The Third Great Work of God Acts 2:1-13


Acts 2:1-13

It is Pentecost, and over the last some years, I have devoted a sermon to the event that is commemorated on this day. In our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, rightly revered and beloved as it is and for many excellent reasons, Pentecost has not received the attention that it deserves. For example, not only is there no chapter devoted to the Holy Spirit in the Westminster Confession of Faith, or specific questions about the Holy Spirit asked and answered in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Pentecost is not so much as even mentioned in those three large documents. Those omissions reveal a blind spot to be sure and it is important for us to attempt to redress that imbalance for, in truth, Pentecost is of immense importance in the history of redemption. I took the title of this sermon from a remark of the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, who, in his Reformed Dogmatics, wrote,

“After the creation and the incarnation [that is, the appearance in the world of God the Son as a man], the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the third great work of God.” [iii, 500]

The prophets had long before prophesied a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all mankind. John the Baptist, you remember, had promised that when the Messiah appeared, he would baptize with the consuming and purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. The Bible looked forward to this event as the culmination of the work of salvation, as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Pentecost is the moment when the gospel burst out of its Jewish boundaries and took wing. Pentecost marks the beginning of the gospel’s progress to the four corners of the earth. We who are sitting in this sanctuary are among the hundreds of millions who are the fruit of Pentecost! The Lord had told his disciples before he left the world that when the Spirit came they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth. And that is precisely what happened. Pentecost provided the means by which the church would bear witness to Jesus Christ across the earth; Pentecost made the church and all the Christians in her the means of God’s grace to the world. There was no Great Commission in the OT, there was no Great Commission in the New until the eve of Pentecost, but the Spirit enabled the church to fulfill that world-wide mission.

Text Comment

v.1

Pentecostis from the Greek word for “50” because this feast occurred fifty days after the first Sunday after Passover. It was the OT’s Feast of Weeks, a late spring harvest festival (Lev. 23:15-16) That is how we know that Pentecost fell on a Sunday: 50 days from a Sunday is a Sunday. That Pentecost fell on a Sunday is, of course, no accident; it is another way in which the first day of the week was established as the new Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath.

v.2

You know that the Greek word pneuma can be translated either spirit or wind. As before in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life and as in John 3 and the Lord’s remarks about the new birth, the wind is a symbol of the Spirit of God. The point of the phenomenon of the sound of wind is that it was the Spirit of God that came upon the disciples!

v.3

Remember John the Baptist’s prophecy of Christ’s baptizing his disciples with the spirit and with fire. Fire also denotes the divine presence, the presence that both purifies and punishes.

v.4

“Filled with the Spirit” here is another way of saying “baptized with the Spirit” as it reads in 1:5. These are two different ways of speaking of the influence of the Holy Spirit in and upon a person and especially for the purpose of equipping him or her for serving the Lord and the gospel.

The phrase “other tongues” is explained in vv. 6, 8, and 11. What people heard were their own languages, the languages they spoke at home, but languages that the disciples had never learned and languages these people knew they had never learned. The word “tongue” means simply language, language in the sense of Aramaic, Greek, Spanish, or English; language in the sense of any of the thousands of “tongues” spoken today in this world. The Greek word, let me emphasize again, is simply the ordinary Greek word for “language.” The tongue in your mouth became a term for human language because everyone speaks with his or her tongue.

It is something of a failure of nerve for translators to keep the old translation “tongue” as if this term meant something other than simply one of the many languages spoken by human beings. Similarly, the word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians, when he’s talking about what we refer to as “speaking in tongues” is simply this word “tongue” meaning “language.” Similarly, the term translated “interpretation,” in the phrase “interpretation of tongues,” is simply the ordinary word for “translation.” The other evening Florence and I watched the movie Of God’s and Men, the stirring account of some Trappist monks who refused to leave their monastery in Algeria or their ministry to local villagers, many of whom were Muslim, when jihadist terrorists began killing Christians in the area. They were most of them eventually kidnapped and murdered themselves. But the movie was in French and while we tried to catch as much of the French dialogue as we could, we depended on the English subtitles. Those subtitles are what are called “interpretation” in the various English translations of the New Testament, translating one language into another.

It is, of course, theoretically possible, as has often been claimed, that the “tongues” in Acts and 1 Corinthians are not human languages; that they were, perhaps, some angelic language, something different from one of the many human languages that are distinguished from one another by their morphology (the spelling of words), their vocabulary, and their grammar. But there is no explicit evidence to indicate this and it seems clear that what the foreigners heard on Pentecost was the gospel being preached in their own languages.

