Less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christian congregations he had founded in what we now call southern Turkey. At that time there was a controversy going on in the Christian church about whether you had to be Jewish to become a Christian. After all, some people said, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so it made sense to think that it was the Jews he came to save. This meant that in order to become a Christian, you first had to be circumcised and commit yourself to obeying all the Jewish laws – keeping kosher, observing the festivals and Sabbaths and all six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah.
To Paul, this was nonsense. In Christ ‘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’ (Galatians 3:28). All that’s necessary is to believe in Jesus, get baptized, and learn the way of ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6). And Paul has a knockout argument he’s going to use to prove his point. Listen to what he says in Galatians chapter three:
The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?...Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:2, 5).
Now, I doubt very much whether any of you here have lost any sleep at all over the issue of whether or not you need to become Jewish in order to be a Christian! That stopped being an issue in the Christian church nearly two thousand years ago! But what I do want you to notice is the extraordinary argument that Paul uses here. He assumes – and he knows he can assume – that every single person in the Galatian churches has had a supernatural experience that they understood as ‘receiving the Spirit’. How did that happen? Was it by obeying the Jewish law, or putting your faith in Jesus? The Galatians know the answer: they believed in Jesus, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and then they began to experience other supernatural events in their lives – miracles being worked among them, as Paul says.
I think this would be a difficult argument for me to use in a sermon today. If I stood up in the pulpit and said to you: “Look, folks, answer me a simple question. You remember the time when you received the Holy Spirit? Was it because you put your faith in Jesus, or was it because you obeyed the Ten Commandments?” My guess is that a lot of people would frown and think to themselves, “Uh, what does he mean by ‘receive the Holy Spirit’? How do I know whether or not I’ve received the Holy Spirit? How can you tell?” In other words, something that was a normal part of the Christian life when Paul wrote Galatians – something so normal that he could assume that every single person in the congregation had experienced it, and would know they had experienced it – has now become something completely foreign to us, something we don’t understand.
And that’s why this Feast of Pentecost is so important for us. It’s clear from the rest of the New Testament that Pentecost was not an isolated event. The specifics weren’t repeated - the rushing wind, the tongues of fire and so on – but the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit is assumed throughout the New Testament. It happens again to the same believers in Acts chapter 4; it happens to a group of new converts in Samaria in chapter 8; it happens to Cornelius and his household in chapter 11, and to a group of believers in Ephesus in chapter 19. And in the gospels, Jesus assumes that it’s a gift the Father wants to give to every one of us; he says,
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).
So let’s take a closer look at this Pentecost story and see what we can learn from it.
First, Pentecost was promised to the followers of Jesus from the very beginning. In Mark’s gospel we read that John the Baptist talked about it to the crowds who were coming to him to be baptized in water. He said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). This promise is repeated in more or less the same words in Matthew and Luke, but they both add the words “and fire” – “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
Jesus refers to these words of John the Baptist in Acts chapter one, the passage we read last week. He has been raised from the dead, but he hasn’t yet ascended into heaven; he’s teaching the disciples about the Kingdom of God. It says,
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5).
And a bit later on he says to them,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
So, there is a specific experience of being filled or baptized with the Holy Spirit. It isn’t the same as water baptism; the ‘baptism’ language is used metaphorically. There’s a lovely illustration of the meaning of this Greek word ‘baptizo’ in the writings of the Greek poet Nicander from about 200 B.C. He’s describing how you make pickles, and he says that the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (the Greek word is ‘bapto’) into boiling water, and then ‘baptized’ (the Greek word is ‘baptizo’) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of ‘baptizing’ the vegetable in vinegar, produces a permanent change, as the vinegar is gradually absorbed by the vegetable.
So this is what we’re promised: that we can be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit, so that the love and joy and peace of the Holy Spirit is gradually absorbed into our very being and transforms us at the deepest level – sort of like being ‘pickled in the Holy Spirit’! And it’s particularly associated in the promise of Jesus with the power to be witnesses for him: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). So maybe this is one of the reasons we tend to be so shy about being witnesses for Jesus these days: if we haven’t experienced the power that Jesus promised, it’s not surprising that we find it hard to do the things Jesus asked.
Was this promise just for the early Christians? There’s no indication of that. In our reading from Acts today Peter says it’s for everyone; he quotes from the prophet Joel in these words:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).
When the prophet Joel first wrote those words, everyone thought that the Holy Spirit was just given to special people like prophets and kings, but Joel promised them that in the last days that would change; this gift would be available for everyone. Not just apostles, not just ordained clergy, but everyone. And Peter makes it clear in his sermon that he thought ‘the last days’ had already begun with the Day of Pentecost, so the time for the Holy Spirit to be given to ‘all flesh’ is now.
So the Holy Spirit was promised to the early Christians and to us too. Second, this promise was first fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus had told them “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5), and so it was.
We’re not told where this happened; the second half of the chapter appears to take place in the Temple, but at the beginning we’re just told that they were ‘all together in one place’. We can assume that they’re praying, because we’re told in chapter one that that’s what they did when they got together! Suddenly they hear a noise like a mighty wind, and then they see a vision of little tongues of fire descending on them, one tongue resting on each of them. This ‘wind and fire’ imagery is very reminiscent of Old Testament stories of encounters with God. And then, Luke says, ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4).
