Happy birthday, universal church!

Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, 1750s

This past Sunday was Pentecost. It coincides with an ancient Hebrew festival, but the events of Acts 2 on a particular Pentecost right after Jesus rose from the dead marks the birthday of the church. Alas, the church is divided into various Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal denominations, but we all have but one birthday.

“They,” probably the same 120 believers mentioned in Acts 1:15, gathered together in one place, and most certainly not for the first time. This group probably amounts to the first messianic synagogue. On Pentecost, Jesus baptized them with the Holy Spirit as he had promised.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, they left the room and went outside and made quite a spectacle of themselves. A crowd collected, bewildered. Peter got up with the other apostles to speak, and that 3000 people were added to that original group of 120 believers. The last six verses in the chapter summarize the entire history of the church in Jerusalem for the next 15 years or so.

What happened in that room?

These 120 people probably lived at various places in Jerusalem and had come together from time over the past seven weeks to watch and pray. Jesus had told the apostles to wait until they received power from above.

They didn’t know what power to expect of when to expect it. They were probably much like the rest of us who go to church without any expectation that this service will be much different from all the rest.

At the same time, they met in anticipation of something wonderful some time. Our lack of expectation of anything different in church is often boredom. We haven’t experienced much before and what should we expect besides more of the same? But Acts 1 describes important spiritual work and preparation. They knew God was up to something. They just didn’t know what or when.

Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, 1750s

But this was the day Jesus had picked to empower them. He baptized them in the Holy Spirit. This baptism was accompanied by the sound of wind and the appearance of tongues of fire. It took place indoors. It was a private ceremony, not public. Everyone received together. No one remained a mere spectator.

And they began to speak in other tongues–languages they had never learned–as the Holy Spirit enabled them. When the Holy Spirit filled them, they surely experienced fulfillment and joy, but also an overwhelming awe. Remember, awe is a type of fear. While their spirits received strength like never before, their bodies must have felt weak. The next thing you know, they were all outside.

What happened out on the street?

Since Pentecost was one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar, Jerusalem was full of foreign visitors. These knew little or nothing about Jesus and his disciples unless they had also been in town for Passover.

Natives of Jerusalem and long-term guests knew about Jesus. The crucifixion had only taken place seven weeks earlier. They may have heard reports of his resurrection, but probably didn’t pay much heed. Some, at least, would have noticed that Jesus’ followers left town for a while and then returned.

So Jerusalem was filled with people who either didn’t know much about Jesus or didn’t care. But then his followers spilled out onto the street behaving very strangely.

Passersby first noticed 120 people all talking at once. They were not carrying on a conversation or interacting with each other at all. All spoke and none listened. Perhaps they had strange facial expressions of joy and awe for no apparent reason. Perhaps some leapt for joy and others staggered. Not a one acted normal. At first hearing, they seemed to be babbling incoherently.

Little by little, out-of-town visitors began to recognized their own native languages. Even the natives of Judea had a chance to testify to the power of God. One of these country bumpkins from Galilee suddenly spoke with a perfect Judean accent! More and more people gathered to take in this strange spectacle.

People in the crowd testified to each other, so no one had any excuse not to understand what was happening. They not only heard Galileans speaking in multiple languages, but declaring the wonders of God. Most of them responded with wonder and amazement.

Some were hard hearted. They paid no heed to the testimony of the crowd. They remained unmoved by reports that most everyone in the crowd actually understood what at least one of the tongue talkers was saying. They didn’t care that these people were praising God in languages they had not learned. They merely scoffed that they were drunk.

Why tongues?

Pentecost reversed the scattering that began at Babel. When God confused human speech to halt the building of the Tower of Babel, each man knew what he was saying, but others could not understand. That divided people into small family units who could no longer communicate with each other.

At Pentecost, none of the believers (except the one speaking in the Judean dialect) understood the words issuing from their own mouths, but other people in the crowd did understand. That very understanding is what transformed however many people happened to be in the area when the believers poured into the street into a sizable crowd.

When someone speaks in tongues, his mind, which does not understand the speech, exercises no control over the tongue. James tells us that no man can tame the tongue, but the Holy Spirit can. When the Holy Spirit takes control of a believer’s tongue to speak an unknown language, that person is speaking exactly what God desires.

According to 1 Corinthians 14:2, people speaking in tongues edify, or build up, themselves. No one has ever had a more urgent need for edification than these first believers. On the other hand, do we today have any less need?

Tongues are also a sign for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22). The manifestation of tongues attracted a crowd and let them hear of the wonders of God.

But that’s all it did. At the beginning of the chapter, there were 120 people who believed in Jesus and the power of his resurrection. At the end of verse 13, there were still only 120.

Signs and wonders attract attention. They do not product faith. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Now that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit had attracted a crowd, Peter gathered the Eleven around him and preached the word.

He did not preach in tongues. He probably preached in Aramaic. If not Aramaic, then koine Greek. He preached from Scripture in a known language. And by the time he finished, there were 3000 new believers.



Happy birthday, universal church! — 2 Comments

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