The Dawn of an Age
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, in their book "Are We Living in the End Times?", outline what they call the Four Pivotal Events of History: Creation, The Flood, The Cross (of Jesus Christ), and The Second Coming (of Jesus Christ). [Note 1] The first three of these occurred in the past; the fourth is yet to come. Sandwiched between The Cross and The Second Coming is the period of time in which we find ourselves -- "The Church Age". This age began shortly after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ when the Holy Spirit was first given to man in a brand new way and will continue until the rapture of the church when the Spirit (and God's people) will depart the earth.
In Old Testament scripture, we often see the phrase "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him". When we come across these words, they typically indicate specific instances when the Spirit of God would indwell an individual for a period of time and enable them to accomplish whatever tasks he had given them to do. For example, these words are used several times with reference to various leaders in the book of Judges where God's special presence and power were bestowed upon various leaders to enable them to effectively govern the people of Israel. In addition, we see this phrase sometimes used in association with various Hebrew prophets who, as a result of the Holy Spirit's special anointing, spoke on behalf of God to the Jewish people. Other examples include the special indwelling presence of God given to first Saul and later to David shortly after they were anointed king by the prophet Samuel. (Interestingly, Saul is the only person whom we are told the Spirit "departed from" (see 1 Samuel 16:14)). From these Old Testament accounts we may infer that prior to the beginning of the Church Age the Holy Spirit only resided with certain persons at certain times for certain purposes. As we come to the second chapter of Acts, however, this is all about to change.
Recall from our previous lesson that, having replaced Judas with Matthias, the apostles were now gathered together in Jerusalem and doing what Jesus had told them to do -- waiting. Jesus had promised they would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and though they probably didn't know exactly what that meant, they were about to find out.
What was this "day of Pentecost"? Many today think that this Jewish celebration originated as a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts 2 (sort of like Christmas marks the birth of Jesus). This, however, is incorrect. As we read here, the day of Pentecost was something the Jews observed long before the events described in the book of Acts. In fact, we can trace the origin of the day of Pentecost all the way back to the book of Exodus and the law of Moses. In approximately 1445 B.C., God instructed Moses that the Jews were to celebrate three annual festivals as a public means of giving thanks to God for what he had done. One of these was called the Feast of Harvest (also called the Feast of Weeks). By New Testament times this festival had come to be known as the "Day of Pentecost" because, according to Leviticus 23:15-16, it was to be celebrated beginning on the 50th day after the Sabbath of Passover week. (The English word "Pentecost" comes from the Greek word "pentekoste" meaning "50th"). Thus, the day of Pentecost was an existing Jewish celebration that God chose as the perfect time to send his Holy Spirit to the newly-born church. Why was this particular time chosen? Possibly because, as we shall see, it provided the perfect opportunity for the coming of God's Spirit to impact the maximum number of people and to ignite the flame that would rapidly spread the truth of Christianity throughout the entire known world.
Ever been reading the Bible and come across a reference to something you weren't quite sure about? Often we're tempted to rush on by and pay it little mind. Want a suggestion? Next time that happens pause and take the time to do a little research. Try a Bible commentary or even a regular encyclopedia or dictionary. You may be surprised at what you learn. More often than not your understanding of scripture will be enhanced and you'll gain valuable insight into what God's word has to say to you.
As the apostles are gathered together in a house in Jerusalem, scripture records one of the most fascinating events in human history:
Incredible! Note that there is nothing in either the specific words that are used nor in the surrounding context that suggests this is meant to be taken figuratively. No, the text is specific and clear -- there was a literal "noise like a violent rushing wind" and literal fire-like manifestations which came to rest upon each person there. Some interpret this event as the literal fulfillment of John the Baptist's words recorded in Luke chapter 3:
As if this weren't enough, this small group of believers suddenly found themselves speaking to each other in a host of foreign languages! Now there is sometimes confusion on this issue due to the use of the word "tongues" in verse 4. The confusion arises due to a difference of understanding associated with the spiritual gift of "tongues" as discussed in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. Some interpret this gift to refer to the ability to speak in other known languages of men (i.e., "normal" foreign languages); others believe this gift refers to an ability to speak in "spiritual" languages unknown to any man. Regardless of your understanding of this spiritual gift, the context of Acts 2 makes it quite clear that the "tongues" referred to here are meant to be interpreted as "normal" foreign languages understood by some men but not others. How can we be so sure? Because the verses which follow specifically describe other men hearing these words and recognizing them as their own native languages.
Points to Ponder:
This thing about tongues brings up an important issue. Unfortunately, this particular subject has become quite divisive between different Christian denominations and, in some cases, even within denominations. That's a shame. As part of the body of Christ, Christians need to cut each other some slack. Allow room for somebody else to see things differently from you. Stand firm on the foundational doctrines of the faith, yes, but give others grace on the "peripheral" issues. Remember, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13:12, "We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!". [Note 3]
Earlier we suggested that God chose the day of Pentecost as the perfect time to send his Holy Spirit because it offered a unique opportunity for the rapid dissemination of the Gospel. As we continue on in Acts 2 we see why this is so.
The Jewish celebration of Pentecost brought Jews from all over the Roman Empire to the city of Jerusalem to participate in the annual festival. (As explained above, Pentecost was one of three major annual celebrations which the Jews were required to observe according to the law of Moses. Each year, thousands of Jews who lived all over the Roman Empire made the journey to Jerusalem to take part in the celebration as required under Mosaic law.) In the passage above we see specific reference made to Jews who had traveled from fifteen different regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea to attend the Jerusalem celebration. This explains why Pentecost was such an ideal time for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. People from all over the known world were gathered together in one place at one time. What better way to ensure the rapid dissemination of the truth of Jesus Christ than to interject the news right in the middle of an international gathering and then let the attendees carry the message all around the world as they returned home to their respective countries!
The miracle that occurred at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was unlike anything that had ever occurred before or has ever occurred since. The scripture says that the small group of early Christians began speaking a multitude of languages they had never even learned! And notice that when God does something he doesn't miss a detail. The word translated "language" in verses 6 and 8 is the Greek word "dialektos" from which we get our word "dialect". According to the American Heritage Dictionary [Note 4], dialect is defined as
Not only did they get the languages right, they even got down to the specific individual dialects of each language! Amazing! Astounded, the crowds could only marvel at what they heard and wonder what it was all about. While most were intrigued, there was also that group of people who always seem to find fault and poke fun when they encounter something they don't understand.
Ah well, unfortunately there'll probably always be a few of those in every crowd. Pay them no mind. As we'll see in our next lesson, the apostle Peter and the other apostles were not about to let these naysayers dissuade them. They had received what Jesus had promised -- the eternal Holy Spirit of God now lived within them! No longer would followers of the true God be on their own. From that moment on, scripture teaches that every single person who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord would immediately be given the gift of the Holy Spirit; that is, the Spirit of God himself would actually reside within each individual believer, encouraging them and giving them the power they need to live life free from the burden of their own sin. The new age had dawned! The Church Age had officially begun.
Next Lesson: Peter in the Pulpit