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Pentecost: What It Means and Why It Matters

by Mike Farley on May 23, 2023

On May 28, we will celebrate the festival of Pentecost. The colors in the church change from white to red to mark the event when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in a visible and more universal and powerful way than ever before (Acts 2:1-41). Why would we devote such attention to this event? In the worship of many modern Christian churches, Pentecost is a neglected celebration. However, it is a festival with very ancient roots. As the annual liturgical calendar developed in the fourth century, churches began to give a special focus to the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after the beginning of Easter to signify the end of the Easter season. This time frame aligns with biblical history because Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit upon his people in a visible way fifty days after his resurrection. Many Jews were gathered in Jerusalem on that day to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost (a Greek word that means “fiftieth”), which was an annual harvest festival called the Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-22; Deuteronomy 16:9-12).

Just as Jesus promised (John 14) and the prophets foretold (Joel 2), Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit upon his people as a gracious gift to provide his ongoing presence with his people. On this day, several miraculous signs occurred. Each of these signs was a tangible means by which God had previously revealed his presence and power. First, there was a great rushing wind from heaven (Acts 2:2). Wind symbolizes the creating and resurrecting power of God. God created Adam by breathing life into him (Genesis 2:7), he liberated Israel from Egypt with a wind (Exodus 14:21), and through the prophets he used the image of wind to promise the future salvation and resurrection of his people (Isaiah 11:15; Ezekiel 37). Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to do these things in greater ways by giving all of God’s people new life and making us into “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Anyone who trusts Jesus is brought from death to life and liberated more and more from sin’s power and curse.

A second sign was tongues of fire hovering above the heads of the apostles (Acts 2:3), which is symbolized by the color red in the sanctuary. The fire represents God’s presence. Just as God visibly displayed his presence among his people by fire in the wilderness and the Tabernacle sanctuary (Exodus 13:21; 19:18; 40:38; Leviticus 9:24), so anyone who trusts and follows Jesus is set apart for God’s holy purposes as a dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit and thus as a member of God’s new temple, the church (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).

Third, the apostles began to speak in foreign languages they previously had not known (Acts 2:4). This miracle was a reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11) that indicated the coming of the age when salvation would extend to all nations to an unprecedented degree and thus fulfill God’s promise to bless all nations of the earth through the people of Abraham’s faith (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:7-9). Thus, the church’s mission is to share the grace of Jesus Christ with all peoples without regard to anyone’s race, language, status, or class.

For now, Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father where we cannot see him (Acts 1). But he is still present in and through his people by his Spirit as he had promised (John 14:15-18; Matthew 28:20), and it is his presence that gives us power to do his will, gifts to serve those around us, and assurance of his love as we await the day when he will come again to renew all things. We will leave the red colors in place for several months to signal that Pentecost is not only a day at the beginning of the church’s life but also the beginning of the whole historical era of the Spirit between Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming (Advent), the era when the risen and ascended King Jesus empowers the church by his Spirit to fulfill the loving mission of his kingdom on earth.

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