The meaning of Pentecost is the role Christians have been assigned to play as the agents of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of the world. Pentecost makes the followers of Christ the means of God’s grace to the unbelieving world.
What we are about to read is a characteristic OT apocalypse: the forecast of disaster, brought about by the judgment of God, followed by ultimate triumph for the kingdom of God and vindication for the people of God. And like many such texts in the OT and the NT this particular text seems to point to that last great struggle of the powers of evil with the church and kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is to be ended by the coming of Christ in great power and the complete establishment of his kingdom of glory.
v.1 As you know the “day of the Lord” in biblical parlance is a day when God dramatically and decisively intervenes in the world to effect either his judgment or his salvation.
v.2 Now this is after the Babylonian exile so the prophet is not talking about that. He is using those terrible experiences of God’s people in the relatively recent past to describe the horrors of this Day of Judgment and catastrophe in the world. The half and half is another typical apocalyptic way of saying that while many of the people of God will suffer death or severe loss, the Lord will not allow his people to be overwhelmed or totally destroyed. A remnant will be preserved.
v.5 The appearance of the Lord in the company of a great host of angels is another typical feature of apocalyptic revelation. The image here is of a new valley being created enabling God’s people to escape from the city of Jerusalem. No one is quite sure where Azal is. But it is clear that the Lord has created a place of safety for his people wherever that place actually is. Again, these are dramatic figures describing the Lord’s protection of his people, securing the remnant of his people “from extermination in the turmoil of the day of the Lord.” [McComiskey, 1231] Any reader of the prophets or of the Olivette discourse, our Lord Jesus’ own prophecy of the future in the Gospels, or any reader of Revelation finds himself in familiar territory here.
So the first part of this scenario is the conquest of Jerusalem by her enemies, Jerusalem is here, of course, a figure for the people of God. As we saw not so long ago in our studies in Revelation, the nations coming against Jerusalem and the people of God are a familiar figure for the persecution that the church will suffer at the end of the age. But now, as so often in the prophetic forecasts of the future in the Bible, the Lord intervenes.
v.5 The appearance of the Lord with his hosts, the cosmic upheavals that accompany him, sound very like other descriptions of the cataclysmic events that will herald the end of history. We have the same sort of prophesies in the Olivette Discourse in the Gospels and in the book of Revelation. The days before are dark and bleak, but the Lord’s coming transforms the situation forever.
v.7 Strange goings on in regard to light and darkness are another familiar figure of the day of the Lord and, in the New Testament, of the consummation of the ages. Think of the statement in Rev. 21:23 that there is no sun in heaven because the glory of God gives light to the place. A day without light, a night without darkness; only the Lord can know what such things mean: but we know they mean the end of the cosmic order as we know it.
v.8 It is an impressive image in part because Jerusalem never had a really adequate supply of water. The few springs were outside the city filling pools within the walls. What is more, in that climate, rain was and is today seasonal and rivers run only at certain times of the year. It rains in the winter; it does not the rest of the year. But this river flows “in summer and winter” that is in both the wet and the dry seasons of the year. To people in that climate nothing was a more obvious symbol of divine blessing than a clear river of fresh water flowing all year long; that is blessing indeed in an land where water is scarce! Where water is as essential for life as it is here this kind of thing is life abundant! Ezekiel uses a similar image but his river flows from Jerusalem only to the east (42:1-12). Ezekiel emphasizes the fertility that results from all that water, how it makes the Dead Sea fresh and how that great body of water soon fills with fish. Zechariah leaves to our imagination the transformation that would result from such rivers coursing through an otherwise dry and stony land. [Baldwin, TOTC, 203]
It is really this image of living, fresh, clear, cold water streaming from Jerusalem to east and to west that I want to consider with you on this Pentecost morning. It is an image of salvation, of life flowing from the city of God and so the people of God to the rest of the world. And it is an image that our Savior himself directly related to the significance of Pentecost.