The simple meaning of the text is that this was a miracle precisely because the ability to speak a language one did not know could not be explained in natural terms. If I begin preaching the gospel in Swahili, never having learned Swahili, and someone present who is a Swahili speaker knows exactly what I am saying, not by any supernatural gift but simply because he knows Swahili, by anyone’s definition that’s a miracle! Every claim that has ever been made in modern charismatic movements that the “tongues” that were being spoken by Christians were, in fact, some other language spoken elsewhere in the world — Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, and so on — has been rather simply and quickly disproved. Modern tongues-speaking such as occurs every day in many Christian churches is not the miraculous speaking of known languages. So, whatever you say or believe about so-called “tongues” today, they are not the tongues of Acts 2.

It is important to remember that ecstatic speech is not unique to Christianity. The kind of tongues-speaking such as you find in a number of Christian churches is also found in Islam and in some eastern religions. But the tongues you find in Acts 2 is an altogether different thing and genuinely miraculous.

In the Old Testament also the filling of the Holy Spirit resulted in divinely inspired speech, usually then called prophecy and so here.

v.5

It is highly important, as far as the meaning of Pentecost is concerned, that the experience of this filling by the Spirit compelled the disciples to leave the room where they had been and into contact with other people.

The hyperbole of this statement — every nation under heaven — makes the key point of the chapter! Pentecost is about the spread of the gospel to the whole world, to every tongue, tribe, and nation on earth. As I heard John Stott once say in a sermon, “Pentecost was essentially a missionary event.” Pentecost provided the means by which the great commission would be fulfilled.

v.11

The list contains nations east and west, north and south of Judea and is clearly meant to indicate the people from all the known world were there and heard the message in their own vernacular. These people were, of course, Jews, in Jerusalem as pilgrims to celebrate the feast; but at the moment the important thing about them was not that they were Jews, but that they had come from and would return to so many different countries where so many languages were spoken. Luke regards them as representing the whole world. The great sign miracle of Pentecost was the proclamation of the gospel in many languages to the people of many countries. Pentecost is the reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel.

v.13

Of course there were plenty of folk in the crowd who knew none of the languages that were being spoken by the apostles; it would have sounded like gibberish to them, as hearing a foreign language spoken at normal speed sounds like gibberish to us.

It is remarkable how times have changed. Some of you will appreciate this more than others. Some of you younger adults will not be as aware or aware at all of the change. But it was not so long ago that if this text were read or considered in a sermon the pressing issue of application would have been whether or not such a thing as speaking in tongues were happening today and whether Christians ought to be speaking in tongues as they did on the day of Pentecost. There were many Christians not so long ago who were arguing that speaking in tongues was still the sign of the Spirit’s presence and, at the same time, there were many Christians arguing contrarily that the entire phenomenon of tongues-speaking as it was being practiced was contrived, that these so-called tongues were in truth simply gibberish, and that the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with them.

In those days the tongues movement, or as we came to call it, the charismatic movement, after the Greek word charisma – the Greek word for gift that Paul employs when speaking about spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12 — was big news, national news, news for Time and Newsweek and for the great newspapers of the world, and a hot topic of Christian conversation. It was the supreme controversy in American evangelical Christianity for some twenty years. In those days Christians were often confronted with the claim that the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy and the like were abroad in the church and should be sought and experienced.

The charismatic movement that reshaped American evangelicalism in profound ways in the 1960s and 1970s began to wane in the 1980s.  I don’t mean to suggest that it is a spent force or has disappeared. Far from it. But it has changed. And, very clearly, speaking in tongues is not the phenomenon that it once was in American evangelical life.

Since then what has come to be called Pentecostalism’s “third wave” has washed over the evangelical world. In the third wave, especially associated with the late John Wimber and his Vineyard churches, speaking in tongues, which had been the distinguishing mark of the charismatic movement from the early 1960s onward, figured much less prominently or not at all. Prophecy, so-called “words of knowledge,” and healing were John Wimber’s emphasis and he specifically repudiated the old Pentecostal/charismatic teaching that speaking in tongues was the mark of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second, distinct work of grace in a believer’s life that lifted him or her up to a higher plane of spiritual experience and fruitfulness.

As eventually happened to the charismatic movement born in the early 1960s, so the influence of that “third wave” has for some years been receding, in some part having spent itself in the excesses of the Toronto Blessing, if you remember, what was also called the “laughing revival.”

The idea of a two-stage Christian life, a lower or higher Christian life is what made tongues both so important and so controversial in the charismatic movement.  It was this claim that those who spoke in tongues lived on a higher plane of spiritual experience and life than those who did not; the claim that the ability to speak in tongues was a sign of the Spirit’s greater presence in a person’s life that, understandably, divided believers from one another. And so in those days this morning’s text was used, by one side or the other in the debate, to answer three questions:

  1. What were these tongues?
  2. Can we expect them today?
  3. What did they mean? (That is, were they evidence of a deeper or higher spiritual life and experience.)

