Acts 2:1-4 “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
The baptism of the church with the Holy Spirit by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is a theme of the whole Bible. Men and women are going to be filled with God the Spirit. The Old Testament prophets told Israel us that one day in the future this would happen – his Spirit poured out on all flesh. Then in the opening chapters of the gospels John the Baptist tells his hearers that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who is going to baptize with the Spirit and not with water. And then, the Lord meets in the Upper Room with his disciples and he tells them that the Holy Spirit is going to come to them as a gift of the Father. He also will give him to them. Then the resurrected Christ tells them that their waiting was almost over, “in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). Ten days later at the Feast of Weeks, better known as the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon them as we see here, described for us in this passage of Scripture, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Promise had become fulfillment.
The Holy Spirit comes upon them for this reason, that the Lord had promised that he would give this gift to every one of his people. Peter in his sermon in this chapter quotes the prophet Joel at length emphasizing the all-inclusive nature of this coming. None is going to be excluded. Not one believer is going to be omitted because of his past, or because he has not agonized enough, or because he has not prepared himself sufficiently for the coming of the Holy One into his life. Peter insists that Joel is dead right when he says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (vv.17&18).
There is no mention in Acts 2 about anything that the disciples had done to deserve such a blessing. There is no description of any activity of theirs whatsoever. It is not said that they were holding a ‘tarrying meeting’ or any kind of meeting at all. Certainly we are not told any of the familiar clichés, that they had ‘laid all on the altar’, or they had ‘paid the price’, or made ‘a full sacrifice of themselves’. We are not told that those who doubted on the hill of the Ascension ten days earlier were doubting no longer. It is not that they had had to sort themselves out – without the Holy Spirit – in order to get the Holy Spirit. They had not made themselves ‘entirely consecrated to God’ while the Holy Spirit coming upon them was a sort of reward from God for their obedience. It is not that they were naming and claiming Holy Spirit baptism. We are not even told that they were praying when the Spirit came upon them, though at times in certain sessions of the day they would have been. Of course they prayed. We are told in Acts 1 and the 14th verse, “They all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women and Mary mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” But it was not in response to these prayer meetings that the Spirit came. He came because the Lord had promised he was going to come in a few days’ time.
All such emphases on what the disciples did, or on ‘the price they paid,’ are conspicuously absent from Acts chapter 2. We are simply told that they’d obeyed the Lord by not leaving Jerusalem. They remained in the city – just as he’d told them. What were they doing? The one thing we are told about them is that they were ‘sitting’ down (it is the last word of verse 2). They were sitting tight in Jerusalem in expectation of what they had been told was going to occur. That is the only information Luke gives us; the rest is speculation. Then one day as they were sitting there God suddenly came and perforated that gathering. No one suspected or aroused the others one minute beforehand concerning what was to occur. “Suddenly” is the word that begins the second verse, totally unexpectedly the Holy Ghost comes upon them all just as had been prophesied by the Lord Christ.
First there was this group of disciples who had done what the Lord told them and not yet gone home to Galilee. And then out of the blue the Spirit came down upon them all. And then what next? The word was preached by just one man. And finally the Jerusalem congregation was formed by the work of the Holy Ghost through the word that the apostle of Christ preached. It consisted of those who repented and believed the word. That is always the way. The word as it is used by the Spirit gives birth to the church. For example, when a few centuries later a church council in north Africa recorded a list of the names of the canonical books of the New Testament the preachers and elders who had gathered from the Middle East were simply recognizing what the Holy Spirit had given in leading the apostles into all truth. That early church council didn’t make the decisions which books were to be the canon of the Bible and which books were to be discarded. The Holy Spirit was the one who made that choice when he inspired the apostles to write them. He breathed through the authors and he guided them into all truth while the people of God in the church merely bowed and recognized inspired Scripture as such, as they always had. Just so 3,000 men on the day of Pentecost were cut to their hearts by the Word of God and the Spirit of God as the New Testament message was really laid on them by Peter. They knew that God was dealing with them there and then by a word from heaven. They repented, and they trusted in the Lord, receiving the Holy Spirit as they were repenting and believing.
The great question facing us is this; are you listening to God and his promises? Are you responding to the Lord? Are you doing what he said? Are you prepared to be surprised by God? Are you anxious to be surprised by God? In the summer of 1791 Thomas Charles was preaching one Sunday afternoon and something very similar to the events of Acts 2 occurred in nearby Bala – a village just over an hour from us, where the students had a Christian Union conference last week-end. Thomas Charles described what was happening in a letter to a friend, “I cannot say that there was anything particular in the ministry of that day, any more than what I’d often experienced among our dear people here, but towards the close of the evening service the Spirit of God seemed to work in a very powerful manner on the minds of great numbers present, who had never appeared before to be seeking the Lord’s face. Now there was a general and loud crying, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ and ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ and about nine or ten at night there was nothing else to be heard from one end of the town to the other but the cries of people in distress of soul.”
