The Purpose of Pentecost image

The Purpose of Pentecost

Christians often stop the story in the wrong place. Frequently, the gospel is talked about as Creation – Fall – Crucifixion – Resurrection – Judgment, which involves jumping from Genesis 3 to Matthew 27 to Revelation 20, and skipping almost everything else. When people stop and think about it more carefully, they might include the life of Jesus (!) and perhaps even the history of Israel. In my limited experience, though, people almost always stop the tape at Easter Sunday and then fast forward to the return of Jesus. This may be because people aren’t too sure what happens in between, or how relevant it all is to salvation. But in doing so, they miss one of the most thrilling bits, like a mountaineer so desperate to get home he fails to savour the summit. They miss the Spirit being poured out.

Joel wouldn’t. Nor would Peter, who quoted Joel’s words on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, or Jesus, who spent most of his last hours talking about it (John 14-16). Luke would be astonished that anyone could talk about Christianity without mentioning the Spirit, and would explain in detail how Pentecost changed everything. Paul would go further, and remind us that people without the Spirit didn’t even belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). To the apostles, and to Jesus, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit would represent one of the high points of the entire story, the bit that, quite literally, everybody was waiting for:

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)

John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now ...  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:5, 8)

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:32-33)

So what is so important about the pouring out of the Holy Spirit? Let me suggest five things.

Firstly, he is the Spirit of power. This is probably the major emphasis of the story in Luke-Acts. Jesus repeatedly promises power to his disciples, and Luke is then careful to show us that this has happened, with healings being done, wonders spoken, buildings shaken, demons cast out, and so on. When the Spirit was poured out, the age of power began, and that age continues—we can only accomplish God’s mission if we are filled with God’s power, just like a car can only run if it has been filled with fuel. The coming of the Spirit of power upon the church is one of the things Luke, and the early church he was describing, got most excited about.

Second, as we see in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he is the Spirit of purity. There’s a good reason he gets referred to as the ‘Holy’ Spirit—he is the way unholy and impure people like us get to be holy and pure people like God. Galatians 5 is pretty blunt about this: if we walk in the Spirit, we will keep free from sin, because we have our very own live-in life coach showing us how to please God. Prophets with a passion for holiness, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were on the edge of their seats about the Spirit of purity coming to God’s people.

Third, he is the Spirit of possession. This is especially significant for Paul; when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we know we belong to Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the seal God puts on all believers, the proof in our hearts that we are his children, and the way we know that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. He is also the way that other people can know we belong to God; it was only when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household that Peter was convinced they had been forgiven their sins and should be baptised, so the Spirit functions as a sort of ID badge for Christians, a bit like circumcision did for the Jews. When you have the Spirit, you know for sure you are God’s possession.

Fourth, he is the Spirit of presence. Of all people in the New Testament, Jesus was the most insistent on this: it’s for your good that I go away, he said, because when I do, I will send another helper to be with you (John 16:7). This didn’t sound like good news when he first said it, but it was better than his disciples could possibly have imagined—because the helper he was sending was the Holy Spirit, the one who would bring God’s presence to millions of believers at once. In an age of Wi-Fi, you won’t find many people pining for a dial-up connection.

Fifth, he is the Spirit of prophecy. Many Christians might be less comfortable with this than the previous four, but there’s no getting away from it: it’s what Joel was looking forward to in the passage we started with, and Peter and Paul were emphatic about it. When the Spirit comes, people prophesy. Not just prophets or experienced disciples, but sons and daughters, servants, Gentiles, young men. Prophecy happens frequently in Acts when people receive the Spirit, and Paul urges his most loony-fringe charismatic church, Corinth, to ‘eagerly desire to prophesy’.  No doubt some people have gone too far, and made the use of certain gifts (like tongues or prophecy) the mark of salvation. But most churches I know of face the opposite danger – that of being far too indifferent to the Spirit of prophecy, either by arguing he doesn’t work like that now, or by reducing prophecy to teaching or preaching, or by simply not bothering to pursue prophetic revelation in their churches. It has been my privilege to interact with many gifted prophets in the last few years, and Joel was right. When the Spirit comes, people will prophesy. And he still does, so we still do.

The pouring out of the Spirit was quite something. Don’t stop the story in the wrong place. Don’t act as if Scripture jumps from resurrection to return, and miss out the marvel of the indwelling, empowering, baptising, filling, gift-giving Spirit. The Spirit of Pentecost was the Spirit of promise—Joel’s Spirit of prophecy and Jesus’ Spirit of presence and Paul’s Spirit of possession and Ezekiel’s Spirit of purity and Luke’s Spirit of power—all rolled into one glorious package and poured out in one glorious person. So, as Paul urges:

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21)

[This article is an excerpt from Andrew’s book GodStories, which you can find here.]

← Prev article
Next article →