Receiving

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, March 17, 2014 by Gordon Mackley

Acts 2:1-15 and Psalm 104:27-35

A Joke

A very pompous clergyman was teaching a children’s Sunday school class, and asked the children, “Why would people look at me and think I’m a Christian?” One small child looked up and answered, “Because they don’t know you?”

Background to the story

The action in Acts 2 takes place at Pentecost. Pentecost is from a Greek word meaning 50 days. The festival was a Jewish one 50 days after Passover. It was also known as the Festival of Weeks or ‘Shavuot’ in Hebrew.

The festival commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Law (Torah) via Moses to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.

The holiday is one of the three Old Testament pilgrimage festivals, ‘Shalosh Regalim’ in Hebrew, and so many Jews from various places would have been at Jerusalem to celebrate it.

Jesus has been crucified, has been resurrected and has now ascended.

Prophecies and promises relating to what happened in Acts 2

All four gospels relate the story of John the Baptist baptising Jesus but in Matthew (3:11) and Luke (3:16) John refers to the baptism that Jesus would bring,

“I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

In John’s gospel (14:15-17) we have this promise from Jesus,

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

In the next verse (16) after the passage we are looking at, Peter refers to an Old Testament prophesy (Joel 2:28-29). This will be referred to in more detail in a later sermon but it is worth noting the words here also,

“And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”

This is one of the few instances in the Old Testament where both men and women are explicitly listed. It is therefore quite clear that the ‘pouring of the spirit’ is for women as well as men.

Whilst considering gender, ‘ruach’ which is Hebrew for spirit, is feminine. However this indicates nothing other than Hebrew grammar.

This is equally true also of allusions to God as ‘He’. God is not, as sometimes pictured, an old man in the sky. God has no gender and has both masculine and feminine qualities.

As the only creator there is in the universe, God had to have both sets of qualities to be able to create men and women in God’s likeness (Genesis 1:27).

There is much symbolism in this passage as many people have come together to celebrate the start of an old covenant with the Jewish people (the giving of the Law) but now a new covenant of God whereby God dwells with, and in people as the Holy Spirit is being given.

The manner in which this is done is spectacular with a ‘violent wind’ and ‘tongues of fire’ (verses 2 and 3).

Taking the ‘fire’ allusion first, we should not associate that with lurid Middle Ages pictures of fiery furnaces. Fire is in fact a very common reference to God’s power and cleansing and also to his relationship with people.

As examples there is again a harking back to the Exodus from Egypt. Prior to this God spoke to Moses through a burning bush (Exodus 3). As God led the people in the wilderness, there was a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13 and 14). Additionally, sacrifices to God involved burning the animal on the altar.

Probably the most famous example of this was the contest between Yahweh (true God) and Baal (false pagan god) when God sent fire from heaven to set fire to Elijah’s water soaked altar after nothing had happened to that of Baal’s priests (1 Kings 18). This allusion to power and passion has passed into English usage and we may sometimes talk of a ‘burning love’.

The allusion to ‘wind’ is based on the Hebrew word ‘ruach’ already mentioned. This is ‘pneuma’ in Greek and both words can translate as wind, breath, spirit, etc. It is God’s spirit or breath that gives physical life to the people in the creation story (Genesis 2:7). In verses 29 and 30 of our reading of Psalm 104 it says,

“…when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created.”

Thus it is only God’s spirit which gives and maintains physical life, but it is also God’s spirit that gives and maintains spiritual life also, as in Isaiah 51:12-13,

“I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction?”

There is a use of the actual phrase ‘Holy Spirit’ (or holy wind/breath – ‘Ruach Ha Kodesh’ in Hebrew) in Isaiah 63:10 and 11,

“Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them. Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people – where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them?”

Despite seeing Jesus resurrected, the disciples gathered in the room were still a band of scared followers of what others considered a now dead and false messiah.

However now Jesus’ promise of God’s presence with them in a new way is fulfilled, and filled with the Holy Spirit of God, they are changed. They become bold proclaimers of a gospel of a living Messiah.

We cannot over emphasise the importance of what happened here – this is the start of the Christian church! No Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost – no Christians, no Church!

There is another aspect which has an amazing effect on the others (not disciples) who are there.

They hear the proclamation of the Gospel (good news) in their own language. There may not have been an absolute need to speak in different languages as people in this time and place were more multilingual than we English are now! However hearing the words in their own language would mean more to people and get their attention in the hubbub of the feast.

Miracles are also for God’s glory and for His purposes – not simply for the benefit of the people involved.

We can see a contrast here with everyone understanding the words of the true God with the story of people chasing pagan gods and building a tower to physically connect to ‘heaven’, which God stopped by causing them all to speak in different languages which others could not understand (‘Tower of Babel’ – Genesis 11)

Some people (note who are described as ‘God-fearing’ in verse 5) still scoffed although the connection between being drunk and being able lucidly to speak a foreign language escapes me. My experience is that drunkenness actually makes it more difficult to speak even in your own language!

This type of illogical dismissal of what God has done and is doing carries on to the present day in our own culture.

Whatever scoffing there was, the Church starts literally in a blaze of fire but what has that got to do with us and the opening joke?

Being baptised with the Holy Spirit, God living with us and in us is in fact the essence of actually being a Christian.

Some people (I was one) start out intellectually believing in God then in Jesus, but that type of intellectual belief did not really affect me – what I felt, what I did, how I lived. Knowledge alone does not do that.

There are great scholars with far more Biblical knowledge than I who are atheists. Even an intellectual belief does not drive us into action. We could say it does not in inspire us. That word inspire literally means to breathe in and so the idea that we need to have a Holy Spirit or breath inside us to spiritually live and be ‘inspired’ to live for God is a very apt analogy.

God accepted me as I was, as he will do for anyone! But the Holy Spirit changes people for the better in an ongoing process.

This is what being a Christian is about – being born again.

Baptised by the Spirit means that you know God in more than an intellectual way. It means that you become a changed person such that people notice. It maybe dramatically swift and so more obvious such as drug addicts, alcoholics, serious criminals etc. who have become truly Christian.

It may be more gradual and take people longer to notice. We shall not have halos or shine in the dark! We are all ‘works in progress’ but change there must be if we have truly been baptised in the Spirit.

Each person is always dealt with as an individual. The tongues of fire separated into individual ones. They each spoke different languages.

There is no need to repeat this miracle today although if it were, there would probably be even more scoffing than in the First Century!

What convinces people that there is a God who works amongst people is not great intellectual knowledge or argument, it is when they see his work in changed people – us!

Conclusion

If we go back to the original joke and the child’s very perceptive comment, it is not any status in the church nor any Biblical knowledge or teaching skills that ultimately will convince people that we are different and that will make them want to join with us as part of God’s Kingdom, but God in the form of the Holy Spirit living and working in a person such that the results can be seen.

If we have any doubt as to what these results these should be, Paul lists them as the ‘Fruit of the Spirit’. We should note that this is one (singular in Greek) fruit so the expectation is that we grow and improve in all of them, not just some!

Galatians 5:22 and 23 reads,

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

If all of us in the church could more fully aspire to those each day, in a world which is so sadly lacking in those qualities, just imagine the influence we could have!

Amen.

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