On Pentecost Sunday we commemorate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven and baptized a group of our Lord’s disciples into a closely-knit body—and gave them new power to witness for Christ. The time of this event is clearly stated in Acts 2:1 as “the day of Pentecost.”
Pentecost (in Old Testament times) was a Jewish holy day. It was a harvest festival—a time when the Jews came together to render thanks to God for the bounties of the field. The word “Pentecost” means “fiftieth,” and it was used as the name for this holy day because (according to Leviticus 23), it was to be observed on the fiftieth day after Passover and Firstfruits. Faithful Israelites traveled from many countries to the Temple in Jerusalem, and there observed a season of thanksgiving and sacrifice to God. On one particular Pentecost, however, in the year of our Lord’s crucifixion, something special took place. The Holy Spirit came upon the church in a new and powerful way. And so in this message, we want to examine the second chapter of The Acts, and note several facts about the special Day of Pentecost.
1. The Person of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)
The book of Acts is sometimes called “the Gospel of the Holy Spirit” because it tells the good news of the coming of the Holy Spirit. We remember that the Holy Spirit did not come into existence on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is God. He is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. He is eternal. He has always been present. He never had a beginning. He was here in the days of the Old Testament. He inspired men in their writing of the Scriptures. He came upon certain persons to endue them with power. But now, on the Day of Pentecost, He came in a very special way. He came to dwell constantly within the heart of each believer and to give each of us power to do the work which we are commanded to do.
The Holy Spirit lives in the hearts of God’s people. Every genuine Christian is a living, breathing temple in whom the Holy Spirit lives. Jesus had said (in John 14:16), “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever.” The Holy Spirit is a comforter. He comforts us in the hour of trial. A sign in a small shop reads like this: WE MEND EVERYTHING BUT BROKEN HEARTS. But the beauty of the promise in John 14 is that the Holy Spirit can even bind up broken hearts! Along with verse 16 (of John 14), Jesus says in verse 18, “I will not leave you comfortless.”
On the fiftieth day after the resurrection of Jesus, when thousands of Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish Pentecost, the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled. The first four verses of Acts 2 tell us what happened:
Verse 2 tells about the sound. There was a supernatural sound—like that of a rushing wind. It doesn’t say they heard a wind, but they heard a noise that sounded like a rushing wind—and the sound filled the house.
Verse 3 tells about the sight. The word “tongue” not only denotes the instrument of speech in our mouths, but sometimes denotes anything (which in shape) resembles the tongue. We call the handle of a wagon — “a tongue.” The Hebrews called anything that was long and narrow, and tended to a point, a “tongue.” And so what the disciples saw, were slender, pointed appearances which looked like flames of fire—and these appearances of flame settled on each of the disciples.
Verse 4 tells about the speech. The people who had gathered in Jerusalem that day, came from “every nation under heaven” (verse 5), and verses 9-11 name fifteen countries from which the people had come. Thus they spoke many different languages. But God gave the disciples that day miraculous speech, so that they were able to speak the wonderful message of God in dialects which they themselves never had learned.
The notion that New Testament Christians sometimes fell into a trance, and spoke in some kind of heavenly language (a sort of ecstatic jabber) is altogether foreign to the Scriptures. Nothing like this happened on the Day of Pentecost, and as far as we know, it never happened at any other time (unless it was a distortion of “tongues”).
“Speaking in tongues” is speaking in a foreign language which the speaker is miraculously enabled to speak, even though he never previously learned it. Suppose I met a man who could speak and understand only Chinese. He was anxious to know about God and salvation, but everyone present could only understand and speak English. If God would give one of us the power to speak to the man in his own language, even though we had never learned Chinese—that would be true “speaking in tongues.”
The entire 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians deals with speaking in tongues. The problem at Corinth was that the people were using foreign languages to make a show in their services, and Paul was seeking to correct the abuse. The Corinthians thought it was spiritual to talk in a language others could not understand. Because Corinth was a trading center, there were all kinds of people—Greeks, Romans, Orientals, Jews—and they tried to impress others by speaking in a language that most others could not understand. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 14:19, that he would sooner speak 5 words that can be understood, than to speak 10,000 of these kinds of words.
If the occasion demands it, God will manifest these signs in our own churches and communities—even in our day. There are some documented examples of experiences where true speaking in tongues has occurred. But we must remember that God is not in the “show business.” He is not interested in putting on a display. Note, for example, Mark 16:17. The Bible says, “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents . . .” Paul and the early apostles did not make a display of these signs. They didn’t go around charming snakes and having them coil around their necks.
