If there was one thing that you’d like to see in the Scottish church today, what would it be? There are probably several good answers to this question. Of course, we’d love to see a greater prayerfulness, as this would be a sign of a greater dependence on God’s strength. We’d love to see Christians growing in holiness, living out the truths they profess in their everyday lives. One thing I’d love to see across the church is quite simple – that we’d get better at talking to people about Jesus. The truth is, we’re not always good at doing this. There’s no point in moaning about this. We need to ask the question, what would it take to bring change in this area? What would it take for ordinary people to be more emboldened and intentional witnesses to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour?
1. The Spirit and speaking
When it comes to the book of Acts, there is a clear link between receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking to others about Jesus. In fact, the phrase ‘being filled with the Spirit’ or ‘full of the Spirit’ is mentioned 14 times in the New Testament, and on almost every occasion, it is linked with people speaking about Jesus. It’s so clear from our passage this morning. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by signs from Heaven. What happens? These same disciples begin to tell others about Jesus. This is a clear pattern throughout the book, even when there are no accompanying signs.
‘Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people!’ (Acts 4:8)
‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (Acts 4:31)
‘But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ (Acts 7:55-56)
What can we conclude from all of this? Surely, we must conclude that the same is true today for ordinary Christians in Fife; the more we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the more equipped we will be for ‘gossiping the gospel’. Yes, sometimes we worry about what to say, or about being ostracised, or being asked awkward questions. But we must say affirmatively, one of the main reasons God gifts us his Spirit is so that we can we effective and winsome witnesses for him. Remember the basic Christian truth: all Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He takes us permanent residence in all Christians.
‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’ (Acts 2:17)
‘And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.’ (Romans 8:9)
However, as Christians, we’re called by God to pray for more and more of the Spirit’s power in our lives. ‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit…’ (Galatians 5:18)
Have you prayed for more of the Spirit’s work in your heart recently? Listen to what David prays for in Psalm 51 and what he expects will happen when he prays for it: ‘Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.’ (Psalm 51:11-13) It’s that link again between being filling and speaking.
Let’s zoom in on one of the most important events in all of human history, the day of Pentecost. We have already seen that in chapter 1, Jesus instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for this amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 1:4-5) The disciples are obedient to Jesus’ command. They are found waiting, and they are not disappointed. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit comes and fills each of these 120-or-so Christians, and to mark this amazing gift of God, this outpouring is accompanied by signs which demonstrate that God’s presence is a reality. There is something to hear, a sound like a rushing wind, and there is something to see, what looks like tongues of fire resting on each believer. This begs the question, why a wind and why fire? What are these signs from Heaven meant to tell us? After all, we are told the sound comes from Heaven itself.
2. The Spirit’s signs
A sound like a violent wind. In the Bible, the words for wind, breath and Spirit are the same. And so, the wind is a sign of the presence and power of God. One of the best examples of this is found in Ezekiel , when he sees a vision of a valley full of dry bones. These stand for those in Israel who are spiritually dead, and need God’s power if they are to have any hope of new life. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army. (Ezekiel 37:9-10)
Then, in the New Testament, we read in John’s Gospel: You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:7-8) In both passages, wind is connected to the activity of God bringing new spiritual life.
It is so clear that it takes a miracle of God himself breathing new life into people in order for them to become Christians. This is true physically for human beings: Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7) It’s also true spiritually. On the day of Pentecost we see two things: God is sending his breath into Christians to embolden them to speak about Jesus; and the same Spirit who made dry bones come to life, brings spiritual life to 3000 people that day: Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:41)
Tongues of fire. Notice that these tongues of fire separate and rest on each individual Christian there. This is a radical change from Old Testament times, when the Spirit would tend to fill special people such as prophets and kings on special occasions. Now, all Christians are being filled with the Holy Spirit. What an incredible gift. To make this more personal, we are filled with the Spirit of God. God’s greatest gift to us is not money, or health or even one another, but himself. He is with us in a supernatural way.
