What is Pentecost?
The church has a birthday, and it’s called “Pentecost.” Pentecost is a time for Christians to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples shortly after Christ ascended into heaven (Acts 1:8–9; 2:1–47). Pentecost was originally a Jewish holiday known as the “Feast of Weeks” (Lev. 23:15), which was observed seven weeks after the Jews celebrated the Passover. Since the resurrection of Jesus, however, Christians have celebrated Pentecost seven weeks after Easter.
Luke tells us at the beginning of the book of Acts that Jesus promised his disciples they would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). In the Gospel of John, Jesus also informed them of this plan saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16-26; 15:26; 16:7). When Jesus left, the disciples were sad that their Savior-King had left them. They stood there looking off into heaven, not knowing what to do (Acts 1:10). But as God promised them, a Helper would come to them. On the day of the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit came down upon those gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2).
When the Holy Spirit descended, he gave them the remarkable ability to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4). This speech was human (not otherworldly) language, and thousands of people from various regions were able to hear the “mighty acts of God” for the first time in their own tongue (v. 11). I’ve been to Zurich and I don’t speak even a bit of Swiss-German, so it was difficult for me to get around without an interpreter. But this experience of the early Christians would have made it so they could speak and interpret Swiss-German without ever studying the language! That’s pretty spectacular. The apostle Peter made good use of this special time in history by preaching the gospel to as many people as possible. The church as we know it today was born with about three thousand baptisms (Acts 2:41).
Why Does Pentecost Matter?
Pentecost teaches us that God is sovereign, and he is the one who guides us. When the day to celebrate the same old Jewish holiday came around after Jesus’ ascension, his disciples were waiting together in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1). They were leaderless (Jesus had left them), and they were vision-less (they were basically moping around). Suddenly, “like a mighty rushing wind” God the Holy Spirit showed up and changed everything (Acts 2:2–4). Pentecost tells us that God is the one who is in control and he not only saves us but also guides us into all truth.
Pentecost was a unique event in God’s story of salvation, and it will never happen again. In Genesis 11:1–9, we are told of a time when all of the nations were divided by language. This episode is often referred to as “the story of Tower of Babel.” What is remarkable about Pentecost is that this was the moment when God reversed the curse of Babel. The gospel is no longer restricted to the nation of Israel, but is now unleashed to the whole world—every tongue, tribe, and nation. Pentecost affirms the diversity of people, both in terms of race and cultural-ethnic differences, while at the same time creating a unity that would have otherwise been impossible. The gospel itself unites all kinds of people—male and female, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, black, white, Asian, Latino, etc.—and it brings everyone together under the same new reality: we are all one in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11–18).
Pentecost reminds us that God has not abandoned us as orphans, but has poured out his Spirit and given us his church. The departure of Jesus must have been devastating to his disciples. They had already lost him once, and now they were going to lose him twice. It’s no wonder they were staring off up in the sky after he left! Often, we can feel like the disciples did because God seems so distant from us. We are over two thousand years removed from the time that Jesus walked this earth, but his promise to us is as true now as it was then. Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them always, even “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This promise remains true for us because he has kept it by sending his Spirit to be with us in his absence. In addition to gifting us with his indwelling Spirit, he has also gifted us with his church—an institution in this world that, although flawed and cracked, still holds in her hands the key and stairway to heaven: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So this week, as we look backward to Pentecost and forward to the second coming of Christ, let’s celebrate by saying, “Happy birthday to the church!”