Acts – The Neverending Story
Sermon preached at Christ Church Duesseldorf 27th January 2019
What would you say was the greatest turning point in world history, for good or ill?
That question was asked on the website Quora a whole back, and people pointed to various answers. Some said the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, after which nothing could ever be the same again, because we now had the power to destroy all life on the plant. Others pointed to 1492, when Columbus discovered America, a whole new world was opened up, and the divided continents brought together. If we go farther back, we could point to the invention of writing, making communication possible. Or even farther back, we could point to the discovery by Stone Age man of how to make fire. But I suggest to you that none of these were the greatest turning point in history. Now if you are a Christian, you will be thinking “Yes of course, the greatest turning point in history was the birth of Jesus”. After all, don’t we divide history between BC and AD with Jesus’ birth at Christmas? But no- Jesus’ birth was not the greatest turning point in history.
Let me suggest to you that the watershed in history was happened in Jerusalem in the year AD 30 at what we call “Pentecost”.
We’ve just heard an account of it in our Bible reading. After that, nothing in the world could ever be the same again. This is where we should divide history- AD should really start here. After this, nothing was ever the same again. Although it was very dramatic and exciting for the people directly involved, outside Jerusalem, nobody at the time noticed what had happened. Yet Pentecost is the turning point in human history because of the results that flowed from it, results that still continue to flow through people’s lives today. Pentecost is something of which you are I can be part. This morning, we will think about just two of those results: believers are the dwelling place of the Spirit and believers are the mouthpiece of the Spirit.
- As a result of Pentecost, believers are the dwelling place of the Spirit – v1-4
So what happened at Pentecost? The Spirit came as promised.
Come back with me please to the passage we thought about a few weeks ago, Acts 1:4-5. Just ten days before Pentecost Jesus had said “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. John the Baptist, in Luke 3:16, had said that someone greater than him was coming, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Then in Acts 1:8, Jesus says that “you receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses”. So this is what happened at Pentecost: the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and they received power; the Apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit. When we talk about “baptism”, don’t think about just dripping a few bits of water on someone’s head. Think of being deluged or soaked in water. In Acts 2:33, Peter says that Jesus has “poured out” the Spirit. Remember the ice bucket challenge a few years ago, when people had icy water poured over them? That’s a better picture. Baptism is an overwhelming experience- and the Apostles here are baptised in the Holy Spirit. Now, if you know anything about what has happened in the churches in the last fifty years, you will know that that is a very controversial thing to say, and there will probably be different opinions here about what “baptism in the Holy” Spirit is. But for the moment, put all those arguments aside. The important thing is why the Spirit came: he came because Jesus promised that he would. Now we need to see when, and to whom, and how he came.
The Spirit came at Pentecost onto God’s gathered people – v1.
So when did the Spirit come? At Pentecost. Pentecost was a religious festival of the Jews, when Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from many nations. It took place 50 days after Passover, and it was a harvest festival, when they brought in the first fruit of the barley harvest. So later on, in Acts 2:41, when 3000 people believe and are baptised, we can see those as the first fruits of the great harvest of countless multitudes that Jesus Christ is gathering from all nations. But Pentecost had another meaning as well. At that time the Jews remembered how had given them the Law. He had lead them to Mt Sinai, they had gathered around the mountain, and Moses had gone up and spent 40 days being taught by God- just like the Apostles have just spent 40 days being taught by Jesus. And God gave Moses the Law, written on stone tablets. But God had also made a promise- you can read it in Jeremiah 31:33- that one day he would write the law again. But this time not on stone tablets- his Spirit would write the law on people’s hearts. So at Pentecost that promise came true- the Spirit came to give people the power to obey the law.
And to whom does the promise come? It comes to God’s gathered people, it says that they are gathered in one place. How many of them are there? In total 120 believers, that’s what it says in 1:15. But among them are twelve Apostles. They’ve just taken great care to ensure that there are twelve, by choosing Matthias to take the place of Judas. Maybe that number twelve rings some bells. Twelve Apostles correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel that gathered round Mt Sinai. This little band that are gathered together to receive God’s gift are the nucleus of a renewed people of God. And so the Spirit comes to God’s gathered people. Paul spoke last week of how important it is that God’s people meet and gather together. One reason is that this is where we receive the Spirit- with God’s gathered people. So that’s where and to whom. How did the Spirit come?
