It has been a lovely weekend. Not only spending my birthday at home with family, seeing some university friends and celebrating my grandmother's 80th birthday, but also celebrating Pentecost at Ferndale Baptist Church.
'To celebrate' is certainly the appropriate verb to respond to God's gift of the Holy Spirit. We see that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful thing. Jesus himself said that it was better that he left so that the Holy Spirit could be sent (see John 16:7).
However, a talk given by Maurice McCracken a couple of years ago helped me to realise the broader significance of Pentecost: Peter shows that the coming of the Holy Spirit is a fulfilment of a prophecy by Joel and far from a simply happy event. I was asked to give a talk on Acts 2 last Autumn and below is my reflection on it. In my introduction, I explained that Acts 2 stirs us to urgently take the gospel to the world for three reasons (I guess I should add that empowering gospel proclamation is not the only thing that the Holy Spirit in a believer, but that this is highlighted in this passage):
1. We have been given the Holy Spirit to do so (verses 1-13)
Verse 1 shows us that all of the events that followed took place on a day called Pentecost. Pentecost was the second of three annual Jewish harvest festivals, and Jews – both ethnically, and those who had converted to Judaism – would have thronged around the streets of Jerusalem. People from across the known world were already there.
Yet whilst the streets would have had a carnival atmosphere, Jesus’ disciples were huddled together. They were almost certainly still terrified – maybe even slightly unable to make sense of what had happened since Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
And then, suddenly the Spirit of God comes upon the disciples, accompanied by three supernatural signs. Verse 2 talks about a ‘sound like a blowing of a violent wind’ – not a violent wind, but something like its sound. Then they see something incredible – ‘what seemed to be tongues of fire’ – again, Luke is obviously showing that precisely what came was beyond concise description. Something incredible, something supernatural, is taking place. And then, thirdly, they began to speak in other tongues – verse 4.
I think if I was Luke, I would have had the temptation to spent more time thinking about the incredible sounds and sights that came at Pentecost – they were incredible! I’d maybe want to dwell more on the ‘sound like a blowing of a violent wind’ and ‘what seemed to be tongues of fire’. But Luke doesn’t do so. Instead, he concentrates on the new tongues that were being spoken by the disciples.
Now there’s some debate about the nature of these tongues. There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled by Christians down the ages as they’ve thought about whether the tongues here were the same as those spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14. And there’s probably some difference of opinion in this room here. I’d be happy to speak afterwards with anyone who’d like to chat more about it. But to get caught up in this detail at this point is to miss what Luke’s trying to say: here, speaking in tongues was a miracle of hearing – see verse 6: ‘when they heard this sound, a great crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking his own language.’ Luke’s emphasis is on the language that the people heard.
I’m a person prone to exaggeration. I quite often get told off by one of my students in Lancaster when I exaggerate. I’ll say something like, ‘That was the best meal ever’ and he’ll challenge me. ‘Really? You’ve never ever eaten a better meal in your whole life.’ And people like that can be really annoying, can’t they?! The great thing is that one of the Bible writers seems to do the same thing. In verse 5, Luke says that ‘every nation from under heaven’ was represented in Jerusalem that day. I remember reading this passage once with a guy who wanted to tell me that you couldn’t trust the Bible because presumably the Aborigines and native North American tribesmen were there, which was of course true. Nevertheless, the list in verses 9-11 shows that the whole of the known world was represented: it’s a clockwise list of all of the areas around the Mediterranean at that time. Between them, they would have spoken many, many languages. Furthermore, verse reminds us that the speakers were Galileans – I love the fact that Luke includes this point! – because at the time, Galileans were thought to be yokels, those who weren’t very cultured or good at speaking other languages.
And so do you see Luke’s point? The group of people that was in Jerusalem at this time was a diverse, cosmopolitan, multi-national group. God ensured so by sending his Spirit at the harvest festival of Pentecost. As I was prepared this talk this week, it was amazing to reflect that even when God gave the Law to Moses thousands of years earlier, he put in this law about a harvest festival in order that people might be in Jerusalem when he gave his Spirit. God has brought an international crowd to Jerusalem and then given them the Spirit so that, supernaturally, they might be able to explain the gospel to them. The whole miracle here is a clear sign that the Holy Spirit has been given for a specific purpose – to help disciples of Jesus spread the good news of Christ throughout the world.
John Stott puts it like this: ‘Christian mission is rooted in the nature of God himself. The Bible reveals him as a missionary God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - who has a missionary vision, creates a missionary Church, and sends it out on a missionary expedition throughout the world.’ He goes on, ‘the Holy Spirit of the Book of Acts is a missionary Spirit. Pentecost was essentially a missionary event. Jesus promised that after the Holy Spirit had come upon them, his followers would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth. And the Book of Acts is the fulfilment of that beginning. We watch enthralled as the missionary Spirit creates a missionary people and sends them out on their missionary adventure, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Rome, the capital of the world.’