You remember the Lord’s famous remark made at the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths and recorded in John 7:37-39:
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
It is that phrase “living water” that ties the Lord’s remark in John 7 to this description in Zechariah 14 and especially v. 8, from which the Lord took the phrase.
On each day of the Feast of Tabernacles there was a water pouring rite. The priest would draw water from the Pool of Siloam in a golden pitcher and bring it, in procession, to the temple with the sounding of the trumpet. There the water was poured into a bowl beside the altar from which a tube took it to the base of the altar. It was an act of thanksgiving for the Lord providing water for his people in the wilderness and up to the present time. The Talmud reads: “Why is the name of it called, the drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’” [That last a citation of Isa. 12:3] So the Lord Jesus chose his occasion well for a remark about living water and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And you have no trouble understanding his point.
When a person comes to Christ and drinks the living water, he not only slakes his own spiritual thirst, but he becomes a source of that living water to others. The followers of Christ become a means of grace to the world. We are to be like the Sea of Galilee, drinking in and pouring out, not like the Dead Sea that drinks in but never pours out and becomes useless water as a result. That is, of course, the great significance of Pentecost. The Spirit was given to equip us to be a means of God’s saving grace to the world. Well the Lord’s remark about living water pouring out of the hearts of his followers is drawn from Zechariah 14:8. It means the same thing in the apocalypse of Zechariah 14 as it does in the Lord’s use of it in John 7. From the people of God salvation will come to the world and with that salvation, peace, happiness, goodness, and blessing of every kind.
Any reader of the Bible knows soon enough that, unlike the idols of the ancient world, the living God, Yahweh, is the creator and the ruler of heaven and earth. There is everywhere a vision of the entire world at God’s feet and of the people of God being drawn from every tongue and tribe and nation on the face of the earth. From the early chapters of Genesis onwards it is the entire human race that stands in view, in its sin and rebellion and judgment to be sure, but also in the prospect of its eventual salvation. There is always looming above and behind the prospect of a day when all the nations of the world will know the salvation of God. This is one of the threads that unite biblical revelation from beginning to end.
In one of the most programmatic texts in the entire Bible – if you were to reduce the Bible to four, five or six statements that would summarize all its teaching, this would be one of them – we read in the opening verses of Genesis 12 the promise God made to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
There is a sense in which that short paragraph is the entire Bible in sum. God starts with an individual, Abraham, makes from him a nation by which he reaches the entire world. John Stott has described those two verses in Genesis 12 as the most unifying verses in the Bible, because they state God’s purpose that will be unfolded through the rest of the Bible and worked out through history until its consummation. All along the way it is made clear that God has the whole world in his view and that he intends to call the whole world to himself. From the beginning of the OT to its end, you find the prospect of a day when all the nations of the world will know the salvation of God. And they will come to know that salvation through the people of God.
Throughout even the early stages of the history of the Israel there are any number of indications, hints, and anticipations of the salvation of others through the salvation of which Israel was the chief steward in the world of that day. 1) Joseph the Jew effected the deliverance of Egypt from death; 2) we read in Exodus 12:38 that many other people, non Jews, came out of Egypt with the Israelites and so were the beneficiaries of God’s redemption of his people; 3) provision was made in the law of God given to Moses for the alien to join the people of Israel by faith in her God and then to participate in her religious rites that were means of God’s saving grace; 4) though Canaanites were everywhere said to be anathema and to be banished from Israel, this did not mean that a believing woman like Rahab, no matter her checkered personal history, could not join the people of God; 5) though Moabites were commanded in Deuteronomy to be excluded from the people of God for ten generations, this prohibition did not include a woman like Ruth, a Moabite who had faith in Israel’s God; 6) in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple provision was made for the alien to pray to God and to be heard and answered; 7) Elijah saved the life of the widow and her son in Zerephath, outside of Israel; 8) Naaman, a Syrian general, came to Elisha and was healed of his leprosy and gave glory to the God of Israel; so later would Nebuchadnezzar, and so on. We read in Isa. 56:3, 6-7:
“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’…foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar…”
In the prophets especially, this expectation of the nations bowing before the Lord, of the Messiah extending his reign to the entire world became a central feature of their forecast of the future. Of the Messiah, the king promised to David, we read in Ps. 72:17: “All nations will be blessed through him and they will call him blessed.” And over and over we read such prophesies as these:
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” [Isa. 2:2] “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him… The wolf will live with the lamb…The infant will play near the hole of the cobra…for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” [11:1-9]
There are scores of texts just like those. Do you have any idea how implausible, how unlikely those results were when the prophets uttered their prophecies of the future? In that time Israel was a no account client state of great imperial powers in the ANE. Most of her land had been taken from her. Judea was largely Jerusalem and her suburbs and was all that was left from the great empire of David and Solomon. And now all nations are going to stream to Jerusalem? You’ve got to be kidding!
