By Marybeth Davis BaggettToday is Pentecost, the ecclesiastical festival commemorating the establishment of the church itself. On this fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s disciples as they prayed in one accord in the Upper Room, thereby launching their ministry, a dynamic outreach that would burst the confines of Jerusalem and Judea and would spread the Good News throughout the world.
Ten days before the events recounted in Acts 2, before the disciples of Christ had watched Jesus ascend to heaven, they had asked him when the restoration of Israel would come. He was the promised Messiah, they knew, but what did his departure portend for a restored kingdom? Instead of an answer, they heard Christ’s promise of the Spirit. So they waited. They obeyed Jesus’ command, remaining together in Jerusalem.
At this time, many pilgrims were in the city to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, the Jewish holy day recognizing God’s giving Moses the Law at Mount Sinai. This feast is known as Shavuʿoth in Hebrew and Pentecost (fiftieth day, after Passover) in Greek. As the disciples gathered together, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, setting them aflame by the transforming presence and power of God. The imagery of wind and fire of Acts 2 echoes that of Exodus 19, chronicling God’s presence on the mountain Moses ascended (as Kent Dobson notes in his commentary for the NIV First-Century Study Bible).
As God made abode with Moses and the Israelites, so too he was with these disciples, and now would take up residence within them. Far from abandoning or forsaking them, or leaving them desolate, he planned to animate and inspire them, write his law on their hearts, and fulfill his promise to pour out his Spirit (Joel 2); in fact, he planned to anoint them for a work whose breadth and profundity they could have scarcely imagined, of which the kingdom of Israel was just the beginning.The Holy Spirit empowered these unsophisticated Galileans to preach the Gospel message with power both to Jews living in Jerusalem and to those on pilgrimage for the holy day. Despite sharing the same Jewish faith and religious tradition, the onlookers hailed from a wide range of geographical locations including Mesopotamia, Asia, and Egypt and spoke a number of different languages. They were culturally diverse as well—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, and Arabians, and both ethnically Jewish and converts to the faith. Through the miraculous work of the Spirit, the Gospel message, relevant to all, was now heard by all, in their own native tongues.
And that message, boldly proclaimed with divine unction, radically changed the lives of those who heard and heeded, responding to God’s gracious and glorious overture of love. Three thousand people, Acts 2 tells us, were baptized and welcomed into Christian fellowship that day, a fellowship depicted by Luke as nothing less than extraordinary.
In Glimpses of Grace Madeleine L’Engle describes the life of the early church in these terms: “[O]n that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit truly called the people together in understanding and forgiveness and utter, wondrous joy. The early Christians, then, were known by how they loved one another.” She continues by challenging the contemporary church to live in such unity: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say that of us again? Not an exclusive love, shutting out the rest of the world, but a love so powerful, so brilliant, so aflame that it lights the entire planet — nay the entire universe!”
These early Christians held property in common, submitted themselves to one another, studied scripture and learned from the apostles, praised God, lived in gratitude and generosity. And their numbers continued to increase. God used their obedience to begin reconciling the whole world to himself. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead was now at work within them, to effect nothing less than the complete restoration of his created order, a process still underway.For Pentecost not only reminds us of Mount Sinai by way of the Feast of Weeks; it also harkens back to the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11—except, where language divided those at Babel, it united those at Pentecost. While scripture contains many instances of the devastation wrought by human sin, few stories capture the imagination as fully as that of Babel. As the population grew after the flood, people settled in Shinar, later deciding to build a city with a tower “reach[ing] to the heavens,” motivated by a two-fold purpose: to “make a name for [them]selves” and to avoid being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Seeing their plans, God thwarted them, confusing their languages and dispersing them throughout the world, the very thing they hoped their building project would prevent.
Although the precise sin of the people is not named in Genesis 11, historical context suggests that pride was at its root. (Dobson says that “[t]owers in the Bible usually are associated with human arrogance,” pointing to Isaiah 2:12-17 and Ezekiel 26:4-9 as examples.) Fear, too, perhaps motivated them (as Brent A. Strawn explains); they may have craved self-protection, isolation, and stability—all of which would have come, they supposed, from a city. Even so, such self-protection came at the expense of obeying God’s command to Noah (and Adam and Eve before that) to “[b]e fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Rather than submit to God, the people of Babel relied on themselves, cutting themselves off from others and fulfilling their own desires, not God’s will.
Pentecost reminds us that God does not call us to live in our own strength, in the comfortable confines of our own devising. Rather, we are altogether dependent on the only true Source of our strength and victory. God’s plans for healing, hope, and restoration are far grander than our narrow terrestrial dreams forged in the finite minds of mortal men. Ours is a calling much too high for us to achieve with the resources of our own meager devices. God’s Spirit is still available to take up habitation in our hearts, to flood us with waves of liquid love, transforming us to be like Christ, empowering us to obey God’s call, with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
Image: “Pentecost” by Jean II Restoust. Public Domain.