What a wonderful gift the Holy Spirit is! It’s he that convicts people of sin, and of righteousness and of the judgement to come! It is him who brings new life! We can’t do any of those things – without the Holy Spirit, our evangelism would be as successful as going into a graveyard and whispering to the dead bodies that they really ought to get up! And yet, we have the life-giving Spirit, who brings life to the dead. He accompanies us as we go and proclaim.
Yet we so easily forget this. I think that one of the great things brought to the Western Church in the 20th Century was a new discovery of the work of the Holy Spirit. I think the church at large is now more aware than, say, certainly one hundred years ago, of some of the things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. It’s been great to see an explosion of joyful worship and service – we’ve been reminded that it’s a wonderfully joyful thing to be a Christian, to be rescued and to know God and have the prospect of spending eternity with him. But I wonder if, across all elements of the church spectrum, we have become indulgent in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. So we enjoy great times of heartfelt sung worship with God, and they’re wonderful as the Spirit ministers to us and applies his truths to our hearts – and yet, we then do not respond any further. Or the Spirit gives us wisdom and understanding as we delve into Scripture and discover the wonderful things there – and yet, we do not respond any further. Or we feel that we are being transformed and equipped for ministry – and yet never use that transforming and equipping. We’ve never had it so good – and yet one of the very things the church has been given the Spirit for seems to be systematically ignored. It’s a bit like a car enthusiastic who spends all of their free Sundays souping up their motor, but never actually ever get around to driving it.
John Stott, again, says this: ‘You tell me you believe in God. He is a missionary God. Are you committed to Christ? He is a missionary Christ. You claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He is a missionary Spirit. It is impossible to avoid these things. Mission is integral to authentic Christianity; Christianity without mission is Christianity no longer. For mission is rooted in the very nature of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
And so this is my first point: a Spirit-filled Christian is going to have a heart for mission; for taking the gospel anywhere and everywhere. It’s as simple as that. They’ll care about taking the gospel where they are and they’ll care about taking the gospel to the nations. Because, as we’ve seen, God’s gospel is for everyone. All have rebelled against God – and the good news of forgiveness and life with God is for all too – for Chinese and Britons and Moldovans and Albanians and Zambians. God’s gospel is for all. It’s something we see as the gospel is taken to the nations in microcosm at Pentecost. The curse of the tower of Babel is being overturned, and now through the Spirit-breathed gospel, God is calling together a multinational group of people, united in Christ.
One of the chapters I love the most in the Bible is Revelation 7. Do you remember the great verses there, where there’s a vision of a great multitude of people in the new creation that no-one could count, with every nation, tribe, people and language represented?! And they’re all there because of the work of Jesus the Lamb. And I find this incredibly encouraging. I find it encouraging because we believe in a sovereign God, a God who is completely in control. And the God that’s in control has said that every nation and tribe and people and language represented. And because God has promised this, his promises are as sure as him himself! What an incentive to get involved in God’s work of reconciling the nations to himself! He’s promised it will happen, and so we can have every confidence our ministry is not in vain. God the Holy Spirit has a vested interest in it! And so the first reason from Acts 2 to urgently proclaim the gospel to the world is take we’ve been given God the Holy Spirit in order to do so.
2. We live in the last days (verses 14-21)
Secondly, we are to urgently take the gospel to the world because we live in the last days. In these verses, Peter gets up and explains the events of Pentecost that Luke has just described. Pentecost isn’t just something that affected the disciples – it had much greater significance. In fact, in verses 14-16, Peter says that this should not have come as a surprise to the Jewish people he was speaking to. For this extraordinary phenomenon of Spirit-filled believers declaring God’s wonders in foreign languages is the fulfilment of an idea from the Old Testament. In particular, Peter says the declaring of God’s wonders in tongues is the fulfilment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy that God would pour out his Spirit on all believers, in what Joel called the ‘last days’.
And so, Peter says – verse 17 – that a new era had begun; the last days. In the Bible, the last days stretch between the two comings of Christ, and the Spirit will play a new role. See, in the Old Testament, the Spirit had only come upon certain individuals, like kings and prophets, to equip them for specific tasks. But now, says Peter through Joel’s prophecy, he will be poured out. And he will be poured out generously – to sons and daughters, to old and young. So the pouring out will be to all Christians, irrespective of their gender or their age or their rank.