But the situation we face in 2013 is, in this respect, not the same that we were facing in the 1970s and 80s. We were never persuaded, as you know, by the claim that the gift of speaking in tongues or languages, such as we find here in Acts 2, had reappeared in the modern church, excited as some brothers and sisters even in Reformed churches were by those claims. There were many arguments by which we justified our skepticism that I needn’t repeat today, but chief among them was the fact that the problem of authentication itself rendered the claims suspicious at the outset.

Whatever you say about NT speaking in tongues or languages, clearly they were a genuinely supernatural phenomenon.  They were a demonstration of divine power. They astonished people because they couldn’t be explained. Here, in our text, that point is put front and center. The people who heard the apostles, Galileans all, proclaim the gospel in their various languages, were utterly flummoxed by the fact that they could communicate in languages they had never learned and did not know.  This was a genuine miracle. I think it’s a genuine miracle sometimes when my Latin IV students can translate a single sentence of Caesar’s Gaelic Wars, but here were electrifying sermons in what I am sure was perfectly grammatical Parthian, perfectly grammatical Assyrian, perfectly grammatical Egyptian. But that was just the great problem with the modern phenomenon of “tongues.” In the Bible miracles always came with self-authenticating demonstration. No one was ever heard discussing whether or not a miracle had actually occurred.  We are never taught in the Bible how to discern between real miracles and false miracles.  And the reason for that is that when God’s almighty power was unleashed in the world – as it was in only a few periods in biblical history by the way – everyone knew it.  Even those people who had most at stake in believing that miracles had not occurred did not deny that they had, because they could not deny it. The religious authorities who were so envious of the Lord’s power and popularity did not deny the wonders he had performed. They ascribed his power to the Devil and not to God, but that he had performed works of supernatural power, they did not, they could not deny. And so it always was with biblical miracles.

True enough, there were some on Pentecost who thought the disciples were speaking gibberish and that this was to be explained by the fact that they were drunk. But no doubt that was because they weren’t speaking their languages. There were locals present that day who didn’t speak any of these foreign tongues. But hundreds if not thousands of others knew very well that something absolutely unprecedented was happening; knew they were in the presence of a power beyond anything they had ever experienced before. In respect to tongues there have been many in modern times who have mimicked modern tongues-speaking and no listener was able to tell whether the speaker was a practitioner or a mimic; but it is obvious in Acts 2 that no one could have mimicked what the apostles did!

And that problem of authentication was the problem of the modern charismatic movement. Just as Christians who claim to have performed supernatural healings cannot persuade most of the church that they have done so, much less the unbelieving world, in the same way Christians who claim to have spoken in foreign languages have never been able to persuade even much of the Christian church that they have done any such remarkable thing. As I said, other religions feature ecstatic utterance as part of their worship. Christians who claim to be speaking in supernatural languages have not been able to convince even the majority of well-wishers in the Christian church that what they are doing is not simply man-made as it is in other religions.  I have told you before that you have nothing to fear. You needn’t worry that you might miss some marvelously supernatural spiritual experience because you aren’t seeking it or looking for it.

When divine power is unleashed in the world, as it was on the day of Pentecost you will know it.  Everyone will know it. You will read about it on the front page of the New York Times. The editors may well ascribe that power to the wrong source but they will be no more able to deny what has occurred than were the Egyptians in Moses’ day or the Pharisees in Jesus’ day or the assembled crowd on Pentecost.

It is precisely this problem of authentication that has typically led such movements to peter out over time. People come in ever larger numbers to doubt that the tongues they hear people or that they themselves have been speaking are a supernatural phenomenon at all. It has happened in ages past; it is happening today. Even many ostensibly Pentecostal or charismatic churches nowadays emphasize or even feature tongues-speaking little or not at all.

All of that to clear the decks and to free us to pay attention to what is the actual burden of the text we have read this morning. The burden of this text is not the miracle of tongues itself. The miracle of speaking in foreign languages one has not learned occurred just a few times and in a few places very early on. It was a miracle, as all New Testament miracles, associated with the apostles and their ministry. All biblical miracles occur in association with prophets or apostles. The miracle was a great visible sign of the meaning of Pentecost, but it wasn’t Pentecost itself. It pointed to what was happening, but it wasn’t itself what was happening.

The whole point of the miracle of tongues was to illustrate and to confirm the significance of Pentecost as the equipment of the church by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel to the entire world. The reason this large group of people, who Luke is careful to say represented the whole world, heard the gospel in their own language is because this is what was to happen throughout the world in years to come, all because of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church at Pentecost.

