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The Church Must Be Powered By the Spirit - a study of Pentecost and Acts 2

Everything is pretty useless when it’s not connected to its power source.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 2:1-15

God didn’t leave the church to fend for itself: He left us a guide, a counselor, and a power source: the Holy Spirit. When we stay plugged into Him, good things happen.

Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. Acts 2:2

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Perfect Church

There’s a funny story about a woman who told her pastor that she was leaving the church. They had too many problems, so she was going to go find the perfect church. The pastor replied, “When you find that church, do me a favor: don’t join it!” The truth, as we all know, is that churches are groups of flawed people. We know that we have issues in our church, just as every church does. And the worst thing we can do is pretend they don’t exist! But the second worst thing we can do is give up trying to address them. The churches in Acts are not perfect, but they give us a set of priorities that we can use today.

So do this to start: “Describe the perfect church.” I’d be curious to know what our people think about “the perfect church.” Obviously, we’re not going to be the perfect church, so you have to take it to this next point: “You know that our church is us as individuals. We are the church. So what do we have to do to be more like [the perfect church that was described]?” Here’s what I would ask that you try to do: bring it back to your Sunday School class. There may be some things that happen in the church at large that are beyond your control, but you have a direct say over what your small group is like, what you do and say, how you treat one another, what you do during the week. I believe that revival can start in a single Sunday School class . . .

Transition out by saying, “Every week, we’re going to talk about a different trait of the early churches.” Last week, it was that we are entrusted with a mission from Jesus. This week, it is that we are empowered by the Spirit. Then you can point out the rest of the topics: unified | courageous | integrity | faithful | selfless | obedient | converted | bold | accepting | extraordinary. That is a pretty awesome description that gets to the true heart of what we’re supposed to be!

A Power Source

Then, if you don’t think you’ll get too bogged down in “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” spend some time with this fun suite of illustrations. Pick anything that runs on power. Disconnect the power source then see what happens. Or if you have something where the battery has run down (and it starts making the pathetic slowly-dying noise) bring that it and run it until it quits. What’s the point? God designed the church to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus told the church not to do anything except sit still and wait until the Holy Spirit came. Why? Because we cannot accomplish anything of lasting value by ourselves. In our application time, we’ll talk about how to get “plugged in” to the Holy Spirit, but the point to start is that things are pretty useless without their power source!


This Week's Big Idea: The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Leave it to Americans to take a gift of God and start fighting about it . . .

Later in life, John Wesley started teaching about “perfection,” that the Spirit gave us the ability to “be perfect (as our heavenly Father is perfect)” as a second blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the 1800s, Americans turned this into what we now call the Holiness Movement, which still includes these groups today: Church of the Nazarene, Church of God, Evangelical Methodist Church, Freewill Baptists, Salvation Army, Wesleyan Church, and others. For example, you cannot be a pastor in a Nazarene church unless you claim having experienced this second blessing.

Well, if two blessings are good, three must be better. The Pentecostal revival of the 1900s included some spectacular incidences of groups of people speaking in tongues (which they believed mirrored Acts 2). Well, not everybody in the Holiness tradition did this, so they concluded that there must be a third blessing of the Holy Spirit which they eventually identified as being “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” They then established that the “sign” of this baptism is speaking in tongues (which they claim is separate from the gift of tongues). This teaching was so unique as to lead to new groups, including Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of the Foursquare Gospel, United Pentecostal Church, and others.

So what do we do with this?

People in the Holiness tradition think that anyone who has not received a second blessing are lesser Christians (not as filled with the Holy Spirit). Pentecostals believe that if you have not spoken in tongues, you have not been baptized by the Holy Spirit (and hard-core Pentecostals might even say that you are not a Christian). That seems like a big deal. How should we respond to this?

