What is Pentecost About?

Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:

  1. Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
  2. The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
  3. The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter

Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.

What does Pentecost actually mean?

Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?

Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).

And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.

Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares

Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:

  1. after we repent,
  2. and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
  3. then something special is going to happen
  4. the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
  5. and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs

Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”

  1. God has rescued!
  2. God has gathered!
  3. God has made His people safe!
  4. The age of the King is here!
  5. These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”

Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …”1 Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.

How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?

  1. We’re not all gathered
  2. We’re not all safe
  3. Christ’s enemies are still around
  4. God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
  5. God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here

But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).

God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”

 Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”

 God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”

What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.

Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh

All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:

  1. It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
  2. It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect;2 how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?

So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.

Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;

People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).

 The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.

 Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.

Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).

What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.  

What does all this mean?

It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.

Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.

He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).

It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.

What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”  

It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty”3 to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?  

Notes

1 ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον διὰ τοῦ προφήτου Ἰωήλ

2 For an argument for Old Covenant indwelling, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), pp. 267-276.

3 John Phillips, New Testament Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1956), pp. 23-42.

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