The Arrival of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21       Sermon Resources    |   3 November 2019


Our passage begins with the disciples still in Jerusalem gathered together in one place (v.1). Luke does not make clear which group of people this is. Is it the 12 apostles? Is it the larger company of 120 believers? As the Holy Spirit is about to manifest himself in a pretty remarkable way this is more than just a passing curiosity. John Calvin limits the group to the 12 apostles but other commentators aren’t so sure.   Many cite Peter’s speech in verses 17 and 18 where he says the Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh” – sons and daughters, young and old, male and female servants – as an indication that a larger group of people, including women, received the Holy Spirit on this day.

So the location is Jerusalem, the people include at least the apostles, potentially others, and the time is Pentecost (v.1). Pentecost (literally, “fiftieth”) was one of the three pilgrimage festivals celebrated by the Jews. Also known as the Festival of Weeks or the Festival of Harvest it took place fifty days after Passover. During Pentecost the Jews gave thanks for the grain harvest, and during the intertestamental period it became associated with the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. (Passover celebrated the exodus from Egypt and three months later Israel arrived at Mount Sinai.) This is an interesting bit of background as some the events that are about to take place bear at least a passing resemblance to what happened on Mount Sinai when Moses was given the law (c.f. Exodus 19:16-18).

As we examine the events of this day, three words describe well what took place. The arrival of the Holy Spirit was dramatic, the result was divisive within Jerusalem, and finally Peter stands up and makes the case that the day is a decisive one in history. Dramatic, divisive, and decisive – I will organize the rest of my commentary around these three words.


#1 Dramatic

Just as Jesus had promised, the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, arrived on the day of Pentecost. Remember that he had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the fulfillment of this promise. As it turned out they only had to wait for about ten days, which, considering many of God’s people had to wait much longer for his promises to be fulfilled, doesn’t feel too bad.

They Holy Spirit manifests himself on this day in a very dramatic fashion in sound and sight. First, comes the sound like a mighty rushing wind (v.2). This may have indeed been a mighty rushing wind but note that Luke only says it was like a mighty rushing wind. This sound was loud enough to be heard around Jerusalem and was out of place enough to cause a large crowd to come and investigate. Next comes a dramatic sight – divided tongues as of fire are seen and come to rest on each one of them (v.3). Note here as well that it may not have been actual fire but that the tongues were as of fire. Luke is doing the best he can to relay to us what this event was like. He interprets the meaning of these signs explaining that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and the resulting effect was that they began to speak in other tongues (v.4).

Remember at Jesus’ baptism the heavens were torn open in dramatic fashion, the Holy Spirit like a dove descended, and a voice came from heaven (c.f. Luke 3:21-22). Here we have not a gentle dove but a fierce fire that falls from heaven and not one voice, but many voices declaring the mighty works of God. Some see in the day of Pentecost not only connections to Jesus’ baptism but to the events surrounding the tower of Babel where God confused the language of the people (c.f. Genesis 11:9).   The argument goes that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit undid the curse of Babel allowing the many different languages to be known and understood.

As we think about what this passage means for us today many questions come to mind. Is the Holy Spirit still at work today? Does he work fundamentally in the same way 2000 years later? Do people still receive the gift of speaking in tongues like these first Christians? This is part of the challenge of reading the book of Acts – knowing which parts of the book simply describe what happened and which parts are attempting prescribe what should happen. This is a challenge, by the way, for all of the historical narrative books of the Bible. For instance in Genesis 22, Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son. If we are serious about taking the Bible “literally” does this mean we need to sacrifice our own children as well?   Of course not! On the other hand, when we read Paul’s letters, he makes it very clear – do this, don’t do that. But when we come to books like Acts, we need to discern what is meant simply as a description of what took place and what is meant to be a prescription for what should always take place.

For example, some see in the day of Pentecost a prescription for what should be normal for all Christians through the ages – that when we receive the Holy Spirit we begin to speak in tongues. But they don’t read the passage carefully enough. Speaking in tongues wasn’t the only sign that was received on this day. There was also a sound like a mighty rushing wind and a tongue like a fire. If we are to insist on speaking in tongues as the definitive way to know if we have the Spirit, shouldn’t we also insist on a wind and fire as well?

I believe that God is still able to grant the gift of tongues today and indeed have witnessed it myself. However, I believe the Holy Spirit today typically works in a more subtle way. John Calvin explains it well: “The Lord did once give the Holy Spirit under a visible shape, that we may assure ourselves that his invisible and hidden grace shall never be wanting to the Church (Calvin’s Commentary on Acts).” This is helpful. Pentecost is not meant to be a repeatable event but something we can look to to be assured that the Holy Spirit is alive and well today. So to summarize, the effect of the Holy Spirit continues to be the same but his manifestation is typically more subtle.