Now when we believe that certain aspects of Pentecost can be repeated then it is particularly the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ by a man called by God to be a preacher and who goes on being filled with the Spirit that is what we are referring to. That has not ceased and will not cease until the coming of Christ. This is the principle way the church is revived and many sinners are saved. Are you longing for such times of refreshing from the Lord’s sovereign saving presence in our midst? Do you have a place in your theology for such occasions? Isn’t the greatest and most glorious example of this here at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2? But now we must turn to those other phenomena that make Pentecost unique and as unrepeatable as Calvary or as the resurrection.
The first things the people of Jerusalem were aware of on the Day of Pentecost were those three supernatural signs, the sound like the howling of a mighty wind, secondly, what seemed to be tongues of fire separating and remaining on the disciples and yet not burning them, and, thirdly, the fact that those men had a miraculous ability to speak and praise God fluently in a bewildering variety of languages. The catalyst that took the thoughts of the crowd from their fascinating lives to considering the claims of Christ were these extraordinary signs, all three of them. They were like signposts that all were pointing to Jesus Christ and his gospel. That was why God gave them. These signs were not like a peel of thunder that gives a momentary shock to the hearers. They were acts of God, sovereign in their timing, and as un-demandable as the coming of the Holy Spirit himself. That was what gripped the entire attention of the multitudes. Any one of those signs would have disturbed them, but here they came, one hot on the heels of the previous one, three supernatural events all going on simultaneously. The sound of a howling wind, the sight of the flames dancing on the head of Peter and on every one of them – as if they were ministers of God, flames of fire, and then finally people in the crowd could pick out somewhere in the background the sound of their own kitchen language being preached by one of those Christians. Who was that who knew their mother tongue? Where was he, and they were drawn to listen to that man. They could hear in the language they loved the mighty works of the Lord. They were afraid, and longed to know what in the world was happening. “What does this mean?” they cried out (v.12).
I think it is quite legitimate to believe that the disciples moved on that day from the house which had the Upper Room to one of the room in the porches of the temple. This is where God met with Isaiah and it would have been a natural place for pilgrims at a feast to meet. I doubt whether any dwelling house in Jerusalem would have been large enough to contain 120 people let alone the thousands who came to hear Peter preaching. The “whole house” mentioned here (v.2) would then be the house of God, the temple, and the resulting crowd of many thousands of people were worshippers who pressed together into that part of the temple and its courts to hear Peter explain the meaning of all they were seeing and hearing.
So with the appearance of these outrider signs God the Holy Spirit came majestically and very publicly in Jerusalem to the disciples of Jesus Christ filling each of them on the feast of Pentecost. There was no Messianic secrecy any longer. That temporarily had been their duty, not yet to tell people that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus needed to do his work in discipling the twelve. That was done, now he had died and risen and ascended. Now it was time to declare this publicly and what better place in all the world than in Jerusalem. It would have been unthinkable for God the Holy Spirit to have been sent by the risen Lord Jesus for the first time, and in such abundance, without an entire community being shaken to its foundations and humbled by the overwhelming, fearful reality of the living God.
We usually define a mighty work of God in terms of [i] powerful preaching which results in the conviction of sin, [ii] many people being converted, [iii] great joy and assurance given to Christians, and [iv] the fear of God falling upon the watching world. These three miraculous signs in Acts 2 all testify to that reality. God was in the midst of them, the God whose Son they had killed. Wind and fire are dangerous phenomena, while possessing a language is to have power. The howling of the wind and the flames of fire and the multitude of languages being spoken told the world, “Something divine and dynamic and perilous has come upon these followers of Jesus of Nazareth today. You are living in a supernatural world. This is the world of the living God. What did you do to his Son?” So let us consider the signs and their meaning.
- THE BLOWING OF A VIOLENT WIND.
There was the howling of a wind first of all. I watched on a vast IMAX screen a film of the hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans a few years ago. We saw people blown off their feet, cyclists knocked off their bikes, trucks (what does the BBC call them? ‘High-sided vehicles’) blown off the road, roofs lifted off houses and boats blown out of the sea into fields. Where had this Jerusalem wind come from? Was it a north wind, a wind from the desert or from the sea? Neither place. From Jesus! The same risen one who had blown on some of them one long breath of his lungs in the Upper Room was now blowing and blowing his Spirit from heaven upon all of his people. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (v.2). God was breathing upon them. You remember the first reference to the Spirit of God in Genesis 1? The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters that covered the whole world. In that chaotic darkness the Spirit was there in control, and he is now here, in dark Jerusalem, the city that contained the house of God, the city that had crucified its Messiah.
