Nov 16, 2003


Acts 2:1–12

Before Jesus had ascended into heaven, He told His disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait. On the day of Pentecost, their wait was over: a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire, and power from on high came upon them. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul considers the ongoing significance of the day in redemptive history when the Holy Spirit empowered the whole church for ministry.


When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” (Acts 2:1–12)

Landmines, Lost Reservations, and Flying Mallets

One of the most difficult virtues to acquire in life is the ability to handle disappointment, to overcome the frustration that inevitably comes with unfulfilled expectations. A friend of mine once use this metaphor: “Everybody has landmines in their personality, hidden bombs under the surface. Some people are wall-to-wall landmines, and you have to tiptoe around them carefully because at the slightest irritation, they explode. Other people are very laid back and easy-going. They may only have one or two bombs planted in their field, but woe betide the person who steps on it. You don’t expect it, but—BOOM!—it explodes.”

For instance, one thing I cannot stand is to travel all day by plane, get to a hotel where I know I have a reservation because it has been made by the most efficient administrative assistant in the history of the world, and then realize that the hotel has lost the reservation. I had the expectation to get to my room, relax, and take a little rest, and now that is gone.

It should not be a big deal, but somehow it is always a big deal to me, so much so that I never do the checking in. Vesta does it for us because she does not want me to get upset at the front desk if the reservation has somehow been botched.

Think about little children when they are using playschool benches. They have a hammer and they have round and square pegs and holes in the bench. If you watch them try to take a square peg and pound it into a round hole, for the first few minutes, they will be very patient. They will try it, and try it, and try it. But the result is predictable. Soon, the scream starts, and the mallet is thrown across the room.

Some of us never get over it. It is hard to deal with disappointments. We save our money, we are going to buy something we have always wanted, and when we get it, it just is not what we thought it would be. We work to get a degree, to get a position, to get a promotion, and when we have it, it is not anything like we imagined it would be.

We are all given to disappointments, and these disappointments are particularly tough to handle when we must wait for what we want. It is a delayed gratification, and then after being patient and waiting, the goods are not delivered.

Waiting for God’s Promise

In the Old Testament, God spoke to the prophet Habakkuk because Habakkuk was complaining about all the misery going on among the people. God spoke to him and talked about His promises. Among the promises of God, He said to His prophet, “Habakkuk, though they tarry, wait, for God will perform what He says He will perform.” That is the hardest thing for the Christian: to wait for God to keep the promises He has made.

In the last few weeks, we have looked at what happened with the departure of Jesus and His ascension into heaven. His last instruction to the disciples was what? “Go back to Jerusalem and wait. Wait, for you shall receive power, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” That was Jesus’ last promise: “You’re going to receive power like you can’t possibly imagine. It’s a heavenly power. It’s a holy power. It’s a transcendent power, and the Holy Ghost will be given to you. But it’s not going to happen today, and it is not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen soon. Go back and wait.”

We looked at how the disciples went back and met together, prayed together, rejoiced together, fellowshipped together, and confessed their sins together. Acts 2 tells of the fulfillment of the promise when “the Day of Pentecost had fully come.”

The Jewish Pentecost

In the Jewish calendar, the day of Pentecost was the day of the annual feast called the Feast of Harvests, or the Feast of the Ingathering, or sometimes it was called the Feast of Weeks because it was the festival that took place after a week of weeks. A week has seven days, and a week of weeks is seven times seven, which is forty-nine days. After those forty-nine days are accomplished after Passover, then the following day is Pentecost, or the fiftieth. Fifty days after the great celebration of Passover is the Feast of the Harvest, or the Feast of the Ingathering.

Pentecost was a time of Jewish thanksgiving in the Old Testament, but it was also called the Feast of the Firstfruits because the Jewish people in the arid climate of Palestine had two rainy seasons, and as a result, they had two growing seasons, a former season and a latter season. They would have the former rains and then the latter rains, and they would celebrate at different times. The thanksgiving event of Pentecost had all these people gathering now to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem to thank God for the harvest.

