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Pentecost

 

PENTECOST

The tower of Babel was titanic, trivial and tragic all at once. Titanic, for its boastful “let us make a name for ourselves” attempted to erect a structure that elevated self-important braggarts to the heavens, letting them rival God. It was trivial, for their achievement turned out to be a pipsqueak; when God heard about it he couldn’t see it and had to “come down” (Gen. 11:5) just to have a look. It was tragic in that they succeeded in giving themselves a name, an identity: God-defiant, disobedient, contemptuous men and women whose ingratitude was as hard-hearted as their self-congratulation was silly. The tragedy was only compounded when God visited his judgement upon them, rendering them unable to understand each other, unable to communicate, unable to forge community. He scattered them abroad over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:8-9), enforcing their estrangement. Like magnets improperly aligned they could only repel each other. In one sense they triumphed, for they had rendered themselves “somebodies” irrespective of God’s will and way. In another sense they failed abysmally, their isolation giving rise to babbling no less hostile for being incoherent.

Yet since God’s judgement is the converse of his mercy (or as Luther liked to say, his judgement is his love burning hot), God immediately set about rescuing them from their folly and its consequences. Abram (“exalted father”) is summoned and obeys, the model of any and all who gladly allow themselves to be named by God. Now called Abraham (“father of multitudes”), he is blessed by God where the Babel/babblers were cursed. He is promised descendants in faith as numberless as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the firmament (Gen. 22:17).

Still, God’s rescue operation taxed him unspeakably. It took him centuries and cost him vastly more than it had cost even Abraham. (After all, at the moment of inexpressible anguish Abraham’s son had been spared while God’s had not.) Still, God couldn’t be discouraged or deflected. There finally appeared one who gloried in the name his Father had bestowed upon him, Yehoshuah, Jesus, “God saves.” God had designated him such “in power…by his resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:4) Throughout the seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost the risen one had appeared to his followers, instructed them in the truth concerning himself and released them from the misunderstandings of him and his work that had dogged them ever since he had called them. He had directed them to remain in Jerusalem, hier shalem, “city of salvation”, until they were “clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) Then obedient disciples, honouring the risen one’s promise, found the promise fulfilled as the Day of Pentecost unfolded.

“Pentecost” was a word coined in Israel of old to commemorate the ingathering of the harvest. Later the Pentecost festival recalled as well the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Israel had been freed from bondage in Egypt, delivered through the Red Sea, and then fused into a people at Sinai as they were acquainted with God’s will for them. The events in Israel’s history all served the definitive rescue operation when Israel’s greater Son absorbed in himself humankind’s bondage to sin, made provision for its deliverance, and schooled disciples in the Way they were to walk (“walk” being the commonest Hebrew metaphor for obedience.) Regardless of what had been done already, however, something remained to be done in that Christ’s people were gathered in Jerusalem eager, expectant, but as yet unleashed.

As surely as the descent of the Spirit signalled the public ministry of him who was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15: 24), the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost signalled the world-wide ministry of those sent “to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Pentecost found the Spirit kindling them for a mission that included people from every tongue and tribe throughout the world. Pentecost conferred an identity no enemy could deny them. Pentecost commissioned them the hands and feet of the risen, victorious one whose victory now ruled the cosmos. Henceforth they would do in his name the work he had done prior to his ascension. (John 14:12)

While the disciples had obeyed their risen Lord and had waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit, they hadn’t been waiting around. They had praised God publicly in the temple and privately in their homes. On the day of Pentecost their conquering Saviour, himself the bearer and bestower of the Spirit, flooded them with the selfsame Spirit in whose power he had preached, taught, healed, and announced the coming “Day of the Lord.” Pentecost was the final act of God’s saving mission before the End. It equipped the disciples with all that they needed to fulfil their commission. It inaugurated the era of the Spirit, which era Hebrew prophets like Joel had foretold. (Joel 2:28) And not to be overlooked, it was the first instance of revival, revival occurring when the sovereign Spirit of God overtakes large numbers of people at once, convicts them of their sinnership, convinces them of the coming judgement, brings them to repentance and faith through vivifying God’s mercy, and admits them joyfully to the people of God.

Concerning this awe-full event Luke tells us that the disciples were aware of what sounded like hurricane-force winds. Hadn’t Jesus earlier likened the Spirit to wind? (John 3:8) Wind can’t be seen yet also can’t be denied. Uprooted trees, racing clouds, tumbling waves: the effects of wind attest its power.

And on the day of Pentecost there appeared to be fire licking at each of the 120 assembled in the upper room. Hadn’t Christ’s ancestors in faith found in the properties of fire a startling reminder of what God does when he draws near to his people and “torches” them? As fire illumines it dispels darkness and confusion. As fire refines it consumes corruption, even mere worthlessness, leaving what is pure, attractive and useful. As fire warms it dispels iciness and suspicion. Most characteristically, fire sets on fire whatever it touches.