Then we are told that God formed man of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature. The God in control of creation, the God who gave life to our first parents – that God is now breathing from heaven upon his people, breathing into them new life and power. The body of Adam had been given life by the breath of God; the body of Christ, the church, was now being given life by the breath of God.
You can experience a very powerful wind but hear nothing at all, but on this occasion it was howling! It would have covered the people who came running to the group of disciples with the accumulated dust of the forty years of Herod’s temple, and lifting men’s long flowing robes; it was not a draft, and not a breeze. There was noise; there was violence; this was a force ten wind. They’d never encountered a gale like this. It was out of this world. You were glad to hang on to one of the pillars of the temple to keep your footing.
Normally a mighty wind disrupts and destroys and separates you from your possessions, but this wind didn’t bring havoc but order. You remember the prophet Ezekiel seeing the wind from heaven blowing through a valley of dry bones. Before the coming of the wind the bones of that valley were like an old ice-cream box full of pieces of Lego – utterly chaotic; after the wind from heaven had blown the Lego-like pieces had all been assembled into a vast army like the Chinese Terra-cotta soldiers – but alive! The bones were ordered, clothed with sinews and flesh. They were alive. That is what the wind of God can do. Jehovah was there in the temple, the living Lord who had once addressed Job in a great wind (Job 38:1).
The wind is absolutely sovereign. We cannot clap our hands and command it to come on a hot day and cool our brows. It blows where it pleases. So this wind came “suddenly”; it came at God’s time. There is nothing you can do to constrain God to send a wind from heaven. There is no formula; no tricks that entertainers like Dynamo can perform to cause a wind to blow in a public square. There is no regimen of activities or rigorous self-denials that religious men perform the result of which will bring gales from heaven blowing around us. Would that it were so! No, the Lord decides suddenly to come to his temple. The everlasting doors of heaven have been swung open, and the Son of God has returned to his Father and to the joyful heavenly nuptials. The angels have fallen in worship before their returned Lord. The Son had been enthroned and been given all authority in heaven and earth. At this moment, when the day of Pentecost had fully come, in heaven God addressed God, “Now go to the temple in Jerusalem!” and the Spirit went to the city of Jerusalem. This is the Spirit who can’t be organised and manipulated by men.
- THE TONGUES OF FIRE RESTING ON THE 120 MEN.
The fire also, as much as the wind and the languages, came from heaven. These three signs did not emerge from the depths of people’s own sub-consciousness. They did not come out of their body life together as they all held hands and closed their eyes and sang in tongues feeling a sort of electric shock running through all of them. No. The wind and fire and tongues all came from beyond themselves and quite outside of themselves. They had not stayed in Jerusalem pleading for a heavenly wind because they weren’t promised that a wind was coming. They didn’t agonize for fire for they didn’t know that fire was going to rest on them, and they didn’t beseech God for the gift of tongues, did they? They were to wait for the Lord Jesus to baptize all of them with his Spirit as he had promised. These signs came down to them as a matter of pure vertical sovereign grace. They were gifts; they were not earned or bought.
So we are told that suddenly they also saw “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (v.3). They looked at one another and saw 120 flickering flames of fire spreading, separating from one to another and then resting on each one. You understand it was not that they were all standing together as if in the midst of a furnace, but individual cleft flames were resting on each one – like the flame of one of their oil lamps. Normally fire consumes and destroys, but here there were no hideous, deforming burns. Where do you meet phenomena like that? Think of the three young men in Babylon cast into the burning fiery furnace and yet unscarred, able to walk in those flames with the Son of God. The Lord can do that. Or better, think of Moses confronted by a bush in the desert; it burned with fire but it was not consumed. God had come to Moses to charge him to take his word to Egypt and redeem his people from bondage.
Here in Jerusalem is the beginning of the new redemption; cosmic deliverance from the slavery of sin, from the kingdom of darkness and Pharisaism in Israel. The message of the gospel is going to save thousands of men and women and bring them into the glorious liberty of the people of God, and so the church is given the life of God. The cloven tongues of fire say, “Don’t you dare be luke-warm, but be burning and shining lights for the Lord like John the Baptist was.” The fire is saying, “The flames resting on you are shaped like a tongue so that you speak up brightly for Jesus.”
