Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21

The Birthday of the Church

Introduction:  When my second son, Andrew, was born two and a half years ago I had the incredible privilege of watching the event.  I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but the fact is that it was a time of many varied emotions.  In addition to sheer awe at the miracle of birth, I experienced a mixture of fear, doubt, humor, exhaustion, pride, humility, and many other feelings.  Birth is such an awesome event that I suppose most people who witness a human birth share similar emotions.

In our Scriptural text today we are going to witness the birth of the Church and to hear from some of those who were eyewitnesses of the event.  It should not surprise us that the reactions of the onlookers to that birth, and I suppose, the participants as well, were also quite varied.  

Our study of the book of Acts, which we launched last Lord’s Day, is going to be a bit different in one respect than our previous study of 1 Corinthians.  We covered every paragraph and nearly every verse of Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians in the year we spent on it.  Acts is a much longer book, and I don’t want to take two years or longer to work our way through it.  So at times I’m going to skip parts of chapters, like the last half of chapter one.  When we do that, however, we will take a few moments to summarize that portion.  

Last Sunday in Acts 1 we were studying the end of Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry, and particularly the commission he gave to His disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and then unto the uttermost part of the earth.  He also promised them the power to be His witnesses, which power was from the Holy Spirit, who was to baptize them a few days later.  Then Jesus ascended into heaven while they stood watching.  At the urging of two angels who appeared to them, they returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and devoted themselves to continuous prayer that they might be ready when the Spirit came upon them.  That’s where our study ended.

In the remainder of chapter 1 we find that Peter stood up in the middle of the prayer meeting and urged the rest of the disciples to hold an election.  Peter has been criticized by some for both his timing and his intention, but I cannot find any rebuke of Peter in the text, and in the absence of such, I can only assume that he had the Scriptural motivation for his actions that he claimed in verse 16.  The election he called for was to replace Judas as a member of the Twelve Apostles.

The qualifications for being one of the Twelve were set forth, two men were nominated, and after much prayer, the Lord was asked to choose between the two.  The lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered among the Twelve.  As to how significant this decision was, we cannot say, for Matthias is never mentioned again in the New Testament.  His election is the only event recorded during the ten days between the ascension of Christ and the amazing events on the Day of Pentecost recorded in chapter two, to which we now turn in Acts 2:1-21:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly a noise like a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues that looked like fire appeared to them, distributing themselves, and a tongue rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with different tongues, as the Spirit was giving them the ability to speak out.

5 Now there were Jews residing in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and they were bewildered, because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty deeds of God.” 12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were jeering and saying, “They are full of sweet wine!”

14 But Peter, taking his stand with the other eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this, and pay attention to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you assume, since it is only the third hour of the day; 16 but this is what has been spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says,
‘That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
And your young men will see visions,
And your old men will have dreams;
18 And even on My male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days,
And they will prophesy.
19 And I will display wonders in the sky above
And signs on the earth below,
Blood, fire, and vapor of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood,
Before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes.
21 And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

The Church is born (1-4)

As I understand the Scriptures, there was no church as such before the day of Pentecost.  There certainly were believers, and ever since the Garden of Eden there has been a people of God.  But I believe the Church is a new entity that makes its first appearance here in Acts 2.  To speak of the Church in the OT is not heresy, but I believe it is confusing.  When Jesus said, “I will build My Church,” He used the future tense; today we will see the construction begin.  

The event that occurs in these first four verses can, perhaps, best be examined by asking the age-old questions, Who?  What?  When?  Where? and How?  The easiest one to start with is “When?,” for the very first verse clearly identifies the birthday of the Church.

         When?  It was the Day of Pentecost, one of the three major festivals of the Jews (the other two being Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles).  Pentecost is the Greek word for fiftieth, used of this Feast because it occurred on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of Passover.  The name the Jews normally gave it was Feast of Weeks or First Fruits.  In the days of the Apostles Pentecost was the most heavily attended of all the Jewish feasts in Jerusalem, since the dangers of travel, especially by sea, during the early spring and late autumn prevented many from coming to either the Passover or the feast of Tabernacles.  

Where?  The event took place in Jerusalem, where the disciples had gathered to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, they were altogether in one place, in a house, perhaps in the Upper Room, when it happened.

Who?  The charter members, so to speak, of the Christian church on the Day of Pentecost were the Twelve Apostles, and probably the rest of the 120 people mentioned in 1:15.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them, He came upon all of them.

What?  When we say the Church was born in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, what exactly too place?  We do not want to imply that these disciples were just now becoming believers or that they were born again on this day.  They were believers in the full sense of the term long before this.  What is happening is that a new entity is being founded, namely the Church, the Body of Christ, a community with no ethnic or national requirements for membership, as there were in the OT.  Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

How?  How is the birth of the church brought about?  It is brought into being as the Holy Spirit baptizes these believers into the Body of Christ, and it is added to every time the Holy Spirit baptizes another believer into the Body.  I believe the actual baptism by the Spirit is essentially a positional, rather than an experiential, action.  Spirit-baptized people don’t glow in the dark; their spines don’t necessarily tingle. 

