Pentecost: Bearing Witness From Jerusalem to the End of the Earth
Text: Acts 2:1-13
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day when we remember and celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost means “the fiftieth day,” and it refers to the holiday which occurred fifty days after Passover. This was sometimes called the “feast of Weeks,” and it was originally a harvest festival. Later Jewish tradition also claimed that this was the day when Moses received the law at Sinai. It was a well-established holiday by the first century, and this explains why there was a great crowd in Jerusalem on that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. As Acts 2:5 puts it, “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.”
What happened on that day in the first century is well known. The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, in the form of flaming tongues. It came with a mighty rushing wind, and the Spirit miraculous endued the apostles to speak in foreign tongues. This enabled the Church to grow and spread throughout the earth.
The main point of this event was actually to fulfill the promise of Jesus in Acts 1:8. Just before He ascended to heaven, He had said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That’s exactly what the Holy Spirit did for the apostles at Pentecost. They bore witness to the men on that day, men who were from all over the Roman empire, and then the apostles were empowered to begin preaching, first in Jerusalem, then in all Judea and Samaria, and then finally to the end of the earth. Pentecost was the fulfillment of Christ’s promise. Pentecost was the power to bear witness to all the earth.
The Spirit and the Gift of Tongues
Suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:2-4)
These tongues have been a great source of fascination for Christians, especially for a good number of churches in our own area. Lakeland is something of a charismatic “hot spot,” if you’ll forgive the pun. It is home to an Assemblies of God college, and it was also the location of a now-discredited revival that brought an estimated 400,000 people from all across the world during the summer of 2008. This revival was characterized by speaking in tongues and claims of miracles.
But we can see that the tongues at the original Pentecost were actually known-languages. The gift was to enable the apostles to preach to the men who were visiting Jerusalem for the festival. Acts 2:5-8 explains:
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?”
The people were confused by this miracle, but they were confused precisely because they could understand the words coming from the apostles. Their eyes saw men from Galilee, but their ears heard words in their own languages. And vs. 8-11 proceed to list out the various countries where these men were from, which in turn lets us know which languages were being spoken.
I placed a map on the back table to help you get an understanding of these place names. Many of them are foreign to us, and several of them no longer exist, at least not under those names. So it helps to see where exactly the men had come from. The Bible says that they were from. It lists Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Cyrenia, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Those regions form something of a circle around Jerusalem, with Rome being the furthest away. Verse 10 lets us know that these men were made up of Jews and proselytes, which means Gentile converts. There was a great deal of regional and cultural diversity present, and that is why God empowered those Jewish Christians to speak in a variety of tongues. It was in order to spread the gospel.
This Gift Fulfilled the Promise of Christ
While this giving of the Holy Spirit was quite miraculous, and while it did attract a crowd and help the early church to grow, the most important thing to note about it is that it was the definitive fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8. There, the apostles had just asked Him if was going to establish the kingdom on earth. He didn’t quite say “No,” but He did tell them that it wouldn’t happen in the way that they were expecting. Instead, He told them to wait in Jerusalem (compare with Luke 24:49) until “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” He adds to this what the Spirit’s power will be for: “and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This is what immediately happens, and it is what will continue throughout the Book of Acts.
The visiting men heard the apostles “speaking… the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Peter then seizes on the occasion to preach a sermon about Jesus and His being enthroned as messiah at the right hand of God. Towards the end of that sermon, Peter says this: “this Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Did you catch that? Witnesses.
Later in Acts 5, we are also told about the witness to Christ. Peter, again preaching a similar sermon, says this:
Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him. (Acts 5:31-32)
Notice that last line. “We are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit…” The Spirit is a witness, and the Spirit empowers witnesses to be able to witness. At Pentecost the Spirit allows them to be a witness and to bear witness, using the languages of the people around them.
From this point on, the disciples begin evangelizing. They begin in Jerusalem, even returning to the Temple to preach. From there, they move out throughout Judea and Samaria. Finally, through longer-distance missionary journeys, they go to the end of the earth. Paul makes his way to Turkey, into Greece, and finally to Rome. He doesn’t even want to stop there, as we know from his other writings, but longs to go all the way to Spain. Pentecost has proven effective. It has empowered the Church to spread the witness of Christ across the world.
What About Today?
So what does Pentecost mean for the church today? There is much we could say, but I have three main points. These are witness, missions, and translation. Let’s say a bit more.
First, the witness. We should be sure that we actually are bearing witness, and this means bearing witness to Christ. The word in Greek is martus, from which we get our English word martyr, but it did not originally mean someone who was persecuted or killed for their faith. Instead it meant a spectator or onlooker who could record what happened or provide legal substantiation that an event occurred. Thus, our word “witness” is a very accurate translation. Christians should be witnesses of Christ.