The Spirit came like wind – v2.
Now what might people who knew their Bibles, like the Apostles, think of when they heard a mighty windstorm. Well, they might have thought of the greatest event in Israel’s history, the Exodus from Egypt. Israel were being chased by the Egyptian army, the Red Sea barred their way, but a “violent wind”- exactly the same words are use in Exodus 14:21- came and parted the waters so Israel could walk through. Or they might of thought of Psalm 18:10, which says that God comes in the storm and rides on the wings of the wind. Or they might have thought of the vision in Ezekiel 37, where Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones, representing God’s dead, hopeless people. But Ezekiel speaks to the wind or the Spirit- it’s the same word in Hebrew- and the dead bodies come to life and stand up, a might army. A mighty wind means that God himself is coming, coming in power and might. Coming to do something as big and earth-shaking as what he did in the Exodus. Coming to give life to his dead people. How else did the Spirit come?
The Spirit came like fire – v3.
Now what would that have made people who know their Bibles think of? Again, they would have remembered Mt Sinai, when God came down on the mountain in fire, Exodus 19:18, so the people were terrified, and wouldn’t come anywhere near the mountain. And they would have remembered John the Baptist’s words, that there would be a baptism of fire. And that’s a terrifying thought, because the fire in question is the fire of God’s judgment that comes out of his presence and burns up his enemies. The fire that fell from heaven and destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. So what happens here? The fire falls on the Apostles- and they are not destroyed. Instead, each of them has a flame resting on his head- but they are not burnt. Does that ring any bells- something that’s on fire but not burnt up? It’s the burning bush- Exodus 3, Moses sees a bush that is on fire but not burnt up, and then God speaks to him out of the bush. These Apostles are sinful men: they’ve argued and squabbled, betrayed Jesus, Peter has denied knowing him. And yet they are asbestos. Jesus has died and shed his blood for them, and so they are fire proof. They can stand in the fire of God’s presence, and not be destroyed. And so out of them, God can speak.
What else might they have thought of? Well, imagine that flame resting on each head, like a little pillar of fire. They would have remembered how God had lead his people through the desert in a pillar of fire, and how the pillar each night had rested over the Tabernacle, the special tent where God lived, and where Moses went to here God speak. This is saying that the church is now the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, God’s home on earth, the place where God speaks. And notice that the flames divide, and come to rest on each individual believer. This gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for the church in general. It is for each individual Christian believer- each one is a Tabernacle, each one is the dwelling place of God. That was how the Spirit came. But what was his purpose?
The Spirit came to fill believers – v4.
So the Spirit comes, and he doesn’t just rest on them, and work on them from the outside. He comes, as Jesus had promised in John 16, to indwell them, to live in them, and work in them. And one of the things he does is fill them. The picture is I think of a cup being filled to the brim so that it starts to overflow- it becomes obvious that the Spirit is within believers and flowing out from them. And the result of being filled with the Spirit is that they speak, speak in other languages or tongues. Don’t worry for the moment about these languages were. The point is that being filled with the Spirit leads to speaking. It isn’t a private mystical experience, where people go off into a wordless ecstasy. They speak. This is what Jesus promised: that they would have the power to be his witness. It’s important to understand that being “filled with the Spirit” is not the same as being “baptized with the Spirit”. Baptism by definition can only happen once. But later in the Book of Acts Peter and others are filled with the Spirit again. It seems to be in situations where they need to speak with particular clarity and wisdom, or boldness and courage. In those situations, the Spirit gives them an extra “boost”. And this I think is something for us today. It isn’t something that we can produce or control or manipulate; being filled with the Spirit is a sovereign work of God, where the Holy Spirit comes on someone to give power to his words. But we should be praying for this. Pray that I will be filled with the Spirit when I speak. Pray that all of us will be filled with the Spirit, as we witness to our friends, especially as we begin to face the hostility and opposition that the Apostles face. So the Spirit came, and…
The Spirit came once for all time.
