Acts of the Apostles
The Wait is Over - the Spirit Comes
Jesus keeps his promise – the wait is over. The apostles and the believers, who joined regularly with them in prayer, are about to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be ushered into the era of the church and its world-wide expansion. It is the era in which we live today –the era in which the Spirit is at work to apply the redemption of Christ to a world of needy sinners.
How glad we should be that the Spirit has come! Without him we would never realise the gravity of the sinful state we are in; we’d never look for a Saviour and we’d never understand why Jesus had to come and die; and we would never be born again to a new and living hope. But the Spirit did come and he’s here. How glad we should be!
The passage that we’re going to look at together this morning describes his coming, a coming which in a number of significant ways is unrepeatable. The Spirit was first promised to the apostles. They were men who were to exercise a work of fundamental importance in Christ’s church. And it was the Spirit who would enable them to fulfil that role. He would enable them to authoritatively establish the gospel, to pass on the truth about Christ that we need to know and understand and they would also pass on all that he taught. In this way they would lay the foundations of the Christian faith, foundations upon which we are still built today.
This initial outpouring of the Spirit occurred in a remarkable and outstanding way and it is easy enough to see why. It had to be clear and evident that what was happening was God’s work and that he, God, was behind it all. The events of that day were not the fruit of human dreams and efforts – God was intervening sovereignly in his world to do a new thing. But just because this outpouring of the Spirit was of particular importance and relevance to the apostles it does not means that the Spirit’s work was limited to them! The Spirit works in the life and circumstances of every believer equipping them too for the work to which they’re called and making them fit for the task by transforming and morally refining their personal character.
The Holy Spirit came, as promised, at Pentecost and he has not left since. There are times when his work and presence in human history are strongly felt and widely recognized and, yes, there are other times when his presence is much less felt and when little seems to be happening at all – but he is still here.
The New Testament warns us as Christians that it is possible for us to quench the Spirit, that is we can resist him, offend him, and cause him to withhold his gracious influences and blessings, but he is still here. The only time it is suggested that the Spirit might leave a local congregation is when that congregation has already left him by a stubborn persistence in wrongdoing and determined refusal to repent (Rev.2:5). In other words when a congregational willingly turns its back upon the truth of the gospel and replaces it with something which has nothing to do with God’s truth. And I sincerely hope that that is not a direction that we want to take. Instead I hope that we all want to know more and more of the life-giving, Christ-honouring and purifying presence of the Holy Spirit amongst us.
Well, let’s now see just how the Spirit was first given to the disciples as their waiting period was brought to a resounding end.
What happened, when?
They say that a week is a long time in politics because so much can happen in a week. Well politics has nothing on this! True we’re not thinking about a single week but several and yet what happened in that short space of time was monumental and still profoundly influencing our lives 2,000 years down the line.
“What are you talking about?” someone might want to ask, so let me tell you. Backtrack seven weeks from the feast of Pentecost and we find ourselves looking at the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. It was during these celebrations that the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. He didn’t stay dead however but conquered death itself rising on the third day with the power of an indestructible life. Then for the next 40 days he appeared again and again to his followers in a wider variety of settings. He left them in no doubt whatsoever – he was alive! And then suddenly he was gone. On a hill outside Jerusalem he was taken up into heaven and seen no more by his followers. But before going he had giving them a promise – they were soon to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. All they had to do was to return to Jerusalem and wait.
Well around a week later their waiting was over – the days that separated Passover from Pentecost were over and Jesus was about to kept his promise.
Luke explains to us how it all came about.
The apostles were meeting in a house in Jerusalem and more than likely they were accompanied by those other followers of Jesus who had been attending that prayer meeting with them. They were all together sitting in the house when their world and ours changed forever!
Luke in describing just what happened next draws attention to three important signs which all pointed to something special, God was at work.
The first sign concerned something that was heard and it all came about very suddenly and unexpectedly. There was a sound, it was a noise of something that didn’t originate on earth. This was not the sound of noisy neighbours indeed the sound didn’t originate with people at all. This was a noise that owed its origin to heaven. It was a noise that sounded like a great violent wind blowing, like a great gale from heaven, and the noise of it completely filled the house. It sounded like the wind but this was no ordinary wind, this was the coming of the Spirit of God and as you know the same word in Greek can be translated wind, breath, or Spirit.
With wind you can’t tell where it has come from or where it is going but you can see and feel its effects. But this was no earthly wind, this was a wind from heaven. It was divine in origin and under the control not of man but of God. It came suddenly from heaven and it made a distinct impression. We don’t know what its effects were on those seated inside the house: one interpretive paraphrase suggests its influence was nigh on unbearable:
“The roar of the wind was so overpowering it was all anyone could bear!”
It must have deeply impressed all those inside. What we do know is that the noise was so loud and unusual that it also had an effect on others in the city for a crowd began to gather in order to investigate just what was going on.
The mighty rushing noise was heard but the second sign wasn’t heard but was seen by those in the house. Something like a flame of fire appeared to them and it separated into what looked like a series of individual tongues of fire which settled on the heads of all those present. This too was decidedly unusual – in fact there is no further mention in the NT of anything like these two signs ever happening again. What did it all mean? What are we to make of it?
The OT helps provide the background for us to understand what was going on. We find in the OT that both wind and fire are associated God. In the opening chapter of the entire Bible we’re told, for example, that the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters when God created the heavens and the earth. This was surely a powerful “wind” and here in Acts 2 the wind is a strong one too, for its enabling power is emphasized. God the Spirit is powerful and powerfully equips those to whom he comes and upon whom he rests.
