Pentecost May 11, 2008


What Pentecost Is and What It Is Not

Acts 2:37-42

Scripture Readings

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-6


224, 226(1-7), 225, 226(8-9)

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Grace, mercy and peace be multiplied to you from God our Father and Creator, from our Lord Jesus Christ, and from the Comforter, God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear Fellow Bondservants of the Triune God:

Each week an offering is collected during the worship service to be used in the work of the Church. Each week that offering is counted by volunteers from the congregation. Each week the offering is deposited by the Church Council member entrusted with that task, and each week a deposit slip from that transaction is passed along to the Church Treasurer. Understanding therefore the system that is in place, answer this question: What is the function or value of the deposit slip that is presented each week to the Treasurer, especially in relation to the money it represents?

The answer is that the deposit slip really only has value in the area of information or verification. You can’t buy anything with a deposit slip, yet that same slip might verify that a small fortune has been deposited into your account.

Why in the world, you are probably wondering, would we be talking about deposit slips on Pentecost Sunday? Deposit slips, believe it or not, can teach us something about Pentecost. How so? When Christians today hear mention of Pentecost, many conjure up images of ecstatic utterances known today as “speaking in tongues.” In fact Pentecost itself has been diminished in the minds of countless Christians to images of strange and somewhat frightening outbursts of emotional religious fervor.

What we are then left with is a situation where the outward manifestation or proof of Pentecost has been promoted to the point that it has almost become the event itself. The Bible teaches us, however, that Pentecost is not all about tongues, or faith healings, or handling snakes, or any such thing. Pentecost is about the personal, indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon the New Testament Christian Church on this day.

Here is where deposit slips come into play. Tongues are to Pentecost what deposit slips are to money in the bank. In other words, just as deposit slips are nowhere near as important as the funds they verify, so too the gift of tongues was intended as the outward verification that the incalculable gift of the Holy Spirit had truly been “deposited” into Christian hearts on the Day of Pentecost. How foolish then to focus upon (and assign top billing to) the deposit slip (tongues) rather than to the infinitely more valuable commodity it verifies (strength of faith, wisdom, and insight).

With this understanding we begin our study of Pentecost—both what it is and what it is not. Our text for this Pentecost Sunday is found in the New Testament book of Acts, the second chapter:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

So far the very words of God the Holy Spirit. This is, of course, the same Holy Spirit who gave those special gifts to the Church on the first Pentecost, and who is celebrated among us today. With true reverence for these words of God we pray, “Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians, this is the Sunday we dedicate to God the Holy Spirit, the third—and all too often neglected—person of the Trinity. This is Pentecost Sunday. It may sound strange, but Pentecost has always been one of those “hard to get a good handle on” church holidays. Many holidays are easy for us to understand. Christmas, for example, is easy: Jesus was born—God was made man. Good Friday and Easter are simple: Jesus died for my sins so that I don’t have to die, and He rose again as proof that His payment was and is sufficient in the eyes of God the Father. Ascension is a bit more difficult, but we can see that event as the moment when Jesus returned to the bliss and glory of heaven and look forward to the day when He will come again in much the same way to gather His children and carry us to the heavenly mansions.

But what about Pentecost? How should we feel? What is it all about? How should we thank God for Pentecost? The interesting thing is that the original New Testament Pentecost is not at all difficult to understand. It is not difficult to see what God did for the Church on that particular occasion. Our confusion comes as a result of what man has said and written about Pentecost since that time. Man has turned Pentecost into something that it is not, or at least something that is less than what it really is and therein lies the confusion. The first thing we will note is that the most common perversions of this day were probably created, at least in part, by spiritual laziness.

In a society that lives and breathes for instant gratification in everything from food to the purchase of a car or home, it should not surprise us that the craving for “instant” has crept into the spiritual. Understand this well. There is only one source through which all of the mysteries of God are learned—the Bible. There is no shortcut. God works not directly from Heaven to man, but has chosen to work through “means.” Think of the water that comes out of your faucets. That water doesn’t go directly from the well or reservoir into your cook pot. The “means” it takes to get the water from the ground to your kettle is a pipe. The Holy Spirit has chosen to work through means instead of working directly. The “pipe” or means through which He works is the Gospel in Word and in Sacrament. That is why the Bible says, “Faith comes through hearing the message” of Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 10:17). That is also why Peter in our text said, “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins…[v.38] God has chosen not to work directly from Heaven in man. He has chosen to work through the Gospel.

The problem with the modern misconception of Pentecost is that mankind wants to believe that it is some sort of shortcut to spiritual knowledge and growth—a notion that is nonsense born of pure spiritual laziness. The reasoning seems to be that since the first Apostles learned a foreign language without first studying it, therefore we can even today obtain an instant grasp of the Word of God directly from the Holy Spirit. We should therefore never have to go through the time-consuming process of studying the Bible. The simple fact is that’s not the way it works. Satan, however, loves this sort of reasoning. What more fertile grounds for the corruption of God’s Word can you imagine than several generations of spiritual leaders who have never really studied the Word? How the Devil must fairly quiver in anticipation whenever he hears that men are relying not on the Word of God, but on their “personal inner light” to guide their understanding. How many churches are even now paying the price for allowing themselves to be guided by an “inner light” which they mistakenly believe to be God the Holy Spirit working in them?

