Part of the problem with denominations and Christian traditions is that words are taken like brand names (think © or ™), making it harder to use them with genuine biblical meaning…
- Catholic means “universal”–no Christian in his right mind would deny the universal character to the Christian message (true for all time, in all societies and cultures, around the world)
- Presbyterian means “governed by elders” (among other things) and in this regard, many churches have presbyters as key leaders in the local assembly, not just “Presbyterian” churches.
- Pentecostal or “related to Pentecost” ought to describe all true Chrsitians: people who take “Pentecost” seriously as a watershed moment for the church of Jesus Christ.
That last brand name, “Pentecostal,” is on my mind lately as I’ve begun to preach through the Book of Acts. We will hit Acts 2:1-11 in two Sundays; so, I’m asking myself, “what does Luke mean by Pentecost?” and “How, or in what way, are we called to be Pentecostal today?”
We need to begin with this observation: Pentecost (or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) is not the key action of God in Acts: the key ‘act’ of God in Acts is the Ascension of Jesus.
That’s worth repeating: the key act of God in Acts is the Ascension.
How do I know?
Because in the first volume of Luke’s narrative, the Gospel of Luke, Luke records Jesus saying to the gathered Eleven the following: “…behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:48) “…not many days from now” (Acts 1:5), which will be a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:6).
The reason for this gift is so that that they will have power to “be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). So, while Jesus is removed from them, until He returns again, “exalted at the Father’s right hand” (Acts 2:33), they will be able to bear witness to the world about the Lord.
So, were we to start from scratch and give ourselves a name, setting aside previous “brands” or trademarks,” it would be better to be named “Ascensionists” than “Pentecostals.” After all, if the Ascension doesn’t happen, then neither does Pentecost.
(On the significance of the Ascension, check out this little essay at Desiring God.)
With this in mind, take a look at a second aspect of Pentecost and Acts. If the purpose of Pentecost is to declare the events of the Ascension to be true, then what happens at Pentecost points us back to the Ascension–and forward to the remaining work of the kingdom in the world.
When people heard other people speaking in known languages, the point was to testify that the curse of Babel in Genesis 11 is now reversed, and instead of God dividing their tongues, he unites them in such a way that everyone hears one another speaking in “his own language” (Acts 2:6).
Now there is to be one people of God, through the many “tribes, tongues, and nations” in the world. Jew & Gentile, male & female, slave & free: all are one in Christ. (See Galatians 3:29 & Ephesians 4:1-5)
This brings up two controversial issues.
The first is related to the ongoing place of “speaking in tongues” in the church. If this passage is taken as determinative of the practice (which makes sense, rather than a letter to a troubled church named Corinth) then tongues were intended as a special sign which was to mark the inauguration of the New Covenant, not an ongoing distinctive.
Second, Pentecost speaks to the question of the nature of “Israel” today. Because Pentecost points backward to the ascension, Israel’s restoration (the question asked by the disciples) is all about the progress of the kingdom through all the nations of the world; not about a nation-state whose ongoing existence ought to be the mission or ministry of the church, or even Christians, today.
This isn’t “spiritualizing” Israel: it is the fulfillment of what Israel was meant to be: the twelve sons of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, becoming a blessing to the world through the One Seed of Abraham, Jesus, the Messiah (Galatians 3). This “Israel of God” is the Israel that Jacob/Israel was always destined to be: not a geo-political entity on at the table of the world’s nations, but the multi-national assembly of the New World.
(Sam Storms has a good summary of this point of view, which has been helpful to me in articulating my thoughts here.)
Finally, a third aspect of pentecost is important. This issue is less controversial than simply unpopular. How would they carry out this global witnessing program? Two ways: through the power of the Holy Spirit, and through suffering.
The power aspect is obvious: though removed from our presence physically, His promise, because of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, would remain true: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” that time when He returns “the same way as he went up into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This is the “comforter” that He sends, and why it was expedient for Jesus to “go away” to the Father (see John 14-15).
This is unpopular because Christians would much rather not witness with words; and though they talk about witnessing with “deeds” I suspect it is more often a cover for unbelief that the Spirit has been given to empower the church’s witness!
The suffering aspect is less obvious, but Luke writes later in Acts (14:22) that it was necessary for the early Christians to go through much suffering and tribulation in order to “enter the kingdom of God.” Somehow, by spreading the news of the Kingdom–that the King, Jesus, died and rose again, and is now ruling and exalted at the Father’s Right Hand–the witnesses of Jesus would experience something like the suffering that their Savior Himself went through. They, too, would have to take up their cross, and in doing so, they would be following Him.
This is unpopular because, in my observation, my missionary context of post-modern America, we hate suffering. And by “we” I mean myself included.
Spreading the word. Suffering for His name. This is the kingdom program for all faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ until He returns, which will be in a way that resemble ts the way in which He left: bodily, from heaven. The difference is that this time, he will bring the crown of righteousness for “all who longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4).
Let’s get busy, and be ready.
Postscript: some have said that the book of Acts (or Acts of the Apostles) is mis-named; that it should be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” But, in light of the above, it strikes me that the better name of the book of Acts is not the Acts of the Holy Spirit but “the Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, as He sends the Holy Spirit to empower the disciples to be His witnesses around the world, starting in Jerusalem.” (Thanks to Alan J. Thompson for this insight, and other thoughts that his book has inspired in this essay. Please see the introduction and chapter one to his book, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus here or a more comprehensive preview of the book on Google here.)