Friday, May 3, 2013

The Glorious Day of Pentecost: A Watershed Moment in Human History

With Pentecost approaching, I have been asked to speak on it. Here are some thoughts that have come to me.

Pentecost. The day of Pentecost is, as we have read, the day in which God poured out his Spirit on humankind in a totally fresh and complete way. We know that the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, has been involved in life from the creation of the cosmos. The Spirit of course hovered at creation when God formed his world out of the chaos (Gen 1:2). In some sense God’s Spirit is present in all that lives in the creation, that empowering force we call “life.” It is that non-substantive undefinable force that fades or is abruptly removed from a person, a creature, or plant when it dies, as my father did just a few months ago. It is the breath of God that animated Adam and all living things (Gen 2:7). This is that thing that is pouring out of children, so full of energy, and that fades as we enter middle age and onto old age. When it is gone, all that is left is dust--thank God for the resurrection! It is that thing that science cannot yet replicate, despites its best intentions.

The Spirit that came at Pentecost was not a completely new phenomenon. Israel knew of the power of God, usually as the Spirit rushed on Jewish leaders in the OT. A good example is Samson in Judges 14:6 who experienced the rushing power of God’s Spirit, which enabled him to kill a lion.

The Jewish people associated the coming of the Spirit with the climax of history, the end of the age, when God would act to redeem Israel from its bondage from Gentile oppression and would establish his reign. We see this hope later in Acts 2:17–18 when Peter preaches, quoting Joel 2:28–32:
 “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
                that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
                and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
                even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

Note that it is on “all flesh” anticipating the Spirit filling the new creation at the consummation. The Spirit is not prejudiced, falling on children, youth, men and women, servants, and the elderly alike. It is the Spirit of prophecy that foretold through the Prophets the coming of Christ and salvation, and which fills God’s church as it speaks prophetically to humankind.

We see the Spirit at work before Christ’s coming, especially in Luke’s earlier book, Luke’s Gospel. John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit even in the womb (Luke 1:15). The Spirit overshadowed Mary so that, she, a virgin, conceived Jesus (Luke 1:35). Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit when she saw the pregnant Mary (Luke 1:41). Zechariah prophesied in the Spirit over John (Luke 1:67). Three times Luke speaks of Simeon being filled and impelled by the Spirit as he came to meet the long-awaited redeemer of Israel, the baby Jesus, whom the Spirit had revealed to him (Luke 2:25–28). The intense action of the Spirit in Israel at this time spoke of a new humanity and a new creation, as the Trinity came together with the Father, Spirit, and birth of the Son. Thus the age of salvation was inaugurated.

For Luke, who of course also wrote Acts, Jesus’ ministry was one of Spirit-power. John said of Jesus that he is the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). As John baptizes Jesus, paralleling Samuel anointing David with oil in Bethlehem many years previous so that the Spirit fell on him like a dove (1 Sam 16:12–13), heaven is torn open and the Spirit comes down upon Jesus as a dove at the coronation of Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord, anointing him to be the “the Anointed One”, “the Messiah,” “the Christ,” the long-awaited king of Israel who would be Lord of the world. While Caesar sat in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and the puppet king Herod in Jerusalem or near Bethlehem, the true king of the world had come. He is anointed both servant and King—the “Servant King.” The vision of Isaiah 42:1 and David in Psalm 2:7 was coming to pass. This is Jesus’ Pentecost moment, the ultimate Pentecost, a new creation, where the Anointed One is declared and sent out to redeem the world. All other Pentecost moments will be dependent on Jesus—we are filled with the Spirit, because we are in Christ.

In Luke 4:1, the first thing the Spirit does in Jesus, who is positively overflowing with the Spirit, is to somewhat surprisingly lead him into the wilderness to encounter and defeat Satan. This is not that surprising, for Israel’s king always began his ministry leading his people to war to overthrow their enemies. The new David took on humanity’s antagonist and triumphed. Unlike Adam in the garden and Israel in the wilderness, the new Adam and Israel-in-a-man Jesus, overcame temptation.
In Luke 4:14, the evangelist then says Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee,” where he began his ministry. The implication is that every living moment of Jesus’ life from this moment on was a Spirit-led moment, whereby Jesus lived in complete obedience and submission to God. He is thus our model for all of life—we are to imitate Christ by full submission to the Spirit. Neither is it surprising that the Spirit led him to face suffering--redemption comes through suffering and sacrifice; especially the cross!

