Jesus chose to pour out the Spirit in abundance on the Day of Pentecost. This outpouring of the Spirit was a fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist that Jesus would baptize in the Spirit. The meaning of this day and of the baptism in the Spirit is widely debated. The historical meaning of the Day of Pentecost often lies in the background of the debate.
The Day of Pentecost
The Greek term pentekostos means fiftieth. The Day Pentecost was the fiftieth day after the beginning of the Feast of Weeks. The fiftieth day was considered a part of the Feast of Weeks. On the first day of this feast, the first harvested sheaf of the barley harvest (Lev. 23:9-11) was waved before the Lord. Then, for seven weeks the grain (Deut. 16:9-10) was harvested. The Feast of Pentecost was observed as the "day of first-fruits" (Lev. 23:17) because it was the day when the "first-fruits" of the wheat harvest (Ex. 34:22) were presented to God. Therefore, the Day of Pentecost was a harvest festival.
In later Judaism, the Day of Pentecost took on new significance. It was considered to be the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Sinai. Although the timing is not certain, many believe that the giving of the Law at Sinai took place 50 days after the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. As on the Day of Pentecost, the presence of God at Sinai was manifested in supernatural ways. A feature of the celebration of the Day of Pentecost in became the reading of the Decalogue.
Would the Jews of Luke's time have thought of Pentecost mainly as a harvest festival or a commemoration of Sinai? Some scholars, such as Dunn (pp. 48-), Turner (p. 285), and Arrington (p. 20) believe that this view could have existed in Luke's Day. Menzies (pp. 189-201) defends the view that Pentecost was not celebrated in memory of the giving of the Law at the time of Luke's writing.
The transition from Old Testament salvation to New Testament salvation was begun with the incarnation of Christ. It was brought to fulfillment through Christ's death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. This great dispensational transition centers in Christ.
With regard to the dispensational transition and the Holy Spirit, what was Luke's emphasis? Scholars divide over whether he emphasized the Spirit's work in salvation or empowerment. Those who stress empowerment often point out that the empowerment is for witnessing which results in effective spread of the gospel.
In my view Luke is concerned with the missionary task of the church. As far as the Holy Spirit is concerned, the dispensational transition is twofold: (1) the Spirit will be given to those who believe in Christ, and (2) the empowering Spirit will now come upon all believers.
What significance does Pentecost have for individuals? Here, too, there is a divide within scholarship. Many scholars and denominations think of Pentecost as a salvation event. Dunn, for example, maintains that it was at Pentecost that the disciples truly became Christian. He relies to some extent on the idea that Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law. The Day of Pentecost, then, is when the new covenant (p. 47) begins for the disciples.
Many other scholars think of Pentecost as an empowerment event. The baptism in the Spirit empowers the believers to be witnesses. Some writes stress that the Spirit empowers believers to preach, pray for the sick, and otherwise witness. Other scholars add the emphasis on our sanctification. We become witnesses in the sense of "who" we are.
The views may, or may not, rely on past meanings of Pentecost. If so, the writers who emphasize empowering to actively witness will note that Pentecost is a harvest festival. Those who stress sanctification may find some support in the view that Pentecost recalls the giving of the Law at Sinai. Carter (p. 148), for example, holds that Pentecost provided for the writing of God's laws on the hearts of His people.
My understanding is that Luke put the emphasis on the Spirit enabling believers to prophecy, be witnesses, and to do the work of the church. For him, harvest and the growth of the church was a key issue. This may explain why God chose the Day of Pentecost as the moment to pour out the Spirit. Luke does not emphasize the work of the Spirit, such as regeneration, in salvation.
Many interpreters emphasize the corporate aspects of the Day of Pentecost. With regard to the baptism in the Holy Spirit, they believe it has to do with the church and the body of Christ.
There are differences between covenant theologians and dispensationalists. In harmony with covenant theology, Kuyper believes (p. 179) that the church existed in the Old Testament as well as the New. Also, he holds (pp. 121-122) that the body of Christ was formed when Christ ascended to heaven. At this point, Christ became head over all things to the church.
In contrast, dispensationalists do not believe the church existed in the Old Testament. The Day of Pentecost was the birthday of the Church. Although not a dispensationalist, Dunn holds that the church (p. 31) came into existence "as the Body of Christ" on the Day of Pentecost. Thus, the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament is highlighted.
Another set of differences exists between those who view the Day of Pentecost as a salvation event and those who see it as a day of empowerment. Indeed, this distinction more than any other divides interpreters with regard to the significance of the Day of Pentecost. Some thinkers who stress empowerment, as well as those who emphasize salvation, believe that the church was born on the Day of Pentecost. My own view, along with others, is that the church was not born, but rather inaugurated on the Day of Pentecost. The church was powerfully inaugurated to witness for Christ.
Nature of the Event
Some discussion surrounds the point of whether the Day of Pentecost was a one-time event or repeatable. Clearly, the answer has to be that some aspects of this day were not to be repeated while other aspects are. We must not let the historical nature of the day keep us from having the same experience that the disciples had on the Day of Pentecost. For example, the inauguration of the church in power happened only once, but the Spirit is continually and repeatedly poured out on the church. Let the "power from on high" constantly fall upon us!
George M. Flattery
Arrington, French L. The Acts of the Apostles. Peabody: Hendrikson Publishers, 1988.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Carter, Charles. The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Gordon, A. J. The Ministry of the Spirit. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1964.
Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Kuyper, Abraham. The Work of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1900.
Menzies, Robert P. Empowered for Witness. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Palma, Anthony D. The Spirit--God in Action. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1974.
Stronstad, Roger. The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984.
Turner, Max. Power from On High. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. 1996.
Wood, Laurence W. Pentecostal Grace. Wilmore: Asbury Publishing Company,
1980. Wood, Leon J. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.
Copyright © 2001. GMF