On Pentecost, the community that was divided by God at the Tower of Babel is recreated in the miracle of communication at the coming of the Holy Spirit.
1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, 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. 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16No, 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.
18Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
The Hinge of History for the Church
Historians refer to a pivotal point in an historical account as the “hinge of history.” The image of a hinge is that on which a door hangs from the doorframe, allowing it to swing open. We come to such an account today on this Pentecost Sunday. For it is this day that church historians call “the birthday of the church.” It is on Pentecost that the way in which God has dealt with humankind changes dramatically. It is on this day some 2,000 or so years ago that something so dramatic happened that it marked a new thing, a new event unprecedented in history both theological and practical.
On this day God’s Holy Spirit came, filling the original 11 apostles with boldness, courage, and conviction. But the Spirit also brought the gift of communication experienced by the apostles as they spoke the Word of God, and experienced by their audience as they heard the Gospel in their own languages. But I’m getting ahead of the story, so let’s stop and back up for a minute.
How did we get to this day, and what is Pentecost?
From the perspective of the Jews in the first century, Pentecost was a Jewish festival now called Shavuot. Pentecost, which means literally “the fiftieth day” and it is just that — fifty days marked from Passover and the Exodus to the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
This was a big deal feast, which bookended the Passover feast almost two months before it. Because travel was slow, tedious, and time-consuming, one can imagine that most of the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the Passover stayed for Pentecost, and then would make their way back home.
Coming to Jerusalem for Passover was also a big deal, and Jews from all over the Roman Empire wanted to come. If you were a Jew and could not make the journey to Jerusalem, the saying was, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Why was Jerusalem so important? First, because it was the City of David, but mostly because the Temple was in Jerusalem. The Temple was the most holy place for Jews because it was the permanent dwelling place of God, or so they thought. Temple sacrifice, Temple ritual, and Temple celebration were the most revered of all Jewish practices.
Jews of the first century were a scattered people. Of course, many lived in Judea, and Jerusalem was by far the most important city in the region. But Jews were also scattered across the Roman Empire in Northern Africa, around the Mediterranean basin, and into Europe. Jews lived as far away as India, and conducted trade with Asia.
While we do not have specifics of Jewish populations in other countries for that time, we do know from language studies and historical accounts that Jews eventually divided into two main streams — the Germanic Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Spanish Jews.
The Jewish people have only known three periods of residence in their own land of Israel. The first occurred from the occupation of the land under Joshua through the united kingdom of David, extending to the divided kingdoms of Northern Israel and Southern Judah. The Northern Kingdom was dispersed in 721-22 BC, and the Southern Kingdom was taken into the Babylonian captivity in 586-7 BC.
The second period of independence came under the Hasmonean dynasty of 140-37 BC. This was the Maccabean period, as the Maccabees led the rebellion against the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Herodian Dynasty replaced the Hasmonean, and Herod the Great made alliances with Rome, which eventually occupied, and then dominated the area of Judea. By 70 AD, Rome quashed all Jewish rebellions by destroying the city of Jerusalem, and dispersing the Jews to other lands.
The third period of independence occurred when the United Nations created the state of Israel, out of the land of Palestine, in 1948. Jews wanted their own state after the planned genocide of the Holocaust, and the world community backed the need for Jews to be able to gather in one state for self-preservation. But, the Palestinians occupied the land which was carved out as the state of Israel. The conflict over the land continues to this day.
Jews are still scattered today, with about 6-million in Israel and almost that many Jews living in the United States. But, Jews also have significant populations in over 30 other countries today.
Back To Our Story
But, let’s get back to our story. The disciples have been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. They have witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus has appeared to them for 40-days after his resurrection at least 11 different times that the Bible tells us about. But after Jesus ascension, the disciples are left for 10 days on their own. And they are not doing too well.
Jesus has commanded them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Spirit that the Father would send to them. Of course, the disciples had no idea what this meant. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has already breathed on the disciples and told them to “receive the Spirit.” So, perhaps the disciples are expecting some quiet moment, a spiritual insight, or an inner peace that so far has eluded them.
Instead, as they are gathered together, perhaps celebrating Pentecost, or Shavuot as it is known, God sends the Holy Spirit upon them.
The sound of a mighty, rushing wind fills the whole house. Tongues of fire rest on each of their heads. And then they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
The disciples begin to speak in other languages. And the commotion is so loud, even in the midst of the noisy throngs in the city, that scores of people come rushing toward the disciples.
