The last days have arrived! - Acts 2:1-47

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 13th August 2006.

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With over five billion people alive on Planet Earth, every historian needs to be selective. With so many people to choose from and with so many events taking place every second, the person who dares to write a book of history inevitably focuses on what they think is significant. It is simply impossible to include everything which happens in our world. There is far too much information to include in one book. And so, therefore, historians are forced to pick and choose only those events which they decide are important. Now I don’t own a vast collection of world history books but, if I was a betting man, I would wager everything I own (which of course isn’t very much because I am a Church of England clergyman) on the complete absence of the Day of Pentecost from every secular history book that has ever been printed. How many of you can remember studying the Day of Pentecost in GCSE History? It’s just not on the curriculum, is it? It’s just not in the books. And yet here it is in the Book of Acts! Here it is in the Bible! Secular historians may have relegated this amazing event to the category of minor triviality but God has deliberately chosen to include it in the greatest history book of all. So here is our challenge for this evening: Do we understand the significance of the Day of Pentecost? We know it is important, otherwise, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. But do we know why God preserved these words to be read throughout the centuries?

Let’s find out. Have a look at the strange events described in verses 1 to 4. “When the day of Pentecost came, they [that is. the original followers of Jesus] were all together in one place.  2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.”

The Feast of Pentecost was a major Jewish festival. It took place, as its name suggests, 50 days after the Feast of Passover and, by the time of Jesus, it was celebrated for two particular reasons. First of all, it was celebrated to thank God for the gift of food and, secondly, to thank God for the gift of his law. In the Old Testament it is also called the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of the Firstfruits. And you will find all the references you need on your handout. It was celebrated at the end of the grain harvest and, in fact, the firstfruits of this harvest were used in the celebrations. So, according to the Old Testament, the Feast of Pentecost was an agricultural festival. It was an opportunity for the people of God to thank their Creator for the gift of food. However, by the time of Jesus, it was also celebrated for quite a different reason. The people still used the Feast to thank God for their food but they also used it to thank God for giving them his law at Mount Sinai. Because of what they read in Exodus 19:1, the Israelites concluded that God had presented his law to their ancestors 50 days after the original Passover. And so, therefore, they concluded that the day of Pentecost was also an appropriate occasion to celebrate the gift of God’s law.

Now it was during this festival when the strange events of verses 2 and 3 took place. As Jesus’ disciples waited in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit they were suddenly confronted by an amazing audio/visual display. Verse 2. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Now let’s get this clear. This wasn’t a violent wind which filled the whole house. This was not a concentrated gale force wind confined to one particular place. No, this was something which sounded like a violent wind. You can almost hear them trying to describe their experience to Dr Luke, the man who wrote the book of Acts. “It’s so hard to describe Luke. One minute everything was quiet. A few people in the corner having a chat. Other people praying to the Lord. But then, in a flash, the room we were gathered in was filled with a sound we have never heard before. What was it like?

Well, I don’t know. It’s so hard to pin down. But I guess if you pushed me I would say it sounded like a powerful wind rushing through the building. And what did we see? Well, we saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that somehow separated and came to rest on each of us.” So again please notice that they did not see real fire in the house. No one rushes for the nearest fire extinguisher. They saw what seemed like tongues of fire, which then separated [which I think is significant] and came to rest on each one of them. Which resulted in the conclusion of verse 4. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Now, of course, these are very strange events, they are not part of our every day experience. But I think if we remember what Jesus said to his disciples in Acts 1 the meaning of these strange events will become crystal clear. So if you’ve got your bibles open have a look at Acts 1:4. It’s just over the page. And this is Jesus speaking to his disciples before he returned to heaven. “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.””

So do you see what Jesus’ disciples are doing at the beginning of Acts 2? They are following his commands to the letter. They are waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are waiting for the power to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. And this is exactly what they received on the Day of Pentecost. After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit from God the Father, Jesus sent him to dwell in his people.   

