Acts 2:1-21 A New Era

Sun, 28/05/2017 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

We live in a broken society. A fragmented society. A scattered society.

Our relationships with each other are broken. Our relationship with God is broken.

Let me illustrate by listening in on the questions people have been asking since Tuesday’s bomb attack in Manchester.

“How could someone do that to their fellow human beings?” Our relationships with one another are broken.

“Why does God not stop something like that from happening?” Our relationship with God is broken.

“I hope those responsible are brought to justice. (Not that the bomber himself will ever be tried in a court.) I hope there’s a hell, and I hope he spends a very long time there.” But no sooner have we said that, than we pause to think. I’m not perfect. Maybe I don’t want judgement to follow death. Maybe I don’t want there to be a hell. All of us have a broken relationship with God. Not just the really bad people.

Then there are people who spot that the bomber was not of English origin. Which leads to some intelligent questions on racial integration. And some downright offensive, racist remarks.

We’re a broken society. A fragmented society. A scattered society.

A society that desperately needs gathering in. Needs healing. Needs reconciling.

Does the Christian faith offer any hope? Any light? Any help?

If we’re talking about Manchester, the first Christian response must be that made by many Christians and many others: Those in a position to do so helped, nursed, fed, accommodated, transported, telephoned and a thousand other things.

But beyond that, is there hope? Is there hope that our society might be healed, mended, put back together?

And the answer is yes.

Today’s Bible reading tells the story of the day of Pentecost. This was an annual Jewish festival, 50 days after Passover. But the year that Jesus rose from the dead, something utterly unique, utterly unforgettable, utterly wonderful took place. God poured out his Holy Spirit on his church.

That day was unrepeatable. The exact events that took place have never happened again. That day launched a brand new era. The era in which God lives with his people by his Spirit. It’s a wonderful, wonderful era to live in. Because what God did then sowed the seeds of God putting things back together. Mending our broken world.

Let me share with you three things that are absolutely wonderful about living in the days of the Spirit.

The presence of God himself

First, the presence of God himself. The presence of God himself.

The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity. He’s fully God. He’s not just a thing. He’s not just a metaphor. He’s not some impersonal force. He’s personal. He’s God. A “he”, never an “it”. To be worshipped and adored. Holy. Loving. Mighty. Gracious. Truthful. Pure. Upright. All-knowing. Glorious.

For the Holy Spirit to come on his church is for God himself to come.

We see this in the way the story is told. It’s told the way they encountered it. We find out in verse 4 that this was the Holy Spirit coming on Jesus’ disciples. But before we know that, and before they knew what was happening, we’re told what they heard and what they saw.

They heard the sound of a violent wind blowing, a sound that filled the whole house where they were sitting. It was noisy, and probably not just a little scary. There was no wind. But they heard a wind. A loud wind. In both Old and New Testaments, the word for Spirit is also the word for wind. The Spirit is God’s breath. God himself, come to breathe on his people that they might live.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire. Great flames appeared in the air inside the room. Those flames divided, separated, into smaller and smaller tongues of fire, until there was one for each person, and then they came to rest on each person in the room.

Fire is frequently a picture of the presence of God. You might think of the story of the burning bush in the book of Exodus. Moses sees a bush burning, but notices it’s not being burnt up, so he goes to have a look. Then a voice calls from within the bush telling him not to come any closer.

In their travels in the wilderness, a pillar of fire symbolised God’s presence with his people. But when that pillar came to fill the tent they’d built for God to live in, even the priests were unable to go into the tent. God himself had moved in, and that meant they had to stay away.

In the Old Testament, God was distant. God gave Moses the ten commandments. A great fire appeared on Mount Sinai. But the people had to stay back. They were warned for days in advance not to approach.

God rescued his people. He gave them his law. But he himself was at a distance. This was why they failed to keep that law. God told them what to do, but did not empower them to live the way he wanted.

But the prophets of old foretold that one day God would do a new thing. Listen to Ezekiel chapter 36, verses 25 to 27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

Now God himself lives within, to change, to transform, to empower. Now God’s people have new hearts.

This is the final, great stage of his plan to rescue us. Because Jesus died and rose again, we can be forgiven. God has spoken to us in the person of his son, so we can know what behaviour pleases him. We can repent, change the direction of our lives, live for God and not for ourselves.

But what happened at Pentecost means that the rescue doesn’t stop there. God himself comes to live within the hearts of each and every Christian. Live within to change, transform, renew, to make us new people from the inside out.