First, note that John the Baptist spoke of a baptism in the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11), and Jesus reminded the disciples about that (Acts 1:5) clearly in preparation for what we’re studying today. We know that in Acts 10, Peter saw this play out with Gentiles which he took to be proof of God’s acceptance of them. So that gives us two major questions (1) is Spirit baptism an experience subsequent to conversion? and (2) is speaking in tongues the evidence of this baptism? Most importantly, don’t think about water baptism. Water baptism doesn’t have anything to do with salvation; it is a symbol of our repentance and identification with Jesus. Paul talks about a baptism that incorporates us into the body of believers (1 Cor 12:14-27, Eph 4:1-5) that also includes the bestowing of spiritual gifts. Obviously, that baptism is our conversion; when Paul talks about “the” body of Christ, he is referring to all Christians, so by definition the thing that makes us a Christian brings us into the body of Christ. So let me work under the hypothesis that “Spirit baptism” and conversion happen at the same time (if indeed they are separate things). Wouldn’t this mean that the disciples weren’t actually “saved” until Pentecost? Well, kind of, if by “saved” you mean what happens to us today in that we are made right with God and the Holy Spirit takes residence in our lives. Remember that the Spirit did not come until Pentecost! Those who lived and died before Pentecost (including John the Baptist) could repent and be right with God and be with God after death, but they couldn’t experience the blessing of the Holy Spirit (remember that Jesus said John was great, but anyone in the kingdom, meaning post-Pentecost, was even greater).

[Strange Aside: does this mean that if the disciples had died before Pentecost, they wouldn’t be saved or in heaven? Okay -- this is a weird topic to consider because it's entirely moot. We will never be in this situation now that Pentecost has come! If by "saved" you mean enjoying all of the blessings of salvation, then no, those disciples were not saved yet. They didn't have the Spirit! (We completely underestimate the value and blessing of the gift of the Spirit.) But if by "saved" you mean that you get to be safely in the presence of God after you die, then yes, they were saved. With the exception of the truly unique cases of the first salvations of Samaritans and Gentiles, that's not how things happen post-Pentecost. (These groups that try to build a theology around those unique "baptisms on the Holy Spirit" are essentially making the exception the norm.) In other words, it doesn't actually matter "in what way" the disciples were saved pre-Pentecost because that doesn't affect our experience of salvation today.]

Nowhere in Scripture are we told that speaking in tongues (which in Acts 2 clearly means an intelligible, extant language) is a necessary result of Spirit baptism. And only in these very few (and very unique) circumstances do the two even happen together! Why would that be the case? Because speaking in tongues is an obvious miracle that God associated with the first disciples and the apostolic mission. Those disciples would have recognized it happening in someone else, which is exactly why God picked that manifestation to validate to these conservative Jews that salvation was also given to Samaritans and Gentiles.

In summary, when the Bible authors speak of “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” they’re talking about conversion (which is basically what we mean when we say “salvation”). All of those different big words that people use with respect to salvation are all talking about connected and simultaneous events. Once you’re saved, you’re saved. You might become more like Jesus, but you never become more saved. Therefore, with all due respect to our Pentecostal brethren, they have no biblical support for their idea that baptism in the Holy Spirit happens after salvation and that it necessarily involves speaking in tongues. If you have questions about this, let me know. There’s a whole lot more I could say . . .


Bonus Idea: What Is Pentecost?

Pentecost was actually a Jewish thing that Christians have taken over. It is actually the “Feast of Weeks” (Lev 23): 7 weeks (50 days) after Passover. “Pentecost” is Greek for “fiftieth.” It was a harvest festival of the grain harvest and one of three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem (with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles). Pilgrims had to bring the first portion of their harvest as a wave offering (and there were many other offerings made as well). It was a time of thanksgiving for God’s blessings. It was also a day on which no one was to go out and work. After the destruction of the Temple the first time in 586 BC, the celebration shifted to emphasize more the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (a blessing of God that transcended even the Temple).

So, why did God choose to send the Spirit at Pentecost? Hopefully you can already see a few hints! (1) Pentecost is connected with Passover and not very long after Passover, so anything that happened at the first would have been fresh in their minds for the second. In fact, some Jews would have simply stayed in Jerusalem for the full 7 weeks, having someone deliver their firstfruits. (2) Pentecost was a pilgrimage, meaning that Jews would have come from all over the world. (3) And probably most importantly, Pentecost was about God’s blessing. Whether the harvest or the Law, it was about everything God had given the Jews they could not have gotten on their own, and then thanking God for that blessing. Isn’t that exactly what the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is? A unique blessing of God for His people? Today, we should celebrate Pentecost in gratitude for His priceless gift.


Part 1: The Spirit Given (Acts 2:1-4)

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech.

Last week, we noted that Jesus commanded the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came. I give you a bit about Pentecost and about the “upper room” of the “house” below. The verses describe an entirely new era for humanity: the birth of the Christian church. They are some of the most important words in human history -- with the coming of the Spirit, man’s relationship with God entered an entirely new phase. Now, we can have God’s presence within us in a way experienced by very few in the Bible. In many ways, we are so much more blessed than the Jews who saw God’s miracles. We experience God’s presence personally; we are a part of a church that transcends cultural boundaries.