And when he arrived in Jerusalem, 50 days after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was accompanied by an appropriate audio/visual presentation. You may like to know that in the original Biblical languages, both in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for wind and the word for Spirit is exactly the same. And when we think about what the disciples were waiting for in Jerusalem how very appropriate that the Holy Spirit’s presence was symbolised by a sound like a powerful wind. And what a delight to read that his appearance in Jerusalem was also accompanied by what seemed to be tongues of fire. Remember this is the Day of Pentecost, the day when the people of God looked back to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. And this is what we read about that day in the Book of Exodus, Exodus 19:16-18: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.  17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire.” So on the very day when the people of God looked back to the giving of the law on Sinai, Jesus sent God the Holy Spirit to write his law on the hearts of his people. Or as verse 4 puts it, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” They were given the miraculous ability to speak in other human languages they had not learnt. None of them had a Latin GCSE between them. No one had thought it wise to send off for the Linguaphone: Egyptian made easy Information Pack. These were regional people, whose linguistic ability was severely limited. And yet here they were speaking languages they had never been taught. 

So let’s ask the obvious question. Why did the Holy Spirit enable them to speak in foreign languages? We begin to find out in verse 5. “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”

And, according to verse 6, when they heard the strange sound coming from the disciples’ house they gathered together to see what was going on. But when they arrived at the house they were completely bewildered because each of them heard at least one of Jesus’ disciples speaking his own language.  Which leads us very naturally to verse 7. “Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?  8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” It is a truly remarkable scene! If you look on a map the places mentioned in verses 9 to 11 scan across the territory of the Roman Empire. And yet what happens on the Day of Pentecost? Verse 11. All of these Jews hear the followers of Jesus declaring the wonders of God in their own languages.

But, according to verse 12, they had no idea why such an event was taking place. They are amazed and perplexed but they had no satisfying explanation for the events they were currently experiencing. They had nothing to say. So into the gap stepped the local comedians. Verse 13. “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” “Amazed and perplexed are you? Struggling for an answer? I think we know what’s been going on. These men have been down the pub. Can you not smell the alcohol on their breath?” But when was the last time you heard a drunk person start speaking a language they had never been taught? That’s not what happens when you get intoxicated. Otherwise, foreign language students around the world would get completely wasted before any big exam. So why did some in the crowd think the disciples were drunk? Well, that’s what they must have sounded like to those who didn’t speak any other languages. Those who did speak other languages couldn’t deny the evidence straight in front of them. They were hearing the wonders of God being declared in their own native tongue. But to those whose linguistic ability was very much like most UK citizens today the words of the disciples would have seemed like the incoherent murmurings of the local drunks. And so they decided to have a bit of fun.

Now at this point Peter decided he had to speak up. Enough was enough. A simple explanation of the strange events was demanded. So we’re told in verse 14 that Peter stood up with the 11 other Apostles, raised his voice and addressed the crowd. “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.  15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” “The pubs aren’t open yet,” he said. “Extended opening hours are thousands of years away. How could we be drunk at this time in the morning! Give us a break. No, the reason for the events you see today is found in the Old Testament book of Joel.” Verse 16. “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:  17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

Do you see the point? Peter is claiming that the strange events of Pentecost are, in fact, evidence that God has poured out the Holy Spirit on his people. Many years previously the prophet Joel had predicted that such an event would happen. But he had also predicted that when it did take place it would be demonstrated by the whole people of God engaging in prophecy. And that’s what Peter argues is taking place on the Day of Pentecost. “These people are not drunk but they have been filled by the Spirit of God. And how do we know? Because they are all speaking the word of God to you - and that’s what prophecy is. In fact, not only have they been given the strength to declare the wonders of God to a watching world but they have also been given the ability to declare these amazing truths in languages they have never even been taught!” Or to put it simply: Their prophesying is evidence they have been filled by the Spirit.

