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When the Day Of Pentecost Had Come

 

                       John 14:26     John 16:8-11     Acts 2:29 -42

 

If today were Christmas Sunday or Easter everyone would know it was Christmas Sunday or Easter and the turnout would be large.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Few are aware of it. The turnout isn’t larger than usual. This should surprise us, since Christmas (the incarnation) and Easter (God’s vindication of the cross); Christmas and Easter exist for the sake of Pentecost. Pentecost, after all, was the occasion when there was fulfilled everything that Jesus had promised his followers concerning the Spirit, everything Jesus had promised concerning the Spirit’s application of Christ’s earthly achievement.

 

[1]  In anticipation of Pentecost Jesus told his disciples, “The Spirit will convict/convince (the one Greek word means both ‘convict’ and ‘convince’) the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they don’t believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father…; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:8)

We must be sure to understand something crucial here: only the Spirit can genuinely convince people of the truth of God.         Which is to say, only the Spirit can genuinely convict people of sin, convict them of the nature of sin and the scope of sin and the depth of sin. Left to themselves, people never get it right.  If they are moralists at heart they will always equate sin with immorality. They never grasp the profundity of the apostle Paul when he declares that Jesus died for the ungodly, not the immoral.  They never grasp the profundity of Jesus when he insists that harlots and tax-collectors (moral failures who are also indifferent to their moral failure) enter the kingdom God ahead of the morally faultless.

Left to themselves, people never get it right.   If they are not moralists but socialists they will equate sin with rich people’s economic exploitation of the non-rich.  They never hear Jesus when he exclaims, “It’s from within, from the heart of every individual, that there come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, deceit, slander, pride.  All these come from within, and these defile.” (Mark 7:22-23)

Left to themselves, people never get it right.   If they are not socialists but social conservatives they will equate sin with the self-victimization of the weak, the lazy, the loser; and then equate sin again with the tyranny with which weak, lazy losers tyrannize everyone else in the society. Alas, they seem never to hear what Jesus says about the deadly power of wealth, the callousness of the wealthy and the brutality of the powerful.

Only the Spirit can bring home the truth that sin is what Jesus says it is, what all of scripture says it is: unbelief.         Unbelief, we must note, isn’t a matter of lacking the right beliefs, even the right religious beliefs.  Unbelief isn’t ideational insufficiency of any kind.  Unbelief, everywhere in scripture, pertains not to so much to the head as to the heart. It’s hardness of heart; it’s defiance of God, disobedience to God, disdain for God. It all ends in estrangement from God, estrangement from humankind’s ultimate good; in short, it ends in estrangement from God, loss of intimacy with God, and depravity or corruption within. Do I exaggerate? Argue not with me but with Jesus. “From within, from the heart, come ….”   Only the Spirit can convince us of the truth about ourselves in the course of convicting us of our violation of the truth of God.

 

In anticipation of Pentecost Jesus told his followers that the Spirit would convict and convince the world of righteousness.   Now we all think we don’t have to be told what righteousness is. Righteousness is rectitude, rectitude of some sort. The most righteous people are those who possess rectitude of all sorts.

But righteousness can’t be rectitude, since Jesus insists that people will be convinced of the nature of righteousness only as Jesus himself “goes to the Father.” Only as he goes to the Father? What do our Lord’s resurrection and ascension have to do with convincing the world of righteousness?

Throughout his earthly ministry, and particularly in the last week of it, Jesus was savaged again and again by people who thought they knew what righteousness was. And that’s precisely why they executed him.  Pilate thought he knew; so did Herod; so did the crowd that hailed him one week and howled for him the next.  Let’s be honest: his mother thought she knew too.  That’s why she had pleaded with her son months earlier to stop embarrassing the family and come home quietly.

“When the Spirit comes (Jesus had said), he will convince the world of righteousness because I go to the Father.”         Our Lord knew that his resurrection and ascension would vindicate him and vindicate the cross specifically.         His resurrection and ascension would vindicate that righteousness which is unique to the cross.