A Sudden Mighty Wind

The text continues: “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly”—that is the first key: it does not happen gradually. There is no build up. There is no slight zephyr in the air that grows in tempo and strength. Suddenly, instantly, something radical happens: “There came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Recently, Ligonier sponsored a pastor’s conference, and one of our speakers was John Sartelle. He was also our guest at a missions conference recently, and he told the story of a hundred-mile-an-hour wind that blew through his neighborhood in Memphis a couple of years ago. It was not a tornado, but it was more than hurricane-force winds, and he said that when the storm developed outside, they heard from inside the house the sound often associated with a tornado, the sound of a roaring train.

He said the sound was so loud that his family was terrified, and they went into the center part of their house and sheltered themselves as best they could. “But R.C.,” he said, “the storm was outside, but it sounded like a train was going to come right in the front door. We looked out the window, and our trees were bent over, horizontal.”

He was describing the perfect storm, except that it was not the perfect storm. There was only one perfect storm in all of history, and it is here in the second chapter of Acts. Commenting on this, John said on that occasion: “Here, the storm was not outside. It was inside. They were gathered in the house, and suddenly the sound of a mighty—that is, a powerful or overwhelming—rushing wind filled the place where they were sitting.”

The Breath of the Spirit

When we were going through the gospel of John, we saw that when Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and inquired about salvation. Jesus said, “Unless a man is born of the water and the Spirit, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it.” Jesus said that a necessary condition to be a Christian is to be born of the Spirit.

The word there in John 3:5 in the Greek is the word pneuma. In English, we might be familiar with pneumatic drills or hear about pneumatic forces. Air-driven machines are called pneumatic from the Greek pneuma. Jesus played with words on that occasion because Nicodemus said: “How can this be? Do I have to climb a second time into my mother’s womb?” Jesus said: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Jesus said: “The pneuma blows where it will. You hear the sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. So is everyone who’s born of the pneuma.” The Greek word pneuma not only means “spirit,” but it is also the word for “wind.” And not only is it the word for “wind,” but it is the word for “breath.”

It is the same in Hebrew. If you go back to creation, when God creates man, He breathes into a lump of clay. He breathes His own ruah, His breath, and man becomes a living spirit, a living ruah (compare Gen. 2:7; 6:3, 17; Job 34:14). From the beginning of the Scriptures in the Old Testament, the breath of God is associated with His life-giving Spirit. God’s breath is associated with the power of creation. It is associated with the energy of divine operation. In the New Testament, another word you might be familiar with used to describe the work of God’s Spirit is the Greek word dynamis. What word do you suppose we get from that? We get the word dynamite from it, referring to explosive power.

Jesus said: “Go back and wait, for you’re going to receive power. After that, the Holy Ghost has come upon you.” So, they waited, and if ever expectations were exceeded, it was in this perfect storm. They waited, and they had no idea of what was going to happen. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the sound of a mighty, rushing wind came roaring into the room. Not only was there a sound, but there was also a visual dimension to it, and let us look at that.

The Fire of God

The text continues: “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” As the story goes on, we hear about how a great number of people were gathered in Jerusalem from the provinces and outside of Palestine who did not speak the local language. Yet suddenly, after the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, they begin preaching in other languages, and people from all different parts of the world heard the Word of God in their own languages.

When we look at this text regarding what happened at Pentecost, particularly in light of Pentecostalism in our day, almost all the attention goes to the phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I do not want to minimize or underestimate that aspect of this record, and we will look at that later in the text, perhaps next week. For now, I want us to focus on the other two dimensions, the sound and the sight of what happened on Pentecost, because therein we see Pentecost’s great significance.

What happened on Pentecost was the rushing pneuma of God. The mighty power of the Holy Ghost came roaring through a room filled with people whom Jesus had selected to be there to receive power from heaven to fulfill their mission in this world. They heard wind. They saw fire, tongues of fire, appearing over each one’s head.

Why fire? Because this was no ordinary wind. This was the wind of God, a theophany, a visible manifestation of the invisible God. The most common visible manifestation in the Old Testament was through fire. In the Midianite wilderness, it was a bush that was burning but not consumed, and out of this fire God spoke to Moses and changed the course of history. When God led the children of Israel through the wilderness, it was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. When the judgment throne of God went across the sky, the whirlwind that was catching up people was the chariot of fire. The New Testament says, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). When God gave the law to the people at Mount Sinai, flames were visible on the mountain, symbolizing the power and majesty of the transcendent God.

