Pentecost Sunday is the commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church as recorded in Acts 2.
In Acts 2, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit becomes a reality as the Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost. The disciples “began to speak in other tongues” (2:4), and devout Jews from many nations were amazed, “because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (v. 6). God shows that the gospel is breaking through linguistic barriers and going to all nations, and then Peter stands up and, in the first recorded sermon in Acts, explains how Pentecost is the glorious and long-anticipated fulfillment of God’s work of redemption since the beginning. Through Peter’s sermon we see the most prominent theme of Acts: the gospel of Jesus will go out to the nations, through the witness of his disciples and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
When the celebration of Pentecost comes, Acts 2:1-5 places 120 of the disciples (1:15) together in Jerusalem. Acts 2:2 then says “and suddenly there came from heaven.” The direction of agency is important. While often in religion humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.
Since the time of Babel, the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God (Gen. 11:1–9). Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; Ex. 19:6). The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language; it is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin. Pentecost is, in a sense, a magnificent reversal of Babel.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–13)
Since the time of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God. Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations. The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language.
With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language, but is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin.
This gives us hope today. The gospel of Jesus Christ triumphs in a world that is still groaning under the curse of sin (Rom. 8:22). One day his reign will be fully realized, and the effects of sin that plague us will fall away completely.
While often in religion, humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately-altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.
The experience of the Spirit at Pentecost is a fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist concerning the one—Jesus—who would baptize in the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:6, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33). This promise is also repeated by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:5. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost has a specific purpose in redemptive history: to show that God’s salvation is now flowing out to people from every nation, tribe, and language. This is repeated in the three outpourings of the Spirit that follow in Acts 8, 10–11, and 19.
Pentecost is a climactic event in salvation history for the whole Church. Luke’s focus in Acts 2 is on the fulfillment of prophecy, not on paradigms for personal experience. Luke is introducing the expanding gospel ministry of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is beginning to spread.
The story in Acts is also our story, because we are participating in God’s story. The descent of the Spirit on these people is really our birth story, for those in Christ. While we think of our lives in terms of our own births, upbringing, education, families, line of work, and so on, there is another story that has been happening parallel to these things, actually it has weaved its way through these things. And it begins here with the descent of the Holy Spirit who fills these believers. If this had never happened, if God had not looked on Christ’s work on the cross and said, “It is good,” then raised him from the dead and set him at his right side, pouring out his Spirit on his people to take the message of his gospel of grace to the nations, we would still be in our sins. We would still be lost and without hope.
Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41)
Peter begins his famous Pentecost sermon with an extensive reference to the Old Testament, a citation from the prophet Joel, who predicted that God’s Spirit would be poured out in the last days, the days before the final judgment (the “day of the Lord”). According to Peter, the last days have begun. This “new religion” is actually the continuation of what God has been doing through Israel all along. Better yet, this God made promises years ago that these “last days” would come, and at Pentecost God is demonstrating that he is faithful and powerful to keep his promises. As he promised, God is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh—men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile. God is mercifully and joyfully calling all people to salvation.
In Peter’s first sermon, the essence of gospel proclamation is clear: “Jesus is Lord” (v. 36). This simple statement poses a fundamental challenge both to the Jews (with their strict monotheism) and to the Romans (with their religious-political system founded on the supremacy of Caesar as Lord). The resurrection is also one of the core elements throughout the gospel presentations in the book of Acts. After setting current events in redemptive history, here Peter quotes from the Psalms to show that the resurrection (Ps 16:8–11) was God’s intention along. The crucifixion of Christ was part of God’s plan, and he followed it by raising Jesus from the dead. Peter shows that this is all promised in Scripture. God’s grace breaks through the walls of the worst of human rebellion.
Just as Jesus promised that the gospel would spread to the end of the earth, Peter proclaims that “the promise is … for all who are far off”. The gospel is not confined by geographical boundaries, but is universal in scope. But “far off” is not just geographical: by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has reconciled to himself all of us who were formerly “far off” from God and one another. No one is so far removed that God cannot redeem them.
The Fellowship of the Believers (Acts 2:42–47)
The Holy Spirit brings forth a devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, community, and prayer. Notice also the unity of mind and heart of these first believers. When God is present by his Spirit, unity happens. This shows us what the Holy Spirit does when he works in us individually and collectively. He brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).
The Spirit’s ministry also brings forth conversions and numerical growth to the church, as we see that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). The Spirit produces not only inward spiritual growth, but also expansion and growth of the church. Gospel-fueled, Spirit-empowered growth is a repeated theme that runs throughout the rest of Acts, as we see that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14) and “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5; see also Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20). The Spirit continues to testify through the church to the grace of God in Jesus, bringing about growth in love and in numbers. The grace of God is fruitful and effective, and we see God taking the initiative to spread his grace to ever-expanding numbers of people.