Why I am a Pentecost(al) Presbyterian

I read the following story this week:

“Erasmus, the famous Renaissance scholar, once told a classic story which was designed to emphasize how important it is that we take up the torch of Christ’s ministry with great commitment. In the story, Jesus returns to heaven after His time on earth. The angels gather around Him to learn what all happened during His days on earth. Jesus tells them of the miracles, His teachings, and His death on the cross, and His resurrection. When He finishes his story, Michael the Archangel asks Jesus, ‘But what happens now?’ Jesus answers, ‘I have left behind eleven faithful disciples and a handful of men and women who have faithfully followed me. They will declare My message and express My love. These faithful people will build My church.’ ‘But,’ responds Michael, ‘What if these people fail? What then is Your other plan?’ And Jesus answers, ‘I have no other plan!’” (1)

For such an occasion as Pentecost Sunday, I pause from all other Bible preaching series to read the account of the empowering of the Church of Jesus Christ to realize the plan of God. This is the Word of God about Plan A; and there is no other plan.

Lord, let me preach as if never to preach again and as a dying man to dying men. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I am a Pentecost-al Presbyterian.

By saying that I do not mean to say that I am starting a new denomination that mixes two existing movements within Christianity. I respect the contributions and witness of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters and don’t mean to dilute their emphasis at all. But I am not becoming a Pentecostal myself. This is not what I mean. If by Pentecostal one thinks of continuing revelation, whereby God speaks above and beyond His Word, the Bible—and not all Pentecostals believe that, but some do—I do not believe that. I believe that the Bible is quite clear about this: He has spoken once and for all for all we need for faith and life. He guides me, He speaks to my heart and illumines me, and He gives me joyful signs of His presence through His providential works. But I do not believe He gives new revelation. So if that is what you think when I say that, I do not mean that. I do not mean that Presbyterians are lacking something as a body of believers, though there may be someone here who is lacking, or I may be lacking, but that doesn’t mean that Reformed theology or Presbyterian church government is any less true. I believe it is the faith of the Bible. So what do I mean and maybe better, why bring it up or put it this way? Well it is Pentecost Sunday and I think we need to say something about the impact of that day on our day.

Here is what I mean when I say that I am a Pentecost (al) Presbyterian. I mean that the events that occurred on the fiftieth day after the death of our Lord so impacts the life of the believer that I must always relate my life and my faith back to that time. Dan Fogelberg wrote about his dad and sang, “I am the living legacy of the leader of the band.” I am saying, “I am the living legacy” of what happened at Pentecost. And I am saying that every Christian ought to be Pentecostal in that sense. I am also saying that what happened to the believers on that day describes my life in Christ. I am also saying that what happened to the believers on that day describes my mission in life.

So let me first ask a question and then think through this affirmation that what happened then affects us now.

First, What happened in Acts 2, particularly the very event in verses 1-13?

What is Pentecost?

The word that comes from a Greek word meaning fifty, describing a Jewish festival—the feast of weeks, in Hebrew Shavuot—that occurs on the Jewish calendar fifty days after Passover. In Rabbinic times this festival celebrated the giving of the Law by Moses. Thus fifty days after the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, Jesus said something would happen. Indeed, he told his disciples to wait there. He had been preaching to them during these days. Over 500 people saw him at one time as he preached in his resurrected body. He ascended into heaven and was seen by disciples as he went. But Jesus had told his disciples that they were to wait for His Spirit to come. Indeed, Jesus said in Acts 1.8:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1.8

The whole book of Acts is divided according to this verse. The Holy Spirit came and then the Gospel went to Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria, and then to the end of the world. Acts includes the story of Peter and Paul and others, but the story is all about this prophecy of our Lord Jesus.

And thus on Pentecost, as the rabbis taught about the giving of the Law, the Holy Spirit came upon the early church and empowered them to fulfill the mission of Jesus in their day, the mission of preaching salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

The Church has then rightly included this monumental day in our calendar, to remember how this all started on that day. Some call it the birthday of the church. But I think it is more accurately and more Biblically the anniversary of the New Covenant mission of the church.

