I did not grow up in a Christian family, and it was only after I became a Christian in college that I started going to church. At first, it was a little like being a tourist in a foreign country; you had to get used to the customs and language. That language had dialects: some people peppered their speech with phrases like “Praise God!” and others didn’t; some spoke freely about Satan and demonic influence while others squirmed.
It wasn’t until I began attending seminary that I found myself rubbing shoulders with evangelical sisters and brothers who considered themselves from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions (the latter, to oversimplify a bit, are the result of Pentecostalism’s influence on other traditions). They talked freely and often about the power of the Holy Spirit. Some had spoken in tongues. And some hailed from churches in which people who hadn’t experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues, were viewed with pity or disdain.
I remember the first time I preached as a guest in a charismatic congregation. Before the service, the staff prayed for me by the laying on of hands, all speaking at the same time. It was…different. Not bad or unwelcome. It simply wasn’t what I was used to. When I began the sermon that morning, I told the people that we were all brothers and sisters — I just asked them to be patient with me as a brother from the more reserved side of the family!
I say all this because as we come to Acts 2 and the story of Pentecost, it’s important not to read our biases or prejudices toward Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity back into the text. As followers of Jesus, we are all “charismatic” in the original sense of the word: we are spiritually gifted. And missionally, we should all take our cue from Luke’s story. All Christians have a Spirit-empowered mission to be witnesses to the resurrection throughout the world. In that sense, we might say that we are all small-p “pentecostal” — people whose identity and self-understanding is shaped by the miraculous events of that day.
I know: that may sound like a controversial thing to say, especially to someone who has misgivings about Pentecostalism or its cousins. I get it. And to be clear, I am not in any way suggesting, as some Pentecostals have, that speaking in tongues is necessary to salvation, nor am I promoting a gospel of health and wealth.
I just want to make sure that we don’t allow our preconceived notions to goad us into throwing out the biblical baby with the bath.
Pentecost was not an invention of the early church. The name comes from the Greek word for “fifty,” and points to the fiftieth day after Passover, when first century Jews would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. On one level, it was an agricultural festival, the bringing of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest. At another level, however, some Jews took the day to be the anniversary of the giving of the Torah through Moses on Mount Sinai.
So here’s the question: if the story is about the coming of the Holy Spirit, does it matter what day it was?
For example, why did Jesus go to Jerusalem for the final confrontation during Passover? He knew that the city would be packed with pilgrims who had traveled from far and wide for the feast. He knew the crowds would acclaim him as king — but that he would also demonstrate what it truly meant for him to be the rightful King. He knew that he himself would be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would save God’s people from death. He knew that through his death would come a new exodus, not from slavery to the Egyptians, but from slavery to sin.
Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses to all the world, and that they would receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. But the timing of that event matters. It wasn’t just “a week from Tuesday” or some convenient spot on everyone’s calendar. It was Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the firstfruits of the harvest, the commemoration of the giving of the Law.
The city was again filled with Jewish pilgrims representing far flung corners of the known world. Imagine the possible symbolic associations they and the apostles may have made because of the day. As Moses had ascended the mountain to meet God, Jesus had ascended to the Father. As Moses came down with the tablets, the Spirit came down with power. As the people brought offerings to celebrate the harvest, so would the events of that day anticipate the harvest to come.
The day mattered, in other words, because it connected the events of the day to the story God had already been writing for centuries.
I’ll say more about those events in upcoming posts. Meanwhile, do you believe that God has given you the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that you have been called to be a witness to the resurrection? Do you want to be part of the harvest, part of the celebration?
You don’t have to be Pentecostal to be “pentecostal,” to know that you are part of the ongoing story of God commissioning and empowering people to work the harvest. Don’t miss the miracle.