And, of course, we have that some image at the end of Zechariah 14, in the verses we did not read. And the same pattern is found in the New Testament: from the great seed or descendant of Abraham, Jesus Christ, is created a people, the church and body of Christ, and through that people all the nations of the earth will be blessed by being drawn to faith in Christ. As a Christian you need to know that there is nothing like this in the other religious visions of mankind. That God has love to show to everyone, that he has always desired the salvation of all mankind, that he never intended any other result but that his people should be drawn from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth: this grand vision is unique to Christianity. And so is the notion that he would save unworthy people from their sins by the sacrifice of his son, precisely so that they might then become the means of his saving others. The love of others, the salvation of others, a deep desire for the blessing and happiness and goodness of others indeed of the whole world: this lies in the heart of both the history and the message of our faith. Christianity does not believe in nonattachment, such as you find in Buddhism. Buddha says, “He who has no love has no woe.” It is a good thing to have no love. But the Christian message is encapsulated by the Lord Jesus in his famous remark: “As I have loved you, so love one another,” with all the woe and sorrow that love inevitably brings. Nor is Christianity animated by the desire for power, as is Islam. Whenever Christian kings and nations have sought to compel conversion, they have betrayed the faith, not served it. The Spirit reconciles men to God by persuasion and draws them by truth and love.
It is in this unique and wonderful context that Pentecost finds it great meaning as one of the very few defining moments in the history of the world. Our Lord spoke of Pentecost near the end of his earthly ministry as marking the next epoch in his work of salvation in the world. In the book of Acts there is no doubt that Pentecost is the opening salvo of the gospel’s campaign of conquest in the world. As John Stott puts it: “Pentecost was essentially a missionary event.” [The Incomparable Christ, 165] On the day of Pentecost, with few exceptions, every true believer, every person in the world who was right with God, was a Jew, and there were not many of them, Jews who believed in Jesus Christ. The religion of Moses – though it held out the prospect of the salvation of the whole world – was not itself a missionary faith. Search the Law of Moses and you will find no command to bear the news of salvation through the redemption of God to the four corners of the world. There is no “Great Commission” in Exodus or Deuteronomy. But Pentecost begins the day of salvation for the world as a whole and marks the spiritual equipment of the church for her greatest work: the calling of the nations. And how does the salvation of God come to the world on the day of Pentecost? Through a sermon, an explanation delivered by one of Jesus’ followers. Peter preached and 3000 believed, probably more than ever believed during the three years of Jesus’ preaching and public ministry. And so it continues today.
What is the story of the Acts of the Apostles? Is it not the story of the earliest efforts made by Christians to reach peoples beyond Jerusalem with the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. In Acts we see the water of life beginning to flow to the east and to the west from the hearts of God’s people.
