What is the Christian Celebration of Pentecost All About?
Each year Christians across the world celebrates Pentecost. Pentecost is not as well-known or as popular as the Christmas and Easter, though it commemorates a watershed event in Christian history. It many ways, Pentecost is the birthday of the church.
I am going to answer several frequently asked questions about Pentecost.
What is Pentecost?
For Christians, Pentecost is a holiday on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called “the church.” Thus, from an historical point of view, Pentecost is the day on which the church was started. This is also true from a spiritual perspective, since the Spirit brings the church into existence and enlivens it. Pentecost is the church’s birthday.
What does the word “Pentecost” mean?
The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.”
But Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or, more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). This name comes from an expression in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture).
Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This day became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his first followers, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church.
What actually happened on that day of Pentecost?
This event is recorded in the New Testament book known as The Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 2 begins, “And when the day of Pentecost [ten hemeran tes pentekostes] had come, [the first followers of Jesus] were all together in one place” (2:1). Suddenly, a sound came from heaven, like a strong wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like tongues of fire rested on their heads. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (2:4).
The languages spoken by the early Christians were intelligible (not other worldly) and were heard by thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. The content of the miraculous messages had to do with God’s mighty works (2:11). Many who heard these messages in their own languages were amazed, though others thought the Christians were just drunk (2:12).
At some point, Peter, one of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first sermon. He interpreted the events of that morning in light of a prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel. In that text, God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power. This would be a sign of the coming “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32).
Peter went on to explain that Jesus had been raised and had poured out the Spirit in fulfilment of God’s promise through Joel (2:32-33). When the crowd asked what they should do, Peter urged them to turn their lives around and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Then they would be forgiven and would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:37-39). Acts reports that about 3,000 people were added to the church that day (2:41). Not a bad response to Peter’s first sermon!
Should we believe that all of this happened?
If you are one who believes the Bible is God’s inerrant or infallible Word, you will take for granted the truthfulness of the account in Acts. But if you’re uncertain about biblical authority, then you might wonder if the account in Acts is to be trusted.
In fact, some scholars have questioned the historicity of Acts 2. They observe that this event appears in the New Testament only in Acts, and that it describes miraculous events that are beyond the scope of historical inquiry. These scholars tend to view Pentecost as a powerful metaphor for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, rather than as an event that gave birth to the church.
Whether we believe the biblical account of Pentecost has everything to do with our estimation of the historical trustworthiness of Acts of the Apostles and the possibility of miraculous events actually happening. If you’re familiar with my book Can We Trust the Gospels?, you won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that Acts 2 describes what really happened. For reasons I can’t explain here, I believe that the author of Acts, the same “Luke” who wrote the Third Gospel, was a reliable historian. Of course, as a Christian, I also believe that God could send the Spirit in astounding ways and empower people to speak in languages that they did not know.
How is Pentecost related to Pentecostal Christians?
Pentecostal Christians have had a powerful experience of God’s presence, which is usually accompanied with speaking in tongues (generally not a known language). Pentecostal Christianity used to be a small segment of Protestantism, but today it has spread throughout the world and is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Many Christians who are not Pentecostals nevertheless celebrate Pentecost and hope that the Holy Spirit will renew and empower the church, though not necessarily with the manifestations of the first Pentecost.
How do Christians celebrate Pentecost?
As you might expect, there are a wide range of Christian celebrations of Pentecost. Some churches do not recognize the holiday at all. Most churches at least mention it in prayer, song, or sermon. Some churches go all out, with worship focused on remembering the first Pentecost and praying for a similar outpouring of divine power.
Churches that employ liturgical colours generally use red on Pentecost as a symbol of power and fire of the Spirit.
Some churches receive new members on Pentecost, thus commemorating the first “new members class” that joined the church after Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Centuries ago in Britain, those joining the church wore white for baptism. Thus, the Sunday was called “White Sunday” or “Whitsunday.”
What is the spiritual significance of Pentecost? What might God want to do in our lives and in our churches on Pentecost?
What is the Spiritual Significance of Pentecost?
There is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question, because Pentecost knits together several themes, emphases, and experiences.
