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As we celebrate the various holidays of the church year, we generally know what they are about. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and Easter His resurrection. And even if you didn’t know what Ascension Day was about, you could probably guess from the name—in a “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” sort of way. But what is Pentecost about? Even if we know the reason for the name, what is it we are celebrating?
“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph. 4:7-8)
Summary of the Text
After Christ ascended into Heaven, where He received all power and authority, as well as being given every nation of the earth, His first regal act was to disperse gifts among His people. This is what a king does upon his coronation. Paul says here that among believers “every one of us” has received something, in accordance with the measure of the gift of Christ (v. 7). So the Lord ascended on high (v. 8). He led captivity captive, meaning that all the Old Testament saints who had been waiting for release from Sheol, followed Him to Heaven (v. 8). And once He was established there in Heaven, He began the glorious work of establishing His rule on earth. He rules in principle, and is the only legitimate ruler of the nations of men. He has commanded us to go out and proclaim this reality to all nations (Matt. 28: ), and so that we would not be powerless as we undertook the task, He gave us gifts to equip us (v. 8). Pentecost is therefore a celebration of evangelism. It is a celebration of harvest, and of the workers who have been fitted out to labor in that harvest. It is the answer to the prayer that Jesus suggested, that God would send laborers into the harvest (Luke 10:2; John 4:25).
The Old Testament Pentecost
Our name for this festival comes from the Greek name for the Old Testament festival that was called the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15; Dt. 16:9). The name means “fifty” and refers to the fifty days that began with the wave offering of Passover. The thing being celebrated by Pentecost was the conclusion of the grain harvest. Although it is a spring festival, it is a harvest home festival. This imagery is not altered in the New Testament Pentecost, but is rather picked up and expanded. It is still all about the harvest, but it is the inauguration of the harvest, not the conclusion of it. The original band of workers has gathered, and God gives out the gifts that will enable them to work—He hands out the scythes, and He bestows the power to wield them. He does not give us Pentecostal power so that we might enjoy a buzz in our heads, but rather bestows power so that we might work (Col. 1:28-29).
Puzzled By the Gifts
But we still need to be checked out on our gear. Many Christians have been distracted by the biblical description of some of these gifts, instead of feeling equipped by them. The first thing to note in our passage is that God gave four basic gifts—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (Eph. 4:11). Here the metaphor is one of building, not harvesting. Apostles and prophets are foundational. Evangelists bring in the materials, and pastor/teachers assemble it into the building. Apostles and prophets pour the concrete. Evangelists are the loggers and sawmill operators. Pastor/teachers are the contractors.
Signs of an Apostle
What gave the apostles and prophets the right to pour the foundation? Since their work set the boundaries for all subsequent work, we need to be sure that they are from God. “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12). The foundational work that we are building on is the foundation work of Scripture. The sign gifts were, among other things, a sign that the person who had that gift, or was a source of it, was someone authorized to do foundation work—which is to say, someone authorized to write Scripture. And remember that the other fundamental sign that tongues provided was a sign of judgment against the Jews (1 Cor. 14: 22). It meant, in essence, that they were no longer the authorized builders. The stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone.
But if this is true, then what are we to make of the “ecstatic utterances” that accompany the worship of many modern Christians? The biblical gift of tongues is a gift of languages. This means two things. First, it has to be a coherent language, and not a jumbling of syllables with way too many a’s. Second, it needs to be a gift, and not acquired the normal way—which would be by growing up in a culture, or by arduous study.
On the first point, it shouldn’t be babababababra-ann, for some Beach Boys tongues, and it shouldn’t be shambala shambala, for some Three Dog Night tongues. It needs to be a language—In principio Deus creavit caelum et terram, for Latin, or Feallen sceolan hæÞene æt hilde, for Anglo Saxon, and tres biens, mademoiselle is French . . . or so I am told. At Pentecost:, the words given to the believers on that day were words of other tongues (Acts 2:4), which were then called dialects (Acts 2:6). And men from many different nations understood them. And the second point is that a real language has to be given, just like that.
What Non-Christians Are For
The celebration of Pentecost reminds us of what we should see when we look out at the unbelieving world. What are non-Christians for, exactly? We should have the same feeling about that as a farmer has when he is looking at a field that is “white unto harvest.” When we call non-believers to repentance, we are not meddling or interfering. When we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to men, we have come to our place in the story. Christ was born, lived, died, rose, and ascended. And He gave gifts to men.