Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Pentecost FAQ: What is Pentecost and Why Does It Matter?

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

What is Pentecost?

This coming Sunday, Christians across the world will celebrate
Pentecost. In fact, not all Christians recognize this holiday (holy
day). But it is generally honored in liturgical churches (Roman
Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, etc.), in Pentecostal
and Charismatic churches, and in many other Protestant churches as
well. Pentecost is not as well-known or as popular as the Christmas and
Easter, though it commemorates a watershed event in Christian history.
It many ways, Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

In
today’s post I am going to answer several frequently asked questions
about Pentecost. Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about its spiritual
significance.

What is Pentecost?

For Christians,
Pentecost is a holiday on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy
Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first
Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection,
there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be
meaningfully called “the church.” Thus, from an historical point of
view, Pentecost is the day on which the church was started. This is
also true from a spiritual perspective, since the Spirit brings the
church into existence and enlivens it. Thus Pentecost is the church’s
birthday. (Photo: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout II, 1732. Public domain.)

restout-pentecost-8.jpg

What does the word “Pentecost” mean?

The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.”

But
Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they
borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a
Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or,
more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). This name comes from an
expression in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven
weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the
next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture).

Shavuot
was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It
was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned
into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This day
became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after
the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost,
the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his first followers, thus
empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a
church.

What actually happened on that day of Pentecost?

This
event is recorded in the New Testament book known as The Acts of the
Apostles. Chapter 2 begins, “And when the day of Pentecost [ten hemeran tes pentekostes]
had come, [the first followers of Jesus] were all together in one
place” (2:1). All of a sudden, a sound came from heaven, like a strong
wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like
tongues of fire rested on their heads. “And they were all filled with
the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit
gave them the ability to speak” (2:4). (Notice the tongues of fire on
the heads of the people in the painting by Restout.)

The
languages spoken by the early Christians were intelligible (not other
worldly) and were heard by thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to
Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. The content of the miraculous
messages had to do with God’s mighty works (2:11). Many who heard these
messages in their own languages were amazed, though others thought the
Christians were just drunk (2:12).

At some point, Peter, one
of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first
sermon. He interpreted the events of that morning in light of a
prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel. In that text, God promised to pour
out his Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise
divine power. This would be a sign of the coming “day of the Lord”
(Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32).

Peter went on to explain that
Jesus had been raised and had poured out the Spirit in fulfillment of
God’s promise through Joel (2:32-33). When the crowd asked what they
should do, Peter urged them to turn their lives around and be baptized
in the name of Jesus. Then they would be forgiven and would receive the
gift of the Holy Spirit (2:37-39). Acts reports that about 3,000 people
were added to the church that day (2:41). Not a bad response to Peter’s
first sermon!

Should we believe that all of this actually happened?

If
you are one who believes the Bible is God’s inerrant or infallible
Word, you will take for granted the truthfulness of the account in
Acts. But if you’re uncertain about biblical authority, then you might
wonder if the account in Acts is to be trusted.

In fact, some
scholars have questioned the historicity of Acts 2. They observe that
this event appears in the New Testament only in Acts, and that it
describes miraculous events that are beyond the scope of historical
inquiry. These scholars tend to view Pentecost as a powerful metaphor
for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, rather than
as an event that gave birth to the church.

Whether we believe
the biblical account of Pentecost has everything to do with our
estimation of the historical trustworthiness of Acts of the Apostles
and the possibility of miraculous events actually happening. If you’re
familiar with my book Can We Trust the Gospels?,
you won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that Acts 2 describes
what really happened. For reasons I can’t explain here, I believe that
the author of Acts, the same “Luke” who wrote the Third Gospel, was a
reliable historian. Of course, as a Christian, I also believe that God
could send the Spirit in astounding ways and empower people to speak in
languages that they did not know.

How is Pentecost related to Pentecostal Christians?

Pentecostal
Christians have had a powerful experience of God’s presence, which is
usually accompanied with speaking in tongues (generally not a known
language). Pentecostal Christianity used to be a small segment of
Protestantism, but today it has spread throughout the world and is the
fastest growing form of Christianity. Many Christians who are not
Pentecostals nevertheless celebrate Pentecost and hope that the Holy
Spirit will renew and empower the church, though not necessarily with
the particular manifestations of the first Pentecost.

How do Christians celebrate Pentecost?