This is the controversial bit- that’s made some of you sit up! Some of Christians have observed that the Apostles were Christian believers, but still needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, so there were two stages in their Christian experiences. And so some have thought that all Christians have to go these two stages: stage one is to become a Christian, and stage two is some time afterwards to be baptised in the Spirit, in a very dramatic experience like that of the Apostles. So should be seeking the baptism of the Holy Spirit? I think the answer is “no”- those who teach otherwise are making an honest mistake. Pentecost was a unique, one-event in God’s plan- it can no more be repeated than Jesus’ death and resurrection can be repeated. It doesn’t happen again even in the Book of Acts. Similar, but not identical, things happen when the first Samaritans and the first Gentiles become Christians, but again these are special, one-off occasions, not a pattern for everyone to follow. And yet Pentecost is for us today. Jesus baptised his church once in the Holy Spirit, and so now all Christians are baptised in the Holy Spirit. So how does someone receive the Holy Spirit? Look at Acts 2:38. If you turn away from your sins, are baptised, put your trust in Jesus Christ, you will receive the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t promise that you see fire on your head, or speak in tongues. But it does promise that you will receive the Spirit. In other words, the way to receive the Spirit is to become a Christian, and if you have become a Christian you have received the Holy Spirit. And if this means nothing to you, if there is no echo in your own life, can I suggest that it is because you are not a Christian, and you need to become one. So then…
It is an awesome thing to be part of the Spirit-baptised church.
The church doesn’t always seem awesome, or even very special, does it? It can be a nice place to be, we like the people there. But let’s face it, much of the time church can seem ordinary, and drab, and boring. So it is very tempting to stay in bed on Sunday morning, or to find something to do that’s more fun. That’s why sometimes well-meaning Christians try to spice things up and making it exciting, maybe by having elaborate robes and rituals, or maybe by having loud music, and in some churches even smoke machines and so on. There was nothing like that at the first Pentecost- just 120 ordinary believers- yet within hours they had grown to 3000 people. This is an awesome thing place to be, because the most ordinary, weak, struggling church is the dwelling place of the Spirit. This is Mt Sinai. This is the place where God is present in power. And look around you. Those ordinary, unremarkable believers, whom sometimes you barely notice, have been baptised in the Holy Spirit, they are each the dwelling place of the Spirit. They are each the Tabernacle of God. As are you, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. As a result of Pentecost, believers are the dwelling place of the Spirit. And…
- As a result of Pentecost, believers are the mouthpiece of the Spirit – v4b-13
What happened at Pentecost? The Holy Spirit gave the Apostles the ability to speak in other languages – v4b.
Older translations of the Bible say that they were “speaking in tongues”. Now you may have heard that in some churches people claim to speak and pray in “tongues”, in an unknown, unrecognized language that to most people sounds like nonsense. Whatever we make of that, that isn’t what’s happening here. They are speaking recognizable human languages, the native languages of those who were listening. So if they were talking to a Parthian, they found they could speak Farsi, if they were talking to a Roman they found they could speak Latin, (I know a few children would find that very useful), if they were talking to an Arab, they could speak Arabic and so on. And it says in v11, they were telling people about the wonderful things that God had done. I wonder if they were reciting the Psalms and praising God in different languages. Luke gives a lot of space to this, so clearly he thinks that this is the most important thing that happened: the Apostles spoke in other languages. So to whom are they speaking?
The Apostles spoke to devout Jews – v5-7.