Think for a moment, again, if this prospect of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem were unlikely when Isaiah and Zechariah made their prophecies, how even more unlikely was the spread of the gospel after Pentecost. Jesus was a Jew and that was certainly no recommendation of his message in the Greco-Roman world. There was a huge prejudice against Judaism. People in the world today often object to Christianity for similar reasons: it is a Western religion or a white man’s religion. Well, it was so in that day too. It was a Jewish sect. Jesus was born in Judea, a minor and troublesome province in a distant corner of the empire. His family circumstances were unremarkable, to say the least. And, then, he was executed as a common criminal by the Roman governor of Judea. Hardly anyone’s candidate to be the savior of the world! What is more, the message was, not to put too fine a point on it, preposterous by standards of the world of that day. Salvation through crucifixion? The resurrection of the body? An ethical system that made hash of virtually all Greco-Roman standards of morality? Come on! It would have been hard to conceive of a message less credible, less likely to be acceptable to the Greco-Roman world than the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Paul himself once put it, the Jews were scandalized by it and the Greeks thought it ridiculous. And once Christians began to multiply, the gospel message had to bear a still further burden: the active displeasure and eventually violent opposition on the part of the Roman authorities. Become a Christian and make your life a lot more difficult than it already is! Who is going to sign on for that? The prospect of the gospel’s success, humanly speaking, in other words, was zero to none! Nothing more remarkable has ever happened in the history of the world. The message did catch on, caught fire indeed, and spread rapidly to east and west. Christian preachers such as the apostle Paul entered cities, towns, and villages and told the story of Jesus Christ, urged people to believe in him and, lo and behold, they did, in great numbers, their lives were transformed by the gospel. Paul, for example, simply explained his message to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, as we read in Acts 17, and several believed at the very first hearing of that completely unlikely story! Very quickly, by the middle of the first century, there were Christians to be found in all the great cities of the Mediterranean world and many more to the east of the Holy Land.
The Spirit of God is not hindered by the prejudices of the human heart. People who would never ever have imagined themselves becoming the followers of an amateur Jewish Rabbi became his followers in droves. It was the power of the Spirit that opened hearts to respond to the message when they heard it from Christians.
At first the success of the gospel may have seemed to be dependent upon the miraculous phenomena as it was on the day of Pentecost itself, though, so far as we know, these miraculous phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, occurred only where the apostles went and only in connection with their ministries. But it wasn’t the miracles after all that made the difference, as appears from the incontestable fact that soon everywhere the gospel was advancing with no miraculous phenomena occurring at all; advancing by no other means than the explanations and appeals offered by Christians who announced the good news and then adorned it with their own lives. Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity in the third century, pours scorn on a philosophy that was spread by “women gossiping Christ at the laundry,” but in his mockery he inadvertently told us how the gospel spread. Ordinary believers, simple folk, spoke to others of Jesus and salvation while they went about the business of their daily lives. Justin who would later write important defenses of the faith and die a martyr’s death, found Christ through a chance conversation with a Christian man he met while walking on the beach. Rivers of living water were flowing from Christian hearts in every direction. And soon the honored office of Christian missionary became a feature of the world’s landscape. The apostles were, of course, the first missionaries, men whose calling it was to take the gospel to people and places where it had not gone before. But a great many soon followed in their steps.
These were missionaries as we understand missionaries: people who embed themselves in another culture and learn the language so that they can communicate the gospel to people who need to hear it. There is a charming apology at the beginning of the 2nd century bishop and theologian Irenaeus’ great work Against Heresies. He has been for years laboring in central Gaul, he says, among the Celts, and had taken the trouble to learn their language. Indeed, he spoke that language more often than he spoke Greek. For that reason he appeals to his readers to forgive his clumsy writing style; he’d forgotten much of his Greek. He was trying to reach these people with the gospel and so needed to speak to them in their own language.
How are we to explain the church’s commitment to the spread of the good news? How are we to explain the gospel’s march of conquest through the world when reason would suggest that the gospel couldn’t have successfully made its way out of Judea, much less conquer the Greco-Roman world? You take all of this for granted because the gospel is now everywhere. Here you are, Christians in Tacoma, Washington. There is nothing that has ever happened in the world more unlikely than a group of people should be gathering on the Lord’s Day in Tacoma, Washington as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible’s answer to how this happened is Pentecost. Living water was flowing from the hearts of Christians to the hearts of unbelievers because the Holy Spirit had come and enabled us to undertake that great work! Unbelief was overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost made Christians the means of divine grace to the world.