True, some unusual phenomena accompanied the baptism here in Acts 2, but I do not believe that any of these phenomena were essential to the baptism itself; rather they accompanied the baptism in this, and in a few other occasions, because the Spirit’s new ministry was being introduced for the first time to new groups.  Let’s consider these phenomena.

The birth of the Church is accompanied by supernatural phenomena.  (2-4)

There are basically four supernatural phenomena that accompanied the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. 

         Audible:  a noise like wind.  It says in verse 2 that “suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”  Notice that Luke doesn’t say that a wind was blowing, but rather that there was a noise like a strong wind.  It was the noise which filled the house, not wind.  

Visible:  tongues as of fire.  Verse 3 adds that “there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.”  Again, it does not say that there were tongues of fire, but rather tongues similar to what one sees in a fire.  These tongues apparently symbolized the element of speech, or the communication of the Gospel.  This is important because the baptism of the Spirit had a very practical purpose—to provide power in preaching and in evangelism.  Wind and fire have often been associated with the Holy Spirit.  In fact, the very word translated “Spirit” is the word for “wind,” and we are told that the Spirit baptizes with fire, signifying conviction and cleansing.

Internal:  the filling of the Spirit.  The outward tokens were followed by the inward reality, as verse 4 says: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”  As we indicated last week, this was something new, for up to this point visitations of the Holy Spirit had been rare and selective, generally for some special task that needed to be performed.  Now all the believers who are present are filled with the Spirit.

Now someone might ask, “why is the word ‘filled’ used here instead of the word ‘baptized?'”  That’s a good question and not an easy one to answer.  I am of the opinion that baptism and filling are not completely synonymous terms.  Baptism is appropriate for the initial gift of the Spirit, for it marks the beginning of a new relationship.  Like water baptism, it belongs to Christian beginnings and is not repeatable.  However, one who has been baptized with the Spirit may be filled not merely once, but again and again.  These disciples were not only baptized with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; they were also filled with the Spirit on that day, that is, they were completely controlled by the Spirit.

Vocal:  speaking in other tongues.  The most important of the phenomena, both from the standpoint of the amount of text devoted to it and its theological significance is speaking with other tongues, and thus we will camp on this issue for a few moments.  Very commonly this passage is interpreted as teaching that every believer should seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit and that when it occurs, it will inevitably be accompanied by the gift of tongues.  

I think that is in error in several respects.  First, we are not commanded to seek the baptism of the Spirit—not here nor anywhere else in the Bible.  In fact, the only ones who are even told to wait for it are these disciples in Jerusalem.  Second, the tongues these disciples manifest are very different from the tongues we see commonly in the church today.  No interpretation was needed because the tongues were not unintelligible utterances.  (The subsequent charge of drunkenness need not connote an ecstatic state but rather reflects the joy and freedom of speech enjoyed by the participants). 

It’s obvious from the account here in Acts 2 that the tongues with which the disciples spoke were real human languages which they had never learned.  Verse 6 indicates that the foreign Jews living in Jerusalem each heard the message in his own language—at least 16 different language groups.  And they were amazed because they knew the disciples to be Galileans!

Now I would think that if speaking in tongues today was the inevitable accompaniment of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the kind of tongues would be the same as what was manifested at the first occurrence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  I would also expect the same wind noise and the tongues of fire.  But that is rarely, if ever, what we find.  Most tongues today is some kind of prayer language, not understandable by those who hear it.

May I hasten to add that there appears to be another valid kind of speaking in tongues in Scripture, a kind of heavenly prayer language, which I believe is also a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit.  We saw that in 1 Corinthians 14.  But nowhere is that kind of speaking in tongues connected with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  

Now these four supernatural phenomena—the audible, the visible, the internal, and the vocal—were all designed to demonstrate both to the disciples and to those observing that something unique and miraculous was happening.  The Holy Spirit of God was placing these believers into a community to be known from now on as the Body of Christ, or the Church.  And to preserve that unity and to empower it, the Holy Spirit would permanently indwell these individuals.

The birth of the Church elicits varied reactions.  (6-13)

Three are specifically mentioned in the passage.  

         Confusion.  Verse 6 says, “And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together and were bewildered.”  That’s understandable.  If you were visiting a tribe in northern Ethiopia, trying to communicate laboriously through an interpreter, and all of a sudden one of the Ethiopian natives began to speak in clear English without so much as an accent, you too would be surprised, especially if you knew for a fact that he had never been out of Ethiopia and had never been to school.  That is analogous to the situation the disciples found themselves in.