As
you might expect, there are a wide range of Christian celebrations of
Pentecost. Some churches do not recognize the holiday at all. Most
churches at least mention it in prayer, song, or sermon. Some churches
go all out, with worship focused on remembering the first Pentecost and
praying for a similar outpouring of divine power.

st-mark-pentecost-balloons-5.jpg

Churches
that employ liturgical colors generally use red on Pentecost as a
symbol of power and fire of the Spirit. (If you’re interested, you
might check out my chart of the liturgical year,
its seasons, themes, and colors.) A couple of years ago, my church, St.
Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas, celebrate Pentecost with red
balloons and other symbols of the Holy Spirit. (Photo: The communion
table of St. Mark Presbyterian Church on Pentecost.)

Some
churches receive new members on Pentecost, thus commemorating the first
“new members class” that joined the church after Peter’s Pentecost
sermon. Centuries ago in Britain, those joining the church wore white
for baptism. Thus the Sunday was called “White Sunday” or “Whitsunday.”

What is the spiritual significance of Pentecost? What might God want to do in our lives and in our churches on Pentecost?

I’ll try to answer these questions tomorrow. Stay tuned.

P.S. Beliefnet has a couple of interesting items for Pentecost, including an online quiz and
a post on Pentecost/Shavuot by Beliefnet blogger Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. (I got 18 of 20 right on the quiz. Can you beat me?)

Why Does Pentecost Matter? Part 1

In yesterday’s post I gave a brief overview of some basic facts about Pentecost:

What is Pentecost?
What does the word “Pentecost” mean?
What actually happened on the day of Pentecost?
Should we believe that all of this actually happened?
How is Pentecost related to Pentecostal Christians?
How do Christians celebrate Pentecost? 

Today I’ll reflect on the spiritual significance of Pentecost. I will
be writing as a Christian, and though my comments are addressed
primarily to my fellow believers, they may be of interest to others as
well.

So, then, what difference does it make for us
today that the first Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit almost
two millennia ago on the Jewish festival of Pentecost?
 

There
is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question, because
Pentecost knits together several themes, emphases, and experiences. I
will suggest four possible ways that Pentecost matters today. Two of
these I’ll develop today. The other two I’ll save for Monday.

1. The Presence and Power of the Spirit

pentecost-window-meaux-cat-5.jpg

On
the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, the
Holy Spirit was poured out upon those followers of Jesus who had
gathered together in Jerusalem. What happened on the first Pentecost
continues to happen to Christians throughout the world today, though
usually not in such a dramatic fashion. We rarely get a heavenly wind
and tongues of fire anymore. Nevertheless, God pours out the Spirit
upon all who put their faith in Jesus Christ and become his disciples
(see Romans 8:1-11). (Photo: A stained glass window from the Meaux
Cathedral in Meaux, France. Public domain.)

Christians are meant
to live in the presence and power of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit
helps us to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3), empowers us to serve
God with supernatural power (1 Cor 12:4-11), binds us together as the
body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13), helps us to pray (Rom 8:26), and even
intercedes for us with God the Father (Rom 8:27). The Spirit guides us
(Gal 5:25), helping us to live like Jesus (Gal 5:22-23).

Personal Implications:
Pentecost presents us with an opportunity to consider how we living
each day. Are we relying on the power of God’s Spirit? Are we an open
channel for the Spirit’s gifts? Are we attentive to the guidance of the
Holy Spirit? Is the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.)
growing in our lives? Most Christians I know, including me, live in the
presence and power of the Spirit, but only to an extent. We are limited
by our fear, our sin, our low expectations, not to mention our tendency
to be distracted from God’s work in us. Pentecost offers a chance to
confess our failure to live by the Spirit and to ask the Lord to fill
us afresh with his power.

2. The Central Role of the Church in God’s Work in the World

On
Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on individual followers of Jesus
as they were gathered together in Jerusalem. This gathering became the
first Christian church. New believers in Jesus were baptized as they
joined this church. They, along with the first followers of Jesus,
shared life together, focusing on teaching, fellowship, breaking of
bread, and prayer. They shared their belongings so that no one was
hungry or needy. As these first Christians lived out their new faith
together, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
(Acts 2:47). Thus we speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the church.

In
theory, the Spirit could have been poured out on the followers of Jesus
when they were not gathered together. There are surely times when the
Holy Spirit touches an individual who is alone in prayer and worship.
But the fact that the Spirit was given to a gathering of believers is
not incidental. It underscores the centrality of the church in God’s
work in the world. The actions of the earliest Christians put all of
this in boldface. The Holy Spirit is not only given to individuals, but
also, in a sense to the gathered people of God. Thus, in 1 Corinthians
3, the Apostle Paul observes that the church is God’s temple and that
the Spirit dwells in the midst of the church (3:16-17; in 1 Cor 6:19-20
we find a complementary emphasis on the dwelling of the Spirit in
individual Christians).