Why is fire a suitable symbol of God? It says that God has his own life in himself. God has no need of some external life-support system to keep him going. He has no need ever to check his fuel gauge, no need for a reserve tank, no need for refueling because his supplies are running out. Heaven’s reservoir of gifts and graces are immeasurably inexhaustible. Everyone else and everything else depends on other resources; not God. In him is life; he has that life in himself.
Again, fire is a symbol of God in his august purity. Our God is a consuming fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. When the Christ comes, John preaches, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If he comes into your life it is not a rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic; it is not a lick of paint, new wallpaper, a moving of the settee to a different corner, the hanging of a new religious painting. Fire from heaven is coming. When the children in Narnia asked whether Aslan the lion was safe, the response was, ‘Safe? No, he is not safe, but he is good.’ Holiness is dangerous, sinners in the hands of an angry God are not at ease. For who shall abide the day of his coming, and who will stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire. Those are Malachi’s words, and yet this holy flame is resting on the whole people of God in the temple and they are safe. The heavenly baptism with the Spirit and fire does not destroy anything good in any believer. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Phils 4:8) then none such things will be destroyed when you become a Christian, when you bring them to Jesus, for you must bring everything to him, but he will purify you from all your inner idols, and from the sin that so easily besets you. He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
But when God comes very near, and the fire rests on the disciples and entering their lives the people are not consumed. Why? You know why. It is because the full fire of destruction for our sins have fallen on Jesus. He has entered the lake of fire taking with him all our garbage and refuse, all our trashy deeds and words. He has cleared all our stench. The guilt and wrath which is the end of our wickedness has in fact consumed our Saviour as he hung in our place on Golgotha. The holy Judge has borne the fires of condemnation and exhausted it so that now the heavenly fire of the Spirit can rest on us and we are safe. All who are in Christ need not fear the wrath of a sin-hating God in the place of woe.
“That wrath would have kindled a hell
Of never-abating despair
In millions of creatures, which fell
On Jesus, and spent itself there” (Joseph Swain, 1761-96).
So here was another sign of God coming upon his people. Here was another divine credential that these people were God’s authorized spokemen. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was a baptism of fire. The God who answers by fire he is God. The Sadducees had the Jerusalem temple in their pockets for a couple of centuries and they’d never known fire falling from heaven. They were too concerned to keep up the temple taxes and maintain their special deals with money-changers and sellers of animals for sacrifice at extortionate prices. They had turned the house of God into a robbers’ den. They were as far from God as the prophets of Baal. No fire fell when they cried to their god. But the living Lord who sent fire on the sacrifice of his servant Elijah sent fire on his servants in Jerusalem. Jesus Christ came to bring fire on the earth. This must be the perennial symbol of the Christian faith, the tongue of fire. Every time I enter the Salvation Army hall in the town I see again the Salvation Army slogan, “Blood and Fire.”
3. THE GIFT OF LANGUAGES.
We are told that they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4), and the crowd cried out to one another, “how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (v.8). This was definitely not some ecstatic speech, in other words it was not psycho-babble. It was not gibberish. The people who had traveled there from all over the Mediterranean basin discovered that they could understand what this man or that man was saying as they gave thanks and glory to God for Jesus Christ. “They are speaking in my language,” they said to their fellow pilgrims. “Yes, and in mine too.” “And in mine.” “And in mine.” How could that be? The disciples were from the country area of Galilee. They weren’t international businessmen, and yet they weren’t speaking the lingua franca, Greek. The disciples could speak Greek; Peter later wrote a couple of letters in very good Greek, but they didn’t use the common language. They praised and preached in these minority languages, Parthian, Mede, Elam, Cappadocian, Libyan, Crete and so on, forgotten, dead languages today. Fifteen language groups are mentioned in this chapter from distant Iran to places west of Rome. In fact there was not a language heard on the streets of Jerusalem at that time that was not being spoken at Pentecost in the name of Jesus by different servants of God. In all the known languages of the known world the mighty works of the Lord were being spoken.
The wind from heaven was a sign. The cloven tongues resting upon them was a wonder. The speaking in a language they had not know before was a mighty work. What was the purpose of this miraculous cluster? There were all kinds of barriers in the ancient world as there are in our world, walls raised by race, and language, and slavery, and poverty, and gender, the discrimination against unwanted babies and women. The Holy Spirit was coming to break down those walls. Henceforth all those who possessed the Spirit would be one in Christ Jesus.