And their filling by the Spirit is proof that a new era has begun. It’s what Peter calls the last days. Pentecost marks the beginning of a new stage in human history. It may not be recorded in any of the secular history books but its significance is vital for us to grasp. The last days are a wonderful period of opportunity for everyone in the world. They will end with the personal return of Jesus Christ to judge the world. It’s what verse 20 refers to as “the great and glorious day of the Lord.” But, in the last days, the period of time before the return of Christ, the period of time we are living in now, there is a wonderful opportunity for everyone in the world to be saved. Did you see that in verse 21? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In the last days salvation is no longer restricted to the nation of Israel. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

In Genesis 11, we are told the story of the tower of Babel. It is a monstrous tale of collective human arrogance, when the whole human race gathered together to assault the rule of God. 

Now to stop it happening again God decided to confuse the languages of the people. Previously, they could all communicate easily with each other but, from Genesis 12 onwards, the human race is separated into different language groups. It was for their own protection. It was not safe for human sinners to gather together in vast numbers. And yet do you see what is happening on the day of Pentecost? God is deliberately breaking through the language barrier. God is beginning to reverse what he chose to do at the end of Genesis chapter 11. He is now gathering a group of very diverse people. In these last days the people of God will not be limited to one particular ethnic nation.  And do you see why is it safe for this to happen? Because this new community of people are to be gathered together by the gospel and not by human sin.

What is the significance of the day of Pentecost? It is the guarantee that we are currently living in the last days. But why now? That’s the obvious question, isn’t it? Just suppose that we were listening to Peter’s speech to the crowd and so far he has convinced us that these strange events really have been caused by God’s Spirit. The next obvious question is, “Why now?” And that’s the question Peter begins to answer in verse 22. “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” Why have the last days arrived? Why has the Holy Spirit finally been poured out on God’s people? Peter says, “It’s all because of Jesus.” He says to the crowd, “Do you not remember what he did? Of course you do. His life was accredited by God. He was someone special. Do you not remember the miracles, the wonders and the signs? How do you explain them? This was God the Father’s way of drawing our attention to Jesus. And yet what did you do? You killed him. Here in this very city. You made him march through the streets. You mocked him on the way and then you strung him up on a cross and left him to die.” And yet amazingly Peter is convinced that even this act of supreme wickedness was not outside the control of God. Verse 23. “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” It’s one of those verses in the Bible which links together human responsibility and divine control. The people who killed Jesus were responsible for their wicked action. But such is the power of God that he is able to use the evil deeds of human beings to achieve his purposes. And how we need to remember this when our world seems to be at the mercy of Bin Laden and his cronies.

Now at this point Peter begins to turn up the heat. He has just accused his listeners of killing God’s man on Planet Earth, which, of course, is bad enough. But now he informs them that Jesus was not just a man.

Verse 24. Although they killed him, “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Why? Well, because of Jesus’ identity. According to Peter, he was the Christ promised in the Old Testament. And since he was the Christ he couldn’t remain dead forever.  Why not? Well, because of what we read in Psalm 16, the Psalm that Peter quotes in verses 25 to 28. It is a Psalm all about the future of the Christ and it assures us that God will not abandon his Messiah to the grave. He will raise him from the dead. And, according to Peter, that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Verse 32. “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” QED: Jesus is the Christ. You can almost hear them say, “oops.”

Mistaken identity can be very embarrassing. Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor, was once at a posh event and found himself chatting to a woman whose name he had completely forgotten. This was not uncommon for Beecham who apparently had a terrible memory for people. But on this particular occasion he was sure he knew her husband. So after a moment of inspiration he said to her, “Now, just remind me, what’s your husband up to these days?” To which the woman replied, “Oh, he’s still the king you know.” Unfortunately for Beecham the woman he was talking to was the Queen Mother when George the VI was the King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mistaken identity can be very embarrassing. But in the case of the people listening to Peter on the Day of Pentecost mistaken identity turned out to be deadly serious. Their hands were covered in the blood of God’s Messiah. And then just when you are thinking to yourself, “This cannot get any worse,” Peter turns up the temperature even more. Verse 33. Jesus has now been exalted to the right hand of God and “has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”

According to the prophet Joel, it would be God himself who would pour out his Spirit on his people. But, according to Acts 2, it is the risen and ascended Jesus who pours out the Spirit on his people. The connection is not difficult to make. Not only was Jesus fully human he was also fully God. So not only were the people in the crowd responsible for hammering the nails into God’s Christ, they were also guilty of hammering the nails into God’s eternal and divine Son. Talk about mistaken identity!

