Pentecost

God giving the Spirit (Exeter Cathedral)

God giving the Spirit (Exeter Cathedral)

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday—Whitsun—so what more natural to think on than the coming of the Spirit?

It may surprise many people to discover that the book of Acts records four occasions when the Spirit came in power on a group of people. Those of a Pentecostal/Charismatic bent probably mostly imagine it should be more, those of a more traditional bent may be surprised that it is more than one. It is four, and each is important in its own way. (There are other occasions recorded when the Spirit came on an individual or a family, but only four when he came on churches or proto-churches).

 

The first is, of course, Pentecost, the one we celebrate today. Ten days after the ascension, fifty after the resurrection. There they were, about a hundred and twenty if all were present (though the upper room might have been a bit crowded if they all were) when there was a rushing wind, a vision of tongues of flame, a sense of being filled and the first “speaking in tongues”. The church is born, and following the first evangelistic sermon by Peter some three thousand souls are added to the number.

And all of them. As far as we know, from the lost sheep of Israel. The original hundred and twenty were the remnant of those who had followed Jesus, all Judeans and Galileans. And the three thousand, Luke tells us, come from the pilgrims, the devout Israelites out of all nations, who were there for the feast.

 

That is why the second giving of the Spirit is so important, because for the first time the Spirit comes on those who are not Israelites, or not quite. It is recorded in Acts 8. After Stephen’s death, because of the persecution that followed, many believers left Jerusalem (though the apostles stayed there). Among those who left was one of Stephen’s fellow deacons, Philip, who ended up in Samaria and preached the gospel there with considerable success.

The Samaritans and the Judeans did not get along, as most Christians know (mostly because of Jesus’ parable about the “good” Samaritan, and his meeting with the woman at the well), but far fewer seem to know who these people were or why there was such animosity. Briefly put, the Samaritans were descended from Israelites who had not been taken away in the destruction of Israel or into captivity in Babylon with Judah. They had stayed, but worse, they had inter-married with the pagan tribes and so were no longer pure-blooded Israelites. They still worshipped God, but they accepted the patriarchal traditions while rejecting most, if not all, of the Mosaic Law. Thus from the point of view of the Judeans, they were close to the truth but refused to take the last step, and therefore were detested more than the Gentiles who were still far off.

It may seem, at first, that being close would have made them more approved, not hated, but it seems to always be that way. After all, most of us Christians seem to have harsher things to say about our fellow Christians from different traditions than we do about Hindus or atheists. It is because such people are too dangerous to us. No-one will be likely to confuse us with a Hindu or an atheist, but they might with “those other so-called Christians” and then what would become of our own special doctrines, the things that set us apart, that make us insiders, special?

But no matter how we feel or what we think we need, God is about calling all of his people into one new body. As Jesus said, he has other sheep in other folds who need to be brought in.

When the apostles hear about this, that the Samaritans have received the Gospel and that Philip is baptizing them, they send Peter and John to investigate. Apparently they are satisfied that this is God’s doing but it is incomplete, it lacks the seal of the Spirit, so they pray and lay their hands on them and they receive the Spirit. We are not told how Peter and John know this, no outward signs are recorded in Luke’s account but surely there were some. Perhaps it was tongues, as is recorded elsewhere, but perhaps Luke’s silence here is meant to warn us against expecting God to move in exactly the same way every time.

 

So now the church includes both Israelites and their near cousins, the Samaritans, but God is not done yet. As Jesus had said, the Gospel was to go out by their witness to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Gentiles still need to hear, and so God sets about bringing them in, through Peter again. Peter is in Joppa when God gives him a vision in which he learns to be open to God’s moving, and that God is breaking down the old divisions.

Even as the vision ends, men arrive from a Gentile named Cornelius, who has also had a vision. Peter accepts Cornelius’ invitation and goes to Caesarea. No sooner does Peter start to preach than the Spirit comes upon these Gentiles, witnessed by their speaking in tongues. Were there other signs too, wind or fire? Perhaps, for though Luke does not mention them, when Peter tells the story later he says that “the Spirit fell on them as on us at the beginning”.

But the method and signs are not important. Everyone recognized the fact, both those who had been there and those who heard the report. No-one seems to have doubted. And the important thing, which they recognized, was that the Spirit had now been poured out on all flesh, without distinction. The day of Pentecost was finally over.

 

Of course, if you have been paying attention you will have realized that I’ve talked about three events when I had promised four. If the work is done, what need of a fourth time? If the Spirit has come on all flesh, who is left?

 

The answer is that the fourth time is a reminder and a correction. It doesn’t extend the range of people who can receive the Spirit, as the first three did, but it establishes the essential nature of the presence of the Spirit in the church. It is recorded in Acts 19. Paul has come to Ephesus and found there a group of about a dozen believers. It seems quite likely that they were converts of Apollos who was now in Corinth. Apollos, you might remember, was a strong evangelist but one who did not know about the Spirit, at least until he met Prisca and Aquila. So these disciples too did not know about the Spirit, but after Paul explained to them, they received the Spirit, speaking in tongues and prophesying.

 

So the message of Pentecost seems clear: The Spirit has been given, not to some believers, but to all; not as an option, but of necessity. For it is the Spirit and not we ourselves who changes us, teaches us, and causes us to grow. Both as individuals and as the church.

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One Response to “Pentecost”

  1. princesswarna Says:

    I like your synopsis of these four recorded instances of the Spirit poured out. It gives a thoroughly overview.

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