At Pentecost the Spirit moved disciples to “speak in other tongues.” The significance of the proclamation in other languages of God’s mighty acts was epoch-making in view of the diverse people gathered at that time in Jerusalem. These God-fearing Jews happened to be in the city at this time but they weren’t native to Jerusalem, having been neither born nor raised there. They had come from the diaspora, “from every nation under heaven.” (Acts 2:5) Luke means, of course, the nations of his world, the Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean area where Jewish people had thrived for centuries. In speaking of the “other tongues” Luke lists the languages of five groups: people west of the Caspian Sea, Asia Minor, North Africa, visitors from Rome (Jews and converts to Judaism), and finally “Cretans and Arabs.”

This linguistically diverse, international crowd was transfixed by the simple Galileans. Galileans were known to lack cultural sophistication. (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46) Permanent residents of Jerusalem looked upon the Galilean visitors as bumpkins. Miraculously, these unlettered people were now proclaiming Jesus in the visitors’ own languages at the centre of the city of salvation. A few sour-faced onlookers sneered, “They’ve had too much to drink.” Nervous about making a realistic assessment, they distanced themselves from the truth through self-excusing mockery.

Luke left no doubt as to his understanding of the Galileeans’ speech. In the power of the Spirit the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and bridges every barrier that people bent on making a name for themselves erect and behind which they scoff in pretended superiority at those on the other side of the wall. Such barriers are legion: language, nationality, race, education, social class, wealth, gender, ethnicity. Luke knew that Babel had been reversed. At Babel God had descended in judgement and curse when he had had to descend in any case in order to see the tinker-toy trifle by which its builders had thought themselves giants who could rival him. Now at Pentecost God descended in blessing when he found obedient followers of Jesus who wanted only to exalt the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9) Glad to have their lives, reputations, identities “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) they rejoiced in the “name” whereby God knew them. Babel pride gave place to Pentecost humility, a humility that is never self-belittlement but rather self-forgetfulness born of preoccupation with the one whose servants they were glad to be.

Since Pentecost forges and inflames Christ’s people (mission being as essential to the church as burning is to fire), Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church. Then could a day that celebrates its birth be followed eventually by a day that laments its demise? Never! No power can prevail against the church, for since the “Spirit isn’t given by measure” (John 3:34), the Pentecost-suffusion will always be adequate.

Pentecost was nothing less than a miracle. How could it be anything else? Creation had certainly been a miracle, creation ex nihilo. Then re-creation had to be no less a miracle too in view of the calcified perversity of the human heart. For Pentecost meant that life could begin again, but not “again” in the sense of déjà vu, one more time; “again”, rather, in the sense of the reversal of all that had distorted the creation into a hideous parody of what God had intended originally. The tower of Babel, remember, had been thought to be huge when in fact it was tiny. Now the new-born church was thought to be tiny but would quickly become huge. While the world regards the church as either stillborn or impotent (“How many troops does the pope have?”, Stalin had jested), it is precisely the church which the rightful ruler of the universe appoints to be his hands and feet. Henceforth it does that work which he will crown one day as he brings to perfection his work of cosmic restoration. Admittedly, the church has prostituted itself repeatedly, yet the bestowal of the Spirit ensures that it will ever be the bride of Christ. Admittedly, the church has often compromised itself inexcusably, yet the Spirit’s wind and fire will ultimately render it worthy to “judge angels.” (1 Cor. 6:3) Deformed at times to the point of being grotesque, the church lives by the promise of one day standing forth resplendent, without spot or blemish. It has been attacked but never slain, for it is more ridiculous than ghastly to think of the Lord Jesus Christ living with head and body severed.

The builders of Babel/babble had made a name for themselves, only to find themselves scattered and their name forgotten. Pentecost generated the ever-burgeoning cloud of witnesses, the gathering together of those whose names were now written in the book of life and would be remembered eternally. The Babel/babblers had boasted, “We did it our way.” Pentecost created a world-wide fellowship of those who continue to prove that “his commandments are not burdensome” but in fact are “sweeter than honey.” (1 John 5:3; Psalm 19:10) Where Babel’s frustrated communication was tragic, Pentecost was a triumph as it proved there is no communication problem, whether between God and us or between us and others, that the Spirit cannot solve.

Apart from Pentecost the 120 in a second-storey room in Jerusalem would have waited with hope haemorrhaging, one more heart-breaking instance of many false messianisms. Apart from Pentecost evangelism would be little more than propaganda and the church’s mission mere self-promotion. Apart from Pentecost our efforts at binding the wounds of a broken world would be indistinguishable from do-goodism. And apart from Pentecost, evangelicals should note next winter and spring, no Gentile would ever have heard of Christmas or Easter.

As it is, Pentecost is the only reason the gospel gives rise to “a great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne… crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

Victor Shepherd