The In-Between Years - Part 11

Series: The In-Between Years

July 12, 2020
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years - Part 11 

Today is the big day! We finally get to see the birth of the church in the book of Acts. Luke has been preparing us for this since the beginning of his first volume. As we saw previously, it’s no accident both of Luke’s works begin with a nativity scene: the birth of Jesus (volume one) and the birth of the church (volume 2).

Jesus’ arrival as a baby in volume one doesn’t happen the way you’d expect. You’d think the King of Kings would be born in a palace to noble parents with worldwide fanfare. That wasn’t the case. The church’s arrival isn’t what you’d expect either. It’s odd and unfamiliar, maybe even a bit spooky. But like so often in the Bible, if you lean into that strangeness, the rewards are big. So here we go, beginning with the first verse we covered last week…

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. Acts 2:1 (ESV)

You already know about Pentecost, a big celebration special to the Jews that happened fifty days after Passover. Pentecost highlighted the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai because that would have occurred fifty days after the events of the tenth plague in the Exodus narrative (Passover).

We saw how incredibly fitting it was of our God to time the crucifixion with Passover and church’s birth under the new covenant in Jesus with Pentecost, a celebration of the old covenant in Moses. Grace upon grace.

The 120 men and women who had followed Jesus were gathered together, waiting for the promise of the Spirit. That promise was extraordinarily fulfilled when… 

2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit… Acts 2:2–4a (ESV) 

The Spirit’s promised arrival is so mysterious and otherworldly Luke has to compare it something, to say it’s like something. From heaven came a sound like a mighty rushing wind. The NLT translates that as the “roaring of a mighty windstorm,” the  Message as a “strong wind, gale force.” 

That makes me think of growing up in Cullman, AL. Cullman has a nickname: Tornado Alley. If I had a nickel for every time my mother sheltered me in the bathtub as a tornado passed over, I’d be rich. Once one went right over our house. It sounded like a freight train.

What happens here, though, is no atmospheric event, it just sounds like one, like a massive storm with powerful winds.

The coming of the Spirit and wind. That makes me think of what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3. He talks to him of being born again and he says…

8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  John 3:8 (ESV)

The wind is invisible, but its presence and power in a storm, in a hurricane, in a tornado are evident. So it is with the presence and power of God’s Spirit. You can’t see him, but you know he’s there.

Get this, in the NT, the Greek word for wind and Spirit are the same. In the OT, the Hebrew word for Spirit and wind are practically the same as well. You know what else? Stormy winds are associated with the presence of God in the OT.

That’s what they heard. But they also saw something. They saw fire. Fire is associated with the presence of God as well. This heavenly fire appeared and began dividing into tongues. Those tongues rested on each disciple. I cannot help but remember what John the Baptist said about Jesus in… 

16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  Luke 3:16 (ESV) 

And that ties in with what Jesus said in Acts 1…

5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  Acts 1:5 (ESV) 

The wind and fire marking the birth of the church on Pentecost initiated the promised outpouring of the Spirit that launched a new work of God under the new covenant made in Jesus.

Remember last week when I read the account of Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and I told you to pay close attention to the sights and sounds? Let’s read that again and see if anything clicks…

16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Exodus 19:16–20 (ESV)

Stormy winds and fire. Commenting on the Pentecost event, one pastor writes…

“They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” Do you know how significant this is? In the Old Testament, when God’s glory presence, his special presence, shows up, it shows up as fire.

When he’s making a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, he appears as a blazing torch. When he appears to Moses the very first time in the wilderness, he appears as a burning bush. When he comes down on Mount Sinai to appear to the people of Israel…, he comes down in fire and smoke. This special presence, this glory presence, this relational presence of God, is depicted as fire. He expresses it as fire.

When he’s leading the children of Israel through the wilderness, at night he’s a pillar of fire. In Ezekiel 1, when Ezekiel has a vision of the glory of God, he sees fire everywhere. Whenever the fire of God, the presence of God, in the Old Testament showed up, it was overwhelming. It was intolerable. It was fatal sometimes. Now do you realize what’s happening on the day of Pentecost? Every believer is now a burning bush.[1]

With the coming of the Spirit came a miraculous sign. Miracles, by the way, are how God validates his work (such as the signs of Jesus in John). Look at Acts 2:4…

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.

There’s some debate where these Jews were from. Did they actually live in Jerusalem or had they traveled there for the Pentecost celebration? Either way they were devout Jews who had at some point relocated to or made a pilgrimage to the Holy City from provinces all over the Roman Empire.

6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

When Angie and I were engaged we went to the town in Indiana where she grew up. While there we dropped by the Dairy Queen. I told the girl what we wanted and she said, “Say that again.” So I did and she laughed and said, “You’re not from here, are you?” I didn’t think my accent was that bad!