Our text for this morning reminds us that Pentecost was indeed given to the Church for a reason. That reason was not to encourage spiritual laziness, but to give incredible gifts to God’s Church. Today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 11:1-9) provided the background for the need of the special gift of languages given to the Apostles on the first New Testament Pentecost. God had to confuse the speech of the people at the Tower of Babel so that they would obey his command to disperse and fill the earth. At the first New Testament Pentecost, God gave to His Church the means to instantly overcome this obstacle by blessing the apostles with the ability to speak those different languages instantly. Unfortunately, as we noted earlier, mankind has since elevated this one small aspect of that first New Testament Pentecost into superstar status.

This gift of languages, or tongues, was in fact a relatively small part of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was both a visible proof and a means to communicate. In fact only when the apostles started to communicate were the real gifts of Pentecost revealed to mankind. Remember the nagging idea that the Jews (including the apostles themselves) could not get out of their heads? They clung tenaciously to the idea that the Messiah was to be an earthly ruler. Even after Jesus had re-educated His men for three years, even after he had told them countless times that His kingdom is not of this world, even though He had allowed Himself to be killed and then to rise again, still what was the very last question they asked him before His resurrection? “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?(Acts 1:6). Note too that the disciples were timid and fearful prior to Pentecost. They spent their days locked away in seclusion.

And then came Pentecost—the gift of the promised Holy Spirit. The proof that something was different was the speaking in different languages. The far greater gifts, though not so obvious, were also very evident. First of all the disciples, from this point on, never again appeared uncertain or unclear about the Gospel. Secondly, they no longer hid in fear. Finally, these first missionaries no longer hoarded the Word of Truth but freely and boldly shared it with a dying world.

How foolish and superficial it is to dwell on the speaking in different languages to the exclusion of the far greater wonders that were worked by God the Holy Spirit on that day. How magnificently, for example, the Apostle Peter divided Law and Gospel in his sermon. This was a direct manifestation of the greatest gifts given at Pentecost. First he spoke pure Law to his audience, pointing out and then condemning their sins. The text says simply and yet profoundly, “They were cut to the heart.[v.37] What joy to read that those men, through the Word spoken by Peter, gave up on themselves and stood crushed by the weight of their sinfulness. Only then did those sinners speak the words that every witnessing child of God longs to hear: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?[v.37] The Law had done its job. It was time for the Gospel.

What happened next? Peter masterfully laid aside the Law and pointed those crushed sinners to the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The people had asked what they could do. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit’s gift of spiritual wisdom, informed them that they could not do anything. “Repent and be baptized,[v.38] he told them. The doing would not come from man but from God the Holy Spirit who would work faith through the Gospel, whether in the spoken Word or in the Sacrament of Baptism. This is not Law (man working or doing) but pure Gospel (God working, God doing.) What pure sweet joy this Gospel message must have produced in these men and women—those who could well have been part of the very crowd that had called for the crucifixion of the Son of God. The Man they had crucified had Himself died to pay for their sins.

Here we see the true gifts of Pentecost. Here we stand as witness to the Holy Ghost living and working in man. Here we find the Spirit of God where He has promised to be found, fulfilling the promises made by the Savior before His resurrection. The speaking in different languages converted no one. In fact, it confused those who heard causing some to suspect that alcohol was at work at nine in the morning—hardly the stuff that mass conversions are made of. But the Word, the powerful message of Law and Gospel that Peter spoke with the wisdom and confidence of Pentecost, that did have a powerful effect—then and now.

Peter’s own inspired words bear out the truth that this was the greatest gift of Pentecost. He said, “Repent and be baptized.” The purpose for being baptized? “…for the forgiveness of your sins.” God the Holy Spirit here promises to work faith through the Means of Grace in Baptism. He goes on, “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.[v.38] Would everyone who heard Peter speak in tongues? No. Yet everyone, according to Peter, would most certainly receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That great gift then must be something other than the speaking in tongues. By these words we can know that the greatest gift was and is the wisdom and insight that is ours through the Holy Spirit working in us through the Means of Grace.

Dear Christians, on this day we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thank God in particular for the greatest of His gifts that day —the faith, wisdom and understanding to receive the truth of God’s Word, especially the Gospel message of salvation in Christ Jesus. Pentecost does not offer us any kind of direct, unstudied revelation from God the Holy Spirit. Do not allow Satan or the world to mislead you into chasing that which is not, to the abandonment of that which truly is. Abandon the quick fixes and shortcuts and turn daily to the Word. Let that life-giving Word be the true joy and delight of your heart from this day forward. Live and breathe that Word of God day by day for in that Word the Holy Spirit has promised to meet with you and to shower you with gifts whose true worth man is not able to calculate.

Grant to us, Lord, the true gifts of Pentecost. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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