[Side note about the paintings: you can always tell the ones with the Catholic influence because they tend to put Mary at the center.]

So, this group of 120 disciples was waiting together—just as Jesus commanded (don’t overlook that)—in a house. It could be a location in the Temple complex, or the house of the upper room. Wherever they were, that’s where the Spirit met them. The word for “wind” is the same as for “spirit” and “breath.” Jesus uses this wordplay in John 3 to note that you can’t see or hear the Spirit (like the wind).

But in this case, God wanted the Spirit’s coming to be noticeable. Jews looked for three signs of God’s presence: (1) wind, (2) fire, and (3) inspired speech. All three of them are found in this passage. When Ezekiel saw the valley of the dry bones (Eze 37), God’s breath blew over them, giving them life. It very well could be that “wind” is the only sound the human ear can equate with the noise the Spirit made that day. If you have ever been in a true windstorm, hurricane, or near a tornado, you know that wind make an unmistakable and even terrifying sound. This sound was just as violent (but it wasn’t destructive).

And then came the fire. A “tongue of fire” means the same thing today as it did then, and Luke almost certainly chose the word as another wordplay with “languages” in the next verse. How did this work? I have no idea. It reminds me of the dove descending during Jesus’ baptism, a different symbol of the Spirit’s presence. It seems to be literal in the sense that they could see it. And there is a real emphasis on the individual nature of this event! In corporate Judaism, the divine presence was in the midst of the group (Tabernacle, Temple). In Christianity, the divine presence is with each individual believer.

And then came the inspired speech. The word “tongue” clearly means an existing, intelligible language (not ecstatic utterances) because the people understood them. You might remember that when David preached through this, he emphasized this event as the reversal of the Tower of Babel, which is a very apt deduction. The damage done by the scattering of the languages was symbolically overcome by the new presence of the Spirit. It also symbolically demonstrated that the new mission was truly for everyone all over them world, a fact that the disciples took some time realizing.

Remember -- the experience of the disciples is different from our experience today. When we trust Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are immediately made right with God, and He then blesses us with what the early church called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” which means that the Holy Spirit comes to us as our comforter and companion. That's salvation. But because God waited to give them the Spirit until Pentecost, they had this totally unique period of knowing and being right with Jesus, but not having the Spirit. (In other words, it's not possible to be saved today and not be "baptized in the Spirit".)

Application. Let’s be honest. I don’t always “wait” for the Holy Spirit, and maybe you don't either. I try to get things done in my own strength, and that eventually wipes me out. But when we wait on the Lord, He lifts us up, giving us a supernatural reservoir we don’t otherwise have. So what does that mean? Does that mean we can work harder/faster/longer with Jesus? Well, yes and no. I think it does mean that we won’t “burn out” in the way that we tend to because we won’t be spinning our wheels on the wrong roads. And I think there is a supernatural strength that carries us through His work for us. But it’s not a “we’ll be smarter and stronger” thing; we’ll just be with Jesus through His Spirit, and that’s always good enough.

How do we wait for the Holy Spirit? Well, these disciples were together, and they were praying. And they weren’t just sitting around in between prayers; they were doing what they knew Jesus would want them to do (replace Judas). When we’re not sure what to do, we need to pray for God’s guidance and be about those things we know God wants us to do (study His word, share Jesus, live out the fruits of the Spirit, shine God’s light in our life). That’s a great start.


The Upper Room

We know from Acts 1 that the disciples initially were staying together in an upper room, and there were about 120 people there. That’s a big room. It’s possible it was the same room as the Last Supper (and it would make sense), but we simply don’t know. I’m thinking of a room about the size of our Chapel, maybe a little bigger. It would be tight, but feasible. And the inconvenience would have been mitigated by the privacy afforded by being above the street.

Now—is this upper room where the events of Pentecost took place? Maybe, but maybe not. “Privacy” is not what God would have wanted for this momentous event! Luke says they were in a “house” which most regularly means a private residence and rarely means the Temple. Grammatically speaking, it makes most sense for Luke’s “in one place” to be referring back to the upper room of chapter 1. On the other hand, the disciples regularly met in the Temple complex, and that would have been a reasonable place for God to pour out His Spirit. Public, open, and lots of people would have been around.