Everyone “just knew” that execution by means of a cross meant shame before God, even rejection by him.         More than rejection, it meant God’s curse pronounced upon the crucified one himself. Everyone “just knew” it. To be sure, “everyone” had one thing right: a cross did mean shame and rejection and condemnation.  What nobody knew, however, and would never know apart from the Spirit, was that in the Son of God whom the world didn’t recognize God had taken upon himself that very shame and rejection and condemnation, therein bridging the gap between himself, holy God and just judge, and a world that could otherwise only perish.  Righteousness is God’s righting of a capsized humankind that can otherwise only drown. First it’s the self-sacrificing of the Father in the cross whereby people who are deservedly barred from his presence are graciously granted access. Secondly, righteousness is the righted relationship that individuals enter upon and enjoy as they renounce their unbelief and cast themselves upon the clemency of their creator.

The Spirit, only the Spirit, convinces us of the nature of righteousness and thereby convicts us of our unrighteousness.         And the Spirit can do this only because our Lord’s sin-bearing cross is vindicated as he is raised from the dead and ascends to his Father.

 

Our Lord has something more to say.  The Spirit, God’s power to convict and persuade, will also convince the world of judgement; specifically, the Spirit will convince the world that God’s judgement is operative now. “The Spirit will convince the world of judgement”, says Jesus, “because the ruler of this world has been judged.” Plainly the evil one had been exposed in the cross of Jesus and defeated in the resurrection of Jesus. Exposed and defeated, the evil one still prowled around in search of victims, but his destruction was inevitable; defeated, he was destined to be destroyed. Judgement had been rendered.

Our Lord’s point is this: because the evil one has been defeated and is now destined to destruction, judgement is plainly operative now.  Because judgement is operative now, God is sifting men and women at this moment. Because judgement is operative now, it’s ridiculous to think that judgement can be postponed, let alone evaded.

But who believes this? Doesn’t the world continue to unfold as it always has?  Don’t some people even maintain that “the world is unfolding as it should”? Then who is going to believe that judgement is operative now, that the verdict has been rendered, that the outcome is inevitable?   Only those will believe it whom the Spirit has convinced.

 

[2]         On the day of Pentecost Peter preached a sermon that was boring by anyone’s standards. The sermon had no illustrations, and no “catchy” title.  It had no big words wherewith to impress the wordsmiths.  It didn’t even have especially small words wherewith to please the anti-wordsmiths. Boring? Half of Peter’s sermon was a lengthy quotation from the older testament.  When Peter had finished quoting a book already hundreds of years old he began accusing his hearers. Accusing people antagonizes them, makes them resentful and angry.  Therefore the only reaction Peter’s sermon could ever generate was sleepy-eyed boredom followed by resentful anger.

But this wasn’t how hearers reacted to Peter. Instead they were “cut to the heart”, we are told, and cried out, “What are we going to do?” They certainly weren’t bored; neither were they angry.  They were defenseless and desperate at the same time.  How did they come to be defenseless and desperate?  The Spirit had precipitated a response within them so very different from a merely human reaction.  Their Spirit-quickened response demonstrated that they knew the judgement of God to be operative; the resurrection and ascension of Jesus had convinced them of his cross-wrought righteousness; their unbelief – both the source and the outcome of their deep-dyed sinnership – now confronted them undeniably.

They were “cut to the heart.”   Were they terrified of God’s judgement?   Yes. Were they terrified only?   No. They were also horrified at their heart-condition, horrified that they had dabbled for decades in the pseudo-comfort of the ghastliest self-delusion.  As the Spirit surged over them they knew they were a disgrace before God, a shame to themselves, and more self-deluded than the most naïve child.

“What are we going to do?” they cried in their helplessness and horror. Peter told them what they should do. They should repent, believe, and be baptized as a public declaration of their repentance and faith.

But of ourselves we can’t repent; of ourselves we can’t make a “U-turn” in life; of ourselves we can only wear even deeper the grooves we’ve worn for years and now can’t escape.  That’s why repentance and faith are depicted everywhere in the book of Acts as possible only by means of the Holy Spirit.

Consider Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile, an officer in the Roman army.  He first heard the gospel when Jewish Christians preached in the synagogue that Cornelius frequented but had never joined, preferring to remain on the fringe. As the Spirit surged over Cornelius he moved from a fringe hanger-on at the synagogue to the most intimate companion of Israel ’s greater son; for the Spirit had granted him that repentance and faith which he could now exercise for himself.

