This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
Jerusalem was packed. Thousands of “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) had gathered to observe the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15–25) or Feast of Harvest (Exod. 23:16). Because the feast happened seven weeks or fifty days from Passover, Luke calls it by the Greek numeral Pentecostos, fiftieth.
Pentecost celebrated the early harvest in Israel. It was one of three feasts (including Passover and Tabernacles) for which every male in Israel was to travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings on behalf of their families (Exod. 34:22, 23; Deut. 16:16).
But something new happened on this Pentecost (see Acts 2:1–21). The event “publicly mark[ed] the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.”[i] It was the gunshot at the start of the marathon called the Great Commission. And it has powerful meaning for everyone who knows how much they need God’s strength.
The Event of Pentecost
The disciples were “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) waiting and praying to “receive power” through the outpouring of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:8). They had appointed Matthias to help lead the church in telling the world about Jesus.
Then it happened. Jesus baptized the church with his promised Spirit (Luke 3:16). And the Spirit didn’t sneak in quietly like a person late to an event; he charged in boldly, demanding to be noticed. Two signs announced the Spirit’s outpouring. The sound of a powerful wind came from heaven and filled their house. It was violent (NIV; YLT), roaring (NLT); you couldn’t miss its sound (see John 3:8). The Spirit’s other symbol was just as conspicuous: “And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:3).
When the Spirit came, the “intellects, the hearts, the lives of the apostles were miraculously changed.”[ii] They spoke about Jesus in languages they had never learned “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). “In half an hour after Pentecost they knew more about Jesus Christ than they had ever known before.”[iii]
And the crowd noticed. “And at this sound”—the sound of the wind, and the sound of the unexpected, multilingual preaching—“the multitude came together” (Acts 2:6).
The Response to Pentecost
The “devout men” were “bewildered” at this new work of God. The ordinary, untrained disciples of Galilee weren’t speaking Aramaic anymore. “Each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). And it wasn’t just the strange languages that caught their attention, it was what the disciples were saying: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). So, is it surprising that the crowd was bewildered (Acts 2:6), amazed (Acts 2:7, 12), astonished (Acts 2:7), and perplexed (Acts 2:12)? They wondered, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). The only explanation is that almighty God was doing a great work. Beyond the bewildering signs of wind, fire, and speaking in tongues, the holy God was communicating to sinners in intelligible language. When the Holy Spirit makes accessible and beautiful a truth that unenlightened people cannot understand or appreciate, something amazing has happened.
By contrast the hard-hearted were skeptical: “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). Peter’s explanation that the disciples couldn’t be drunk at so early an hour would only convince a certain moral class of people. But perhaps the accusation is more significant than the explanation. The accusers weren’t truly hearing the disciples’ message; it sounded like drunken nonsense because their unregenerate minds couldn’t process it. Their lack of understanding was a judgment against them (Isa. 28:11–12).
The Meaning of Pentecost
Still, in one sense the skeptics were right. There are parallels between wine and the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Fermenting wine can produce enough pressure to burst its container. So “The Holy Ghost, entered the hearts of the apostles and demanded full vent.”[iv] Fermentation also describes the Spirit’s movement until Pentecost; he had been building pressure since the start. Like the harvest celebrated at the Feast of Weeks, Jesus’s resurrection was the first fruit of new life on a grand scale (1 Cor. 15:20–23). The Spirit was about to energize the proclamation of the gospel and the harvest of nations. Acts 2 describes the start of a new age of the Spirit’s activity. Pentecost is the anti-Babel—diverse ethnicities and languages would no longer hinder the spread of the message of God’s kingdom.
The Spirit didn’t stop working after Pentecost. The signs at the Spirit’s outpouring are like a coronation parade; they need not be repeated. But the power abides, like how a king exerts authority through the duration of his reign. The apostles would not always speak in unlearned foreign languages, but they would always preach Christ boldly. And the Spirit’s power would outlast the disciples. God intends to do great things among us not by our might but by his Spirit (Zech. 4:6). So, like the men who traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and the first Christians at Pentecost, we gather weekly to hear God and receive his Spirit’s help so that we might return home and walk in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), retelling the gospel message to a world ripe for harvest (John 4:35).
[i] Sinclair Ferguson, Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1996), 57.
[ii] James Orr, ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), s.v. “Pentecost,” by Henry E. Dosker.
[iii] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1924),31–32.
[iv] J. Cynddylan Jones, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (London: Bible Christian Book Room, 1900), 23. See also Job 32:19.