We read in Acts 28, however, that one day Paul was shipwrecked, and he was gathering sticks to build a fire, and a deadly snake came out of the heat and fastened on his hand. Verse 5 (of Acts 28) says that he shook off the viper “and felt no harm.” Verse 6 says the people of the island were amazed when they saw that instead of falling dead immediately, he was actually unharmed. This was the only time in Scripture that God fulfilled the promise not to let snakes bring harm. The occasion demanded it, and God was not sleeping! He worked a miracle in order to reach the people on the island of Malta. And just so it is with speaking in tongues, the gift of healing, and other signs of Scripture.
At Pentecost, there was an international audience. Thousands of Jews were there from many nations. God chose to use a sign so that each could hear the Gospel in his own language. But God does not always use such dramatic methods. When Elijah needed a reassuring message from God, he also heard a mighty wind. And then he felt an earthquake and saw a fire. But God’s message came in a gentle whisper—in a still, small voice! God often speaks to us quietly as we read His Word.
At Pentecost, the unbelieving Jews accused the disciples of being drunk. Wicked men have always mocked God’s people, and called them nicknames. The words “Puritan,” and “Quaker,” and “Methodist,” and “Dunker,” are nicknames that were first given out of ridicule. People were unable to explain what happened at Pentecost, and so they began to mock. But Peter was not stopped by ridicule. He sensed that now was the time to preach the Gospel to this crowd, and that brings us to the second part of Acts 2.
2. The Sermon of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40)
What we have in these verses is only a summary of all that Peter had said. Verse 40 says, “And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward (crooked) generation.”
The skill and wisdom that Peter showed when delivering this sermon, was a sign that something wonderful had taken place in his life. Not too many days before, the disciples were behind closed doors, but now Peter spoke out boldly. This was not the mere eloquence of man; it was a message preached with “the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). We note now a few observations related to the sermon:
a) The sermon was simple.
Peter’s message was simple and common and down-to-earth. Those who heard him preach did not have to go away and study a dictionary to find out what he meant. Winston Churchill went to the British people at the beginning of World War II to appeal for their support. He did not say, “What we need is hematic fluid and perspiration and lachrymose experiences.” He said, “What we need is blood and sweat and tears”—and everyone knew what he meant. And just so it is the duty of the preacher to make his message so simple and so clear, that everyone can understand.
b) The sermon was full of Scripture.
Peter expounded the Scriptures. There are 23 verses at the heart of Peter’s sermon, and 12 of them are quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. He quoted from the book of Joel, to show that those who had witnessed the events of Pentecost, were seeing a partial fulfillment of their own prophecies. (Read Acts 2:16-18). Then Peter quoted from the 16th Psalm, to show that David had foretold the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:25-28). And then he quoted from the 110th Psalm, to show that the resurrected Christ is standing at the Father’s right hand in Heaven (Acts 2:34-35).
Peter preached the Word. His sermons were full of Scriptures. He did not preach his own ideas and his own philosophy. This is an example for preachers today. All week long people hear from Washington and London and Moscow and Cairo—from Wall Street and Main Street and Hollywood—and on Sunday they need to hear from Heaven! There are too many in our pulpits who are not really Bible preachers. They are organizers and promoters and youth directors and money raisers—but they fail to diligently preach the Bible. Preachers are called to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2).
c) The sermon was pointed.
Peter did not soft-pedal the issues. He said to that audience, “You have taken Jesus and by wicked hands have crucified and slain him” (see Acts 2:23). And some of the people who were there that day, and were listening to Peter preach, were the very people who had joined in the cry about seven weeks earlier, when they shouted, “Crucify him, crucify him.” Peter said to those people: You have taken him and by wicked hands have crucified him!! That is pointed preaching.
Peter didn’t deal in generalities. He brought the charges home and declared that they were the very people who had part in the wicked act of crucifying Jesus. Preachers today need to boldly preach the truth, and stop trying to tickle people’s ears.
d) The sermon was Christ-centered.
Peter exalted the Savior. He used the Scriptures to point to Jesus. They declare that Jesus is both Lord and Christ (see Acts 2:36). Philip did the same thing (in Acts 8) when he met the eunuch on the road to Gaza. Acts 8:35 says that Philip “preached unto him Jesus.”
