The day of Pentecost in Acts was one of the great watershed moments in the history of redemption. What God had promised in Eden, unfolded through the pages of Old Testament revelation and secured through the finished work of Christ, He fulfilled on that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit was given.
The day itself was already embedded in the Jewish liturgical calendar as one of the three great annual feasts. It had various associations for the Jews—the most notable being its association with the barley harvest (Ex. 23:16; Num. 28:26). But what they had celebrated as God’s provision for their physical needs would now take on a whole new significance in relation to their greatest need. What began on that first Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Christ would mark the inauguration of the global spiritual harvest to which the Old Testament points. Many of the Jews and proselytes who had gathered in Jerusalem from around the Roman Empire that day would return to their homes as the firstfruits of God’s saving work among the nations.
Given its focus on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it would be tempting to see the Spirit as the focus of Pentecost’s significance. While this is true in part, it misses the point of what stands out so clearly in Luke’s record of what happened that day. When Peter began to preach, explaining what had happened to the disciples when the Holy Spirit came upon them, he did not preach about the Spirit, but about Jesus as the Christ.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Jesus had already said that when the Spirit was given, He would not draw attention to Himself, but to Jesus as Messiah (John 16:14). So, the entire thrust of Peter’s message pointed to Jesus’ credentials as the Christ for whom Israel had been waiting. And the crowd’s response to his sermon would be living proof that the new covenant epoch, ushered in through Christ’s finished work, had indeed begun.
All kinds of details embedded in that day point to its being the dawn of the next great phase in salvation history. As we have noted, the feast itself was significant—linking the physical harvest of crops to its spiritual counterpart in people’s lives.
So too the Spirit’s gift of speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4), in which God empowered people to speak in languages beyond their native tongue. This enabled the disciples to proclaim the gospel to the different people groups present in Jerusalem for the feast. The curse of Babel, when God confused the languages of the human race and dispersed the people over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:7–8), was redemptively reversed.
More than this, God’s promise to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), was finally coming to fruition. Throughout the old covenant epoch, there were sporadic fulfilments of this pledge; but it was only through Pentecost that it began to take on its God-intended dimensions. Indeed, the scale of the response to Peter’s sermon that day—around three thousand people added to the church—was but a foretaste of what would follow in the New Testament period.
So also the gift of the Holy Spirit would be extended beyond those individuals in Old Testament times who were set apart for special office—in priestly, kingly, and prophetic ministry—to God’s people at large. Nor would the outpouring of God’s Spirit be largely restricted to those who were ethnic Jews. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, where God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17–18, cited from Joel 2:28–32). No barrier of sex, class, or racial background would impede the Spirit’s life-changing work or His ability to equip the saints for service.
It is, however, the utterly Christ-centered character of the events of that day that provides its enduring relevance and benefit to the church through the ages. The whole thrust of Peter’s sermon—delivered with a boldness that came from the Spirit—is to lift Christ up before His listeners as the One in whom alone there is salvation. He was crucified, died, and was buried. He has also been raised according to the promise and is now “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33) and, along with the Father, has poured out His Spirit. It is through the Spirit’s Christ-imparting presence and power in the church through the ages that the gospel continues to go forth into the world and do its work in the hearts of those who hear.
There is a very real sense in which every true church is Pentecostal—not in the sense that it needs to witness the same signs and wonders displayed that day in Jerusalem, but in the fact that the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit continues as He accompanies the gospel preached throughout the world. So too, the Spirit works in the lives of God’s people who comprise the church. In the aftermath of Pentecost in Acts, the Spirit gathered those who had professed faith into worshipping communities of the church (Acts 2:42–47), and this is true for the church in all places and all times. He is the One who not only effects salvation, but who also sanctifies God’s people in His Son. As He enfolds us into saving union with Christ, so He is the guarantor of our salvation’s being perfected in the world to come.