And this pouring out is so that they can prophesy. Again, there’s debate within the church today about precisely what prophecy is, but here it’s probably referring to any verbal communication of the gospel. The universal gift of the Spirit will lead to a universal ministry of prophecy. And this is the fulfilment of another passage from the Old Testament. In Numbers 11, remember this is in the Old Testament when the Spirit wasn’t given to everyone, Moses cries out in frustration with these words: ‘I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’ So do you see what’s going on? The universal gift of the Spirit leads to a universal ministry of prophecy. All Christians can now communicate the gospel, aided by the Spirit, not just some. Martin Luther put it this way as he reflected on this passage: ‘the knowledge of God through Christ, which the Holy Spirit kindles, makes him burn through the word of the gospel we proclaim’. It’s not that as we leave, we’ve kind of got to ask ourselves: ‘Will the Holy Spirit use my witness?’ The answer is: if you are a genuine believer, then the Spirit will use your words in your witness.
This is such a reassurance! Not only does this mean that we don’t have to decide who to speak to – we’ve already seen that the gospel is for absolutely everybody! – but we also don’t have to wonder whether or not we’ve got God’s power. The Holy Spirit means that, because we know Christ, we can make him known, all of us. We may not be Billy Graham, but each of us is now fully equipped to speak. We may not be eloquent, but each of us is called to give a reason for the hope that we have.
And this ministry is urgent because we live in the ‘last days’. Verses 19-20 refer to God’s judgement of all people, which will come at the end of the last days. In redemptive history, now everything has happened so that only Jesus’ return and judgement is left. I guess we might want to say that Judgement Day is the next big day in God’s diary. And so the last days are days of Spirit-filled and Spirit-powered witness. They are urgent days, because the great and terrifying Day of the Lord could come soon. But they are also days of great opportunity, during which the gospel can be preached to all peoples and all nations, throughout the world. And amazingly, as verse 21 puts it, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
I used to have a housemate who had an annoying trait, and that was to ask the question, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ And she’d ask this question in an attempt to diffuse problems – only it could get quite annoying. Someone wouldn’t do the washing up, and then somebody else would get annoyed, and she’d say, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Or someone would record over someone else’s videotape of a programme they wanted to watch, and they’d get stressed out, and she would ask, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Now, as you can see, that sometimes became quite an annoying question! But actually, it is a good question to ask, because as Christians, we are called to be people who have eternity in view. And we’re reminded of this as we consider that we are indeed in the ‘last days’: the next day in God’s diary really is Jesus’ second coming and judgement.
So let’s ask, ‘Does it matter in eternity?’ Your witness here? Does it matter in eternity, or are you caught up with other things? I know myself that it’s very easy in CU to get caught up with the trappings – with room bookings and socials and emails and meetings and the rest – even though the CU has been set up with eternity in mind, we never do anything with eternal consequence. And CU just becomes a social club and our witness is non-existent. Or the other danger is this: we know that evangelism should be a priority, but we’ve forgotten about eternity and we’re only bothered about results in the short term. We’re only bothered about packed meetings and looking cool on campus. Does it matter in eternity?
Or what about the international students here? We’ve already thought about how the gospel is for all. And many international students come from countries where they’d have little or no chance to hear about the gospel, and their time in Britain is the best opportunity they will ever have to know Jesus. And yet I remember myself that, for several of my years at uni, I made little or no effort to get to know the international students on my course. It was only in my fourth year that I really got to know them and found out about the real gospel openness there was amongst them. Does it matter in eternity?
Or how about the state of the world? Country after country where there is little or no gospel witness – there are still 18 countries in the world less than 1% Christian. 3500 people groups who remain unreached. Thousands of languages which still have no translation of the Bible. Many countries where there is religious nominalism – where people would call themselves Christian but there is no sign of spiritual life. Millions who are trusting their good works rather than God’s grace for salvation. Many areas of Europe and Africa that are Christianised but not converted. Does it matter in eternity?
We live in the ‘last days’ and there stretches a time of opportunity during which the gospel must be proclaimed throughout the world. And we have been equipped by the Spirit – all of us – to speak for Jesus. Folks, let’s live with eternity in view, because ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
3. Jesus’ sacrifice is for all who will trust in him (verses 22-41)
Thirdly, we are to urgently take the gospel to the world because Jesus’ sacrifice is for all who will trust in him. I used to think that Pentecost was a really happy occasion, and of course, it is a really significant day in the life of the church, from where God had an intimacy of relationship with his people that those in the Old Testament could have only dreamed about. And yet, Peter’s speech in verses 22 onwards, we see that this Pentecost account was also chilling for the original audience.