As they do, they hear the disciples speaking in their own language. Luke calls the role of nations —
“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs…”
If you take a compass like we used in high school geometry, place the point in Jerusalem, and draw a circle, you will encompass all of the kingdoms and lands which Luke says heard the apostles speak in their own languages.
The Significance of Communication
Hold your place right there in Acts 2 for a moment, but then turn your attention with me to the book of Genesis, chapter 11 —
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Many believe that the miracle of Pentecost was that everyone heard in their own language. But, Luke also says the disciples spoke in “other tongues” as the Spirit enabled them. So, the miracle was both a miracle of speaking and of hearing. But that’s not really the point.
The point of Pentecost takes its meaning from the experience of Babel. At Babel, mankind had a common language and common speech. In other words, all mankind could communicate effortlessly. But instead of using that speech to glorify God, they used it to magnify their own importance and achievement.
They created the first urban center, and decided to build a monument toward heaven to “make a name for ourselves.” God was not pleased. Rather than worship God, mankind was worshipping the latest technology of the day — which in that day happened to be architectural technology. The ability to build a tower to the heavens was possible, and examples of ziggurats confirm that the structure would have been impressive.
But God confused their speech, disrupted their plans, and scattered them all over the earth.
The Tower of Babel story has a theological point. Man, as my mother used to say, got too big for his collective britches. And God was not ready for mankind to band together on human terms. God had a plan to call a man, Abraham, which happens in the very next chapter in Genesis.
God’s plan was to call a man, and build a nation. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be a numberless as the sands on the seashore. God created confusion at Babel — which is what the word itself means — in order to create a community at Pentecost.
So Pentecost becomes the reversal of Babel. At Pentecost, all the pieces are in place. Abraham has been faithful, the nation has been established, the Messiah has come as the suffering servant, God has vindicated Jesus as that Messiah by raising him from the dead, and now everything is in place to unite the people of God under the Spirit of God.
The Meaning of Pentecost
But why Pentecost? Because Pentecost celebrates God giving Moses the Law on Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, most of us as Christians take a dim view of the Law. We see the Law as the attempt to earn salvation by doing the right thing. We call it “works salvation.” We dismiss the Law as outdated, and needing to be replaced by Grace.
But if we understand the Law that way, we miss the purpose of the Law. The Law was given to gather the people of God together as a unique community. The Ten Commandments are important because they would form the ethical and spiritual basis for distinguishing the nation of Israel, the people of God, from all other nations and peoples.
But God’s people took these commands that made them distinct, and forgot the reason they were given. They focused on the letter of the Law, rather than the Spirit. Jesus came with his corrective statements which usually began, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you” to recapture the spirit of the Law. And the intent of the Law was always to form a community of contrast, a community that was different from all others. A community that loved God, and loved others was Jesus intent.
But the disciples could not do that alone. They needed Jesus present with them. But that was no longer the case. Jesus had completed his ministry, but had promised the disciples “I am with you, but I will be in you.”
And so on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes and fills the disciples. They speak in languages they have not learned, to people they do not know, but God unites the speaking and the hearing in one grand miracle of communication so that everyone hears, and everyone understands.
God is gathering his people again. God is creating his community again. God is establishing a contrast society, different from the world, with God’s Holy Spirit at the center of its life and work, sending the disciples and their hearers into the entire world with God’s good news.
Pentecost means God is with us each one. Pentecost means that God has gathered a community of his people called the church. Pentecost means that we are not alone to do God’s work, that God is present with us in our midst.
Just as God was present with the nation of Israel when they left the bondage of Egypt, just as God was present with Joshua when they entered the Promised Land, just as God was present when David was crowned king, just as God was present when the prophets preached, and the nation went into exile, God is present in a new and powerful way. Present with each of his children, present in all of his power, present to unite his people, and redeem his creation.
That’s the story of Pentecost. That is why we come to church to gather together. That is why we go from this place to serve in the world. That is why we sent missionaries, feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, and minister in Jesus’ name.
Pentecost is the Law fulfilled, Babel revisited, and God in his glory. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, the impetus for mission, the energy for ministry. What we celebrate today is God’s great gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the new community called the church for the purpose of doing Jesus’ work in God’s world.
Peter said, “This is that of which the prophets spoke…” This is Pentecost. Come Holy Spirit, and do it again.