Text: Acts 2:1-21 (John 15:26-16:15) Pentecost
Filled with the Holy Spirit
In the name of him who continuously pours out his Spirit upon us, dear friends in Christ: It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we become accustomed to, dependent on, and then almost immediately begin to take for granted the innovations that are constantly being produced in this wonderful modern world of ours. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of communications. My daughters, for example, simply cannot understand what it would be like to live without cell phones, instant text messaging, or internet access to a thing called Facebook even though these things didn’t exist when they were born. Folks in my generation never lived without television – the nightly news being broadcast by satellite from all over the world. The generation before that never lived without radio. But do you know is wasn’t until the 1880s that cables were laid on the ocean floor that allowed telegraph messages to be sent back and forth between America and Europe, and that before that the fastest way to get a message across the Atlantic was by a ten day trip on a steam ship? Right now I’m reading a book about the American Revolution – a hundred years or so before that. It explains how the British generals in America were hamstrung by the war department back in London. They were trying to make all the strategic and tactical decisions at the Ministry of War there. Trouble was it took two months for ships to make the passage in those days. So in London they’d read reports that were two months old about what was going on in America, and then they’d write orders to send back based on that information that would take two more months to return to the colonies. By the time they arrived, it usually happened that the situation on the ground had changed so much that the orders didn’t make a lick of sense; but the British generals dare not do anything different for fear of being accused of not following orders. I’m learning that we owe a large part of our independence to slow communications and an inefficient British command structure. But my point is that it’s hard for us even to imagine that because we’re so used to picking up the phone or sending an Email. We’ve got instant access and immediate communication to just about anyone anywhere in the world whenever we want – and we don’t think twice about it—unless … unless for some reason there’s an interruption of some kind that shuts down our connection or causes the process to be slower than we’re used to. Then we’re likely to carry on like we’re back in the dark ages: “Man, I can’t believe this! How in the world did people used to get by?”
Let me suggest we’ve got something very similar going on in the spiritual side of our lives. What I mean is this: The Holy Spirit is God’s great Communicator. With him you’ve got instant access and full communication capacities with the Lord anytime and anyplace; but without him you’re completely out of touch. In terms of spiritual communication you’re blind, deaf, and dumb. But unless you came to faith later in life, you’ve had the Holy Spirit in and with you from the time you were an infant – when you were baptized. Most of us have never known it any other way. And for that reason we tend to take what the Spirit for us does for granted. We rarely pause to think what it would be like if he were not in and with us continuously doing all the things he does; but if he weren’t, our lives would be very different indeed.
You think back to Old Testament times. Back then you had these two major conflicting themes in theology. On one hand the Lord was with his people. He came down on Mount Sinai and showed himself there. He located himself – a visible manifestation of his glory – in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. You could point to a certain location on the ground and say, “The Lord is right there. He is with us.” And yet, on the other hand, even though the Lord was present, you couldn’t get to him. Yes, God was on Mount Sinai; but if you touched the mountain you’d die. And yes, the Lord was in his Temple; but you couldn’t go in there. Only the priests could. And even most of them could only get so close. Only the high priest on just one day in the whole year could enter the Holy of Holies and stand in the presence of God. The whole thing was designed to emphasize the holiness of the Lord, and how we are separated from him on account of our sin; for no sinner can stand in the presence of God and live. The law of God demands that for sin man must die. But God in his grace and mercy made another way: he allowed that through the sacrificial death of a substitute (and in Old Testament times that meant an animal of some kind) those who had sinned could approach him. He would allow the penalty of sin to be borne by animals whose blood was poured out on the burning coals atop the altar as a sign that the penalty was paid – the law had been satisfied. Seeing the sign of blood and fire and the hissing vapor of its smoke, the Lord would then count the sins of the people erased so that they could stand before him sinless and pure. But mind you, this happy state of affairs didn’t last because people being by nature sinners kept on sinning. So the sacrifices had to be offered over and over again, always emphasizing God’s absolute holiness, our sin, and how the Lord could only be approached through blood sacrifice. It was the constant reminder that the penalty for sin was never fully paid.
We see this same tension – being there but not being immediately accessible – in the way the Holy Spirit worked with people back in those days. Then there was no long term, abiding presence of the Spirit with the population in general. Instead the Holy Spirit would come upon certain individuals, like prophets and judges for example, but only for a certain period of time while they received a word from the Lord or accomplished some great feat for God’s people. The Spirit would come upon a person, take care of the business at hand, and then move on – again emphasizing that as long as the penalty of sin had not been fully paid, the Spirit of God could not dwell in the hearts and minds of people.
All of this changes on the Day of Pentecost. With the mission of Jesus complete, his perfect sacrifice atoning for the sins of the whole world accomplished and he having ascended into heaven, all the barriers come down. This is shown initially in the tearing of the temple veil when Christ died on the cross. That veil was the final separation that stood between the people and the Lord’s holy presence. Its tearing showed that God had accepted the sacrifice of his Son and that he could now count all people sinless and pure for his sake. No more sacrifices would ever have to be offered, and redeemed people could stand and live in the presence of the holy God. And understand that the temple veil tore not so that people could get inside to where the Lord was; but so that he could come out and live with us.
That’s what we heard about in today’s reading from Acts. It was the Lord’s grand entrance into his new temple with the sound of a mighty rushing wind and the appearance of the tongues of fire over the heads of the faithful. It’s his temple made not of stone, but of the bodies of each and every believer in Jesus. And we read that the Holy Spirit – who used to come upon people only briefly – now completely filled the disciples and remained upon them. And in the events that follow, we see exactly what this filling with the Spirit does.
