Messiah had come and had been sacrificed. Peter will shortly explain all of that in his sermon.

This list of the nations reminds us of the list of nations in Genesis 10, which led to the building of the tower of Babel. God judged those proud men by confusing their languages. Here, by His grace, God turned this confusion of tongues into a miracle of miraculous speech, resulting in great blessing. The gift of speaking in tongues was a special miracle to demonstrate God’s purpose in taking the gospel to all the nations. It enabled the church to be launched in all of these places when these men returned to their homes. But since then, missionaries (even Pentecostal missionaries!) must struggle to learn the foreign languages in the places they go. Later in Acts (14:11-14), even Paul and Barnabas did not understand the Lycaonian dialect. They could only preach to the people in Greek, which almost everyone understood.

But the point is, God’s plan is no longer to be bottled up with the Jews. His good news is for all the nations. As John proclaims in Revelation 5:9, Jesus purchased for God with His blood “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” We cannot rest until all the nations have heard the good news about Christ. But how can we possibly fulfill God’s plan?

3. The necessary power for fulfilling God’s plan is His Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not just a force. He is the third person of the Trinity, God is every way. We know that He is a personal being in that He can be grieved (Eph. 4:30); you cannot grieve an impersonal force. Jesus calls Him the Paraclete, or Comforter. The word means, “one called alongside to help.” We know that He is God in that He performs deeds, such as creation, which only God can do. In Acts 5:3, Peter accuses Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit and then adds, “You have not lied to men but to God” (5:5).

Before the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit regenerated men and empowered them for serving God. But He did not permanently indwell all believers (Ps. 51:11; Luke 11:13). In the Upper Room, Jesus had told the disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to be with them forever. He added, “You know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Thus on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. In Acts 8, the Spirit was poured out on the Samaritans through the apostles, so that both they and the apostles would realize that they were now members of the same body of Christ. The same thing happened with the Gentiles in Acts 10 and with the followers of John’s baptism in Ephesus (Acts 19). These transitional outpourings of the Holy Spirit follow the pattern of Acts 1:8.

Once the transition was completed, all that believe in Christ receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (Gal. 3:2-5). Paul states, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9).

We need to be careful to distinguish several terms that are often confused. In Acts 1:5, Jesus said that the apostles would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, which occurred on the Day of Pentecost. Baptism refers to being totally identified with the Spirit and to the initial reception of the Spirit. Paul tells the Corinthians, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). If the baptism of the Spirit were a special experience for the spiritually elite, Paul would not have said such a thing to the Corinthians, who were not noted for their spiritual maturity! The New Testament nowhere commands believers to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, since it is not an experience we are to seek, but God’s action performed on the believer at the moment of salvation.

We are, however, commanded to be filled with the Spirit, which means to be controlled by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The disciples on the Day of Pentecost were not only baptized with the Spirit. Also they all were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). While the baptism of the Spirit is a one-time event, being filled with the Spirit happens repeatedly (see Acts 4:8, 31; 6:5; 7:55; 9:17; 13:9). To be filled with the Spirit, we must empty ourselves by confessing all known sin and by dying to self. We must yield ourselves fully to the Lord and depend on Him step by step (“walking in the Spirit,” Gal. 5:16). Being filled with the Spirit is also called (in a parallel passage) letting the word of Christ richly dwell in you (Col. 3:16; see Eph. 5:18 and context). Thus the filling of the Spirit cannot be divorced from God’s Word being at home in your heart. The results of a consistent daily walk in the Spirit will be the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) manifested in our lives and relationships (Eph. 5:19-6:9; Col. selves fully to the Lord and depend on Him step by step (“walking in the Spirit,” Gal. 5:16). Being filled with the Spirit is also called (in a parallel passage) letting the word of Christ richly dwell in you (Col. 3:16; see Eph. 5:18 and context). Thus the filling of the Spirit cannot be divorced from God’s Word being at home in your heart. The results of a consistent daily walk in the Spirit will be the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) manifested in our lives and relationships (Eph. 5:19-6:9; Col. 3:16-4:1).

This initial outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was marked by three symbolic phenomena. First, there was the sound of a violent rushing wind that filled the house. Then, there was the visible sign of tongues of fire resting on each person. Finally, there was the miraculous speaking in foreign languages which none had previously learned.

The sound of the violent rushing wind was primarily a picture of invisible power. As you know, the wind, which you cannot see, exerts incredible power in a tornado or hurricane. In this case, the disciples heard the noise, but there is no indication that they felt it blowing. It was rather a miraculous sound that came from heaven. The noise was loud enough that it gathered the crowd to find out what was happening (1:6).

Both the Hebrew and Greek words for wind and spirit are the same. In Ezekiel 37, God commanded the prophet to prophesy to the winds to breathe on a valley of dry bones. When he did so, the breath of life came into them. God explains that He will put His Spirit within His people and they would come to life (Ezek. 37:9-14). In John 3, Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the need to be born of the Spirit. He explained, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). The Holy Spirit, like the wind, is a mighty power, but we cannot see Him. We can only see His effects. One of His most powerful effects is when He imparts spiritual life to those who were dead in their sins.

The second phenomenon was the appearance of tongues of fire resting on each person in the room. Throughout the Bible, fire symbolizes God’s holy presence. Moses in the wilderness saw the bush that was burning and yet not consumed. God Himself was in the bush. Later, Israel in the wilderness was guided and protected by the pillar of fire. John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus said that He had come to cast fire upon the earth (Luke 12:49). The final place of judgment is the lake that burns with fire forever and ever. Hebrews 12:29 says that our God is a consuming fire.