If they start in the upper room where they had been meeting, at some point they must have run out into the street, because by v5 they are outside. They are talking loudly and clearly, and soon the noise draws a crowd together. And these crowd are all Jews- they aren’t talking directly to Gentiles yet, although there are some Gentile converts to Judaism. These are the pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem to take part in the great feasts of Passover and Pentecost- some of them have travelled over a thousand miles from Rome or Iran. Why is this important? Listen to Isaiah 11:10-12. And it came true at Pentecost. God is gathering his scattered people together under the banner of the Messiah Jesus, out of all the nations where they had been scattered. That had to happen before the Good News could go to the Gentiles: God had to gather the faithful, scattered remnant of his people. The Jews are still a special people, with a special place in God’s plan, and the Gospel must go to them first. So praise God that here in Düsseldorf there is a Messianic Assembly of Jewish people who worship Jesus, and in the last 20 years there has been a great turning of Jews to Jesus even in Israel itself. However, at this point in in Acts 2:7, none of the crowd believe yet. They are confused and puzzled, they can’t make head or tale of what is going on.
The Apostles spoke in the languages of many nations – v8-13.
This takes us write back to the early pages of the Bible, to Genesis 10-11. There you can read the story of the Tower of Babel. It’s the story of how the whole of humanity were once united and spoke one language. But in their arrogance and pride they tried to build a tower with its top in heaven, so they could climb up to heaven. But God came down and “confused” their languages- it’s the same word that’s used in Acts 2:7, so they spoke different languages, and were divided and scattered over the whole earth. So what was God doing at Pentecost? He was re-uniting the scattered nations. In grace he came down, and he didn’t force them all to speak the same language, but he spoke to them in their own languages. Although the Apostles were only speaking to Jews at that moment, the fact that they speak in the languages of all nations is a sign that the Good News is for all nations. God’s grand plan is to re-unite the scattered divided nations in praise of the great things he has done. Revelation 7 says that God’s goal for the whole human race is that there will be an enormous crowd too great for anyone to count, from people group, and language, and nation, gathered around the throne of God, different voices all united in the same great song of praise.
So what happened at Pentecost? The Holy Spirit kicked off the last days.
The crowd in v12 are still puzzled, and ask “what does this mean?” Others are hostile and try to make fun of it, and say that the Apostles are drunk. But it’s a good question, and a fair one, “What does this mean?” So Peter answers it, in v14. First he says, “We can’t be drunk, it isn’t 9am yet!”. Which proves that Peter had never been to Carneval. But then he explains that this is what the prophet Joel had talked about centuries before, “In the last days God says I will pour out my Spirit on all people… and they will prophesy”. So when the Apostles prophesy, and speak in other languages under the power of the Spirit, it means that the last days have started. The watershed of history has been crossed. The “last days” are the final chapter of human history, the time when the praises of God have to be declared in the languages if all nations. Isaiah 2 says that in the last days, people from all over the earth would come to Jerusalem to worship, longing to be taught by God- that’s what happens here. But then the word of the Lord would go out from Jerusalem- that’s what happens in the rest of Acts- to bring peace between the divided nations. And the church is where that peace first happens. So this is the time in which we live, and have lived since Pentecost- the last days. It is the time of Gospel proclamation. It is the time when God sends us to take the witness of the Apostles to the ends of the earth in the power of the Spirit. It is the time when God uses men and woman to speak his words, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, so that all nations will hear of how great he is. It won’t be a time of easy triumphs. We will meet these same reactions. Some will be confused like the crowds- they need the Good News of Christ explaining to them, as Peter goes on to do. Some will be hostile, and make fun of us or worse. But everyone- and anyone- who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved.
It is an awesome thing to be part of the church- the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit.
In the next few weeks, we will be thinking a lot about church membership. It’s easy for us to think that being a member of a church is just like being a member of an inward looking social club or a religious association. When you join the church, you are becoming part of something big. You are joining the people who God has commanded and empowered to take the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations. We look outwards- to the ends of the earth.
Pentecost was the greatest turning point in human history, the watershed of the ages. As a result of Pentecost all believers are the dwelling place of the Spirit and the mouthpiece of the Spirit. But if you are not a believer in Christ, I want to leave you with those words of Peter in v17: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, the Lord Jesus, will be saved”. That “everyone” includes you. If you call on the Lord’s name, and ask him for salvation, you can be part of this.