The Theology of Pentecost

Sunday, May 20, 2018, was Pentecost. The first Pentecost is one of the most important days in the history of the Church for numerous reasons; however, this day’s main source of significance is the fact that the Church received the Holy Spirit’s presence in a new way on Pentecost.

If we read in Acts 2, we see that the twelve apostles were all together when something amazing happened: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”[1] Upon hearing this commotion, the crowds assume that the apostles are drunk and begin to ridicule them. True to form, however, Peter stands up to address the rumors, preaches a fiery sermon, and three thousand people come to faith in Christ. What a day this must have been to the apostles and to the early Church!

However, Pentecost’s importance stretches far beyond the personal importance for the apostles and beyond the significance for the early Church: The theology behind Pentecost is what’s really important here. Pentecost was a watershed moment in the history of redemption because, on Pentecost, God changed the way that he relates to us on three fronts: First, God changed how many people the Holy Spirit indwells. Second, God changed the amount of time that the Holy Spirit spends indwelling a person. Finally, God changed the reason for which the Spirit indwells a person. In short, at Pentecost, the Old Testament way of knowing God gave way to the much superior New Testament way of knowing God.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

If we looked at the table of contents in the Bible, we’d see that the Bible has a major division between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, believers could experience the Holy Spirit living within them. For example, in Exodus 31, God tells Moses that he filled Bezalel with the Holy Spirit; however, Bezalel doesn’t receive the Spirit indefinitely. Instead, God gave the Spirit to Bezalel so that he could work on the things that God had commanded the Israelites to make for their worship practices. In other words, Bezalel received the Spirit to empower him to accomplish a specific task. Once the task was completed, Bezalel would lose the Holy Spirit and return to the Old Testament way of knowing God through the sacrificial system.

Bezalel isn’t alone, however: When Samuel anoints Saul the first king over ancient Israel, the Bible says that “the Spirit of God came powerfully”[2] upon Saul. However, following Saul’s failure as king, God decides to install David as king. The Spirit then leaves Saul and enters David.[3] In both of these cases, the man received the Holy Spirit to perform the specific action of being king of Israel. In Saul’s case, when God rejected him as king, Saul lost the Holy Spirit.

Even the prophets experienced the temporary presence of God’s Holy Spirit! Ezekiel had already been serving God as a prophet when something different happened one day. Ezekiel says that one day “the Spirit of the Lord came on me.”[4] In other words, though he had already been serving God as an Old Testament believer, the Holy Spirit came on Ezekiel in a different way in order to give him certain words to say to Israel’s leaders.

What’s more, the Old Testament believers who experienced the Holy Spirit’s indwelling wished that the indwelling was more common. Upon hearing that there were other prophets in Israel, Moses says: “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”[5] Moses probably didn’t realize how prophetic this desire was! Similarly, God tells Ezekiel that in the future, he will put his Spirit in his people and will give them a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone.[6] That is, in the future, the Spirit will interact with people in a different way than he did in the Old Testament.

To summarize the Old Testament’s teaching about the Spirit of God’s relationship to the people of God, we see that only a few Old Testament believers received the Holy Spirit on a temporary basis and in order to accomplish a specific job. He came to equip one person to accomplish a task. When the person completed the job, the Holy Spirit left, and the person returned to the pre-indwelt state of an Old Testament believer. Finally, the Old Testament believers who experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence realized that being indwelt with the Spirit was vastly superior to the standard, Old Testament way of knowing God. Consequently, they wished for more of this presence—both for themselves and for others—while prophesying that God would one day dwell within his people.

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament

At Pentecost, the Old Testament gives way to the New, the dreams of the prophets are fulfilled, and God’s Spirit finally dwells within his people. Whereas the Spirit came to people on a temporary basis before Pentecost, after Pentecost, the Spirit comes on a permanent basis as believers begin to relate to God according to New Testament patterns.