So Peter concludes, verse 36: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” By raising him from the dead and by giving him the gift of the Holy Spirit, God the Father has demonstrated that Jesus is both the Christ and the Lord. Now when the people heard this they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” No wonder they were alarmed. The one they had just murdered was destined to be their judge. So what were they to do? Verse 38. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a staggering promise! Can there be anything worse that murdering the God who created you? And yet here is a promise of forgiveness and transformation. And it’s a promise that is not restricted to the first century. Who is the promise for? Verse 39. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” It is a staggering promise and on the Day of Pentecost it led to a spectacular expansion in the number of people who decided to follow Jesus. Verse 40. “With many other words he [Peter] warned them; and he pleaded with them, [Do you notice how serious he is?] “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”” And just look at how many responded! Verse 41. “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

And in verses 42 to 47 we discover what their commitment to Jesus looked like in practice. This was no solitary religion. Commitment to the King was demonstrated by commitment to the King’s people.

The day of Pentecost is significant because it is our guarantee that we are currently living in the last days. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on God’s people just as he had promised in the prophet Joel. The risen and ascended Jesus received the gift of the Spirit from the Father and poured it down on his disciples. And so, therefore, he moved the world into what are called the last days.

Now I want to end tonight by focusing on one of the great benefits of living in this period of history. We now live in a time when the Holy Spirit is available to everyone. It is not true to say that before the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was like a bored child on the way to a family holiday, always asking the Father “Are we there yet?” If we examine the Old Testament carefully we will discover his work on many of its pages. But here is the truth of Pentecost. It marked a new beginning in the way God’s people experienced God’s Spirit. He was now available to them personally. He now lived in them and gave them his power to witness to the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. And it is the same today. We are very privileged to live on this side of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Because when we become Christians we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We must not cut off verse 38 before the end. Peter says, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Straightaway, there is no waiting around. The original followers of Jesus were commanded to wait in Jerusalem until Jesus gave them the Spirit. But we need to understand that Pentecost was unique. It is not a prescription for each one of us to experience. It was a unique moment in the history of the church. But ever since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been given to anyone who becomes a Christian.

The story is told of a conversation between the Devil and three junior demons at their Passing-Out Parade. Before they are sent to earth the Devil asks each of them how they will stop people becoming Christians. The first demon replies, "I'll tell them there is no God." “Rubbish,” says the Devil - they will simply look at creation and see the evidence of God constantly before their eyes. The same question is put to demon number 2. "I'll tell them there is a God but there is no such thing as sin." “Rubbish,” says the devil - that won't work - for their conscience will tell them there is such thing as sin. The same question is put to the third demon, who replies with the wisdom of age, " I will tell them there is a God and there is sin, but there's no hurry."

Now don’t get me wrong, I do like this story because it focuses our attention on the urgency of becoming a Christian. But there is also an aspect of the story I really don’t like. It seems to imply that becoming a Christian is bad for you. That somehow it is better to keep on rejecting King Jesus and then turn to him at the last minute. And the only reason to prevent us from doing this is because we have no idea when the last minute will be. Have you ever heard anyone say this? But such a viewpoint is completely alien to the truth of verse 38. Because when we become a Christian not only are we granted forgiveness of our sins but we are also given the power of transformation, the Holy Spirit living in us. And so tonight, if we are Christians, let us thank God that we have the privilege of living in these last days. Let us pray.

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