Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
When I was 16 years old, I had a job bagging groceries at Kroger. I was just a Baptist kid growing up, like most of my friends. But I met someone who worked at Kroger, his name was Elbert, who was a Pentecostal Christian—the first one I’d ever met. And we hit it off immediately, because we both clearly loved Jesus; we both were on fire for Jesus; we both wanted to tell other people about Jesus. You know that spark you sometimes feel when you meet another believer? I had that!
Anyway, one day, when we were on break together, he asked me if I had ever spoken in tongues. I said “no.” He said, “Oh! So you haven’t yet received the Holy Spirit.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about! I thought I had received the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that we receive the Holy Spirit when we first believe in Jesus and are born again!
Of course, I’ve long since learned that Pentecostal churches often teach that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a “second blessing,” which happens at some point after someone receives Christ and is born again. In other words, many Pentecostals believe you basically have to repeat the experience of the disciples in today’s scripture… as a necessary sign to prove that you’ve received the Holy Spirit!
So the next time Elbert saw me at work, he handed me a booklet published by some Pentecostals called The Bible Way to Receive the Holy Spirit. I read it. And it greatly bothered me. The author talked about how, if you haven’t spoken in tongues, things that “you need to do”—steps you can take, prayers you can pray, exercises you can perform—even something about opening your mouth and loosening your tongue or something. It was weird, to say the least.
But… does that sound like the experience that these disciples had in today’s scripture?
It doesn’t to me… But let’s figure out what’s going on in today’s scripture first.
If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn over to Acts chapter 1. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples, in verse 4, “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
According to chapter 1, verse 12, these disciples are in “the upper room,” which is likely the same room where the twelve disciples and Jesus gathered for the Last Supper. Except now, as we learn from chapter 1, verse 15, the group includes not just the eleven remaining disciples but 120 disciples.
So that’s the group… and at the beginning of chapter 2 we’re told that it’s Pentecost. That’s one of three major Jewish religious festivals that’s celebrated at the Temple each year. It takes place fifty days after the Sunday following Passover—which was Easter Sunday. So this is fifty days after Easter. The resurrected Jesus was with his disciples for 40 days, then he ascended… And Pentecost is ten days after that.
So… with that background, let’s look at this little in adverb in chapter 2, verse 2: “suddenly.” “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind…”
This word implies that the coming of the Holy Spirit, the activity of the Holy Spirit—what the Holy Spirit does in us and through us, and when he does it—is ultimately the decision of our sovereign God. These 120 disciples had no idea what was about to happen to them. By all means, they were expecting to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus told them, but Jesus hadn’t prepared them for what that experience would be like for them—what they would hear, what they would see, what they would say… and how they would say it!
It all just sort of happened to them at a time they couldn’t predict! They were not in control of it at all! Unlike my Pentecostal friend Elbert, they had no book to read, no steps to follow, no exercises to perform… It all just sort of happened to them.
My point is, if God wants to fill you with his Holy Spirit, he’s going to do it, and he’s going to do it on his timing, and on his terms. And his timing and his terms are not something you can predict or control!
Besides, if my friend Elbert—and the author of that booklet I read, and so many of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters—are going to use today’s scripture as a template for what must happen to all Christians when they receive the Holy Spirit, then most Pentecostals don’t pass the test, either.
Because their experience of speaking in tongues is not like the experience of Acts 2!
Why? Let me give an illustration…
I was in Jerusalem back in 2019; this was my second trip to Israel. And my tour group was in the traditional site of the “upper room”—a place many people believe was where most of the events of today’s scripture took place. While we were there, there was a group of Korean Christians near us who began speaking in tongues. Frankly, I didn’t know they were speaking in tongues because… well, Korean was a foreign language to me, so how would I know?
But our tour guide explained that Pentecostals often come to this site and begin speaking in tongues because, after all, this room represents the place where Christians first did it.
Except… these Koreans weren’t doing what the Christians in Acts chapter 2 were doing! That is, they weren’t speaking in any known human language—such that someone outside of their tour group could understand what they were saying in his or her own native language. Yet that’s what was happening in Acts chapter 2. We should have heard them in our native languages! They should have been telling all of us about the “mighty works” that God had accomplished through his Son Jesus! (Not to mention we didn’t see tongues of fire, or hear the sound of a mighty, rushing wind!)
But they weren’t speaking in tongues like the disciples in Acts chapter 2.
Instead they were doing what the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14. This is the kind of speaking in tongues that is a separate spiritual gift—it’s like a private prayer language known only to God and his angels. But if someone uses this gift in a public setting, like church, Paul insists that they need someone who has the spiritual gift of interpretation to interpret for everyone else what they’re saying.
You can read more about this gift of tongues 1 Corinthians. Just know that there are plenty of Methodists, even in this church, who regularly speak in tongues, as part of their private prayer life. But that’s not what’s happening in Acts 2.