Following Pentecost in Acts 2, the Old Testament way of relating to God would tell us that the Spirit would leave Peter. According to the Old Testament pattern, Peter would’ve received the Spirit in order to preach a powerful sermon; once he stepped off the platform, however, the Spirit would have left Peter. Instead, following Acts 2, we see that the Spirit appears to remain in Peter.

In Acts 4, for example, Peter and John go before the Sanhedrin for an interrogation. The Bible says that Peter uses this opportunity to preach the gospel: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit,”[7] preached the gospel to the Sanhedrin. While this story is interesting for numerous reasons, please notice that the Bible says that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost.

Not only was Peter filled with the Holy Spirit, other believers, including non-apostles, had the Spirit living within them. Once Peter and John leave the interrogation, they return to the Christian community, tell the others Christians what happened, and are “all filled with the Holy Spirit.”[8] This is quite different from what the Old Testament pattern would’ve led us to expect!

Similarly, in Acts 6, when confronted with a problem, the twelve apostles put out a call for seven men to serve as the first deacons of the church. In naming the qualifications for the deacons, the apostles say that the men must be “known to be full of the Spirit.” In other words, they apparently had more than seven men in the early church who were widely known to be full of the Holy Spirit. This is certainly something different than Moses ever experienced!

But perhaps these are anomalies; perhaps the book of Acts stands out as a unique time in Church history in which God gave the Holy Spirit to his people in a unique way. After all, just because something happened once in Church history doesn’t mean that it will happen again; similarly, the Bible doesn’t approve of everything it records. Perhaps the book of Acts is descriptive and not prescriptive; that is, maybe the book of Acts is telling us what happened then instead of what ought to happen now.

Fortunately, the book of Acts is not an anomaly in Church history with regard to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; instead, the New Testament explicitly teaches that the Spirit now indwells all believers on a permanent basis. In Acts, for example, the apostles teach that God has given the Holy Spirit “to those who obey him.”[9] The Spirit is no longer for a special few; the Spirit is now for all believers.

To leave the book of Acts, in Romans 8, Paul contrasts those who live according to the flesh with those who live according to the Spirit. About the former, Paul says that they do not know and cannot please God. About the latter, Paul says that if God’s Spirit lives in us, then we are in the realm of the Spirit. Those in the realm of the Spirit live lives according to God’s will, receive life and peace from God, and, ultimately, will receive eternal life from the hand of the Creator. In short, Paul equates being a follower of Jesus with being indwelt with the Holy Spirit. No longer is the Spirit for a select few to accomplish a specific purpose; now, the Spirit serves as a distinguishing mark for all of God’s children.

Thus, to summarize the New Testament’s teaching about the Holy Spirit, we see that the Spirit now indwells all of God’s people on a permanent basis and in order to make the believer different from non-believers. Now, everyone who knows God has the Holy Spirit living within them at all times.

Conclusion

Pentecost was a turning point in the history of the Church. On Pentecost, God closed the final pages of the Old Testament and opened the much more glorious pages of the New Testament. Whereas the Holy Spirit came on specific individuals in the Old Testament, the Spirit now dwells within every believer. Furthermore, though in the Old Testament the Spirit came for a short amount of time, in the New Testament, the Spirit dwells within God’s people on a permanent basis. Finally, in the Old Testament, the Spirit came to a person to equip that person to perform a specific job; in the New Testament, however, the Spirit serves to distinguish believers from non-believers. Pentecost is thus significant because it marks a large step towards God’s ultimate goal for creation as God begins to dwell within his people in a new, much-improved way.

Notes & Sources

[1] Acts 2:2-4, all scripture quotations are NIV.

[2] 1 Samuel 10:9.

[3] 1 Samuel 16:13-14.

[4] Ezekiel 11:5

[5] Numbers 11:29

[6] Ezekiel 36:26-27

[7] Acts 4:8

[8] Acts 4:31

[9] Acts 5:32

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