We’ve all known the frustration of being told what to do, but just not getting it. I was useless at art at school, and still am. The teachers would tell me how to draw, but it wasn’t happening. Or you learn a musical instrument, the teacher tells you what you’re doing wrong, but you’re just not getting it. Maybe you struggle with computers. No matter how many times something is explained, it’s still all foreign.

How wonderful would it be if something could happen inside you. Transform you into a brilliant artist, pianist, singer, computer expert, Italian speaker, or whatever it is.

That’s the wonder of Pentecost. That’s the first wonderful thing about living in the days of the Spirit. If you’re a Christian, God does not just forgive your mistakes, tell you what to do, then leave you to get on with it. We’re not in the Old Testament any more. God himself comes to live within you. The pure, holy, loving, powerful God. The God of the burning bush. The God of Sinai. Comes to live within, inside. To give you a new heart, a heart of flesh. To change, transform you little by little. To make you the person he wants you to become.

The presence of God himself.

The beginnings of a new humanity

The second wonderful thing about the era of the Spirit is the beginnings of a new humanity. The beginnings of a new humanity.

God is taking our scattered, broken humanity and putting us back together.

This comes out in two ways in our story.

Firstly, there’s the international dimension.

All those who took part that day were Jews. Non-Jews, Gentiles, did not join the church until Acts chapter 10. But all the same, this incident foreshadows that in a wonderful way, because it includes Jews from all over the known world.

Luke is at pains to show this. Verse 5: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” He devotes a significant amount of space to listing no fewer than 15 places from which the people had come. From all points of the compass.

The people of God was now going to include people from every nation. So it starts with Jewish people who have come from every nation.

It’s part of what’s going on with the different languages spoken.

The background to this is the story of the tower of Babel, found in Genesis chapter 11. Back in the days when everyone spoke the same language, humanity hatched a particularly arrogant plan. We wanted to prove we were the best, so we decided to build a big city with a tall tower. The tower would be so tall it would reach up to heaven, where God lived. We would build siege works on heaven itself, prove we’re as great as God is.

God was not impressed. Genesis says that he had to come down to see this tower they were building. It was so far short of reaching heaven. But then he acted in judgement to stop us in our tracks.

God did two things. First, we’re told that God confused our language. Different people now spoke different languages. That meant we couldn’t co-operate. And if we couldn’t work together, we couldn’t build that tower. Second, God scattered us over the face of the earth. Scattered, with communication broken down, under God’s judgement, we’d never again try to make ourselves as great as God.

It’s a story that resonates today. We all know the pain of communication break-down. Different languages, different cultures, still bring untold tension to our life on earth.

It’s said that Great Britain and the United States of America are two nations separated by a common language.

On the day of Pentecost, the judgement of the tower of Babel was wonderfully reversed. People from every nation came together in one place. Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in languages that they had never learned. So that people from foreign nations could hear them praising God in words they could understand.

The miracle is not just that the disciples were speaking all these different languages. It’s that they were speaking them well enough to be understood. If you’ve ever learnt a foreign language, you’ll know this is a challenge. You learn your French, you practice carefully. Then you walk into a shop and ask for something, and the shopkeeper’s face is one of total puzzlement. He didn’t recognise a word you said.

One golden rule for professional translators is that you only translate into your own native language. If you’re English, and you speak German, you may translate German documents into English. But if an English document needs translating into German, it needs to be done by a German. If ever you doubt the wisdom of that, read the instructions next time you buy a watch or something similar. It’s very obvious if the person who translated it was not a native English speaker.

Here are the warnings supplied with an electrical cable tester: “Forbid to use for cable with electric current. Do not use it beyond usage. Do not change it on your mind.” Or here’s a warning given with a soldering iron: “While proceeds to link to reach agreement to open to burn the iron, certainly remember to turn off the power supply.” There’s also this warning: “When not use, should burn the iron to put on burned first the iron.” Or there’s the sign to help people looking for the gents: “A main toilet buries you to external right side stairs.”

Jesus’ disciples were praising God in all those different languages. And the people (whose languages they were) understood, and they were stunned. This was an undisputed miracle. It was the reverse of the curse of Babel. Scattered, competing humanity, brought together again.

It was only momentary. It didn’t last. But it’s a foretaste of the new humanity God’s bringing in. The story ends with people from every tribe and every tongue, gathered together around God’s throne in heaven, praising God with one song.

The beginnings of a new humanity. Seen, first, in the international dimension.

Second, it’s seen in the universal dimension.

Peter quotes from the prophet Joel.

