Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The First Pentecost

Posted by foryourfaith on April 8, 2010

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Greek-speaking Jews referred to the Jewish spring harvest festival of Shabuoth as Pentecost (Greek for fiftieth) because it occurred 50 days after Passover. Today, Pentecost is more often associated with the day on which Jesus’ closest followers received the Holy Spirit and became for the first time an ekklesia (Greek for assembly), or a church.

According to Luke’s account in Acts, this event coincided with that year’s celebration of Shabouth. Luke reports that the Spirit’s coming was perceived by the kinfolk and disciples of Jesus as a miracle that was accompanied by something “like the rush of a might wind” and the appearance of “tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them.” (Acts 2:2-3).

Upon feeling themselves suddenly gifted with a new vitality, Jesus’ family and friends began to praise God with loud voices; but instead of their native Aramaic, their words came out in a variety of languages that were previously unknown to them. As a result, many of the pilgrims to the festival from other countries expressed astonishment that they could understand what the Galileans were saying. Some observers, on the other hand , heard only babbling and concluded that the enthusiastic worshipers must be drunk. To clear up the confusion, Peter stepped forward and announced to all of them that this exuberance was none other than the fulfillment of a prophecy b Joel that God would send the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh” as a sign that the world’s last days had come.

The mysteries surrounding Pentecost are numerous. The New Testament furnishes only a small amount of information about it. The lack of details is paradoxical in view of the fact that all New Testament writers, with Paul and John leading the way, lay great stress upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of believers. Yet only Luke tells how the experience of the Spirit came to be a distinctive mark of Christian identity.

Luke places his emphasis on Peter’s Explanation to the crowd, which was apparently made in a common language that everyone understood. If the event itself was unusual, Peter’s interpretation was straightforward enough. For him, it was the risen Jesus who had sent the Spirit, and he expected that same Spirit to descend upon all who repented of their sins and presented themselves for baptism in Jesus’ name.

From a purely historical point of view, one must assume that something close to the this speech and its prediction actually did take place, for the new community quickly grew in sufficient numbers to draw the attention for the religious and political authorities. Prior to Pentecost, these leaders had assumed that the execution of Jesus would suffice to check the danger of a popular messianic uprising against Rome. But now the authorities had to deal with a renewed group of Jesus’ follower that was growing in spite of the founder’s death (Acts 4:1-4).

Here again, the question arises as to how the followers of Jesus could acquire such a sense of mission and a community life that attracted significant numbers of Jerusalem’s pilgrim visitors and citizens. Luke’s answer is that it all came bout through a dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit.

From the moment of its birth until its departure from Jerusalem shortly before the Jewish war with Rome (66-70), this community – the early Church – considered itself not a new religion but rather a renewal movement within Judaism. So it was that church members continued to observe the Jewish laws and worshipped regularly in the Temple. What distinguished them from other Jews was their conviction that Jesus as the promised messiah would soon reappear to restore the kingdom of Israel.

From its inception, the church was a missionary organization, for when its leaders told stories of their experiences with Jesus, they expected their listeners’ hearts to become filled with the Spirit. The practical consequence of such a coming to faith was an initiation into the church through the rite of baptism. Since there is no record of Jesus’ disciples having been baptized with water, students of the Bible may wonder why the practice became standard for everyone else. An altogether satisfactory explanation has yet to be found. Less obscure in their origin were the common meals held by members of the church, for they recalled similar events in Jesus’ ministry, especially his last supper with the disciples.

The missionary preaching of the church sometimes included criticisms of Jerusalem’s leaders, but its positive stance toward the Jewish people as a whole, coupled with its attempts to serve them in the name of Jesus, produced a certain confusion among those charged with keeping the public order. The church may have mystified some of the authorities by showing itself to be at one and the same time steadfastly but not traditionally Jewish.

Surprisingly, it was James rather than Peter, the bold spokesman for the twelve disciples, who became the chief leader of the church in Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was after the execution of James by a hostile high priest that the church emigrated from Jerusalem, the city of its origin, to a town called Pella on the other side of the Jordan River. Some reports indicate that a message from Christ in a vision prompted the departure.

But then an unaccountable thing happened – the first and most influential of all Christian churches faded from the pages of history. In its demise as well as in its birth, the Jewish church of Jerusalem remains an enigma down to the present day.


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