The results of Peter’s simple and pointed and Christ-centered sermon were tremendous. There was conviction. Verse 37 says the people were “pricked in their hearts.” There were conditions. When folks in the audience asked Peter what they should do, he said (see verse 38), “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The conditions involved faith (“in the name of Jesus Christ”); and repentance (a complete change of course and direction); and baptism (an outward symbol of the inner change).
Acts 2:41 indicates that there were conversions. Some gladly received the Word and were baptized. In fact, that day about 3,000 souls were added to the body. The formula for bringing people to Christ is the same today as it was in the First Century. The Lord calls for faith, repentance, and Christian baptism.
3. The Church of Pentecost (Acts 2:41-47)
The church meetings during the First Century were extremely simple. There were no programs or gadgets or entertainment. The church was a company of born-again believers who gathered to listen to the Word, to bear testimony to the goodness of God, and to pray. Verse 42 indicates that the new converts “continued steadfastly.” They did not quickly give up; they were determined to keep going; they wanted to grow in the knowledge of the Lord. Four specific activities of the early church are named:
a) The apostles’ doctrine
They met frequently to hear the apostles teach, and the teaching of the apostles is handed down to us in the New Testament. The early Christians focused their energies on listening to men of God teach. No Christian can grow in holiness unless he devotes much time to reading the Bible and studying the Scriptures—because it is through the Word of God that we are sanctified. The more we know about the Word of God—and the more we apply it in our lives, and rejoice in its promises, and tremble at its judgments—the more we will love what is just and good—and the more we will hate what is displeasing to God.
They were like those of whom the prophet Malachi speaks, when he says, “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another, and the Lord harkened . . . and a book of remembrance was written” (Malachi 3:16). Christians serve the same heavenly Father; we fight the same enemy; we are traveling on the same narrow road; we are redeemed by the same blood of Christ—surely we should enjoy being in each other’s presence. There is something wrong with the person who does not find joy in worshipping together with other Christians. When we see the zeal of our fellow-believers, and we share in their trials, and we rejoice in their joys—it gives us new courage to press on with the Lord.
c) Breaking of bread
We are not sure about all that is implied in this phrase, but it most certainly includes the Lord’s Supper (the communion and feast of charity). The early Christians engaged in their common ordinary meals even with a great deal of reverence (1 Corinthians 10:31), but it seems that they observed the communion often. They met in small groups and had a great love for the Lord Jesus and the blood which He shed on the Cross, and so when they gathered, they broke bread in remembrance of Him.
The early Christians most likely observed regular hours of prayer. Acts 3:1 says that Peter and John went up together into the temple “at the hour of prayer.” All faithful people of God through the years have been men and women of prayer. Daniel kneeled and prayed before God three times a day. David says, “Evening and morning, and at noon will I pray” (Psalm 55:17). Paul’s epistles are filled with prayers for the saints.
To pray effectively, one must be a believer; he must not hold a grudge against another person; and he must not pray with selfish motives. Even though we don’t understand how prayer works, we know that “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).
The reference to selling their possessions (Acts 2:45), and to having their goods in common (Acts 2:44) is not saying that they had one great big sale and sold everything they owned—and divided up the money evenly. The imperfect tense (in the Greek words) indicates that they sold their possessions only as they had need for more money. There were thousands of converts at Pentecost. These people would normally have gone home after Pentecost, but many of them lingered on in Jerusalem to learn more about their new faith, and this created an economic need which was cared for when the Jerusalem Christians “from time to time” sold possessions to help support the new converts who had stayed on for a while longer in Jerusalem.
The second chapter of Acts tells about the coming of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament age—as an abiding Presence. The Holy Spirit is present today, but only as we abandon ourselves to Him, and only as we yield our lives to His leading—only to that extent will we experience His infilling and power. We read in Ephesians 5:18, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.” Every one of us is to be dominated and controlled and swayed by the Holy Spirit, just as a drunkard is controlled and swayed by alcohol.
The text in Ephesians 5:18 is saturated with truth. It is in the imperative mood: it is not a suggestion but a command. It has a present-tense verb: we are to be filled with the Spirit now. It is a continuous action verb: it literally says, “keep on being filled with the Spirit.” It is in the passive voice: the reference is not to something we do, but something done for us, when we are yielded and open. We can experience new infillings of the Spirit on numerous occasions: For example, after times of good fellowship with likeminded Christians; after gaining new insights into the Word of God; after confessing and forsaking sin. On these occasions, the Spirit comes in new power, and brings a sense of comfort and peace to the heart. The same Holy Spirit who came at Pentecost, is available to us today, to make us more effective witnesses for Christ.