I’m not going to go into much detail now, but, in his sermon Peter, having convinced the crowd of the fact that the miracle of Pentecost is a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, he now sketches out the connection of the events that day with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. You can look at this in more detail yourselves, but effectively Peter does two things. He persuades them that Jesus of Nazareth really was the divine King, promised in the Old Testament – yet people rejected him and were responsible for his death.
Secondly, Peter convinces his listeners that the Spirit’s coming signals the fact that judgement is coming. Jesus is alive, the sin he took on the cross is now paid, and he has been raised to life forever. And the same Lord that promised to Joel that there would be an outpouring of the Spirit promised the Messiah. And the Spirit’s outpouring is proof of the beginning of his reign, that will come in its fullness when he returns in judgement. And Jesus himself will act as judge.
Now, put yourselves in the shoes of the Jewish audience who were there in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They’ve seen this incredible miracle of tongues, and they’ve realised the full Old Testament significance of this. We’re in the last days and judgement is coming. And now Peter has shown the full situation. Jesus, the King who has been raised to life by God the Father is the very one who will be judge. And there you are standing, a Jew. Perhaps one of those who condemned Jesus to death just a couple of months earlier. The one who had been sent by God, condemned to a cross. And now he’s been raised to life and coming back as judge. You’d be terrified, and rightly so! You’ve rejected the God of the Universe in human form, and now you know he’s coming back in judgement. It’s not even that you’d killed a prophet from God, but you had murdered the Messiah. Peter’s speech finishes with this chilling statement: ‘"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."’
And so it’s no wonder that we read in verse 37, that those in the crowd were cut to the heart and asked, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ They must have been terrified, desperate, having crucified the Christ and Judge of the Universe.
And the amazing answer to their question comes in verse 38: ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’ This is incredible! There is good news, even for those who killed Christ, because he welcomes even those who murdered him. The very act that showed their guilt, in crucifying him, was the very act used by God for their forgiveness! Even those that crucified Christ are forgiven by trusting in him.
One of the CUs I work with is St Martin’s College in Ambleside, in the middle of the Lake District. And sometimes I go walking up in the mountains with some of the students there who study Outdoors Studies [What a great course!]. Once, we came into a little glacial valley, and some of the lads there said it was OK to walk on the ice, because the ice there was thick. They were the experts, but I was a wuss, so I didn’t try. I thought maybe the ice would be too thin. Now imagine if, somehow, a juggernaught had been there that day, and had driven over the ice. What would I have thought? I’d think something like this, ‘Juggernaught – heavy. Yet the ice held the weight. Me – much lighter than the juggernaught – I’ll be fine.’
And the same principle applies here. If we were going to list the most horrific sin of all time, we’d probably go for unjustly and wittingly murdering the God of the Universe, the very one who is going to act as Judge. And yet, Peter says, forgiveness is possible for them because of the cross of Jesus. And so do you see what this passage is saying? Regardless of how bad you are, you can be forgiven. Jesus will welcome you because he has taken the punishment for your sin. He’s well able to forgive, because he’s taken the punishment. And regardless of how bad anyone else is, it’s possible for them to be forgiven. And that’s true for anyone here in Liverpool, and it’s true around the world. Even Saddam Hussein, someone who’s brutality we’ve heard a lot about in recent days, can be forgiven if he trusts in Jesus. The message is for all because the message is able to save anyone!
What an encouragement this is! Not only do we know that the message is for all nationalities, but it is for all people regardless of what they are like. And the Holy Spirit has been given to each of us in these last days so we can all speak this gospel message with God’s own power!
And so, we come to our conclusion. Why are we to proclaim the gospel? We’re to do it because all true believers have the life-giving Spirit with us, who uses our words as we proclaim to change hearts. We’re to do it because we live in the last days, and judgement is coming. And we’re to do it because the message that we have is potent – it really is able to bring forgiveness and life with God forever, because of Jesus’ sacrifice. So let’s keep speaking for Jesus, let’s keep praying for our world. Let’s pray that tonight some people resolve to start speaking for the first time. Let’s pray that tonight a few of our number commit to getting involved in world mission – perhaps committing to praying for a country and the gospel work there, or going on a short term mission. Let’s pray that a few people here are convicted to going as missionaries to other countries, or train as Bible translators. And the encouragement is that, as we do this, we are sharing God’s heartbeat. I’m going to finish again with that quote by John Stott: ‘You tell me you believe in God. He is a missionary God. Are you committed to Christ? He is a missionary Christ. You claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He is a missionary Spirit. It is impossible to avoid these things. Mission is integral to authentic Christianity; Christianity without mission is Christianity no longer. For mission is rooted in the very nature of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’