Part 1 of series:
What is Pentecost? Why Does It Matter?
This coming Sunday, Christians across the world will celebrate Pentecost. In fact, not all Christians recognize this holiday (holy day). But it is generally honored in liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, etc.), in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, and in many other Protestant churches as well. Pentecost is not as well-known or as popular as the Christmas and Easter, though it commemorates a watershed event in Christian history. It many ways, Pentecost is the birthday of the church.
In today’s post I am going to answer several frequently asked questions about Pentecost. Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about its spiritual significance.
What is Pentecost?
For Christians, Pentecost is a holiday on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called “the church.” Thus, from an historical point of view, Pentecost is the day on which the church was started. This is also true from a spiritual perspective, since the Spirit brings the church into existence and enlivens it. Thus Pentecost is the church’s birthday.
What does the word “Pentecost” mean?
The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.”
But Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or, more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). This name comes from an expression in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture).
Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This day became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his first followers, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church.
What actually happened on that day of Pentecost?
This event is recorded in the New Testament book known as The Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 2 begins, “And when the day of Pentecost [ten hemeran tes pentekostes] had come, [the first followers of Jesus] were all together in one place” (2:1). All of a sudden, a sound came from heaven, like a strong wind, filling the house where the people had gathered. Something like tongues of fire rested on their heads. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (2:4). (Notice the tongues of fire on the heads of the people in the painting by Restout.)
The languages spoken by the early Christians were intelligible (not other worldly) and were heard by thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. The content of the miraculous messages had to do with God’s mighty works (2:11). Many who heard these messages in their own languages were amazed, though others thought the Christians were just drunk (2:12).
At some point, Peter, one of the leading followers of Jesus, stood up and preached his first sermon. He interpreted the events of that morning in light of a prophecy of the Hebrew prophet Joel. In that text, God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power. This would be a sign of the coming “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32).
Peter went on to explain that Jesus had been raised and had poured out the Spirit in fulfillment of God’s promise through Joel (2:32-33). When the crowd asked what they should do, Peter urged them to turn their lives around and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Then they would be forgiven and would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:37-39). Acts reports that about 3,000 people were added to the church that day (2:41). Not a bad response to Peter’s first sermon!
Should we believe that all of this actually happened?
If you are one who believes the Bible is God’s inerrant or infallible Word, you will take for granted the truthfulness of the account in Acts. But if you’re uncertain about biblical authority, then you might wonder if the account in Acts is to be trusted.
In fact, some scholars have questioned the historicity of Acts 2. They observe that this event appears in the New Testament only in Acts, and that it describes miraculous events that are beyond the scope of historical inquiry. These scholars tend to view Pentecost as a powerful metaphor for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, rather than as an event that gave birth to the church.
Whether we believe the biblical account of Pentecost has everything to do with our estimation of the historical trustworthiness of Acts of the Apostles and the possibility of miraculous events actually happening. If you’re familiar with my book Can We Trust the Gospels?, you won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that Acts 2 describes what really happened. For reasons I can’t explain here, I believe that the author of Acts, the same “Luke” who wrote the Third Gospel, was a reliable historian. Of course, as a Christian, I also believe that God could send the Spirit in astounding ways and empower people to speak in languages that they did not know.
How is Pentecost related to Pentecostal Christians?
Pentecostal Christians have had a powerful experience of God’s presence, which is usually accompanied with speaking in tongues (generally not a known language). Pentecostal Christianity used to be a small segment of Protestantism, but today it has spread throughout the world and is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Many Christians who are not Pentecostals nevertheless celebrate Pentecost and hope that the Holy Spirit will renew and empower the church, though not necessarily with the particular manifestations of the first Pentecost.
How do Christians celebrate Pentecost?
As you might expect, there are a wide range of Christian celebrations of Pentecost. Some churches do not recognize the holiday at all. Most churches at least mention it in prayer, song, or sermon. Some churches go all out, with worship focused on remembering the first Pentecost and praying for a similar outpouring of divine power.
Churches that employ liturgical colors generally use red on Pentecost as a symbol of power and fire of the Spirit. (If you’re interested, you might check out my chart of the liturgical year, its seasons, themes, and colors.) A couple of years ago, my church, St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas, celebrate Pentecost with red balloons and other symbols of the Holy Spirit.
Some churches receive new members on Pentecost, thus commemorating the first “new members class” that joined the church after Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Centuries ago in Britain, those joining the church wore white for baptism. Thus the Sunday was called “White Sunday” or “Whitsunday.”
What is the spiritual significance of Pentecost? What might God want to do in our lives and in our churches on Pentecost?
I’ll try to answer these questions tomorrow. Stay tuned.