Light and Warmth

The first of two elements regarding the symbolism of fire is that God is the source of light. We do not think of fire much anymore as a source of light because we use electricity and typically only use candles for decoration. But for most of human history, homes were illumined in the darkness by some kind of flame, and our day is illumined by a star that is a ball of fire in the heavens. In that sense, we see the connection between light and fire, and one of the most important operations of God the Holy Spirit is to illumine the truth of God, to put a searchlight on it for our understanding.

But not only does fire symbolize the heavenly presence, which is the source of light and truth, but fire also symbolizes ardor, warmth, and affection in biblical language. Jesus rebukes the bad churches in the book of Revelation: “I know your works. They’re neither hot not cold. They’re tepid; they’re lukewarm.” He does not want lukewarm Christians. He wants Christians who are consumed with fire in their bones, burning with a passion for the things of God.

When we were in Amsterdam at graduate school, I got a letter from one of my college professors, and if you look up the term laid back in the dictionary, they have his picture, and taciturn would be an understatement to describe his normal lack of loquacity. He just never said much. In his letter, he wanted me to rent a car and spend a couple of days taking him and his wife on a tour of Holland. So, I did. I drove him everywhere, to see the most incredible sights that I could find, things that really dazzled me. I showed him wonderful sights. I took him to the Rijksmuseum to see the original Rembrandts, and he looked at them and said, “Interesting.” If he said it once, he said it a hundred times in those two days. He was driving me crazy. I wanted to say to him, “Is that all you can say, ‘It’s interesting’?”

Is that what we do when we hear the Word of God and encounter the living God in worship? Do we walk out and say, “Well, that was interesting”? No, God wants people whose hearts are on fire. When the Spirit comes upon a person, He kindles that spark. He starts a flame that consumes the heart and consumes the soul so that the affection born in us that hour increases in its intensity as we grow in Christ. The fuel for that fire is the Word, prayer, and the sacraments.

Power in Every Age

Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with Archie Parrish, who is our church’s mentor in prayer, and we were talking about the power of God the Holy Spirit igniting our prayer lives. I said, “It’s funny you should mention that because tomorrow, the sermon is on Pentecost.”

Archie observed: “Most Christians look at the day of Pentecost as something that happened once in the past that was very important and marvelous but has no current significance. Others, like the Pentecostals, want to have a new Pentecost every fifteen minutes, as it were. We fail to understand the ongoing, lasting significance of this moment in the church.”

When the Jews were delivered from bondage in Egypt, and the angel of death passed over the firstborn Jewish boy because the blood was on the door, God said: “Every year I want you to celebrate and remember this day. When your children ask, ‘Why are we celebrating this meal? Why are we doing this?’ tell them that the angel of death passed over, and that the consequences of that event in history are why we’re still gathering tonight.” The Jewish father said to his family, “It’s because of what happened then.” The consequences and the significance of Passover did not end after that first event.

We understand this when we talk about the cross. The effects and consequences of Christ’s death were not just for the people who were eyewitnesses that day. The atonement He made for the sins of those who were there that day is an atonement that still applies every day to every person in our midst who puts their trust and hope in Him. The atonement’s efficacy, strength, application, and consequence continue to this day.

Was the resurrection only significant for Jesus, in His own person? On Easter Sunday, do we celebrate the fact that one day, one man rose from the dead, or do we believe that He was the firstborn of many brethren and that His victory over death goes on and applies to me and you, if it be that you are in Christ? So it is with Pentecost.

We must understand that Pentecost is a watershed moment in the history of the church, just like Passover, the cross, and the resurrection. The day of Pentecost was the moment in redemptive history when God unlocked the power of the Holy Ghost and gave it to His church, not just to those gathered there that day but to the church of every age and to every Christian since. He said, “You shall receive power.” That wind and fire is as much for us today as it was for those gathered in the upper room. We are to be people of the Holy Spirit, as well as of the Son and the Father.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.