In Genesis 11 God’s judgment came upon the builders of the tower of Babel who thought they could reach God by erecting a very tall building. They thought they could destroy the Creator-creature difference. God judged their arrogance by a strange device. He took away their common language. No man could understand another, and the building of the tower ceased. They looked at their old buddies in fear and consternation. They couldn’t make themselves understood. They could not understand. Co-operation and co-work ended. The spread of Greek and of Latin had failed to bring unity to that divided world. Roman law had not done it. Roads and better communication had not done it, but by the work of the Spirit there would be unity. People of all languages would be singing from the same hymn-sheet. They would be united into one body by one Spirit with one hope of their calling, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of them all. So the gift of languages said, “The differences in language are not going to keep us from being brothers and sisters.” It said, “Our brotherhood is not going to be through Greek or Latin or anything men say or do, or anything that Caesar does. It will be through this miraculous work of God in our lives.” Roman would say to Jew, “My brother.” Mede would say to Elamite, “My brother.” Instead of the bricks of Babel there would be a new temple of living stones in Jerusalem.
Also this gift of languages there in the very temple in Jerusalem was a sign of judgment on Jewish unbelief. Perhaps you remember when Paul deals with speaking in languages in I Corinthians 14:21 and 22 he cites the prophecy of Isaiah 28:11 and 12; “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me.” It happened in the Old Testament era when Babylonians came in and commanded walled Jerusalem to open its gates and surrender. Yet the city refused though it was God’s will they go off to exile for seventy years. It happened again here in Jerusalem when the Jewish leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees, rejected and killed the Messiah. The command to execute him was spoken and written in Latin or Greek through the lips of a foreigner, Pilate. That was the time God spoke to the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost in his temple through strange tongues. It was a sign to unbelieving Jews of judgment coming on them and on their temple, when the Roman army would come and tear the temple to the ground stone by stone and the Wailing Wall alone would be left standing for hundreds of years, but nothing else. The gift of languages was a sign of condemnation on those who refuse to speak the eternal language of faith in the Son of God, particularly on Messiah-crucifying and unbelieving Jewry, that the Old Testament covenant people, to whom God had spoken clearly and at length, had rejected God the Son, but Gentiles in abundance would yet honour him as Lord, singing his praises in their own languages.
Again the gift of languages was a sign of the church’s vocation to be a proclaiming church. The gift of languages was not given to lighten the burden of the missionary in his need to become fluent in the language of the people where God had sent him to labour. For this overwhelmingly Jewish group of 120 people, from the very beginning of the coming of the Spirit from Christ, they knew that henceforth they had to become familiar with speaking in many languages about their Lord Jehovah and his Son Jesus of Nazareth. “Wait in Jerusalem,” he had told them, “until you are endued with power.” But what was this power for? So that they could dominate the world, build a global empire centred on Jerusalem, and have scores of people doing their bidding? No, it was that they could walk and sail far from Jerusalem to the uttermost ends of the earth spreading the message of the Messiah. The Spirit of God comes in order that all the world should understand the greatness of Christ and his relevance to every individual and every nation; the Spirit desires the glory of Christ to be made known among the nations. Bear witness from Jerusalem, and then go to Judea and then to Samaria and out and out through Europe and Ethiopia in Africa to the uttermost ends of the earth. That is what this gift is saying, and that is why Luke gives us this exhaustive list of the peoples of the world who were in the temple; “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (vv.9-11).
In the second chapter of Acts and the history of Pentecost we are being prepared for this whole book of Acts and the story of the spread of the church. No longer, and never again, will there be one exclusive nation favoured by God. There had been the middle wall of partition in the great courtyard before the temple, and up to that wall the Gentile converts were permitted to walk – but no further; no nearer the Holy Place. The Jews alone were allowed to pass beyond it and nearer to the house of God. That was the barrier that now had been destroyed by our great Colossus, Jesus Christ, as effectively as the Berlin wall was demolished, when our Lord became the Lamb of God and took away the world’s sins. Now Jews and Gentiles, young and old, men and women might run right past those harsh warning signs which were attached to that old wall threatening death to those daring to trespass. On and on, Gentiles and women, slaves and maidservants, teenage boys and girls might go into the holiest of all! Even through the torn veil they could run, into the very presence of God and there they would joyfully cry, “Abba, Father!” I am saying that the miraculous gift of languages prepares us for the book of Acts, and for the letters of the New Testament to Christians living in Rome and Greece and Asia, and for the gospels – all written in a Gentile language, Greek, and for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth even to us in Wales 2000 years later. And on and on it will go until the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord Jesus as the waters cover the sea. Every language will exalt the name of Jesus.
9th November 2014 GEOFF THOMAS