Another question that often comes up is this:

Did the Holy Spirit exist before then?

Of course. The Holy Spirit is God. He is and always has been. He is made known to us in the very primordial pages of Scripture when we read:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Genesis 1.2

But He comes in a new way, to bring about a New Covenant wherein the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes forth to liberate captives of the devil, and to begin the work of transformation of the world person-by-person, nation-by-nation.

Are tongues for today?

It is hard to come to this passage and not deal with the Greek word for this phenomenon, glossolalia. What we see here is plain but astonishing. God sent His Spirit on the disciples and a supernatural sign came of speaking in their native Aramaic and the language being understood in Latin and Greek and other languages. That is a sign that fulfills several ancient prophesies as well as completes the picture of redemption in the Bible. At Babylon, men sought to build a monument to their own ingenuity and God judged them. The judgment was being given different tongues, which confused them and broke up their secular humanism movement. Pentecost reverses this. An act of God, not man, brings about unity in the nations and they all understand with one tongue. “But,” you say, “what about the tongues talked about in Acts 10, 12, 14 and 19? Is this not different?” I would defer to John Stott and so many others to say that while we don’t know everything about the speaking in tongues in the early church, we do know this: there is only one place in Scripture that explains the supernatural work and that is here in Acts. Here believers spoke in other tongues and were heard in other tongues. Thus, we would do well to follow the wise old axiom of interpreting the more obscure with the plain. And thus we must say that the phenomenon of tongues was not incoherent, but understood. The phenomenon of tongues was not out of control. The fruit of the Spirit is in fact self control (Gal. 5.23). Thus the charge that they were drunk on new wine should not be taken, as Stott says, as a “serious comment.”(2) The speaking in tongues was a sign of God that His Gospel would now be taken to every language group in the world. As Pentecost is a one time event that launched the Gospel to the ends of the earth, we do not expect it to be repeated…in the same way. But that its power will go on to the end of the age. The greatest ministry now for us is to get the Word of God into every language on earth through translation, through preaching, through teaching, through personal witnessing and evangelizing and through efforts to bring the Gospel to entire nations.

Yet another question always arises in this text.

Did the Church exist before Pentecost?

This may be controversial for some and I humbly admit that I lean simply on the shoulders of giants like Matthew Henry and Charles Spurgeon and Luther and Calvin and the Puritans. I also just take Scripture as it is plainly presented.

The word for Church is ecclesia. It means assembly. In the Old Testament the word is Qahal or Maqel. In the New Testament, the words are interchangeable. For instance, when Stephen is being martyred he preaches and says this:

This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Acts 7.38

The word for congregation is the word we translate church. It is the word ecclesia. And so the King James translates this:

This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us: Acts 7.38

The Church is the assembly or congregation of the People of God, Israel in the Old Testament, including Jews and others like Ruth and Rabah who would come by faith into the assembly. In the New Testament, though, Jesus is the Light to the Gentiles and the Assembly of the People of God is comprised of converts that come from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. In other words:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3.28

So the Church has existed under an Old Covenant and now in the New. Thus, our very Bibles are divided into those two administrations of the same: The Old Testament and the New Testament. There is oneness and continuity with the people of God.

So the Holy Spirit had existed, the Assembly of God’s People had existed. But clearly something new has come.

In fact, what happened that day was so dramatic that the people around the disciples thought, in verse 13, that they were drunk. But let’s see what really happened and why I would declare that I am a Pentecostal Presbyterian. And that leads me to my affirmation:

What happened to the believers on the Day of Pentecost describes my life in Christ.

Unity in the Spirit

The first thing that happened was that they were all together in one place and the Holy Spirit came to them in a new and wonderful way. The Day of Pentecost thus shows us that the Church is a people who are united in the Spirit.