- The Presence and Power of the Spirit
On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon those followers of Jesus who had gathered together in Jerusalem. What happened on the first Pentecost continues to happen to Christians throughout the world today, though usually not in such a dramatic fashion. We rarely get a heavenly wind and tongues of fire anymore. Nevertheless, God pours out the Spirit upon all who put their faith in Jesus Christ and become his disciples (see Romans 8:1-11).
Christians are meant to live in the presence and power of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit helps us to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3), empowers us to serve God with supernatural power (1 Cor 12:4-11), binds us together as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13), helps us to pray (Rom 8:26), and even intercedes for us with God the Father (Rom 8:27). The Spirit guides us (Gal 5:25), helping us to live like Jesus (Gal 5:22-23).
Personal Implications: Pentecost presents us with an opportunity to consider how we are living each day. Are we relying on the power of God’s Spirit? Are we an open channel for the Spirit’s gifts? Are we attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Is the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) growing in our lives? Most Christians I know, including me, live in the presence and power of the Spirit, but only to an extent. We are limited by our fear, our sin, our low expectations, not to mention our tendency to be distracted from God’s work in us. Pentecost offers a chance to confess our failure to live by the Spirit and to ask the Lord to fill us afresh with his power.
- The Central Role of the Church in God’s Work in the World
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on individual followers of Jesus as they were gathered together in Jerusalem. This gathering became the first Christian church. New believers in Jesus were baptized as they joined this church. They, along with the first followers of Jesus, shared life together, focusing on teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. They shared their belongings so that no one was hungry or needy. As these first Christians lived out their new faith together, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Thus, we speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the church.
In theory, the Spirit could have been poured out on the followers of Jesus when they were not gathered together. There are surely times when the Holy Spirit touches an individual who is alone in prayer, worship, or ministry to others. But the fact that the Spirit was given to a gathering of believers is not incidental. It underscores the centrality of the church in God’s work in the world. The actions of the earliest Christians put all of this in boldface. The Holy Spirit is not only given to individuals, but also, in a sense to the gathered people of God. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul observes that the church is God’s temple and that the Spirit dwells in the midst of the church (3:16-17; in 1 Cor 6:19-20 we find a complementary emphasis on the dwelling of the Spirit in individual Christians).
- The Multilingual Nature and Mission of the Church
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered believers in Jesus to praise God in many languages that they had not learned in the ordinary manner (Acts 2:5-13). Symbolically, this miracle reinforces the multilingual, multicultural, multiracial mission of the church. We are to be a community in which all people are drawn together by God’s love in Christ. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Personal Implications: Although there are some glorious exceptions, it seems that the church has not, in general, lived out its multilingual mission. We are often divided according to language, race, and ethnicity. Pentecost challenges all of us to examine our own attitudes in the regard, to reject and repent of any prejudice that lurks within us, and to open our hearts to all people, even and especially those who do not share our language and culture. Yes, I know this is not easy. But it is central to our calling. And it is something that the Spirit of God will help us to do if we are available.
- The Inclusive Ministry of the Church
After the Holy Spirit fell upon the first followers of Jesus, Peter preached a sermon to help folks understand what had just happened. In this sermon he cited a portion of a prophecy from Joel:
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants–men and women alike–
and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29)
Later, Peter explained that the Spirit would be given to all who turned from their sin and turned to God through Jesus (Acts 2:38).
This was a momentous, watershed event. For the first time in history, God began to do what he had promised through Joel, empowering all different sorts of people for ministry. Whereas in the era of the Old Testament, the Spirit was poured out almost exclusively on prophets, priests, and kings, in the age of the New Testament, the Spirit would be given to “all people.” All would be empowered to minister regardless of their gender, age, or social position.
Although this truth would not mean that every Christian would be gifted for every kind of ministry, it did imply that all believers would be empowered by the Spirit. The church of Jesus Christ would be a place where every single person matter, where every member contributes to the health and mission of the church (see Eph. 4:11-16).
Personal Implications: Each Christian needs to ask: Am I serving God through the power of the Spirit? Am I exercising the gifts of the Spirit in my life, both in the gathered church and as I live for God in the world? Pentecost is a time to ask God to fill us afresh with the Spirit so that we might join in the ministry of Christ with gusto. And it is a time to renew our commitment to fulfilling our crucial role in the ministry of God’s people in the world.
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