First we see that the Holy Spirit fills God’s people with understanding. You know, the Bible describes the mind of sinful man as darkened and unable to comprehend spiritual matters or the Word of God. Just think how often in the Gospels you’ll read that Jesus was talking or teaching and then it says: but his disciples didn’t understand a word he said. We see this even as late as the Ascension. In the moments right before he was taken up, some of the disciples ask Jesus, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It shows they’re still thinking in terms of the Lord reestablishing a physical kingdom on earth. Even that late, they still don’t get it. We heard the same thing in today’s Gospel when Jesus says, “I have a lot more to say to you, but you cannot bear it now.” He’s telling them that they simply won’t understand. But, he says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Then they’ll remember the things Jesus said, and suddenly it will all make sense.
This is shown chiefly in the gift of being able to speak in foreign tongues. Jerusalem was a veritable Babel of different languages because Jews from all over the known world were there to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Others were probably there long term to study under the famous Rabbis. But all these people had grown up speaking the language of the land in which they were born. That would have been their primary language, the language of their hearts and the one their minds used to think. Most of them would also have been able to converse in Greek since it was the lingua franca of the day. A few of them might have known some Aramaic too, because that’s what was spoken in and around Judea; but few would have had really mastered these other languages. They still would have done their thinking in their primary tongues, and to communicate they had to actively work to translate from one language to another. And whenever there’s a translation, you lose something of the original meaning. So imagine an Arab Jew trying to talk to a Jew from Rome. First he’d have to translate his Arabic thought into Greek, which would then be heard and translated from Greek to Latin in the mind of the other guy. Depending on their relative fluency in Greek, and their use of figures of speech and idioms that are almost impossible to translate from one language to another, they’d be lucky to understand each other half the time.
This is very much like the problem the sinful mind has understanding the Word of God. The words are there; but the mind can’t properly grasp the meaning of them. But now through the gift of the Spirit given to the disciples, God is speaking to everyone in their own language. He’s speaking directly to their hearts. And suddenly it all makes sense. And of course what the disciples are talking about are the mighty works that God has accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ. They’re talking about his perfect life, his death for sin, and his resurrection and ascension in a way that these people from all over the world can at last understand. The ironic thing is that hearing the disciples speak words that they understand so clearly, the people are so surprised that they ask, “What does this mean?” And I’ll get to that in a minute; but it’s important to see that the first thing the Spirit fills us with is understanding.
The second thing the Spirit fills us with is faith. I’ve got to jump a bit beyond the text before us, but in it we heard the beginning of a sermon delivered by Peter to the astonished people who had gathered to see what was going on. The purpose of this sermon is given in the last line we heard – which was the end of Peter’s opening paragraph: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And as he continues his discourse, he does three things. First he shows that Jesus is in fact the Lord’s promised Christ – the Deliverer that every Jew was expecting to come. Then he convicts his hearers, showing how they through their sins are personally responsible for rejecting him and causing his death. And then, when they’re trembling in fear of God’s judgment for having rejected and killed the Messiah, he points them back to Jesus as the sacrifice that God himself offered up to atone for their sins once and for all. And having given them the capacity finally to understand God’s plan of salvation, the Holy Spirit then imparts to them the supernatural gift of faith. Now they trust the Lord Jesus, calling upon his name to save. And we’re told that three thousand of them were filled with faith in Jesus and came to salvation that day through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The third thing we see that the Spirit fills God’s people with are the words with which to bear witness to Jesus. Yes, as our Lord said in today’s Gospel, it is the Spirit’s job to bear witness to Jesus; but he almost always does this through human agents. We see this displayed for us in the divided tongues of fire that that come to rest on the heads of the disciples. The idea is that each one of them has become a sort of burning bush from which God speaks. And like the burning bush from which the Lord addressed Moses, though there is fire the host is not consumed. Illumined, yes, and purified as fire does; but not harmed in any way. In the same way now, having given us understanding and faith, the Spirit gives us God’s Word to illumine our minds, purify us from sin, and make us bold witnesses to speak of the wonders the Lord has done for us. He does this especially, we’re told elsewhere, when we come under attack for our faith. Jesus told his disciples that they would undergo many hard trials and be brought before the authorities as if they were criminals. But he told them not to worry about what to say in their defense – that the Holy Spirit would give them the words to speak when the time came. And certainly it was the work of the Spirit that filled Peter, a humble fisherman who was not known for being a great speaker, with the powerful words he spoke to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost.
So, the Holy Spirit fills us, God’s people, with understanding, with faith in Jesus, and with the words to testify about him and what he’s done. The final thing the Spirit fills for us, or rather full-fills for us, is prophecy. This was God’s plan all along. And through the prophets, like Joel, Isaiah, and others, the Holy Spirit spoke of the day when these things we celebrate on Pentecost would come to pass. The Old Testament saints could only dream about them; but in our day they have been fulfilled. And they continue to be fulfilled as the Holy Spirit continues his work in and with us to increase our understanding, strengthen our faith, and enhance our ability to bear witness to the miracles of salvation that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
So let’s not take the Holy Spirit for granted. Instead, let us pray that our gracious God and Father would continue to pour out upon us his Spirit, and that we would seek to be filled, so that at all times and in all places our communication with the Lord, our walk with him, and our witness to the world may be everything God intends it to be, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!