In his first recorded sermon in Luke 4:18–20, Jesus’ first  words are from Isa 61:1–2 laced with a bit of Isaiah 58:6:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” the year of Jubilee.

Impelled by the Spirit, Jesus then went about demonstrating who God is—relentlessly loving the unlovable, touching the untouchable, serving those in need, refusing to use his power for self-aggrandisement or to please the demands of the nation’s leaders, and seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10).

Then, in and by the Spirit, he went to the cross rejected by his people and suffering the ignominious death of a slave, the lowest of the low at the hands of the Romans. It seemed he was utterly defeated and the dejected disciples were gob-smacked. Yet thankfully that is not the end of the story. By the same Spirit that had led him to temptation and cross and empowered his ministry, he, the pure one who is without sin, was a fitting vessel for the full outpouring of God’s Spirit (as he always had been from conception), and so was filled again with life by the Spirit and raised to eternal life (Rom 8:11). His Spirit-led life is our pattern for our lives—humility, selflessness, servanthood, suffering, i.e. love and working for justice in God’s world. We join the healing ministry of the great Healer and we are sent by the same Spirit to be vehicles of his transformation.

And of course Jesus promised the Spirit to his followers, of which we form a small part. After rising from the dead, he urged them to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13), staying in Jerusalem until they are “clothed with power from on high.” The context of this is mission—“to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:49). The commission is to emulate the Anointed One Jesus, and do what he has done throughout all the villages, towns, suburbs, cities, and communities of every nation. It has reached us and in this way the Spirit resides all over God’s world—so that people can know there is a God. Ultimately creation itself will be completed by the healing power of the Spirit—Maranatha, our Lord Come!

Acts 1:8, which we read earlier, launches the narrative of Acts telling the Christians that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Pentecost had to be preceded by the Cross and Resurrection, for the law of sin and death needed to be broken and a way found to make humanity holy and fitting temples for the Spirit of God. The Cross achieved this, as the sinless Son of God went to his brutal death, and dealt with the problem of sin. The resurrection vindicated and declared this, as death was unraveled and life's inevitable ultimate victory came to pass. 

All that is required now is that a person turn from sin and place their trust in Jesus as saviour and Lord, saying “yes” to his offer of salvation. Then a person is sanctified, purified, and set apart by the Holy Spirit for God. Then they are ready for the God and Christ to fill them, dwell in them, re-animate them, transform them, catalyse them, teach them, and gently nurture them. It will stream out of them like streams of living water and fill them with love.

At Pentecost, some fifty days after the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the annual celebration of the harvest, the same time when the law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, that moment came. Heaven was torn open as it was when Jesus was baptized, and the Father and the Son, now exalted as Lord and saviour of all creation seated at God’s right hand, with the Father poured out the Holy Spirit onto those first followers of Jesus who yielded to him as King. As Paul puts it, “God poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

At that moment, the future eschatological hope of the union of God and his people came to pass not at the end of time as Israel expected, but in the middle of time. Why? Because it was to be the empowering force of God’s mission to see repentance and forgiveness preached to all nations.

When one considers that the one pouring is the God who created the heavens and the earth, this outpouring was not unexpectantly marked by signs of God’s theophanic presence—wind and tongues of fire. These tongues alighted on everyone. It was not just the leaders, the men, the elite, the apostles, or the wealthy—the Spirit came upon each person as Joel had predicted.

Sensationally they were granted the gift of tongues. In this instant they burst out onto the street, impelled into mission by the Spirit, and they spoke in the languages of the pilgrims who had travelled to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost. The first fruits of a new harvest had begun. They appeared stoned or drunk, but were just saturated with the power of the Spirit, and they were forever changed.

On this day 3000 were converted, as the once Jesus-denying blustering Peter, preached the first sermon of the Christian era. They were baptised, and they too received the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38–39). From that crowd the gospel radiated out from Jerusalem to such places as Rome and North Africa. As Acts unfolds, we read of the Spirit falling on Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles—one didn’t need to conform to the Jewish culture to be a part of the Temple of God’s Spirit—his people (Acts 10:44–45).

From this moment began the Spirit-led unstoppable spread of the Christian movement. In Jerusalem, then through the wider region of Judea and Samaria, and then to the Gentile nations the gospel spread and the Spirit fell. As we read in Acts we see further Pentecost moments when believers receive a dose of the ghost including the Samarians, the Jerusalem Christians a second time in Acts 4 (Acts 4:31), Paul, the first Gentiles Cornelius and his family, and the first Ephesian disciples. The anointing of the Anointed One was shed abroad without discrimination upon Jews, Samarians and Gentiles, men and women, the young and old, the rich and poor, the slave and free.
So began the unstoppable mission of the church.