It is important to explain this more. The “witness” that we provide can include the effects of the gospel in our life. That is permissible. However, that’s not the primary thing to which we are bearing witness. Our job is not to support the claim that Christ helped produce any particular fruit in our life. Instead, it should be the opposite. Our fruit should be supporting evidence that Jesus Christ is who He said He was. Our witness should be that Jesus really is the messiah. He really is the Son of God. We should be bearing witness, not to ourselves, but to the gospel.
This means that any tools that we use for the purpose of ministry must only be that, tools. They should be helping us and others direct our attention away from ourselves and to Jesus. We should be able to say, as Peter did, “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). We are not witnesses to ourselves or the miraculous spiritual powers given to us. We are witnesses to Jesus.
Second, Pentecost is about missions. The whole point of the foreign tongues was so that the witness could go out to others, even people who spoke different languages. The tongues were so that the witness could go out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and then the end of the earth. So we must take our witness to others, and we must spread it to the whole world.
This is tied in to the Great Commission. We are to disciple “all nations.” As we have spoken about in past sermons, this was always the goal. “All ends of earth” should “remember” Jesus and His work and worship Him (Psalm 22:27). This means that Christianity is for everyone. It is for all kinds of people, and it is meant to be spread across the world.
For some of us, this will mean formal foreign missionary work. Some Christians are called to go preach in far-away lands to people who have never had the gospel. Other Christians are called to go to lands that have had the gospel in the past but lost it. Others are called to stay put and preach to their neighbors who need the gospel. And some people, people very much like ourselves, get the blessing of preaching to people from every nation under earth while staying put, as the nations come right to their front door through new avenues of travel, employment, and migration. We should look at the Parthians, Cretans, Cyrenians, and Romans all around us and see gospel opportunity, our chance to bear witness to the world.
Thirdly, Pentecost teaches us that Christianity is translatable. Unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity has never had a sacred language. It has been multi-lingual since the very beginning. And as the Christian religion has spread, it has translated the Scriptures into new languages. It has even written hymns and liturgies in new languages. Many tongues are a good thing. Christianity likes foreigners.
This also brings up an important point that is of interest to us today. With a variety of languages and the transmitting of the gospel into various regions, there comes a variety of cultures. It’s common to hear conservatives (and I consider myself to be a conservative) criticize what is called “multiculturalism,” but we need to be careful here. If “multiculturalism” means simply a love of diversity for diversity’s sake, then we should oppose it. If it is some sort of artificial attempt to impose equal representation of every culture on a mixed group of people, without regard for truth, goodness, or beauty, then we should reject it out of hand. That kind of multiculturalism is simply a power play by a privileged group of elite interpreters who get to decide what everyone else is forced to put up with, all as a way to prove how sophisticated and cosmopolitan they are.
However, opposing this kind of fake diversity should not lead us to oppose or despise the different kinds of people God has created and called us to evangelize. It also shouldn’t cause us to defend our own culture by putting down all others. God had no problem putting foreign words into the mouths of His apostles, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see these apostles accommodating themselves to various cultural expectations.
One example of this is actually the changing of Saul’s name to Paul. Many of us assume this name change simply signified his conversion. He used to be a bad man, but he became a good man. However, this isn’t quite the case. He continues to be called “Saul” after his conversion, and this lasts from Acts 9 through Acts 13. In fact, he carries out a significant time of ministry with Barnabas all the while being called Saul. He takes on the name “Paul” while on the Island of Cyprus, as he begins to minister among the Gentiles. You see, Saul was very much a Jewish name. Paul was his Latin name, the name that would have been associated with his Roman citizenship.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul tells us that he purposely accommodates himself to the local cultures:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Now this requires a little more explanation. Paul does not change the content of the gospel in order to accommodate himself to these cultures. He preaches the same Christ crucified, and he defends this boldly. Paul also does not change his moral standards for the culture. In fact, he routinely criticizes immorality, and he points out that the Gentiles tended to be given over to greater immorality than the Jews. So this wasn’t an egalitarianism wherever all peoples must be regarded as equal in every way.
But what Paul is saying is that he wants to remove every barrier that he can in order to “win” the people and “save” them. He becomes all things to all men, that he might by all means save some. And we should have this same attitude. We should look for opportunities to reach others and to give them the gospel. We should make ourselves intelligible and accessible. The Bible shows us examples of Christians challenging the culture, when parts of the culture draw the people into sin, but the Bible also shows us examples of Christians respecting and preserving culture when doing so aids the spread and reception of their witness to Christ.
Pentecost is about witness and mission, and it shows how God makes that witness and mission powerful and effective to all peoples. Every tribe and tongue actually comes to Jerusalem in this case, but once the Spirit is given, the Church then goes out to every tribe and tongue. Having now received the promise of the Father, we have the power from on high to do the same. We must bear witness to Jesus the messiah, and we must take that witness to the ends of the earth. Just as God came to us, we go to others, that we might win them to the gospel of Christ.
Let us pray.