What is Pentecost?

For Christians, Pentecost is a holyday on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called “the church.” Thus, from an historical point of view, Pentecost is the day on which the church was started. This is also true from a spiritual perspective, since the Spirit brings the church into existence and enlivens it. Thus Pentecost is the church’s birthday.

“Pentecost” by Jean Restout II, 1732. Public domain.

What does the word “Pentecost” mean?

The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.”

But Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or, more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). This name comes from an expression in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture).

Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This day became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his first followers, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church.

What actually happened on that day of Pentecost?

This event is recorded in the New Testament book known as The Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 2 begins, “And when the day of Pentecost [ten hemeran tes pentekostes] had come, [the first followers of Jesus] were all together in one place” (2:1). All of a sudden, a sound came from heaven, like a strong wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like tongues of fire rested on their heads. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (2:4). (Notice the tongues of fire on the heads of the people in the painting by Restout.)

The languages spoken by the early Christians were intelligible (not other worldly) and were heard by thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. The content of the miraculous messages had to do with God’s mighty works (2:11). Many who heard these messages in their own languages were amazed, though others thought the Christians were just drunk (2:12).

At some point, Peter, one of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first sermon. He interpreted the events of that morning in light of a prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel. In that text, God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power. This would be a sign of the coming “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32).

Peter went on to explain that Jesus had been raised and had poured out the Spirit in fulfillment of God’s promise through Joel (2:32-33). When the crowd asked what they should do, Peter urged them to turn their lives around and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Then they would be forgiven and would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:37-39). Acts reports that about 3,000 people were added to the church that day (2:41). Not a bad response to Peter’s first sermon!

What is the Spiritual Significance of Pentecost?

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question,  because Pentecost knits together several themes, emphases, and  experiences. I will suggest four possible ways that Pentecost matters  today. Two of these I’ll develop today. The other two I’ll save for tomorrow.

1. The Presence and Power of the Spirit

A stained glass window from the Meaux Cathedral in Meaux, France. Public domain.

On  the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, the  Holy Spirit was poured out upon those followers of Jesus who had  gathered together in Jerusalem. What happened on the first Pentecost  continues to happen to Christians throughout the world today, though  usually not in such a dramatic fashion. We rarely get a heavenly wind  and tongues of fire anymore. Nevertheless, God pours out the Spirit upon  all who put their faith in Jesus Christ and become his disciples (see  Romans 8:1-11).

Christians are meant to live in the presence and power of the Spirit  of God. The Holy Spirit helps us to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3),  empowers us to serve God with supernatural power (1 Cor 12:4-11), binds  us together as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13), helps us to pray  (Rom 8:26), and even intercedes for us with God the Father (Rom 8:27).  The Spirit guides us (Gal 5:25), helping us to live like Jesus (Gal  5:22-23).

Personal Implications: Pentecost presents us with an  opportunity to consider how we are living each day. Are we relying on the  power of God’s Spirit? Are we an open channel for the Spirit’s gifts?  Are we attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Is the fruit of the  Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) growing in our lives? Most Christians I  know, including me, live in the presence and power of the Spirit, but  only to an extent. We are limited by our fear, our sin, our low  expectations, not to mention our tendency to be distracted from God’s  work in us. Pentecost offers a chance to confess our failure to live by  the Spirit and to ask the Lord to fill us afresh with his power.

2. The Central Role of the Church in God’s Work in the World

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on individual followers of  Jesus as they were gathered together in Jerusalem. This gathering became  the first Christian church. New believers in Jesus were baptized as  they joined this church. They, along with the first followers of Jesus,  shared life together, focusing on teaching, fellowship, breaking of  bread, and prayer. They shared their belongings so that no one was  hungry or needy. As these first Christians lived out their new faith  together, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”  (Acts 2:47). Thus we speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the church.

In theory, the Spirit could have been poured out on the followers of  Jesus when they were not gathered together. There are surely times when  the Holy Spirit touches an individual who is alone in prayer,  worship, or ministry to others. But the fact that the Spirit was given to a gathering of  believers is not incidental. It underscores the centrality of the church  in God’s work in the world. The actions of the earliest Christians put  all of this in boldface. The Holy Spirit is not only given to  individuals, but also, in a sense to the gathered people of God. Thus,  in 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul observes that the church is God’s  temple and that the Spirit dwells in the midst of the church (3:16-17;  in 1 Cor 6:19-20 we find a complementary emphasis on the dwelling of the  Spirit in individual Christians).

Personal Implications:  Pentecost is a vivid illustration of the truth that is found throughout  Scripture: the community of God’s people is central to God’s work in the world. Thus,  Pentecost invites us to consider our own participation in the  fellowship, worship, and mission of the church. It is a time to renew  our commitment to live as an essential member of the body of Christ,  using our gifts to build the church and share the love and justice of  Christ with the world.

3. The Multilingual Nature and Mission of the Church

On  Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered believers in Jesus to praise God  in many languages that they had not learned in the ordinary manner (Acts  2:5-13). Symbolically, this miracle reinforces the multilingual,  multicultural, multiracial mission of the church. We are to be a  community in which all people are drawn together by God’s love in  Christ. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or  Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and  female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

“Pentecost” by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25, National Gallery, London.

Personal Implications: Although there are some glorious  exceptions, it seems that the church has not, in general, lived out its  multilingual mission. We are often divided according to language, race,  and ethnicity. Pentecost challenges all of us to examine our own  attitudes in the regard, to reject and repent of any prejudice that  lurks within us, and to open our hearts to all people, even and  especially those who do not share our language and culture. Yes, I know  this is not easy. But it is central to our calling. And it is something  that the Spirit of God will help us to do if we are available.

4. The Inclusive Ministry of the Church

After the Holy Spirit fell upon the first followers of Jesus, Peter  preached a sermon to help folks understand what had just happened. In  this sermon he cited a portion of a prophecy from Joel:

‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants–men and women alike–
and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29)

Later, Peter explained that the Spirit would be given to all who  turned from their sin and turned to God through Jesus (Acts 2:38).

This was a momentous, watershed event. For the first time in history,  God began to do what he had promised through Joel, empowering all  different sorts of people for ministry. Whereas in the era of the Old  Testament, the Spirit was poured out almost exclusively on prophets,  priests, and kings, in the age of the New Testament, the Spirit would be  given to “all people.” All would be empowered to minister regardless of  their gender, age, or social position.

Although this truth would not mean that every Christian would be  gifted for every kind of ministry, it did imply that all believers would  be empowered by the Spirit. The church of Jesus Christ would be a place  where every single person matters, where every member contributes to  the health and mission of the church (see Eph 4:11-16).

Personal Implications:Each Christian needs to ask: Am I  serving God through the power of the Spirit? Am I exercising the gifts  of the Spirit in my life, both in the gathered church and as I live for  God in the world? Pentecost is a time to ask God to fill us afresh with  the Spirit so that we might join in the ministry of Christ with gusto.  And it is a time to renew our commitment to fulfilling our crucial role  in the ministry of God’s people in the world.

Courtesy to:http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/