Pentecost: The Person of the Holy Spirit

My daughter recently brought home her high school history textbook. She was studying the impact of the 2nd Great Awakening on America’s social development. America celebrated her independence from England in 1776, and not long afterwards a great outbreak of Christian religious and spiritual fervor swept across our nation. The 2nd Great Awakening began in Kentucky at Cane Ridge in Cynthiana just outside Lexington. This revival impacted the early Christian settlers across all denominations and all social-economic classes. However, it was seen most effectively in the Methodist and Baptist communities as they attracted the poor and marginalized peoples. The more established middle-class churches were too dignified to engage in such religious fervor. The frontier preachers would discover a hungry people for God’s mighty work often gathering thousands to hear the Good News of the Gospel for transformation. The revival inspired new colleges to educate their preachers, and further inspired education for the children. The sustaining fruit of the revival movement were in part the missionaries who worked for the benefit of the poor and marginalized people, particularly the slaves, native peoples, and women.

Famous moments in history like the 2nd Great Awakening inspire us. We are drawn to the memories of significant events. The bible even inspires this kind of remembrance: the acts of God in history. The Bible records important moments in history when God acted for the sake of humanity. The Pentecostal experience was no small event in recorded history. It represented the most dynamic outpouring of God’s grace that would change the course of history across not only small towns or one nation, but was for the whole world. Every language, tribe, and nation would one day have the opportunity to experience this great flood of God’s eternal activity.

Pentecost was celebrated the 7th week after Passover. It is one of three Jewish festivals celebrated yearly. It was the recognized festival that symbolized the completion of the harvest. Pentecost means 50 and points to the 50 day period between the Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23.16), a celebration of the harvest (Exodus 34.22). There is significant symbolism in the celebration of the harvest. Jesus himself spoke of fields ripe for the harvest of souls (Matthew 9.37, 13.30, 21.34, 25.26, John 4.35).

The Christian Pentecost is the fulfillment of two promises. The first promise is from the Father in Joel 2.28, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” The second promise is from the Son in John 16.5-15, which indicates that Jesus desires to send another counselor, the Spirit of Truth, to his followers.

Jesus reminded his followers that the promise of the Father would come just before he ascended to sit at the right hand of God to rule and reign over both the seen and unseen creation (Acts 1). In this passage Jesus explains that John baptized with water, but the baptism of the Spirit would come in a few days. When we look back to Jesus’ water baptism, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus was a dove. Symbolism has been a very important part of understanding the unseen realm that happens just beyond our natural sensibilities. The image of the dove traditionally includes peace, gentleness, and grace. Jesus helps us to understand the purpose of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus explains that the purpose of the promise is the gift of power to be Jesus’ martyrs (witnesses) unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8).

The promise of the Father and the promise of the Son both indicate the sending of a person: He is the Holy Spirit. When we think of our own personhood, the first thing that comes to mind is our name. Our name has unique meanings and qualities that are transmitted when it is spoken over us. The Holy Spirit has a name, too. He has been called ruach in the Old Testament meaning wind and breath. He has been called pneuma in the New Testament meaning breath and blow. It stands to reason that the name of the Holy Spirit was given as a representation of the experience. First, we encounter the experience as symbol, and then we come to know the unseen reality beyond the experience.

The Spirit is the “giver of life.” We see the expressions of the Spirit’s work in Acts 2. We experience the Spirit as the One who is directly touching, encountering, meeting, and indwelling within the human spirit of believers. Often the work of the Holy Spirit is described by the expressions of the working of the Spirits power in gifts and quantifiable results of the fruits in several New Testament writings. The gifts and fruits are exemplified in the lives of Jesus’ followers who breathe life into people through their preaching of the Gospel of Jesus.

So much of what we know about the Spirit is through the use of symbolism. The person of the Holy Spirit cannot be seen by the naked eye but certainly can be experienced within the human physical, emotional, and spiritual life. When we study Acts 2, it is easy to limit the scope of our understanding of the Holy Spirit through the lenses of this one event. However, if we limit our understanding to just this event, we would fail to capture the fullness of what we know about the Holy Spirit. This text should only be a spring board to searching the Scriptures to discover the nuances of who the person and work of the Holy Spirit is to the best of our historical knowledge.