I could go either way with this (and the emphasis is on the event, not where it occurred). In Jerusalem, a large house would have been prominent, so if we want to go with the upper room option, it would have worked like this: the noise of the Spirit’s arrival would have attracted attention from the street, and the disciples speaking in these languages (very loudly) would have had to gone downstairs and disperse throughout the growing crowd. The text doesn’t say that, but it’s what would have had to have happened for Peter to be able to give his sermon to that crowd.


Part 2: The Questions Asked (Acts 2:5-13)

There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language? . . . But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!”

Clearly, I’ve already run out of space. Below, I have a map of the locations mentioned here and a comment on “every nation.” By God’s design, what the Spirit did attracted attention (and the word for “sound” is the word for “voices” not “wind”), and the outsiders were confused. Very few people learned multiple languages; most Jews spoke Aramaic and a little Hebrew and Greek. This was something new. How large was the crowd? Well, more than 3,000 were saved out of it, so you do the math. Most scholars assume that this is taking place in the Temple complex, the only close space that could accommodate such a crowd. If you believe the disciples had been in the upper room, they must have come out, and perhaps the trip to the Temple attracted even more attention.

No matter what you think about the continued role of “tongues” in our mission, there should be no debate that we are supposed to use our voices to declare the magnificent acts of God! I have heard very trusted friends describe events of miraculous language translation, so I believe that God still uses “tongues” in the Pentecost sense, but they are always in the context of a supernatural verification of the gospel. We might never speak in a tongue (especially if we’re always around English speakers!) but we can talk about God in English just fine. God used this to get attention, and it worked. In verse 7, the people were “astounded and amazed” which means that they were shocked by what happened and baffled how it happened. They had no rational explanations (yet, at least). In verse 12, the people were “astounded and perplexed” which is half-repeat but this time they were simply at a loss.

But at least one person explained this by saying the disciples were drunk! Note that Paul also uses this theme in Eph 5: “don’t get drunk with wine; instead be filled with the Spirit.” Being drunk is incompatible with being filled with the Spirit, and being drunk leads to ridicule. Peter knew this, but rather than be discouraged by the opposition, he countered it.


Part 3: The Opportunity Seized (Acts 2:14-15)

But Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them: “Men of Judah and all you residents of Jerusalem, let me explain this to you and pay attention to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine in the morning.”

This is one of the most important sermons in the Bible. Peter, good ‘ol foot-in-mouth Peter, explains to the crowd that what they are seeing is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament made possible through Jesus Christ. He knew why the crowd was in Jerusalem, what they had on their mind, and what the chatter was about Jesus. He turned all of that into a very powerful presentation of the gospel, and many people responded. If you have time to go through all of Peter’s sermon, please do (note that we will talk about it during the Easter lesson!). It has three sections: an apologetic (14-21), a proclamation (22-36), and a call to repentance (37-41). He doesn’t pull any punches. And I think if we are to take anything away from this part of the passage, it is to ask ourselves about our focus. (1) When we do things together as a group, is it pointing people to Jesus? (2) When outsiders make fun of us, do we shrink back, ignore, or engage? (3) Are we ready to tell somebody what God has done in Jesus? Never mind if we’re up for a Peter sermon! Are we simply ready to talk about Jesus? Peter was being a witness just as Jesus had commanded him to be.

Ask: do you feel unqualified to talk about Jesus? do you minimize God’s activity so as not to create confrontation? do you look out for opportunities to engage a skeptic in questions? If anyone says yes and you’re not sure what to do about that, let David or me know and we can help!

We’re going to be talking about churches for the next quarter. These early Jews had to come to grips with the fact that their mission was to reach into parts of the world that were not very Jewish. That hasn’t changed, and our country is littered with empty church buildings left behind by people who could not accept everything that mission entails. Are we willing to cross ethnic and cultural boundaries? The Holy Spirit will empower us to do so! We’re not on our own!


Closing Thoughts: The Nations of Acts 2

Here’s a handy map with the locations mentioned in Acts 2; mainly I note that these are locations from the entire known world. The word used for “nation” is what we would think of as a people group, people united by location, culture, and language. The fact that they “lived” in Jerusalem could mean that they were semi-permanent residents, or that they were staying in Jerusalem for an extended period. The locations mentioned come from each direction on the compass rose and they are actually pretty well distributed throughout the empire. Now, what do we do with “every nation under heaven” (considering that, say, Japanese aren’t mentioned)? Call it hyperbole with respect to the Jewish diaspora. Some of these trips are already more than a month; it is as far as it could possibly be.


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