Fire too speaks of God’s presence and the burning holiness of that presence. You’ll remember the occasion when Moses was in the desert and he saw a bush that was on fire but somehow wasn’t consumed. When he stepped aside to get a closer look he was told in no uncertain terms that he was in the presence of God and the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. Fire is thus associated with God and in particular it is associated with his holiness. And such fire has a purifying effect – again think back to the time when Isaiah was called into God’s service. In God’s presence he was all too aware of his own failures and what happened next? An angel took a live coal, a burning coal, one which was on fire, and he touched Isaiah’s lips with it thus removing his uncleanness.
In the opening chapter of the Book of Ezekiel both wind and fire form part of Ezekiel’s vision as he too was made aware of the presence of God:
Ezek.1:4 “As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually...”
If the noise was heard the fiery tongues could be seen as they rested on the heads of those who were there. Power and purity are to the fore. God is powerful and pure and he enables and equips his people to carry out their tasks while transforming them progressively into the image and likeness of his own perfect Son.
Now comes the third sign and this is the sign upon which Luke will enlarge. This sign was a spoken sign, for the apostles and those with them were enabled to speak out in languages that they had never before learnt. We’re not told who they actually spoke to – were they speaking to God or were they speaking to other men and women? We don’t know but we do know they were speaking out loud so that when the crowds began to gather outside, wondering what on earth was going on with all the noise and upheaval, they realised that these people were speaking in their own languages even though they all came from a wide range of different places. This was unheard of and they were astonished and utterly perplexed.
They recognised too that what these followers of Jesus were doing – they were speaking about the mighty works of God and they were amazed by it all and didn’t know what to make of it.
Given what Peter went on to say as he preached the first sermon of the Spirit-filled era I think we can be pretty sure that the mighty works of God that they were all busy applauding would have included the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
I wonder if you really think about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same way. We have a saying, don’t we, “Familiarity breeds contempt”? And even if we are careful not to despise all talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection we may well come to treat it as something somehow ordinary. But it isn’t you know! We’re talking about God’s works here and not just his works but his mighty works.
But why was this sign of speaking in other languages given? Why was it important that everyone present at that particular moment should hear about Jesus in their own mother tongue? After all this is not something that regularly happened? Language differences weren’t permanently overcome at that time and have continued to be a barrier leading at times to real confusion.
Well, God was certainly making sure that the truth about Jesus was put centre stage on that Day of Pentecost. And how important that Jesus remain centre stage in our day too.
But Luke has more to tell us. He is at pains to list out a wide range of geographical locations from which the Jews who were in Jerusalem at that time had come. Some of these Jews were probably just visiting for the festival but others would have retired there because many Jews wanted to end their lives in Jerusalem. Well these Jews and proselytes appear as representatives of the entire world – the places Luke names range from present day Iran and Iraq to Rome and North Africa – and the gift of languages emphasises that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all.
Indeed the same gospel is relevant to men and women from every culture. And that means that this same gospel is relevant for you too today because it addresses your most fundamental needs: you need of a Saviour who can deal with you sin that separates you from God and which exposes you to his wrath; you need of spiritual make-over or rebirth to use a more Biblical expression; you need of peace with God and you need a hope to live for. All our deepest needs are met by the gospel of Jesus Christ and they are not met anywhere else.
As the era of the Spirit-filled church got underway the work of gospel outreach began with God demonstrating his desire that all men everywhere should repent and believe. Jesus had told his disciples that their task was to preach in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The coming of the Spirit brought the great enabling power that they would need and the work of world-evangelism got off to a flying start.
At Pentecost the curse of Babel was put into reverse. The gospel would triumph over sin. Ever since men and women have leant new languages to be able to make God’s truth known. Today our Bible translation agencies continue to reflect the heart of God as they seek to make God’s word known in the languages of the people. And one day there will be those from every tribe and tongue and nation around the throne of God giving glory to God and to the Lamb and it all began on that Day of Pentecost.
The signs served to draw a crowd, to impress a crowd and to address a multitude in terms that they could understand. It was impressive and unnerving at the same time. But many wanted to hear some more as they tried to come to terms with what was going on.
And yet by no means everyone was impressed in a positive manner. The same evidence was presented to them – they had heard that great noise and they had heard people speaking in their own language – but they chose not to investigate further. Instead they turned to scorn and mockery:
“These people are just drunk” they said, without the slightest evidence.
During feasts and festivals Jews in Jerusalem would fast before morning services were over. And it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! How illogical and unreasonable opposition to the gospel can be! And the trouble is that opposition that begins with mockery rarely ends there. Opposition tends to degenerate and become progressively more hostile and spiteful with intimidation, arrest, persecution and worse.
How we need the enabling power of the Spirit to equip us for the task in hand! How we need the transforming presence of the Spirit to burn away the dross from our lives and to purify us so that we might be clean vessels fit for the Master’s use!
And the events of the first Pentecost ought to encourage us!
The Christians were met together in a bond of real unity and the Spirit came. He showed them the scope and scale of the work but also revealed the heart of God who really does want all men everywhere to repent and come to a genuine knowledge of the truth. They had a great message, a powerful message that came from God. Indeed they had every reason to be confident – and so do we!
Let us rejoice in our Lord Jesus and let us seek to enjoy more of the lovely enabling presence of the blessed Holy Spirit.