Obviously what’s being described here is something amazing and overwhelming, something that none of them ever forgot. We’re not told how they felt, but we can guess that it was a mixture of joy and awe at the presence of God. The ‘speaking in other languages’ is something mentioned several times in Acts and also in the writings of Paul; sometimes it seems like it’s a form of prayer, as if the Holy Spirit bypasses our mental channels and gives us words of prayer and praise that we don’t understand, but that are a genuine offering of our heart to God. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians that it’s a gift he’s received and that he uses regularly. It’s obvious on the day of Pentecost that this wasn’t just meaningless babble; fourteen languages were actually recognized by the hearers. And by the way, this isn’t ancient history either; millions of Christians around the world today are happy to tell you that they too have received the gift of ‘speaking in tongues’, as it’s usually called, and that it’s a hugely important part of their prayer lives. And, by the way, I’m one of them.
So we’ve seen that the gift of the Spirit was promised to the disciples of Jesus and to us too, and that for the first disciples this promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. Now, thirdly, notice the result: the Holy Spirit makes people effective witnesses.
We only went as far as verse 21 in today’s reading, but the rest of the chapter gives us the sermon that Peter preaches. What happens is that a crowd hears all the commotion and wonders what’s going on. “What does this mean?” they ask, while others say, “They’re drunk!” – not something you tend to hear when people are coming out of staid and respectable Anglican services, is it? But Peter sees his opportunity, and he gets up and tells everyone what it means: that the world has a new king, Jesus. The religious establishment crucified him, but God has raised him from the dead, and now he’s sent the gift of the Holy Spirit on his followers just like old Joel promised hundreds of years ago. The crowd are cut to the heart, and they ask, “What shall we do?” Peter replies,
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39).
The response is amazing; about three thousand people are baptized, and so the Christian church is born by a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit, making Peter and the other disciples effective witnesses for Jesus.
Now – I sometimes hear people saying, “I don’t need all this Pentecostal stuff. I was filled with the Holy Spirit when I was baptized and confirmed; that’s good enough for me”. Or, if you’ve got more of an evangelical bent, you might say, “I received the Holy Spirit when I gave my life to Jesus; what more do I need? I’ve already got it all”.
Well, my response is, if we’ve got it all, where is it? Where is the sense of the immediacy of God’s presence that those early Christians obviously had? Where is the confidence they felt in speaking about Jesus to other people? Where are the new converts who have decided to become Christians because of our witness? Where are the miracles and healings that were such a strong part of the New Testament story? Where is the love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other wonderful qualities that Paul describes as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians chapter five? If we got it all when we were baptized and confirmed, or when we gave our lives to Jesus, where is it?
Yes, of course, we received the Holy Spirit when we became Christians, but there’s something else. In Ephesians Paul says, ‘Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). The Greek word for ‘filled’ is a continuous present: in other words, it means ‘Go on and on being filled’ – like the vegetable being immersed in the vinegar!
So let me close by asking you – are you experiencing this? Is baptism in the Holy Spirit a part of the normal Christian life for you? And if the answer is ‘no’, what are you prepared to do about it? Are you willing to take the risk of seeking a deeper and more immediate experience of God’s Holy Spirit? I call it a ‘risk, because it’s obvious in the book of Acts that when people are filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s the one who’s in charge! As the old Jewish saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!” You can plan all you want, but the chances are that when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, you’ll find he has a totally different plan!
What should we do? We should wait, and we should pray.
What did Jesus say to those early Christians? ‘He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father’ (v.4). You can’t rush this; God’s in charge. My guess is that he’s not too impressed if you think your busy schedule is more important than being filled with the Holy Spirit. So we have to cultivate our hunger for God; we have to resist the temptation to manufacture imaginary experiences of our own, or to try to fill the empty space with liturgical performances. We have to wait.
How long? Who knows? The apostles had no idea how long they would have to wait; Jesus just said “not many days from now”. My dad told me once that he first heard of the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a young man, but it was twelve years before he experienced it for himself. All I know is that you can’t rush it; God’s in charge, and he’s not in a hurry.
We should wait, and we should pray. Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13). So, like children coming to our heavenly Father, we need to ask him for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us in power. That’s what those early Christians were doing while they waited; the book of Acts lists the names of some of them, and then says, ‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (Acts 1:14a). Notice that this was prayer together, and I suspect that it wasn’t a set prayer like a liturgy; I suspect that they sat together in a room and spent many hours praying from their hearts, or just sitting in shared silence, waiting for the gift the Father promised.
Are you willing to do this? Am I? If you’re like me, you’ve probably read the stories from Acts for years, or heard them read, and wondered, ‘Why don’t we experience those things?’ Well, maybe today God is answering our question. Maybe God is giving us an invitation: are you willing to put your schedule on hold, to come together, to wait, and to pray, until the Day of Pentecost becomes a reality in your life too? Personally, I’m quite sure that God is giving that invitation to all of us. Are we going to take him up on it? I’m guessing the ball is in our court.