Most of the disciples were from Galilee. It would have been obvious. One scholar writes, “It seems that Galileans were generally considered by cosmopolitan Jews in Jerusalem, and Jews in wider Judaea, to be uneducated and culturally backward… The cosmopolitan Jews in Jerusalem were astounded that such men could speak other languages so fluently.”[2]

Watch how Luke lists the nations represented among all these Jews. It will be important a bit later…

9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”  Acts 2:4–13 (ESV)

There it is. The birth of the church. Chances are all you heard in this whole time was the phrase “speaking in tongues.” That terrifies some and confuses others. At least you probably have figured out why our brothers and sisters who speak in tongues are called Pentecostals. 

There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in the body of Christ on what tongues are. I will kindly and diplomatically address that later on in this series because it comes up again, but for now, get any preconceived notions concerning the speaking of tongues out of your head. Just let them go for now and look at something right here you need to see.

The text tells us indisputably that the tongues spoken on Pentecost were known languages (verse 8).

8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?  Acts 2:8 (ESV)

The Greek word for language there is dialektos from which we get our word dialect. Not only does Luke outright tell us the tongues are known languages, he lists the respective nations of their native tongues.

Now that we’ve settled that, we can ask a question: Why? Of all the ways God could have signified the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church, why this way? Mysterious tongues of fire and miraculous, spontaneous speaking of languages unknown to the speaker. At least the story of Jesus’ birth makes for great Christmas cards. But Pentecost? 

“Happy Pentecost to you and your family. May you speak many native languages as the Spirit gives you utterance today.” 

To answer the question why, you have to do that leaning in to the strangeness I mentioned; you have to dig. To do that let’s go back to the beginning when  God made it all and it was good. But not long after there was rebellion, and I’m not talking about Adam and Eve falling, I’m talking about before that when some of God’s divine beings, angelic beings he created, rebelled against him and deceived our ancestral parents in the Garden. Those beings, led by Satan himself, took it upon themselves to defy God in every way from then on, setting up their own kingdom on this earth in opposition to his. And for reasons we can’t quite grasp, God let them.

The sin they provoked into the world led to the first murder with Cain killing his brother. Though God kept a remnant of faithful people, Cain’s descendants and others, under the influence of and along with these wicked deities, kept the rebellion going. The intermingling of the Sons of God with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 is an example. That was so bad God sent a flood to destroy all living things on the earth except for Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark. 

When it was over, God sent the rainbow and promised to never judge the earth like that again, until the end. He also commanded Noah and his descendants to multiply and fill the earth, in other words spread out. 

Right after that in Genesis 10, all the nations descending from Noah are listed. It’s a whole chapter of this nation coming from that son and that son’s son and so on. And then there’s another big act of defiance…

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  Genesis 11:1–2 (ESV)

Did you get that? At that time, there was just one shared language. Some think it was Hebrew. And instead of multiplying and filling the earth with many cities, a bunch of folks settled in one place and made one big city. 

3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”  Genesis 11:34 (ESV)

They didn’t build this tower to reach their creator God, as some suggest. They built it to glorify themselves. It was a statement: we don’t need you or your commands, God. We’ll make our own religion, follow the gods of our own making . They didn’t know it, but they were playing right into the hand of those rebellious deities responsible for fall of man and the flood.

5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.  Genesis 11:59 (ESV)

Are the wheels turning like last week? Are you getting the connections? Oh, there’s more. That list of nations in Genesis 10. It’s given geographically from East to West. Guess what the orientation of the list of nations in Acts 2 is? East to West. 

Luke, and ultimately the Holy Spirit, is helping us to see how the coming of the church is part of undoing what was done at Babel; it’s addressing the rebellion. Just like Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection addresses the rebellion, so does Pentecost and the church’s birth. It takes us one step closer to realizing the coming kingdom of God when Jesus returns and, as John saw in his visions… 

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  Revelation 7:9–10 (ESV) 

Conclusion: Just like we learned in the GEG series that the gospel isn’t just about God saving us so we could go to heaven when we die, the birth of church isn’t just about saving as many as we can so as many as possible can go to heaven one day. 

It’s much bigger than that. Pentecost and the church’s birth speaks to the overarching, big-picture plans of God setting all things back to rights one day with the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the saints, and the renewal of heaven and earth.

The church is God’s active agent on this earth in these in-between years, operating in defiance of and against the powers of darkness, working against their rebellion, making the way for God’s eternal kingdom to come when his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven because the two have been made one.

Consider this as we close. What was God’s concern in Genesis 11 with the people settling in one place and making one big city? Nothing would be impossible to them. Whatever they set out to do, they would accomplish. Because they were being selfish and wicked, they would have accomplished great evil. So God shut it down by confusing their language.

But now, through the birth of the church at Pentecost, God has united us all in Christ! People from every tribe and tongue and nation. We are bound together in the gospel.

13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  1 Corinthians 12:13 (ESV) 

Can you imagine what we could accomplish in the power of the Spirit if we came together working for God’s will and doing good? Nothing would be impossible for us. If you want to see what that looks like, just read on in Acts. 

But for today, for right now, ask yourself, “Am I a part of all this?” Have I been baptized by God’s spirit into the body of believers known as the church?

You do that by coming to God through his son, Jesus, with faith and repentance, taking him up on his offer to save all those who call on his name.

[1] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

[2] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ac 2:7). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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