Amazement.  Verse 7 says “they were amazed and marveled.”  What caused the amazement is the realization that all the foreigners in Jerusalem were hearing the message in their own language. It’s as though the language curse at the tower of Babel was being reversed!

Then some went beyond confusion and amazement and ventured an explanation of the disciples’ behavior.  The explanation they came up with was one of extreme skepticism.

Skepticism.  In verse 13 it says, “But others were mocking and saying, ‘They are full of sweet wine.'”  If this verdict was given in a jesting spirit, it revealed an underlying attitude of unbelief.  It is very common for people to become skeptical of what they don’t understand.  In our modern era people find it very hard to accept unusual things without a scientific explanation.  In fact, they often prefer a far-fetched natural explanation to a simple supernatural one.  Such was the case here.  The allegation is made that the disciples must be drunk.  I’m not sure how drunkenness could explain speaking in unlearned languages, but skepticism is not always logical.  

The birth of the Church receives Scriptural vindication.  (14-21)

Peter denies the natural explanation.  Peter’s leadership, already exercised in the choosing of Matthias to join the Twelve, is now exhibited in a more public situation.  He boldly and forcefully denies the charge of drunkenness, noting that it is early in the morning, and people don’t typically drink wine before noon.  Rather, what they were seeing is a case of spiritual intoxication.  (You know, a minor similarity exists between the drunken man and the Spirit-filled man in that both experience an unusual sense of freedom and expressiveness.  But that is where the similarity ends).  

         He points out that this event was predicted centuries earlier by the prophet, Joel.  Peter’s point as he quotes the Old Testament extensively should be obvious.  Jewish people should not have been wholly taken aback by the phenomena of Pentecost, seeing that this event had been predicted by one of their own prophets.  We don’t have time today to examine Joel’s prophecy in any great detail, but there are several key words in the text that enable us to get a handle on it:

1.  “In the last days.”  The prophet Joel predicted that there would be a great outpouring of the Spirit in connection with the Day of the Lord.  What happened here on the day of Pentecost was a clear indication that the Messianic age had dawned.  The “last days” had begun.  Generally, when we think of the last days we think of the Tribulation, the Rapture of the Church, and the Second Coming.  But Peter in effect claims that his hearers are already living in the last days.  God’s final act of salvation has been inaugurated.  

2.  “All mankind.”  The import of this phrase is that God has now begun to pour out his Spirit upon all kinds of people, not just upon the Jewish prophets, kings and priests, as had largely been the case in OT times.  Now the Spirit would be available in all His power to daughters, as well as sons, to the young as well as the old, to slaves as well as free, and to Gentiles as well as Jews.    

3.  “Shall prophesy.”  This is probably a reference to the speaking in unlearned languages.  The OT has no equivalent term for “tongues speaking,” and “prophesy” may be the closest word available.  

While the event fulfills the prophesy of Joel, it only partially fulfills it.  Look at verses 19 and 20.  “And I will grant wonders in the sky above, and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.”  We have no evidence that such things as Joel predicted occurred on the Day of Pentecost.  Therefore, we are forced to conclude that part of Joel’s prophesy, perhaps up through verse 18, was fulfilled on Pentecost, and the rest awaits a later fulfillment.

The fact is the OT prophets seem to have had no knowledge of the interval between the first and second comings of Christ.  They knew nothing of the Church age.  I think Peter himself probably had very little understanding of it.  I would suppose he expected these wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath to occur momentarily and for Jesus to then return.  With 20-20 hindsight, however, we can tell there is more to come.  I might add that when the culmination of the last days finally arrives, I would expect to see these signs and wonders in nature, and I would also expect to see a revival of supernatural speaking in unlearned languages for the purpose of preaching the Gospel to the lost. 

         The timeless truth of Joel’s prophesy is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  The signs and wonders of Pentecost and the greater signs and wonders that will immediately precede the Second Coming will have as their major purpose the turning of people’s hearts to the Lord so that they might be saved.  

Conclusion:  This passage teaches us two principal truths.  First, the birth of the Church was a supernatural work.  Jesus had predicted, “I will build My Church,” and now we have seen the foundation being laid and the building process begin.  Praise God for the Spirit’s work in baptizing each believer into the Body of Christ so that there is a common unity among all who name the name of Jesus.

Second, our passage teaches clearly that whenever the Spirit of God is active, there will always be those who try to explain away the results.  But when a person has been truly filled with the Spirit of God, the results in his life will be so supernatural, particularly in the freedom he experiences to share the Gospel, that all such rationalistic efforts will fail.  It’s OK to refute the charges, as Peter did, but it’s even better to just go out and witness with the Spirit’s power, which, by the way, Peter also did, with great effectiveness, as we will see next Sunday. 

And friends, it is still true that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  If you have never done that, there is no time like now.


Church (birthday of)


Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Filling of the Holy Spirit