For instance, when we remember Jesus’ life, we must observe the whole canon of Scripture. We should begin in Genesis 1.1, when the word was with God and the word was God (John 1). We must also look at the covenant relationship and prophecies about the Messiah. We must read the final words of his return. The whole of Scriptures points to Jesus from Genesis to Revelation. The person and work of the Holy Spirit is there in the canon as well from beginning to end. Genesis 1.2 illustrated the ruach of God hovering over creation. The Holy Spirit fills the prophets of God to speak words of encouragement and judgement in the Old Testament. The Spirit fills converts to Christianity in the New Testament. In Revelation 22 it is both the Spirit pneuma and Jesus who offer the final invitation to the Kingdom of God.

The work of the Holy Spirit is the transformation or re-creation for those who believe. The work of the Holy Spirit is the result of the fall of humanity. Because humanity fell away from God’s best design, the Holy Spirit has been at work to bring God and people back together. The Holy Spirit brings humanity together with God the Father. The Holy Spirit’s greatest work is pointing God’s people back to God Himself. The Holy Spirit is our reminder. The Spirit creates and breathes life into our broken souls and spirits. The Spirit calls us into community with God and neighbor. The Spirit indwells believers to transform us to the intended design. The Spirit empowers us to live righteously. The Spirit anoints, consecrates, and sets us apart for the Kingdom of God. We no longer live according to our own selfishness or the world’s standards. The Spirit gifts and blesses us making us fit for service in the Kingdom of God.

The first question that arises among the people in their sheer amazement: “how can this be?” Suddenly heaven created a sound that seemed to be carried upon a mighty wind. While they were sitting, this mighty wind filled the entire house. And, tongues (languages) like fire came filling each person with the breath of heaven, the Holy Spirit. They began to speak over one another in tongues (languages) just as the Spirit gave them the words to say. This newly created speech brought a large crowd together. They were amazed and confused. They marveled in wonderment. These multitude of peoples – Jew and Jewish converts (resident aliens) alike — all hear in their own languages. The Galileans were proclaiming the mighty acts of God himself. How could these Galileans be speaking to us in our own languages? These people are not well-educated enough to speak to us in our own languages about God himself.

The second set of questions comes from one uttered word – a two-letter pronoun – truly captures the moment. It asks three simple questions: Who? What? Why? Another way of reflecting on this question: Why does this exist? What will this be? The Common English Version translates it as “What does this mean?” These are questions of faith and belief.

Some experienced the spiritual phenomenon and did not understand. They replied with laughter assuming this was a big joke, right! They’ve been drinking and now they are acting strangely. While some poke fun, Peter takes the initiative to point them back to the proper interpretation of the event. Peter’s first response to the crowd is to address the scoffers – these people aren’t drunk as you suppose them to be. You misunderstand the situation entirely. Peter goes on to quote a passage of scripture from the prophet Joel (Joel 2.28-32) and goes on to quote two psalms (Psalm 16.8-11, 110.1). Peter wanted the people to know that God had fulfilled his promise, and this peculiar experience was the fulfillment of the promise.

In the Pentecostal experience in Acts 2 there are three symbols of God’s presence active in the lives of the believers: wind, fire, and languages.

First, a violent wind blew through the house. There are a number of references to wind or breath of heaven in the Old Testament, but the symbol remains consistent in that it means life. From Genesis when God breathed life into Adam to Ezekiel when God breathed life into the valley of dry bones God’s actions indicate that the wind was his breath breathing life into creation. This breath or wind is surely indiscernible in its origin, but real in experience.

Second, tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each person. There are several instances of fire across the Old Testament as well, but this symbol consistently means light or radiance that ignites or warms the soul of humanity. When we think about fire, the story of Moses at the burning bush comes to mind (Exodus 3). It is in the light of the fire of the burning bush that Moses came to know the Creator as the “I AM” God. It was because of this fire that Moses began his deep relationship with the Creator, and followed his call to care for an oppressed people – his own people, the Israelites. Perhaps Jeremiah’s passionate response to God’s call on his life (Jeremiah 20.9) seems to connect you more to this concept of fire. Jeremiah had a fire in his bones to proclaim the One True God to his people.

Third, languages of all kinds were spoken so that the Gospel of Jesus would be told to everyone in the world. The gift of communicating with God and for God came to be a reality for anyone who would believe, not just select peoples. Now the barrier between God and people was destroyed. Communication could now flow freely between people and their God. This gift of languages is the restoration of a global communication ability that we see in the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11). This release of languages is the restoration of a broken relationship between God and his people.

When we read our passage today, it’s safe to say that confusion and controversy were the first fruits of the Kingdom of God for those who had not received this magnificent experience. On the other hand, it’s safe to say that exceeding joy was the first fruit of the Kingdom of God for those who had received this magnificent experience. Perhaps you find yourself on both sides of this experience. On one hand you are filled with joy for the hope of eternal life, yet, on the other hand you are confused and conflicted with such an outlandish tall tale. We remember this story every year in the church calendar. The story is the same. So how could the remembrance of this story still bring about so much emotional baggage for the church today?