Personal Implications: Many
Christians, especially those of us who have been influenced by the
individualism of American culture, live as if the church is
unnecessary. We seem to believe that as long as we have a personal
relationship with God, everything else is secondary. But Pentecost is a
vivid illustration of the truth that is found throughout Scripture: the
church is central to God’s work in the world. Thus, Pentecost invites
us to consider our own participation in the fellowship, worship, and
mission of the church. It is a time to renew our commitment to live as
an essential member of the body of Christ, using our gifts to build the
church and share the love and justice of Christ with the world.

On Monday I’ll suggest two other ways that Pentecost can impact us today.

Why Does Pentecost Matter? Part 2

My last post in this series began to answer the question:

So,
then, what difference does it make for us today that the first
Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit almost two millennia ago on
the Jewish festival of Pentecost?
 

I suggested two ways that Pentecost makes a difference today:

1.
Pentecost underscores the presence and power of the Spirit, thus
inviting us to be open to the Spirit’s work in and through us. 

2.
Pentecost illustrates the centrality of the church in God’s work in the
world, thus encouraging us to recommit ourselves to being an active
part of the body of Christ.

Today I’ll offer two more answers to the question: Why does Pentecost matter?

3. The Multilingual Nature and Mission of the Church

giotto-pentecost-5.jpg

On
Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered believers in Jesus to praise God
in many languages that they had not learned in the ordinary manner
(Acts 2:5-13). Symbolically, this miracle reinforces the multilingual,
multicultural, multiracial mission of the church. We are to be a
community in which all people are drawn together by God’s love in
Christ. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or
Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Photo: “Pentecost” by
Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25, National Gallery, London.)

Personal Implications:
Although there are some glorious exceptions, it seems that the church
has not, in general, lived out its multilingual mission. We are often
divided according to language, race, and ethnicity. Pentecost
challenges all of us to examine our own attitudes in the regard, to
reject and repent of any prejudice that lurks within us, and to open
our hearts to all people, even and especially those who do not share
our language and culture. Yes, I know this is not easy. But it is
central to our calling. And it is something that the Spirit of God will
help us to do if we are available.

4. The Inclusive Ministry of the Church

After
the Holy Spirit fell upon the first followers of Jesus, Peter preached
a sermon to help folks understand what had just happened. In this
sermon he cited a portion of a prophecy from Joel:

‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants–men and women alike–
and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29) 

Later,
Peter explained that the Spirit would be given to all who turned from
their sin and turned to God through Jesus (Acts 2:38).

This
was a momentous, watershed event. For the first time in history, God
began to do what he had promised through Joel, empowering all different
sorts of people for ministry. Whereas in the era of the Old Testament,
the Spirit was poured out almost exclusively on prophets, priests, and
kings, in the age of the New Testament, the Spirit would be given to
“all people.” All would be empowered to minister regardless of their
gender, age, or social position.

Although this truth would not
mean that every Christian would be gifted for every kind of ministry,
it did imply that all believers would be empowered by the Spirit. The
church of Jesus Christ would be a place where every single person
matters, where every member contributes to the health and mission of
the church (see Eph 4:11-16).

Personal Implications:
Each Christian needs to ask: Am I serving God through the power of the
Spirit? Am I exercising the gifts of the Spirit in my life, both in the
gathered church and as I live for God in the world? Pentecost is a time
to ask God to fill us afresh with the Spirit so that we might join in
the ministry of Christ with gusto. And it is a time to renew our
commitment to fulfilling our crucial role in the ministry of God’s
people in the world.

Moreover, those of us who hold positions of
power in the church should examine our attitudes and actions. Are we
encouraging all of God’s people to minister through the power of the
Spirit? Are we open to what the Spirit of God wants to do in our
churches and communities through his empowered people? Or are we
gatekeepers of the church who would even keep the Holy Spirit out of
our carefully tended and controlled communities? As a pastor, my role
is to equip God’s people for doing the ministry of Christ in the church
and the world (Eph 4:11-12). Sometimes, however, we pastors are so
concerned about our own position and power that we fall short of this
central pastoral calling. Pentecost is a day for pastors and other
church leaders to recommit to equipping and encouraging all Christians
for their ministry. When we do this, the Holy Spirit will be free to
use the church of Jesus Christ for God’s purposes in the world.

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