While we might desire to easily understand the workings of the Holy Spirit, God makes that very difficult. We desire straight-edged explanations as well as the means by which we can measure what God has done and is doing. Yet, even a Spirit-inspired explanation by an eye-witness participant on the Day of Pentecost appears to generate more questions than answers. While that day obviously impacted the crowds, Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon continues to make many of us scratch our heads.
Let Me Explain
It seems, at first glance anyway, that Peter did a lousy job of explaining the events of Pentecost—at least by quoting Joel. On the morning when 120 spoke in languages they themselves didn't know, but that their hearers could understand, he had this to say in explanation:
“…This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Acts 2:17-21 NIV).
This seems more mystery than explanation. What was Peter doing?
This is That
This passage never mentions the phenomenon of speaking in different languages nor does Luke care to give commentary on the day’s events. Watchman Nee, however, adds an interesting perspective to Peter’s reference to Joel’s prophecy:
“What did Peter mean? Imagine him quoting God's Word to show that the experience of Pentecost was the outpouring of the Spirit spoken of by Joel, without a single one of the evidences mentioned by Joel being found at Pentecost. What the Book mentioned the disciples lacked, and what the disciples had the Book did not mention!…Note carefully that Peter did not say: `What you see and hear fulfills what was spoken by the prophet Joel'. What he said was: ‘This is that which hath been spoken by the prophet Joel’ (Acts 2:16). It was not a case of fulfillment, but of an experience of the same order. ‘This is that’ means that `this which you see and hear is of the same order as that which is foretold'…The outward evidences may be many and varied, and we have to admit that occasionally they are strange; but the Spirit is one, and He is Lord.”
(Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life)
Nee does a good job of putting Peter’s explanation into perspective. Gifts of other languages, the ability to operate in inspired knowledge and speech, receiving inspired dreams, and other such manifestations of the Spirit, were of the same source. They were all those things Jesus said believers would operate in (Mark 16:17-18) and they all come from the same Spirit.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NIV)
In addition to this message of oneness concerning the expression of God’s power, there is a familiarity about Peter’s lack of specificity which he must have learned from Jesus during the three years prior to this day of the outpouring of the Spirit.
Jesus always spoke to the people in parables, saying, “This is what the Kingdom of God is like,” never saying, “This is what the Kingdom of God is.” It’s not that Jesus and Peter did not give details, nor did they neglect referencing relevant Scripture passages, but they proclaimed the Gospel in a way which made people seek after it if they wanted to enter in.
“…Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 NIV).
(Mt 5:6, Acts 15:16-17, 17:26-27, Ro 8:5, 1 Co 12:31, 14:1, etc.).
The reason many don’t pursue the gifts of the Spirit initially poured out on the Church at Pentecost, seems to stem from ignorance of them. To be sure, the gifts of the Spirit are not easily understood. Paul’s treatise on the subject in Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians, intended to put the operation of the gifts in their proper perspective, these are the same passages many rest upon to dispute their operation today. We tend towards clear and exact definitions, that which we can grasp and understand. That’s how we like our theology and the power of God isn’t so easily codified. However logic seems to become less important to us in the realm of relationships and perhaps we should consider God’s power from that perspective.
The Mystery of His Power
While building a meaningful relationship, especially a romantic one, we are often less concerned with collecting facts as we are experiencing the presence of, and building a rapport with the other person. In other words, we enjoy experiencing the mystery of the relationship. We must take the same approach as we seek to understand how and why God releases his power and why he has designated the Church to be the expression of that power.
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the…incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead… And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:17,19-20,22 NIV).
His power remains a mystery only to those who approach it through wisdom and reasoning alone, or who choose not to approach it at all. That is not to say that God is not interested in reason, but simply that his reason surpasses our finite understanding. This knowledge can only come by faith and experience. And so, we can’t measure God’s power. But, we can at least measure the effectiveness and witness of his power through us.
Remember that the Day of Pentecost began with an outpouring of the Spirit and concluded with the influx of 3,000 believers into the Church—some of whom had been cheering on the death of Jesus just weeks before. How did this happen?
While even sincere believers can shy away from, and even become ashamed of how God expresses himself in power as on the Day of Pentecost, we cannot escape the fact that such expressions can be extremely effective in confirming the Gospel. We must, then, weigh our comfort level against what God might do if we were to participate in those things which are “like” those described by Joel. Pentecost was not an isolated incident nor a singular display of God’s power, nor was it intended to be.
The Power of Power
Prophecy is one of gift of the Spirit which holds great power. Through Joel, God promised that all “…sons and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17), in the same way that Jesus told us of the supernatural signs that would follow those who believe (Mark 16:17-18). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reveals that prophecy is the gift which we should most eagerly desire so that the Church might be built up (1 Co 14:1). But this gift also holds great power for the Church in reaching unbelievers.
“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25 NIV).
So while it is true that Paul reasoned with the Jews and Greeks alike on a regular basis, there is little mention of any great effectiveness in employing that practice; and we owe it to Paul himself to explain why that might be. He understood that reason and understanding have their place but are limited by the nature of human wisdom. Instead, he relied upon the power of God.
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV).
“I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:18-19 NIV).
Despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to make sense, we must accept Paul’s testimony that the presentation of God’s power is the firmest foundation for faith to rest. That’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost. It was strange, it was off-putting to some, and yet that’s what drew in 3,000 believers. This is what Joel prophesied and what manifest on that day—it was a sign on the earth below.
While we can’t quantify or measure the power of Pentecost, we can begin to measure our own effectiveness. If our efforts are not making people fall down and exclaim that God is really among us, to what extent is God really among us? I suggest that as the Church, we have room to grow into the full stature of Christ so that we might begin to look and act more like Jesus (Eph 4:13), and the early Church. What are we afraid of?
While the first stage of wisdom is indeed reverential fear, our wisdom must mature beyond fear. After escaping Egypt, the Israelites were given the Gospel, but their fear of the presence and power of God kept them from acting in faith (Ex 20:18-19, Heb 4:2, 12:18-21). But, we are better equipped to move beyond our fears. Consider that while we respect the awesome power of electricity, we don’t shut it off in fear of what it might do to us. We understand what it can do for us and so, move beyond our fear. We must do the same with the power of the resurrection as displayed on the Day of Pentecost and throughout the Book of Acts.
Jesus called the outpouring of the Spirit, the promise of the Father. While he personally told the disciples to wait until they received the Spirit, the promise is for all believers. It was granted for all alive in the last days, and is a direct result of Jesus’ resurrection:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17 NIV).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33 NIV).
According to Peter, it is Jesus himself who has poured out the Spirit. The crowds both saw and heard the power of God in action, and they came to believe. It’s not easily understood, but can be easily received. Peter was just a fisherman, and until he received the promise of the Father.
“…Wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4,8 NIV).
We are able to receive the same promise of the Father that Peter and 120 received in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost for as Peter said:
“…You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39).
It is not easily understood, yet worthy of our pursuit (1 Co 14:1).