May 26-28, 2007
Pastor Tim Smith
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (NIV)
What does this mean? Had we been there on this day, that’s a question we surely would have asked. Had we been there on this day, we would have had in mind that this was already a holiday, a holy day, an Old Testament festival known as the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of the Harvest, the Day of the Firstfruits3 – this was Pentecost,4 the Fiftieth Day, fifty days after the celebration of the Passover. And it would have been on our minds and in our hearts that it was also fifty days to the day that Jesus Christ was sacrificed for our sins on the cross on a hill just over there, on the other side of this City of David.
Had we been there on this day, we would have been praising God for the very first growth of the new growing season. These first tender shoots were cut and brought to God, acknowledging God’s promise that there would more – much more – that would follow. And had we been there on this day, we would have understood what significance there was when God suddenly made three thousand converts to the church on this one day, and we would have understood God’s implied promise that there would be more – many more – converts to come.
Had we been there on this day, gathered together, as our text says, in a house, we would have heard the sound. The sound, “like the blowing of a violent wind,” the tornado-like sound, like the sound I heard as a little boy when I was trapped on the shoulder of a railroad trestle in a downpour when the Milwaukee Road freight train thundered overhead and I thought my world was coming to an end because of that deafening sound.
But despite the sound, the sound that filled the house, that shook the rafters, that shook the windows, that shook the furniture, that shook the very foundations of the house, there was no damage. Had we been there on that day, we might have been stunned that despite the sound, no one’s hair was blowing, no cups were tipped over, no gale tore through the house – just the sound – and then the tongues came. First, tongues of fire.
Had we been there on this day, would we have been reminded of the fire from God in the Old Testament? The Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, the Smoking Firepot, the flames that crashed down from heaven and consumed the altar built by Elijah on Mount Carmel showing the difference between the true God in heaven and the figment of Baal in the minds of unbelieving fools?
Had we been there on this day, would we have understood that this fire, coming to rest not in one place alone, but on the heads of all of them was the symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit, of God himself? As the Apostles stood there, dancing flames like all the flames on the top of a birthday cake separated and traveled across that room, and “came to rest on each of them.”
And we would have been amazed at that, except that there was even more to come. The tongues of flame showed the presence of the Holy Spirit – not just in one place, but everywhere he is needed, all at the same time, doing something different wherever he is, according to the needs of the people there.
And then and there we would have understood something else – we would have understood the gospel in our own language.
That’s because in addition to the tongues of flame, the Apostles suddenly were given the gift. The gift of the tongues or languages of the nations. We understand this to mean that the Apostles were permitted, without taking any classes, to suddenly speak fluently in other languages.
The nations mentioned form a circle all around Jerusalem. The far east, the far north, the deep south, the extreme west – all of these places were represented by the languages the Apostles spoke that day.
What did this mean? What was the miracle of Pentecost?
For those of us who were baptized as infants, faith came at a time when we were very young. We don’t remember details like who was doing the baptizing or what hymn was sung afterward or whether it was raining or snowing or whether the sun was shining. For those of us who were baptized as infants, the miracle of coming to faith does not center around the means through which God achieved it so much as the result God achieved – the glorious fact that we have faith at all. That’s what counts. Not that the means is unimportant – we praise God for the means of grace with which he works.
As with any miracle, the result is the important detail. When we think of this first Christian Pentecost, we tend to focus on the miracle of speaking in unlearned languages – speaking in tongues. But had we been there on this day, we would be all the more stunned by the lasting and much more important miracle that the glossalalia or speaking in tongues brought about: People heard the gospel. People heard about their Savior.
And Peter points us to that truth as the most important thing we should remember about this day. After brushing aside one heckler who thought they were somewhat less than sober, Peter said: What did you expect? This has been coming since Joel talked about it, what, nine hundred years before Jesus’ birth – three thousand years ago for us. But, continued Peter, even more than what you see here will happen in the final days of the world. Certainly the “last days” can be seen in all the years from this first Christian Pentecost until the moment the Lord will come again in Glory, but Peter quotes the prophet Joel who described incredible and terrible wonders: “I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.” And accompanying those things, say Peter and Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” So why should we be surprised that some smaller gift – like speaking the gospel in foreign tongues – should happen before the very end times?
Martin Luther explained that of the prophecies that foretell things that haven’t yet happened, there are basically three types: The first are the plain prophecies which in clear words proclaimed, for example, that Christ would come into the world and so forth. The second kind is when an image or dream is accompanied by an explanation from a prophet – as when Joseph and Daniel and even Paul had or explained such dreams.
The third, Luther said, is the type mentioned here when Peter quotes Joel, when dreams or visions do not have such an explanation. They are a mute prophecy which has no sure interpretation, and “has not yet come to the fruit which it is to give to Christendom.”
Had we been there on this day, would you and I have been one of the tongues-speakers, or one of the three thousand listeners who were converted, or would might you or I have been that one heckler?
We were not there on this day. And it might be easy for each one of us to say, “No, Lord – not in a million years would I have been the one to put that little wine stain on the perfect cloth of this first Christian Pentecost. But if we will claim that we would not have sinned then, how do explain our sins today?
How do we explain away our behavior that seems to cry out “The Holy Spirit doesn’t live in me today!” when God says that he will pour out the Spirit on all people?
Are we bothered by our sins? Are we bothered by our lives that don’t fully embrace our God? I know that we are bothered. Some are bothered by old, old sins that don’t seem to go away. Some are bothered by sins of habit that keep turning up to annoy, like a Blue Jay or a Black Bird that thinks it’s the prince of the backyard cawing you awake every morning.
Some are bothered wondering whether God punishes old sins with present suffering – and the comfort the Bible gives about this question is the comfort the Bible gives to all these things that bother us – the answer to all of our sins. “This is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against him.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
The miracle of Pentecost points us to the miracle of the Cross – that God punished his own Son rather that us for our sins. That’s the message preached in the tongues of the nations under the tongues of flame. That’s the message of being reconciled to God, of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
That’s the answer to every one of our sins – they are all covered in Jesus, and from Joel to Peter to us, the message remains the same: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Amen.