So let’s just cut to the chase. We just don’t have time to beat around the bush any longer with this question: What happened to the gifts of the Spirit? I submit to you that I don’t believe anything happened to the gifts of the Spirit. They are still available to us today – all of them. The Father made a promise to us that he would send to those who believe the Holy Spirit. The Father has not gone back on his promise for God himself is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Most of us have heard the arguments around the gifts of the spirit, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues. A few of us have heard tales about the baptism of the spirit during moments of encounters with God across history. Some of the greatest stories of spirit baptism have happened in our own church history with our very own John Wesley and his heartwarming experience. Some of us may even have studied the fruit of the spirit to intentionally become more mature in our spiritual works. It is possible that a minority have heard of the empowerment of the spirit for evangelism such as what we see across the Acts of the Apostles.

Perhaps it would be helpful for us to define two particular words: charismatic and evangelical. Theologian Craig Keener defines charismatic as someone who affirms and practices the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They may or may not speak in tongues. He further defines himself as an evangelical who embraces and seeks to obey the Bible as God’s Word, and is committed to share with the world that Jesus is the only way of salvation. Those are his definitions, and are mine as well (Keener, Gift Giver, 11-12).

Cessationalists believe that the supernatural signs and wonders ended after the early church was established and the New Testament completed. When the apostles died, the miraculous gifts died. If the supernatural gifts continued today, then the church would need to include those writings in the canon as well. But there is substantial evidence that not all the writings of the Old Testament prophets were considered canonical, therefore, this argument is not biblical.

Continuationists believe that Jesus’ model of miracle working holds true for all believers, Pentecost began the normative Christian experience in the early church, and the gifts are required as part to develop the believer unto spiritual maturity. There is no claim in the Bible that the supernatural gifts have ceased to be available for believers; therefore this argument is valid.

Cautious people see the uncertainty of the purpose of the gifts or notice the excessiveness and abusiveness of the gifts. They hedge their beliefs some where between the two arguments, and believe that the gifts should not be the normative experience for all Christians.

Some of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12.8-10 are no longer considered by cessationists to be available for the church. The continuationists believe that all the gifts remain active today. While the cautious believers would say the extraordinary gifts are for the select few in the church. These gifts include: words of wisdom and knowledge, faith and healing, miracles and discernment of spirits, prophecies and tongues. Some of the spiritual offices listed in Ephesians 4.11 are questioned as well. The cessationist believe these offices are no longer necessary, the continuationist says they have never ceased to exist, and the cautious would say they are limited to the necessary few. And, would hold to the management of the gifts. These gifts include: apostles and prophets. The office of evangelist and pastor-teacher are more readily accepted across the church.

Ah, but here is the rest of the story. The Spirit is a person and we can observe his workings in our lives through the baptismal encounters, the gifts, the fruit, and the empowerment. Because we witness the expression of the Holy Spirit called the church, we often fail to recall the significance of his personhood and works apart from what we see. To be sure it is the Holy Spirit who forms the community of faith where believers are able to relate to one another and God for the first time as a collective group. No longer are we the people required to use the priest as their mediates for a relationship with God. No longer are we the people limited in their knowledge of God to historical documents or prophetic utterances. The Spirit has come at Pentecost to take back the land and its people from the Kingdom of Darkness for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

The Acts of the Apostles begins with the promise of the Father (Acts 1), the fulfillment of the promise (Acts 2), the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), followed by Judea and Samaria (Acts 8), and onward to the ends of the earth which for this season included Rome (Acts 9-28). Today we continue to proclaim Jesus across every land, nation, tribe and tongue that one day everyone would hear the story of God’s transforming grace in the power of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Over the years I have heard lots of people talk about Pentecost as the outpouring of gifts and symbols of fire and wind. Perhaps the best way to understand Pentecost is to stop dissecting the Holy Spirit, and start treating the Holy Spirit as one person of the Trinity. The best way for us to understand Pentecost is to put the person of the Holy Spirit back into Pentecost. The person of the Holy Spirit works with creation, gives empowerment, offers tools (gifts), bears fruit, and manifests himself with symbols that help us to relate to Him. If we continue to separate God from himself, we risk creating a God in our own image. My hope for us all is that we will give God the opportunity to be God, not dissected into gifts or fruits apart from his personhood, but fully Himself.


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