The Meaning of Pentecost (part 1)

The Meaning of Pentecost (part 1)

The Meaning of Pentecost (part 1)
Text: Acts 2:5–21

Pastor Mark Kernan
May 1, 2022

Main Idea: The Spirit-empowered languages at Pentecost were a sign that God was extending his saving promises, through Israel, to everyone who calls on his name.

Sermon Outline:

I. The Audience at Pentecost
II. The Explanation of Pentecost
III. The Invitation of Pentecost

As we turn to our passage in Acts this morning, we are introduced to a broader question that every Christian has to engage at some point in their life: “How do God’s Old Covenant promises to ethnic Israel relate to God’s New Covenant people, the Church?” What’s really going on between the Old and New Testament? Well, if you have every pressed into this question, you know that it can lead to a great deal of disagreement between born-again, gospel-loving Christians. And while there are a number of nuanced positions, the answers to this question tend to fall into two general camps.

One side contends that God’s promises to Israel must be literally fulfilled in ways that the original Israelite audience would have recognized. The other side asserts that God’s promises to Israel are often fulfilled in ways that exceed the historical expectations of ancient Israel because they are fulfilled in Christ and his Church. Notice, the difference between the two sides is not “if” God fulfills his promises but “how” God fulfills his promises.

I am raising this issue this morning, because it is my conviction that Luke is writing the book of Acts, in many ways, to outline the redemptive-historical continuity and discontinuity between the New Covenant People of God and the Old Covenant people of God by explaining the way that Jesus’ ministry and his Church unexpectedly fulfill prophecies to OT Israel.[1] Yet, at the very same time he wants us to see that the early church was founded and lead by ethnic Israelites who believed that Jesus Christ was their long-promised Messiah. We, see this emphasized most clearly in the main point our passage today: The Spirit empowered languages at Pentecost were a sign that God was extending his saving promises, through Israel, to everyone who calls on his name.

The Audience at Pentecost (Acts 2:5–13)

Their Identity

Now, for us to fully-grasp the significance of these verses, we need to quickly review the history of the Jewish people. The fundamental reason there are Jews from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost is NOT because they are a cosmopolitan people; But because God had punished their rebellious ancestors hundreds of years before.

God punished King Solomon’s sin by splitting David’s kingdom into two adversarial kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom, Israel and the Southern Kingdom, Judah. But God’s judgment did not curb the sin of his people. Rather, they continued in their sin and idolatry and rebellion. As a result of this:

In 722 B.C. God punished the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrian empire who carried most of the population away into exile. And in 586 B.C. God punished the Southern Kingdom at the hands of the Babylonian empire who carried most of the population away into exile.

But there is something unique about this particular group of Jews, whether they currently live in Israel or have traveled to Israel for Pentecost. They are not like their ancestors. And they are not like most of their religious leaders who are simply using the religious system for their selfish gain and self-importance. No. They are devout, God-fearing Jews. They are Jews who are trying to love God supremely (Deut 6) and faithfully observe his covenant. And they have returned to the very spiritual center of Israel from every corner of the world from which God had scattered their ancestors.

In fact, we can see this, in that this list traces the 4-points of the compass in a counterclockwise direction, with Jerusalem at the center.

  • East (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia),
  • to the north (Cappadocia, Pontus),
  • sweeping from north-west to south-west (Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya Cyrenaica, Rome, Crete),
  • and sweeping back to the south-west (Arabia).

See in this list of countries Luke is reminding us that even though the official period of exile is over for both the people of Israel and Judah, the Jews are still suffering the effects of the exile. But, this list is even more striking when we read this list in light of God’s New Covenant Promise in Ezekiel 36.

Ezekiel 36:23–28 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Cf. Ezekiel 37:1–14; and especially 15–28)

Notice the New Covenant promises in this passage?

  • God will regather is scattered people.[2]
  • God will cleanse his people from their sin and rebellion.
  • God will give his people a new heart by putting his Spirit in them.
  • The Holy Spirit will enable them to do what they could never do in their own power—walk in faithful obedience.

And what do we see in this passage? Pious Jews from all over the world. 3000 of which will receive forgiveness of sins and be filled with the Spirit before the day of Pentecost is over… God’s promised New Covenant is here. Yet as we turn to verse 12 we quickly see that God’s Old Covenant people —as pious and God-fearing as they might be— do not realize that God is actively fulfilling his New Covenant promises in their very midst.