Fire brings both heat and light. The heat of fire consumes the dross, purifying those who come in contact with it or destroying those who have no gold in them. The heat of fire also pictures the zeal that should mark believers, who are to be hot, not lukewarm, in their devotion to Christ (Rev. 3:15-16). The light pictures the illumination that God brings to those in spiritual darkness.

The fire on the Day of Pentecost appeared in the form of tongues to symbolize God’s holy power through the proclamation of His Word, burning into people in a way that purifies them. As Paul later stated, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). That gospel must be verbally proclaimed for the power to come through.

Down through church history, the sovereign Spirit has moved unseen as the wind, where He wills, to bring revival. Invariably, it starts with the church, purifying God’s people, igniting their cold hearts with a renewed passion for knowing God and burning off the dross of the world that had contaminated them. Through them, it spreads as the gospel is proclaimed and the Spirit imparts new life in Christ to dead sinners. Through His mighty Holy Spirit, God does what no humanly orchestrated “revival” could ever do. He brings lasting change by regenerating and purifying dead sinners so that He is glorified as people recognize His mighty deeds. Such revival is clearly a sovereign act of God, not the result of any human effort or planning. We should be praying that God would graciously send such a revival on our land!

Before we leave the subject of the power of the Holy Spirit, let me briefly deal with the question, “Should we seek to speak in tongues?” Some argue that the sign of being baptized with the Spirit is speaking in tongues and that if you have not done that, you are lacking a vital spiritual experience. This is a controversial subject; if you disagree with me, please try to set aside your emotions and reason with me from Scripture. As I said, there is no command to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit, although we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. The main evidence of being filled with the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit, which is godly character (Gal. 5:16-23; Col. 1:9-12).

First, we need to be clear that the genuine gift of tongues is the ability to speak a foreign language that you have not studied. It is not, either in Acts or in 1 Corinthians, to speak “ecstatic utterances,” which is a nice term for gibberish. In Acts the disciples were speaking languages which the native speakers could understand, but which the disciples had never learned. In 1 Corinthians, the tongues needed interpretation because native speakers were not present. But you cannot interpret nonsense syllables; you can only interpret language that has fixed, objective meaning behind the sounds that are uttered. This criterion alone invalidates 99 percent of what is called speaking in tongues in our day.

Secondly, we are never commanded or encouraged to seek the gift of tongues. Rather, the Holy Spirit sovereignly distributes gifts as He wills (1 Cor. 12:11). When Paul says to earnestly desire the greater gifts (1 Cor. 12:31), he is talking to the church as a body, not to individuals. He means that the church should seek gifts that build up the body, not those, such as tongues, that may edify the individual.

Also, the miraculous gifts were given to the church during the early period to confirm the apostolic witness, but they faded as time went on. The author of Hebrews wrote to a second generation of Jewish Christians. He tells them how the word of the Lord was confirmed by the apostles through various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Heb. 2:3-4). If these gifts were present in the churches at the time he was writing, he would not have needed to refer to them as a thing of the past. Their purpose had been to confirm the apostolic message. After that purpose was fulfilled, they passed off the scene.

Finally, as I hope you can see from the context of Acts 2, the meaning of Pentecost was not to encourage believers to have an ecstatic experience for their own edification. The meaning of Pentecost was that God gave the Holy Spirit to His church so that they would bear witness to the nations for His glory.

4. The goal of God’s plan is that He will be glorified among the nations.

These Jews from all of these nations heard the disciples “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (2:11). Peter will shortly preach the gospel, leading to the conversion of 3,000 souls. But the goal of the gospel is the glory of God. As John Piper has put it, “The reason missions exists is because worship does not.” In Revelation 5, John has a vision of the nations worshiping before God’s throne. That should be our vision as well.

Note that not all responded positively, even though this was a “Class A” miracle. Even miracles will not convince mockers, who do not want to submit their lives to the Sovereign God. The Book of Acts is a record not only of might conversions, but also of fierce opposition to the preaching of the gospel. We should expect the same response. But we know that our God will triumph, that every knee will someday bow to Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).


Last Sunday, Marla and I listened to a powerful sermon by John Piper, which he gave to 50,000 college students. He began by telling of two elderly women who had given their “retirement” years to go to Cameroon for the sake of the gospel. They had been killed when their brakes gave out and their car plunged over a cliff. He asked, “Was that a tragedy?” He answered, “No, that wasn’t a tragedy. Let me tell you about a tragedy.” He cited a Reader’s Digest article about how many Americans are taking early retirement so that they can pursue their own pleasure. One couple had bought a yacht and spent their time sailing off the coast of Florida, collecting seashells. Piper said, “Now, that’s a tragedy!” Can you imagine this couple standing before God at the judgment and saying, “Here’s our seashell collection, Lord”?

God’s purpose at Pentecost was to equip His church with the mighty power of the Holy Spirit so that we would be His witnesses to all the nations, resulting in His eternal glory. I want you to ask yourself these questions as you think about this purpose:

(1) *Is my focus on God’s glory in all things? Did I even think about that as I went through my week? Did it determine how I resisted temptation or how I spoke to others?

(2) *Is my passion that the nations would glorify God through the gospel? If my heart is not on world missions, it is not in tune with God’s heart.

(3) *Is my daily life consciously dependent on the Holy Spirit? Would I have missed Him if He had withdrawn from me this past week? Do I lean on Him for purity of life and power to obey God?

(4) *Is my daily desire to bear witness of Christ to those who are lost and perishing? The power of the Spirit isn’t given just to make me happy. It is given to make me holy so that my life and my words bring glory to God as I bear witness to His saving grace. That should be the meaning of Pentecost for you and me.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does being a missionary require a special calling from God?
  2. How can a believer be filled with the Spirit? Give biblical support.
  3. How can a believer develop a passion for God’s glory?
  4. Is it wrong to seek to speak in tongues? Give biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Glory, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

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