The Spirit’s blessing of the church’s witness has lasted through the ages since, the miraculous way in which that witness was first given did not. Pentecost was indeed a missionary event! But it would, of course, not be so easy in years to come. Missionaries would have to submit to the very hard work of learning the languages of the people to whom they were sent. Miraculous language acquisition was never to be the normal state of affairs any more than the miraculous healing of the sick.

Irenaeus was a third generation church father, a disciple of Polycarp, the martyr in the middle of the second century. Polycarp himself was an acquaintance of the Apostle John and that is what we mean when we say Irenaeus was a third generation church father. He was a disciple of a man who himself had known the Apostle John. Irenaeus was a missionary to Gaul, what is nowadays the south of France, especially the city of Lyon. He wrote a very important early work of Christian apologetics, Against Heresies, published around the year 180. In the introduction to that great work Irenaeus apologized to his readers for the rudeness of his Greek style. The problem, he said, was that he had spent so much time and energy learning the language of the Gauls and had spoken it for so long that he hadn’t cultivated or retained the refinements of Greek prose style. But he brought the gospel to a nation that didn’t know it! [I, 3] That is Pentecost without the sign miracle!

So many Christian missionaries had to become linguists in order to fulfill their gospel calling. They had first to master the tongue of the people to whom they had been sent so that they could explain the gospel to them in words they would understand. This was true of the early missionaries, Ulfilas in the 4th century, Columba in the 6th century, and Boniface in the 8th century. But it has been true ever since. Robert Morrison, the first modern missionary to reach China had to learn Mandarin before he could preach Christ in that language. William Carey, the first of thousands of western missionaries sent to India, had to learn a new language, publish a grammar and a dictionary, and translate the Bible into Bengali before he could make any real progress on the gospel’s behalf among the people to whom he had been sent. Henry Martyn would do the same in Persia some decades later. By this means the Spirit made vast multitudes of people into followers of Christ through the centuries.

The real work of Pentecost, without the miraculous trappings, is what Wycliffe  Bible Translators are doing all over the world, what our Rosemary Sheldon will be doing in a year’s time. You can’t explain how Christ came to save sinners if the people whom you are speaking to don’t understand the language you speak. It seems so simple, but it was precisely this barrier that was breached at Pentecost and breached so that it would continue to be breached thereafter.

But, of course, it isn’t the missionaries and the Bible translators only. There were those local folk who never heard the gospel in a foreign tongue, but who heard it that day from Peter in their own language. You and I are also to be the Lord’s witnesses. Pentecost is for us as well. In that sense we are all missionaries; we have neighbors and workmates and family members and  acquaintances who will never be saved and never go to heaven if they do not not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ explained in terms they can understand, the language you and I already speak.  Pentecost made missionaries and evangelists of the whole church.

You can’t read the Bible and suppose that miracles are to be the ordinary stuff of Christian life and witness. If they were they wouldn’t be miracles! No one can read the Bible and think that sharing the good news is always going to be easy and uncomplicated work. It cost the apostles their lives and before they died they virtually worked themselves to death doing that work. It may cost us a friendship, it may require courage to do it and study to do it well. But we know that.

That isn’t what we need to be assured of. We don’t need to know that our life will be easy and that bearing witness to Jesus to unbelieving people will be an uncomplicated assignment. We know that’s not true. What we need to know, what we need to firmly believe, what we need to be convinced of is that the Word of God is powerful to break the rock into pieces. We need to know that the Holy Spirit is with us to make our pitiful explanations of the good news attractive and convincing to others. What we need to know is that God really intends for us, for you and for me, to be the means of his saving grace to this dying world. And Pentecost is the proof of all of that.

Peter’s sermon on Pentecost resulted in 3,000 people confessing faith in Jesus Christ. Remarkable. I don’t suppose Peter ever preached a sermon again that resulted in a hundred conversions, much less 3,000. But again and again he preached and he explained the gospel to people and they believed. People who shouldn’t have believed, people who had no intention of believing in Jesus Christ, people who had never heard of Jesus Christ before, people who had to that point been hostile to the Christian message believed in Jesus and couldn’t help but believe in Jesus. Wealthy, comfortable sophisticated people in the great cities of the world and unlettered peasants in primitive locales believed in Jesus when his story was told and couldn’t tell you why they did. Except, they knew with a certainty that it was true and that Jesus and Jesus only was the way to God and to heaven. It was the Holy Spirit who drew them to Jesus Christ in living faith, but he drew them through the empowered witness of Christians.

Pentecost is what explains the wonderful history of Christian conversion, throughout the ages and up into our own day, and among every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth.

What is Pentecost supposed to mean to us? How is this history supposed to affect us? How are we to respond to this text? In this way; with this prayer:

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for Thee.
And when I come to the beautiful city,
And the saved all around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me
‘It was you who invited me here.’