Remember his words to his disciples in Acts 1:8, the words he spoke just before ascending to heaven, when he was telling them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit he would send from heaven.
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; [and what will be the result of that, how is that going to change your lives, what is going to be different because of that?] and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And so it has continued to be, the living water pouring out of the people of God – from Jerusalem – and flowing to the east and the west. Take this example chosen at random from thousands I might have chosen. The author, a 20th century missionary to Korea, is recounting an evening in a Korean village church. Someone else was to speak but didn’t come. So the task fell to an old man who had recently been ordained as a deacon in the village church. He couldn’t read his Bible in the poor candle light, so he removed his spectacles, laid them on his Bible, and said that he would instead give his personal testimony.
“I used to practice medicine according to the old native methods,” he began. “I was also a sorcerer. People came to me to find the day on which to plan the wedding, so that the greatest blessing and happiness might result. I was skillful in the art of divination. I was also a necromancer [communicating with the dead.] People sought my advice when choosing a grave site to bury their dead, so as to be free from the molestation of the spirits.”
The author of the book now comments. “… I had known the deacon for quite a while, but this was the first time I had learned the details of his past life. If he was consulted to secure the right grave site, he was considered an important man, for if the right site is not chosen the displeased and angry spirits may wreak vengeance on the remaining relatives. Bankruptcy, sickness, and even death may result. The people live constantly in dread and fear of spirits. But the old deacon went on. He was holding his audience spellbound. His intense earnestness compelled all to listen to what he had to say.
“Also, I was in the liquor business. Then these people came out from the hospital, preaching the Jesus doctrine. I was much opposed to that. But on one occasion I heard one of them, in referring to this Bible, say, ‘In this Book there is life.’ That remark caught my attention. Life? That was what I really wanted. In all my former pursuits or practices I was never satisfied. I did not have peace.
“I began to read the New Testament. As I did so I was surprised, amazed. I saw …Jesus Christ portrayed. As I continued to read and to behold this One in the Bible, the strangest thing happened. I found him myself. And in finding Him, I found life. I found that peace and satisfaction which I had never had before. The former things that I had been indulging in were all empty, they were all vanity, they were of no avail.”
What a message the old man gave us that night! What a witness he was to redeeming grace! The old sorcerer had been transformed into a saint! All sense of weariness disappeared as we sat fairly enraptured at the power of the grace of God manifested in this old man.
That was the Holy Spirit’s doing! That is the legacy of Pentecost: 1900 years later and far from Jerusalem, a Korean sorcerer became a follower of Jesus Christ because of remarks made to him by Christian believers. [William Chisholm, Experiences in Korea, 75-77]
In Zechariah 14 we are given to see the end of this great history of salvation begun at Pentecost. We see its consummation at the last day. But the living water that will then cover the whole earth is already flowing in every direction. Today we remember Pentecost. And to remember that great day is to remember the role we are privileged to play in the great story of the world’s salvation. Those who love Pentecost will be those who tell the message of Jesus Christ to others. Pentecost is the day of all days of the year when we are to remember our calling that we are the Lord’s witnesses, that we have living water to share with others, and that a great privilege has been bestowed upon us to contribute to the day when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Make it your goal, your commitment to the Lord that in this coming year you will pray and work to see someone come to faith in Jesus Christ. That is the true celebration of Pentecost. That is true reverence for what God did for us and gave to us that day. As a great early Christian preacher put it, “there is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.” [Chrysostom, Act. Hom, 20.4]
What is our calling as Christians after Pentecost? I love this definition from the Anglican archbishop William Temple:
“To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Savior, and serve him as their king in the fellowship of the church.”
It was the same William Temple who reminds us that the Christian church “is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” That is the meaning and the calling of Pentecost: the glory and privilege of our place, yours and mine, in the Spirit’s work of the world’s salvation. We honor the Holy Spirit and Pentecost, when we pray:
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 from around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me
‘It was you who invited me here.’