Tuesday 12 January 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (39/50) – The Day of Pentecost: A New World Order?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-ninth of the fifty emails.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem Godfearing Jews from every nation under heaven… Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?… We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’
Acts 2:1-4, 5, 7-8, 11

Pentecost was a harvest festival, an opportunity for thankful worshippers to offer to God the firstfruits of their crops. Celebrated fifty days after Passover, coinciding with the giving of the law, it also became associated with the covenant made between the Lord and his people at Sinai. The nation that was constituted at Sinai, gathering together in Jerusalem to renew their relationship with God, is now reborn – the firstfruits of a new harvest – as God pours out his Spirit to ratify the new covenant.

Certainly, Peter is aware that something momentous has happened, as his subsequent explanation makes clear when he ties together the ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus with several passages from Scripture, notably God’s promise through Joel that ‘in the last days… I will pour out my Spirit on all people’. Previously given only to special people, like kings and prophets, or only for specific tasks, now all of God’s people receive the Spirit – men and women, old and young – as part of God’s end-time renewal of all things. Pentecost marks the beginning of that era not in Moses giving the law, but in Jesus giving the Spirit – to all who ‘call on the name of the Lord’ (2:21).

In fact, this is nothing less than the inauguration of a new world. It may remind us of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), but it is not so much a reversal of Babel – where the scattering reaffirms God’s original purpose for men and women to fill the whole earth. The basis of the unity of humankind is not found in the recovery of a single language, but in a people indwelt by the Spirit of God. If there is a reversal, it is that at Babel people want to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4) whereas at Pentecost they proclaim ‘the wonders of God’. Many languages are spoken and all are appropriate for giving praise to God.

This fits with the international perspective of Acts. Jerusalem is full of Jews from all parts of the world, each with their own language and dialect. And they hear the great things of God spoken of in the vernacular tongues of their pagan neighbours – showing that what starts in Jerusalem will become a worldwide mission enabled by the Holy Spirit which will result in the worship of God to ‘the ends of the earth’.

For further reflection and action:

1. Read the whole of Acts 2, reflecting on Peter’s explanation of the event (2:14-41) and its immediate impact on the early followers of Christ (2:42-47).

2. Many Christians belong to a ‘Pentecostal’ denomination, but in what sense – and with what significance – are all God’s people ‘Pentecostals’?

3. We might be used to the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, but Acts 2 suggests there is also a ‘prophethood of all believers’ (2:17-21). Previously the Holy Spirit had enabled mainly prophets to speak God’s words (cf. Numbers 11:29); now speaking the word of God – prophesying – is a task given to all of God’s people (4:31; 5:32; 6:10; 13:4-5). How should this encourage us? And how should it challenge us?

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