#2 Divisive

The events of this day do not go by unnoticed in Jerusalem.   Most likely because of the Pentecost celebration, there were dwelling in Jerusalem many devout men from every nation under heaven (v.5). Upon hearing the sound they came together and heard this group of Christians speaking in their own language (v.6). Some have hypothesized that the miracle was that they were able to hear their own language regardless of what was spoken. In other words they suggest the miracle was that of hearing, not of speaking, but Luke explicitly tells us that when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they began to speak in other tongues (v.4). This is a miracle of speaking not a miracle of hearing.

The crowd was amazed for two reasons. First, that those who were speaking were Galileans (v.7). Apparently Galilee had a reputation similar to the rural country in which I grew up, that is that it was a “backwater” from which nothing good could possibly come. Secondly and most importantly, they were amazed to hear their own native language (v.8) being spoken. This was amazing to them as they had come from fifteen different countries. And by the way, that there were people from fifteen different countries who heard their own native language suggests that there were at least fifteen people who were speaking in various tongues. This is further evidence that more than just the twevle apostles received the Holy Spirit on this day.

This experience was polarizing for the crowd which had gathered. Everyone was said to be amazed and astonished (v.7) but they had two very different responses. On one side, there were those who simply asked, “What does this mean?” (v.12). They knew that something odd was going on here and were able to, at least for the moment, suspend judgment. On the other side, there were those who laughed the situation off saying, “They are filled with new wine” (v.13).   The former group were content with the mystery of the situation while the later needed a quick answer and concluded that too much wine had been consumed.

There are at least two lessons for us here. First, as we are obedient to the Holy Spirit we need to be prepared to have the same things said about us. We will be misunderstood and misrepresented – and this is okay. They did the same to Jesus, the same to the early church, and undoubtedly the same will happen to us as well. Secondly, we need to see the place for mystery. There are things that God does that defy an immediate explanation. We should take the attitude of that first group – “what does this mean?” – and avoid being like the second group settling for quick trite answers to complex situations.


#3 Decisive

The crowd did not have to wonder long at the meaning of this event. Peter stood up, lifted his voice and addressed them (v.14) explaining that they could not possibly be drunk as it is only the third hour of day, that is 9 am, (v.15). Rather, they were witnessing the definite fulfillment of what was written in the Old Testament by the prophet Joel (c.f. Joel 2:28-32).

In this prophecy, Joel foretold the universality of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh (v.17) that he would come to all people without distinction of gender (your sons and daughters shall prophecy), age (your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams), or status (even on my male servants and female servants).

The Reformers wrote about the priesthood of believers, that is the idea that in Christ we are all priests and have access to God. In this passage what we see is the prophethood of all believers. That is to say the Holy Spirit works through all believers to understand who God is.

Peter continues the prophecy from Joel citing signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke (v.19). Some take these signs to be literal events which did or will occur, while others see here metaphorical language to describe the end of days. Regardless, of whether this meant to be literal or metaphorical, two things are clear: these signs will usher in the last days, before the day of he Lord comes (v.20) and Peter’s audience has now entered those last days.

This citation from Joel concludes with an invitation—And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (v.21). The invitation for salvation is made to all without distinction. Perhaps in reflection upon this verse, Peter will later write: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (c.f. 2 Peter 3:9, emphasis mine).   God desires all people to repent and be saved. John Calvin puts it this way, “Forasmuch as no man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men; neither is there any thing which keeps us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief (Calvin’s Commentary on Acts).” Those who have misunderstood Calvin’s teaching on election, should let those words settle in. The gate of salvation is open to all men. The only thing holding us back in our own unbelief. And we will see by the end Peter’s sermon 3000 people will accept the invitation and walk through the gates of salvation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think we tend to neglect the Holy Spirit in the church today? Why or why not?
  2. Describe the scene in verses 1 to 4. Who is there? What happens? What do you think it would have been like for you if you were there that day?
  3. Why is it significant that there were people from “every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem at this time?
  4. Discuss the two different responses from the crowd in verses 12 and 13. How can you be more like the first group and less like the second group?
  5. How does Peter explain what was happening in Jerusalem?
  6. How should we think about the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today?
  7. What difference does it make in your life that the Holy Spirit dwells within you?