It’s the same story over and over in the book of Acts.  Everywhere in the early church it was known that people can repent and believe only as the Spirit first grants them repentance and faith. There were people in Corinth who thought frenzy, unrestrained frenzy, to be the pre-eminent manifestation of the Spirit. They jumped and jabbered and spouted ejaculations that were not only ridiculous but even blasphemous. Paul told them they were dead wrong. He told them the manifestation of the Spirit is that someone is constrained to confess from the bottom of her heart that Jesus is Lord.  It’s our sincerest faith in Christ that attests the Spirit’s possession of us.

“They were cut to the heart and cried, ‘What are we going to do?’” Peter told them what they had to do. They had to make the farthest-reaching “U-turn” in their lives (i.e., repent); they had to embrace Jesus Christ from the bottom of their hearts (i.e., exercise faith); and they had to make a public declaration of all this.

 

[3] On the day of Pentecost Peter told his hearers that as they did as instructed they would receive the Spirit; that is, receive the Spirit fully.  To be sure, the Spirit had already convinced them, convicted them, and converted them.   One aspect of all this, however, was that the Spirit would not only inform them and move them; the Spirit would also saturate them.  What does the Spirit’s saturation involve?  Elsewhere in the New Testament the Spirit’s activity within believers has to do with fruit and gifts.

(i)         The fruit of the Spirit is the effect of the Spirit upon the believer’s character. The fruit of the Spirit, say the apostles, is love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, and so on.  The fruit of the Spirit is the fruitfulness of the presence and power of God. To be sure, some people are more patient than others by nature, more patient than others simply by genetic coding.  Some people are cheerier than others, or more self-controlled than others, simply by nature. But regardless of what we are by nature, there is a transformation wrought by the Spirit that transcends natural endowment.

The apostle Paul contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with the works of the flesh (“flesh” being human life lived without reference to God.) The works of the flesh are fornication, idolatry, jealousy, selfishness, bickering, etc. (Galatians 5:19-22) The works of the flesh, of life lived without reference to God, are the spontaneous outcroppings of fallen human nature; they are what fallen human nature, left alone, invariably yields.  The fruit of the Spirit, however, is precisely what God alone can effect in us.  The fruit of the Spirit is the fruitfulness of that Spirit now rooted ever so deep in us and suffusing us throughout.

 

(ii)         The gifts of the Spirit, on the other hand, have to do not with the formation of Christian character but with the ministry or service that we render to the congregation or to the world. Fruit has to do with character; gifts have to do with service.

The service we are to render is whatever talent or ability we have, now made available to others for the edification of others.  What’s different now isn’t the talent or ability itself, whether the talent is music-making, public speaking, care-giving, accounting, cooking, concrete-pouring or painting.  What’s different is our motivation: the desire to honour God and exalt the kingdom. What’s different is our aim: the edification of others in congregation or wider world. Paul insists that gifts of the Spirit are given “for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7) Peter insists that gifts are to be deployed “for one another.” (1 Pet. 4:10)

Fruit and gifts are the result of the Spirit’s saturation of the man or woman whom the Spirit first convicted and convinced and brought to repentance and faith.

 

Today is Pentecost Sunday. On the day of Pentecost two millennia ago our Lord’s promise concerning the Spirit was fulfilled: “The Spirit will convince, convict, the world of sin and righteousness and judgement.”  On the day of Pentecost itself Peter preached a sermon boring in the first half and antagonistic in the second.  Many hearers, however, were neither bored nor antagonized.  They were terrified and horrified in equal measure.  They found relief as they embraced the risen Jesus Christ who in turn poured his Spirit upon them. And thereafter they were blessed with the fruit of the Spirit and were made a blessing to others through the gifts of the Spirit.

 

Pentecost is plainly every bit as important as Christmas and Easter. Indeed, Christmas and Easter, incarnation and vindication of the cross, exist for the sake of Pentecost. Then why aren’t the Christmas and Easter crowds here today?

 

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd

May2007