Babel brought disunity. Pentecost brought unity. The world and its ways brings disunity. Christ and His ways brings unity.

I have found that I can have unity with believers from all different parts of the Body of Christ. John Wesley once said, “If your heart is with my heart then give me your hand.” I have found no better way to describe the Pentecost and Biblical message of unity.

It has been said that it is easier to have great love for people suffering in Africa than it is for your wife or husband. That is, we get too theoretical. And so it is easier in our day to talk about unity with other denominations than it is to live out unity with people in our own church.

But what is the answer? It is receiving Jesus’ grace, renewing yourself in that grace, and then with a renewed heart and mind being able to embrace others whether or not they embrace you. That is Pentecost unity in the Spirit.

Power in the People

The second thing that happened was that they received the very power that Jesus promised.
And today I affirm that there is power in the people.

In John’s Gospel (20:19-23), the Lord Jesus came to desperate disciples “Peace be with you,” And then He said this: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then, in anticipation for Pentecost, our Lord Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Pentecost is the breathing forth of new life into tired disciples, uniting us in a common mission, empowered by Jesus Himself. We can never be truly effective as God’s people without God’s power. Nothing else will do. All of the public relations campaigns in the world, all of the advertising in the world, cannot match one person alive from having receiving the breath of Jesus into their souls. This is what unites us for ministry. Nothing else.

Mission to the World

The third thing that happened was that they were given the divine ability to speak the Gospel to the nations of the earth. I affirm that we exist for God’s Mission to the World. And so in our church, I pray that each and every one of us will see that God has placed us where we are to His witnesses. In all of your associations, you are there to be used by God to witness to Jesus Christ.
I challenge you, again, to think through the pathways in your lives and pray that God will open a door to speak forth His name and to share how a person can be saved. Invite them to church. Invite them to Sunday School. Let them know what God has done in your life, He can do in theirs.

Conclusion

So, what happened to the believers on the Day of Pentecost was the inauguration of a world-wide ministry and mission that has come to touch my life today. Pentecost is a unique event with continuing impact. The ministry of the Holy Spirit still brings unity in the Spirit, power in the people, and mission to the world.

You will please pardon me if I conclude with a personal reflection on this. Some years ago, God led me to learn the language of the Albanian people. I cared very little for God’s mission at that time. I was interest in my mission, which was not His. But Jesus called to me and His Word reached my life. I heard Him in my own tongue speak wonderful words of life. I was transformed by His grace. And in seminary I was required to leave and go forth and lead a mission somewhere on the earth. I chose Albania. I wanted to preach the Gospel in that language. I stood on the crumbled remains on Joseph Stalin’s statue in Skenderberg Square in Tirana, Albania and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ that Stalin once sought to destroy. But Stalin was dead and Jesus is alive forever more. Now, I have not been back until I leave tonight, with my son, to travel there on behalf of our World Missions Executive Committee, to determine if our church can minister in that nation. It is such an honor. But at the root of this is simply Jesus Christ breathing His life into me. And then empowered by His life in me, I am compelled to speak forth His name to others.

And that is the simple message of Pentecost. That is the simple message of the Gospel. Jesus Christ alive in you, through the Holy Spirit, giving you the power to be His witnesses. It is all about His kingdom, His new heaven and new earth that are coming.

I end this message with the words of the great Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

“God’s coming to you need not be the rushing, mighty wind, but it is always the power of God. It is always the hand of God. It always brings the knowledge that God has had pity upon you and has come down in the person of his Son to enter into your life, to save you and set you free. Oh, that men and women might know the living God and His power unto salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Let no one leave here today without knowing that power. May the Spirit of God come down again to empower you to live for God, to accomplish His mission in the world through you! Amen!

Notes

(1) James W. Moore, Sermon: “What Do You Do With Such A Gift?” (from Illustrations@Clergy.net for May 22nd, 2007).

(2) John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts : To the Ends of the Earth, Second (with Study guide). ed., Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1991), 66.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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