God had declared to humanity that the effects of the Fall were being undone, God had come to dwell with his people; His very presence in their hearts; His own person. His power that created a universe, that power that raised Jesus from the dead, is in those who believe. This all anticipating Rev 21:1-4 when God will God, humanity, heaven, and earth is one.

Do you believe in Jesus? Do you name him Lord? Have you said yes to his offer? If you have and do, his presence is in you. The Spirit dwells in you and you are marked as his people, signed, sealed, and guaranteed to be delivered to your final destination—with Christ forever.

Pentecost has been harnessed by various theologies, even a denominational stream named after it, and then there are those who repudiate the gifts of the Spirit. The truth is the power of God cannot be boxed. The Spirit blows where the Spirit chooses (John 3:8) but he finds his home in us. He finds his home in us individual, and as the people of God—temple (s) of the Spirit. When Jesus comes again, and the Trinity resides in us, and we in the Trinity, the whole cosmos will be free of all corruption and a glorious Spirit-filled temple—Hosanna, save, King of David.

So in a sense we are all pentecostals with a small p if we believe, we are all charismatics with a small c, and we must not allow the reductionism of the theologies of any church to limit this Spirit-power.

At its heart the Spirit authenticates us as God’s children; he seals us as his own, his signature emblazoned on our hearts; he transforms us from the inside out healing us and forming us into the image of his Son, as we bear Spirit-fruit like love, joy, peace and so on; he impels us into mission so that we can go into Laidlaw College, churches, global mission, workplaces, schools, counsellors offices, homes, and every part of society we are sent, empowered by the Spirit. That is why we are never satisfied, because we have the very presence of God warmly and gently nudging us on for his names' sake.

What does this all look like? It looks like people and communities who humbly know who they are in God, their status—they are God’s children who live in union with God himself by his Spirit. It looks like people more and more setting aside sin and living lives that put to death the misdeeds of the flesh. People who live by the Spirit demonstrating justice, love, humility, service, suffering, faith, hope, holiness, compassion and more. It looks like people of humility who will not be constrained with the ways things have always been done but are full of God’s gifts and yearn for a better world and church. Men and women who realise that they have been filled with the creative force that shaped a universe and so dream big and hope huge and imagine lavishly, coming up with thrilling fresh ideas, and repackaging good old ones, that God’s reign would be recognised in God’s world. It looks like men and women renouncing individualism and working together in the gospel unity of the Spirit to together do “even greater things,” inspired by the blend of their own God-given image bearing creativity and love (which is the work of the Spirit anyway), unleashed by the Spirit who shaped a universe with Father and Son.

So, as we pass through Pentecost this year, it is right that we should cease, pausing in the relentless drivenness of our empty machinations; that we reflect on the Spirit which anoints us because the Anointed One has shed liberally the Spirit among us; that we listen, that we yield, that we imagine, that we love, that we deeply ponder. And as we do, we will again be refuelled for the challenge of being the people of God. Above all, we need to again drink from the well of God’s being, in us. We don’t need to reach outward, we reach inward to the well within us—the Spirit of God. We find him in all places, but especially in places of quiet, away from the rush and noise. I encourage you to find those places, like Elijah on Mount Horeb, and we will find him not in the storm, the earthquake, or the fire—we will find him in the whisper of God’s presence (1 Kings 19:11–12). “For it is not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord God Almighty” (Zech 4:6).

My prayer for you and me is this, that as we find that space, we will find ourselves again full of God and desirous of his purposes and his purposes alone; compelled to live full on for our Lord, living out of love and Christlikeness; that we would indeed be history makers.

May the charis or grace of our Lord Jesus, the agapē love of God and the koinōnia of the Spirit be us all, Amen (2 Cor 13:13).


Anonymous said...

The Spirit leaves on one and all a watermark that is sometimes only revealed when held up to the One who is light and life, to the Son. Sometimes we would like to deny its existence by hiding in the shadows or closing our eyes, but denial ultimately fails (time and again) even as the darkest night is pierced by the beauty of the stars or the rising of a silvered moon.

Chris Walsh said...

Good post, Mark! I was just perusing your blog when this popped up! I actually appreciated your posts on death - they nailed some things down for me. Hope you are doing okay.

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