Pentecost

Pentecost

 

Text: Acts 2:1-13

 

Let me ask you, ‘How do you read the Bible? Do you read it literally, taking it at its face value (i.e. superficially), believing that in the main it is an accurate account of actual happenings?  – which, by the way, is what most people want to believe about it. Or do you read it symbolically, recognizing that there’s usually more in it than meets the eye, seeking to discover its hidden meaning, and what the original author was getting at? – a difficult but rewarding exercise. The latter is much the way we have been studying the Bible on the Monday evening Bible Study as we have worked through Kobus’ ‘The Bible as GPS’ material.

 

Having asked the question let me turn to the reading for this Pentecostal Sunday of Luke’s account as found in Acts 2. When you read this how do you read the account of what happened when “the day of Pentecost had come, and they were all together in one place?”

 

Let’s start out by looking at it literally. According to Acts 1, the risen Christ told his disciples, “You must wait for the gift promised by the Father. you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”  Acts 2 opens with the fulfillment of that promise. This is what happened. First came a powerful wind, which filled the whole place. Then came tongue-shaped flames, resting on the heads of all who were there. they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and enabled to speak in foreign languages, so that the mixed multitude of Jews from all over the known world, attracted by the hubbub, heard them talking in their own native speech or dialect, telling of the great things God had done. Most of the people were favorably impressed, but a few figured they were drunk.

 

All perfectly straightforward, even if unusual, indeed unique. This was an historic turning-point, the birth of the Christian church – a special event accompanied by an amazing phenomenon: a sudden wind, flames dancing in the air and alighting on the disciples, giving them miraculous fluency in foreign tongues, and a divinely-inspired message for people from every nation. No problem, right?

 

But if, instead of taking it literally, we take it symbolically – and there are hints in the account that Luke intended us to do so – perhaps we shall get more out of it, and perhaps it will make more sense. Let’s take a look and see.

 

“The day of Pentecost had come.”  Pentecost, otherwise known as the Feast of Weeks, was originally a thanksgiving for the first-fruits, and came 50 days or 7 weeks after Passover. It also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (which was supposed to have happened 50 days after the first Passover and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt). The event Luke is about to describe has its roots in the past, in the Old Testament, and much of the symbolism is derived from the Old Testament.

 

The day of Pentecost had come, and they were together in one place.’  The keynote is unity, and it was their faith in Jesus, crucified and risen, that held them together. They were his followers and friends, and in obedience to his command, were waiting for something to happen.

 

Plain prose was inadequate to describe what did happen. It could only be described in poetic, non-literal terms. Notice that Luke says the sound was “like a strong, driving wind” i.e. not a normal meteorological wind at all. And he ways that the flames which appeared were “like tongues of fire” – i.e. not real flames that could scorch or burn. In the Old Testament winds symbolized God’s invisible power and flames his cleansing presence. In Psalm 104 we read, “You make the winds your messengers (or angels) and flames of fire your servants (or ministers).” Luke is presenting us with a picture of God at work among the disciples, and the wind and the fires symbolizes this, and aren’t meant to be taken literally. It’s a poetic way of saying that these men and women were shaken to the core, swept off their feet by an emotional gale, and that their minds were irradiated and their hearts strangely warmed by a sudden inspiration. In other words, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”  God was invading their lives, providing them with power from on high. And what was the effect? “They began to talk in other tongues.”

 

Luke may well have believed that these “other tongues” were foreign languages, but that wasn’t the point he was making. The people who gathered were all Jews, though coming from and representing “every nation under heaven” and most of them would have understood Greek. A miraculous acquisition of foreign languages wasn’t necessary. It seems probable that the disciples were so excited that ordinary speech broke down, and they began ‘speaking in tongues’ – a familiar phenomenon in the early church, and in charismatic churches today. Sympathetic hearers grasped the meaning of these ecstatic outbursts, and shared in the excitement.

 

So what was Luke getting at when he painted this scene? According to one commentator: the narrative is symbolical; it conveys the idea that the gospel was destined for all nations, and that the Spirit was able to make all nations hear and understand it.’ Another commentator says: “Luke sees in the crowd of Pentecost pilgrims a foreshadowing of the world-wide mission of the church. It is a picture of all the nations hearing the gospel, each with in its own tongue.” It was a reversal of Babel – with misunderstanding and dispersal replaced by understanding and a coming together.

 

Luke goes on to describe the amazement and perplexity to which the event gave rise. People were suggested by unsympathetic observers, who evidently found the ‘other tongues’ quite unintelligible, was the disciples were drunk, filled with new wine. (in a sense, this was a true word spoken in jest, for they were filled with the new wine of the gospel, intoxicated with joy.)

 

This passage of Scripture isn’t just an account of something that happened long ago. It is a vision of things to come, when people from every nation under heaven will hear and understand the message of salvation, and be filled with God’s Spirit of power and love.

 

For us, as for those first disciples, the day of Pentecost has now come, and we are all together in one place. As we wait and pray and worship, may we all, like them, be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowered to witness convincingly to the great things God has done and is doing, in us, in the church and in the world.

 

To him be the glory for ever Amen