Today is the day of Pentecost, the date in the Christian calendar that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first group of disciples who met together in prayer in the upper room. Pentecost speaks about the “birth” of the church and the stage-entrance of the third person of the Trinity into the world. Although He had been present with the disciples (Jn.14:17), as he had been with the saints of Israel (Ju.14:6; Ps.51:11), he now takes on the role of protagonist. He fills their lives to overflowing and the effects are seen in the evangelistic activity of the apostles in the power of the Spirit throughout the whole book of Acts.
In honour of that day, I want to look briefly at the events recorded in the first two chapters. What is the central emphasis which God wants to transmit to His church? Is it the necessity of a second, personal experience after conversion of baptism in the Holy Spirit? Is it the fact that power is received when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives? Is it the importance of witnessing, or the power of the Spirit to be witnesses? And where does “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth” fit in?
Whilst conscious of the vital need for an individual encounter with the person of the Holy Spirit for our well-being as believers and our effectiveness in personal witness, there is more than that on Luke’s mind. In Acts 1.8, he offers an “outline” for the development of his account of the growth of the early church, a foretaste of the unfolding of the story of how the gospel was preached throughout the Roman Empire. It serves as an “index” or “contents page” for the rest of the book. Luke shows us God’s desire for the message of salvation in Jesus not to be restricted to one people or one geographical area, but to reach all of humanity, to the furthest points on this earth, even touching the Samaritans, traditional enemies of its guardians at that time. Neither does it permit the disciples, a handful of Galileans, to bypass the capital of their nation, Jerusalem, or the surrounding area of Judea, despite feeling looked down upon and rejected by their inhabitants. Nathan’s question to Philip on hearing about Jesus for the first time: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn.1:46) was applied by the Judeans equally to the whole region of Galilee. Personal agendas have no place in the kingdom of God.
This is why the field of operation of the disciples, once filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, begins in Jerusalem. In contradiction to what we hear and teach, Jerusalem was not the home of the disciples; that would have been Tiberias, Capernaum or Caesarea Philippi. With the probable exception of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ disciples were all from Galilee and the majority of Jesus’ ministry took place in that region. After the resurrection he met with them there (Matt 28:7,10,16; Jn.21:1) and those who witnessed his ascension into heaven were Galileans (Acts 1:11). Wisely Jesus had begun his ministry with people from one ethnic group or sub-culture, training them in intense evangelistic activity around what really was their home territory, whilst at the same time preparing them for their future cross-cultural ministry. Jerusalem was not home for the disciples; rather, it was the first strategic point in the campaign to take their faith to the world. To speak today of “our Jerusalem” as if it were the city we live in is to ignore Jesus’ clear missionary intentions.
The book of Acts demonstrates careful selection in the data which has been included, and only relates that which is essential, exclusively what contributes to the central purpose, which is to demonstrate the growth of the church and its extension throughout the Roman Empire. Acts is not a history of the church; it is the history of the expansion of Christianity. It shows no interest in the numerical growth of established churches but rather hones in on the opening of new fields of action, the flow of the gospel into new cultural arenas.
So, Acts begins with the Pentecost “bomb” in Jerusalem. Who was affected by this explosion of divine power? The priests and inhabitants of the holy city? No! God chose the festival of Pentecost, a date on which Jerusalem would be packed wall to wall with pilgrims from all parts of the Mediterranean world, to start His church. He pours out his Spirit and the disciples begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit enables them. Luke relates the effect of this event: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. […] each one heard them speaking in his own language. […] how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:5-8).
This would be enough, but no. Luke wants to go in for the kill: “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (2:9-11).
It’s quite a list. What detail! He makes specific mentions of each of these nations so that we can see that the gift of the Holy Spirit was for the benefit of the peoples of the world. The first impact of the gift of tongues was not for personal blessing, but to give testimony to the nations of the earth, a sign of God’s immense desire for every creature to hear the Gospel. The Holy Spirit comes to the people of God, who are blessed to be a blessing, and the peoples of the world are the intended recipients.
God is starting as he means to go on – please don’t lose the plot.