Their Confusion (Acts 2:12)

The crowd’s response really hit me this week, in that, it exposes the true depths of our spiritual blindness as humans and our desperate need for God’s grace. Notice, the disciples are not rambling in the slurred speech of a drunkard— they aren’t drunk. Nor are they doing bizarre things like mimicking animal sounds or seizing uncontrollably on the ground. No. They are declaring the mighty works of God in languages they had never learned with a clarity, precession, and fluentness that was beyond their natural ability as Galileans who were known for their pronounced accent.[3]

Anyone who has taken a few years of a foreign language and tries to talk to a native speaker knows this… no matter how hard you try; it is almost impossible to hide your native accent. American French does not sound like native French. American Spanish does not like native Spanish. And to complicate matters, I’ve been told that not all Spanish is the same (Spain vs Mexico).

On the most basic level this miraculous event should have captivated everyone on the street and caused them to join in heart-felt praise and worship. After all, God had temporarily removed the boundaries of the Tower of Babel in the most ostentatious way. But it didn’t lead to praise and worship… It produced utter confusion, just like Babel. Yet, this confusion doesn’t derail God’s work on Pentecost. It provides Peter with the perfect opportunity to preach what might be the most theologically significant sermon in the entire Bible.[4] A sermon that answers two basic question “What does this mean?” ( in vs. 14–21) and “How did this come about?” (in vs. 22–36). We are going to focus on the first question today and address the second question next week.

The Explanation of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–20)

The Context and Message of Joel

Before we dig into Peter’s citation of Joel, I’d like to take a little detour into the often-ignored book of Joel itself.

Now, while we do not have much information to go on, it seems most likely that Joel ministered in the Southern Kingdom of Judah sometime between 600 and 515 B.C. And if you read through the three short chapters of the book, Joel’s purpose is clear. He is passionately calling the people of Judah to repent of their sin and return to God. On the one hand, they should repent because they had just endured a catastrophic locust plague that had devastated both Judah and the surrounding nations. And, on the other hand, they should repent because a far greater AND geographically comprehensive catastrophe is coming in the future on the final “Day of the Lord” (Joel 2:12–14).

But in all of this, doom and gloom, Joel records a promise. Before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrived, God would demonstrate his covenant love and faithfulness to his people by doing something completely new:

  • I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy (Joel 2:28).
  • The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lordcomes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved… (Joel 2:31)

The Already, but not yet Nature of Pentecost

Notice, the first thing that Peter wants his audience to understand is that there is a 6-hundred-year-old answer to their question “what does this mean?” The only reason that these back-water Galileans could proclaim the might works of God in languages they had never learned, is because God was actively fulfilling his New Covenant promise through the prophet Joel.

See, unlike the Old Covenant, in which God confined his gift of the Spirit to judges, prophets, priests and kings. Joel prophesied of a day in which would God would pour out his Spirit upon all his people (in the most lavish, overwhelming, and non-discriminatory way) SO THAT they might serve as his personal witness to the world. Which is exactly what we see in Acts 2. And we know this is a New Covenant event because, as we have already seen, the prophet Ezekiel links the gift of the Spirit with the arrival of the New Covenant.

The second thing that Peter wants his audience to understand is that this event marks a significant transition in God’s prophetic calendar; in that, he replaces the term “afterward” in Joel 2:28 with the phrase “the last days” in Acts 2:17. Don’t miss this! In this simple substitution, Peter is making a monumental assertion. He is saying that the centuries of waiting, looking, and longing are over— “the last days” that will lead to “the great and magnificent” and final “day of the Lord” have, in fact, begun (Acts 2:20). The countdown clock has begun, we are not waiting for the last days; we are living in the last days.

The third thing he wants his audience to understand is that there is a gap between the events that initiate the last days and the events that will precede the day of the Lord. Or to put it another way, there is an already but not yet relationship to the Spirit’s arrival and the future day of the Lord.[5] The last days have been inaugurated in the cross-work of Christ and the blessed out-pouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Joel 2:28–29). But, the final, day of the Lord (the final and last day in which God will judge the wicked and save his people) is a still future event that will be marked with its own set of apocalyptic signs (Joel 2:30–32).

Acts 2:19–21 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

Now are these events in Acts 2 going to be natural catastrophes and human wars or are they going to be explicitly supernatural signs? Well, even though Peter doesn’t bother explaining this point, I lean toward a combination of the two. And I don’t think he takes the time because he wants us to see that there is an invitation in the “already, but not yet” arrival of the last days.