We should not be surprised at this sign of fire. It often stands for the presence of God. Think back to the pillar of fire which guided the Israelites through the wilderness; this was the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and how God reveals himself to Moses in a fire which burns but does not consume the bush. The fire comes in the shape of a tongue. Perhaps this emphasises that the Spirit’s presence helps us to speak to others about Jesus.
3. The Spirit’s impact
Let’s move from the signs accompanying the Spirit’s coming to the impact of his coming on the disciples. In verse 4 we read that The disciples begin to speak in other languages. Imagine 10 Chinese visitors coming to KFC next Sunday and Geoff gets up to preach and starts preaching in fluent mandarin. We would be shocked. It isn’t Swedish but mandarin. He’s never had a lesson in this language in his life. But he’s now able to preach the good news of Jesus to our Chinese guests. That’s exactly the kind of thing happening here in Acts chapter 2.
God-fearing Jews had gathered from the four corners of the world, from 15 different nations. They had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, also called the feast of first fruits. They might expect to hear Aramaic or Greek being preached or even Latin, but not in all the native languages of those represented. No wonder we read: Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12)
That’s a great question. Why does the Spirit enable the disciples to preach in languages they had never learned? I think it’s a wonderful sign that now we are in the age of the Spirit, and the good news of Jesus is to be shared not only with Israel, but with all the nations of the world. The free offer of forgiveness of sin is to be shared internationally. I love the promise in verse 21: ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2:21) Everyone means everyone! No one is excluded.
It’s as if the Lord is saying, the language barrier cannot and will not stop the good news about my Son reaching more and more people. It’s also a sign that God’s forgiveness is offered to everyone.
A few weeks ago in the evening service, we were looking at the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 12. On that occasion, God’s comes to judge rebellious man by bringing confusion to their language. But here, the curse of babel is reversed, and God brings understanding in order to unite a new humanity, united in their love for the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only Jesus who can bring true healing and unity to a divided world.
I’ve never noticed this before, but there is also an aspect of judgement in this speaking of other tongues. Many of the Jews have rejected Jesus, crucifying him and refusing to trust in him. As a result, they can no longer hear the good news. This is prophesised about in Isaiah: ‘ Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people…’ (Isaiah 28:11)
4. The Spirit and transformation
Do we realise just how earth-shattering a moment Pentecost is in human history? God had been promising his Spirit for generations through his prophets. We read of it in Isaiah. The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever, the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, till the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest. The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. (Isaiah 34:4-17)
And of course, Pentecost is predicted in the passage Peter quotes in order to explain these extraordinary events. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘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.’ (Acts 2:15-17)
God’s Spirit brings real transformation. The spiritually dead are brought to life. Deserts become fertile fields. Ordinary Christians are filled with the Spirit of God, not with just a meagre amount of help, but with God-given power which really changes the world. We should expect to see new Christians, through the power of God. We should expect that ordinary Christians are given power to make huge changes in life, again through God’s power. Peter himself is an example of this. Before Pentecost, he is denying even knowing Jesus and flounders before a wee servant girl. Now, he’s a new Spirit-filled man, preaching with such boldness and wisdom.
And today, we are still in the ‘last days’, the days of sharing Jesus with others before his return. Jesus is growing his church through his Spirit. I love the fact that this all started on the day of Pentecost. This was the Old Testament festival when the first fruits of the harvest were brought before the Lord with thankfulness. These first fruits are a sign that the rest of the harvest would follow. The same is true spiritually. On this Pentecost, 3000 people come to faith in Jesus; they are the first fruits and are a sign of more changed lives to follow. And that’s exactly what’s happened since that day. The Kingdom of God has been growing and growing.
Let’s end with a challenge. Imagine that all of us in this room began to earnestly pray to know more of the Spirit’s power in our lives. This will only happen as we ask God for it, and as we prayerfully study the Bible. Are we doing that? Then imagine the impact the Holy Spirit will have on us all, from the shyest to the most extrovert. In different ways, with different people, we’ll begin to talk to people about Jesus more than we ever have before. We’ll do it empowered by the Spirit. And the results – that’s up to God. We leave them to him. What we do know is this: ‘… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2:21)