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

In the Old Testament, God did give his Spirit to people. But only to certain people, to enable them to carry out particular tasks. Mainly, this meant prophets, priests and kings.

Joel foresaw a day when all God’s people would have his Spirit. And shows that he means all kinds of people by giving us extremes. The idea is that everyone in between is included. Sons and daughter. Young men and old men. All people.

The Spirit is no longer for a few important people. The hierarchy is flattened out. Now we all get the Spirit. There’s no such thing as an unimportant Christian, a second-class Christian. If you follow Jesus, the gift of God’s Spirit is for you.

We live in a society that is full of division. Some are richer, some poorer. Trains have first class carriages. At work, some are senior leaders, others appear to get all the menial jobs. Young and old. Men and women. At times, we’re all made to feel less important.

God does not promise to end all those divisions. Men and women will still be men and women. We’ll still be different ages. We’ll still be rich and poor. We’ll still need leaders at all levels.

But God’s blessings transcend all those divides. Whether your male or female, young or old, rich or poor, become a Christian. And if you do, every spiritual blessing is yours in Christ. And that includes the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

The beginnings of a new humanity. One day, that new humanity will be perfected.

Another wonderful feature of the era of the Spirit.

A day of opportunity before Jesus returns.

Here’s the third wonderful feature. A day of opportunity before Jesus returns. A day of opportunity before Jesus returns.

Peter makes a small change to Joel chapter 2 when he quotes it.

If you were to look in Joel, the passages begins with the word “afterwards”. When Peter quotes it, he says “in the last days”.

He’s not taking liberties. He’s simply drawing out what’s in Joel, and drawing attention to the implication.

Look at verses 17 to 21. Verses 17 and 18 God will send his Spirit. Verses 19 and 20, there will be significant disruptions in heaven and earth. And then, verse 20, the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Several Old Testament prophets speak of this day of the Lord. A great day when God himself will judge the living and the dead. When everyone will receive what they deserve for the things they’ve done in this life.

And here’s the point: After God sends his Spirit on all his people, that’s the next big event on the horizon.

But first, there’s a delay.

The Old Testament often spoke of there being a last day. Singular. A day in the future when God will come and judge the world, and deliver his people.

The New Testament writers expand that period from the last day into the last days. It’s become clear God won’t do all of that on a single day. He’ll send his Messiah to rescue and deliver his people, and he’ll finish everything when that Messiah comes back to this earth. But in between stretches the period called “the last days”. We’re in them now. The last days began at Pentecost. The last days will end with the great and glorious day of the Lord, the great day of judgement when Jesus himself returns to judge the living and the dead.

And what are these last days for?

Verse 21 tells us: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

If judgement is coming, we need to be rescued. If each of us was to receive what we deserve for the deeds we have done, we’d all be in the most terrible trouble. God’s standard is perfection. None of us have loved God with all our mind, with all our heart and with all our strength. None of us have honoured God as the single most important person at every moment of our lives. And none of us have loved our neighbours as ourselves.

If Jesus were to return as judge, we’d all be confined to hell for all eternity.

But Joel holds out a way to be saved on the day of judgement, and Peter quotes him. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

To call on God’s name is to take hold of God, to take hold of God’s character, to take hold of God’s purposes, to take hold of God’s saving actions. If you’re on an aeroplane that has to ditch in the water, you get out of the plane, and your troubles are not yet over. You need to find a life raft, a piece of driftwood, anything that will help you get to safety. You find it, you grab hold, and you don’t let go.

Joel and Peter say that this is what we must do with God. He wants us to be saved He’s done everything necessary for us to be saved. He’s done all that needs to be done for our eternity to be spent in heaven rather than hell. We just need to grab hold and not let go.

We’ll come to the rest of Peter’s address in a couple of weeks’ time. He will show that the Lord we need to call upon is none other than the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, his death, his resurrection, his return to heaven – he is the one to take hold of.

The last day did not come all at once. Wonderfully, the era of the Spirit is the extended period that is called “the last days”. These are days of opportunity. Jesus will come back. Judgement will fall. But in the meantime, there is a window. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved.

A day of opportunity before Jesus returns.


We live in a society that is broken, scattered, fragmented.

We also live in the era of the Spirit. God is rebuilding, gathering, giving hope, and he wants us to be part of it. To be a part, now, of the future.

So come and be part of a world where God himself is present, in us and with us. Where humanity is being remade as one. And where we have the opportunity to be put right with God before Jesus returns to wrap up the whole of history.

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