The Invitation of Pentecost (Acts 2:21)

An Unexpected Development

As we look at this final verse, it’s important to highlight what it doesn’t promise. It doesn’t say every descendent of Abraham will be saved. It doesn’t say every citizen of Israel will be saved. It doesn’t say the Jew who keeps the Law will be saved. Rather, it says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Now, there is no question that Israelites read this promise in Joel as an exhortation to repent and return to God. And a warning that God would judge any Jew who rejected his call to repentance. But, once again this is a place where God’s OT promises are far greater and more comprehensive than the original audience ever imagined in two different ways:

To begin with, we already know from Acts 1:8 that the “everyone” is not limited to ethnic Israelites. Right? It’s an invitation to every tribe, tongue, and nation to turn to God before he arrives in judgment. God’s New Covenant work is for the salvation of all people, not just his Old Covenant people. But even more, this salvation is received by calling on the name of the Lord (who is Jesus Christ).

See, from a literary and historic level, no one in the audience would have thought that Peter was talking about anyone other than Israel’s covenant God Yahweh. In fact, in Joel chapter 2, to call on the name of the Lord means to cry out to YHWH, the creator and covenant God of Israel, the ruler of all things for forgiveness and deliverance.

But one of the functions of this entire speech (as we will see next week) is to demonstrate that Jesus is not merely the promised Messiah of God; but that he is Lord, a key title that belongs to Yahweh alone throughout the entire OT. Yet, it is this very truth and term that enables Peter to use Joel 2 in reference to the risen and exalted Jesus Christ. And it is truth that will eventually cut Peter’s audience to the heart in verse 37.

In all of this we see that God is fulfilling his promises in a manner that far exceeded Israel’s expectation. But Luke is not recording Peter’s sermon just so that we can have an interpretive history lesson. No. these unexpected developments should direct us to two gospel implications.

Two Implications

The fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and the looming day of God’s judgment should compel every person to embrace God’s free offer of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice, the reason to respond to God’s free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is anchored in two complementary truths.

God is real. He is faithful. His Word is true. And he has demonstrated this most clearly in that he has fulfilled countless OT promises in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire NT is a witness to this very fact.

But, at the very same time, God’s faithfulness to his promises past should remind us that his promises and warnings about the future will come to pass as well. If God has done what he said he will do in the past, he will certainly do what he said he will do in the future.

Yet, there is another promise in the “already but not yet” time in which we live. Isn’t there? It’s a promise of deliverance and salvation for anyone who repents and believes.

Mark 1:14–15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

If you knew a financial advisor that had called every recession in the past 30 years, saving his clients countless millions, and he issued another warning; wouldn’t you jump on the news? Well, in the Bible you have a record of far greater wisdom and faithfulness. The question is are you going to respond? Are you going to hope that he’s wrong or are you going to acknowledge his record of perfect faithfulness and embrace his offer of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ? (John 3:16–18)

The fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and the looming day of God’s judgment should compel every Christian to earnestly share God’s free offer of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I know that it’s easy for Christians to fall into a pattern of ever-increasing insulation and isolation from those who do not know Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Christianity is about growing in Jesus together as a Christian community. And on the other hand, we tend to avoid uncomfortable settings and interactions. And even more, we live in a time when Christians are viewed as a threat instead of benefit to society at large.

So no matter where you are at on the spectrum of Christian engagement and isolation this morning, let me close with a word of exhortation (and if necessary admonition) from the only other place in the NT that cites Joel 2:32.

Romans 10:12–13 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

So how does Paul want this truth to land on us? He wants it to compel us to persistent evangelism.

Romans 10:14–17 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Olympic, it is my prayer that we would embody this kind of conviction and mindset through all of the conflict, division, and angst that exists in our culture today. And may God empower our efforts to share the gospel so that they might bear the fruit of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the glory of God.

[1] David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 39.

[2] Isaiah 10:22–23 For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. 23 For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in the midst of all the earth. (Cf. Isaiah 6:13; Hosea 1:10)

[3] Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 63.

[4] “The word translated addressed (apephthenxato) is also used in v. 4, in a statement about the Spirit giving them ‘utterance’ (TNIV as the Spirit enabled them). Peter’s extensive and carefully argued speech has a prophetic character and is as much a Spirit-inspired utterance as the speaking in other languages;” (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 139).

[5] James M. Jr. Hamilton and Brian J. Vickers, John–Acts, ESV Expository Commentary, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M Hamilton, and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 358.