But I’m not saying that an Acts 2-type miracle can’t still happen! In his commentary on the Book of Acts, Tom Wright, a retired bishop in the Church of England, who is brilliant, who is not a crackpot, says that he’s known people who have spoken in languages that they otherwise had never learned—the way these Christians are doing it in Acts chapter 2. He describes a friend who on a bus in London, surrounded by Indians. And his friend suddenly began sharing the gospel with these people in Hindi… a language his friend had never learned! And he said, “I have no reason to doubt my friend.”
My point is, God can and will still work miracles like that! And the Holy Spirit can and will still do supernatural, powerful things! Don’t doubt it for a moment!
See, while I believe that my friend Elbert went too far in one direction—saying that all Christians should speak in tongues—plenty of other Christians today go too far in the other direction, saying that literally no one today does speak in tongues today; they might think they do, but it’s always only gibberish.
In fact, these Christians believe that all those extravagant gifts of the Spirit we read about in the New Testament—gifts of prophecy, healing, special knowledge, and tongues—lasted for a while in order to establish the authority of the apostles and their message, but they passed away after the apostles died… at the end of the first century. We have the New Testament now, they say, so we no longer need these special gifts… or so they say.
The first problem with this understanding is that it doesn’t correspond to Christian history—all these gifts of the Spirit have continued throughout church history. John Wesley himself witnessed and experienced many of them.
Second, the Bible does not teach that these gifts will disappear! Instead, Paul says we should “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”1 In fact, he goes on to say, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” Paul spoke in tongues!
But some Christians think these gifts came to an end. One commentator cited as evidence 1 Corinthians 13:8: “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” But it’s clear from the context that Paul isn’t talking about our present church age; he’s talking about what will happen after the Second Coming, after we’re resurrected. We won’t need to prophesy, or speak in tongues, or possess supernatural knowledge, or heal people miraculously when we have perfect, resurrected bodies! As Paul says, “Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.”
When we’re resurrected, there’s nothing someone can tell us, by speaking in tongues, that we won’t already know!
And now, with that background, let me speak as a Methodist… John Wesley, the founder of our movement, believed strongly that these spiritual gifts continued after the apostles… and that they’re still available to us Christians today. Or they should be… But Wesley identified the real reason these gifts became far less common in one of his sermons:
The real cause was, “the love of many,” almost of all [so called] Christians… was “waxed cold.” The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens… [too many Christians] were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form [of religion] left.2
See, Wesley rightly understood that there is a connection between experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit and the strength of our faith… that there’s a connection between the Holy Spirit’s activity and the extent to which we trust in Jesus!
I hope you don’t think I’m contradicting what I said earlier in the sermon: Earlier I said that the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives is ultimately the work of our sovereign God… He’s in control of of when and how the Holy Spirit will do mighty things through us. These 120 Christians gathered in that “upper room” were not in control of whether or when God was going to baptize them in the Holy Spirit. That was completely up to God.
But… that doesn’t mean these 120 Christians didn’t do anything to prepare for the coming of the Spirit. I need you to see how both things are true: The activity of the Hoy Spirit in our lives is completely up to God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also prepare for the Spirit and anticipate his work! What we do influences the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives!
In our Meaning of Marriage Bible study, our main scripture is from Ephesians 5, in which Paul compares the marriage between husband and wife to the marriage between Christ and his church. But as Keller explains, all of Paul’s words about how Christian husbands and wives treat one another in marriage is premised on upon Ephesians 5:18: There, Paul commands all of us Christians, whether married or single, to “be filled with the Spirit.”
That’s an order: Be filled with the Spirit! If there’s literally nothing we Christians can do to be filled with the Spirit, then this command makes no sense whatsoever!
Paul can’t command something over which none of us has any control!
And that’s not the only place Paul says something like this! 1 Thessalonians 5:19: “Do not quench the Spirit.” Again, if you have no control whatsoever over the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life, guess what? It makes no sense to speak of quenching the Spirit!
So like John Wesley in that sermon I quoted earlier, Paul clearly thinks there’s something we should be doing in order to make “being filled with the Spirit” more likely, and for it to happen more often.
And in fact, today’s scripture also demonstrates this truth. Look at verse 1 again: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” They were all together… Why were they there? Because Jesus told them to be there… to wait. So first of all, they were listening to Jesus. They were obeying Jesus.
And not only that… Chapter 1 even tells us some of what they were doing. Verse 14: “They all met together and were constantly united in prayer.”3
Do you get the picture? All one-hundred-and-twenty were meeting together and praying constantly for the same thing: for the Holy Spirit to come, just as Jesus promised.
So they were listening to and obeying the Lord, praying constantly, worshiping… I’m one-hundred-percent certain that they also had Bibles that they were reading. Besides, as I’ve said in recent sermons, if we are going to obey Jesus today, we have to know what Jesus says—and the main way he speaks to us is how? Through his Word!
Listening, obeying, praying, worshiping… And that’s not all they were doing… They were also expecting the Holy Spirit to show up… waiting for him to show up.
Expecting him… waiting for him…
Think about it: Jesus had already given the church their marching orders! “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19 and 20.
Why do you suppose someone like Peter, for example, wasn’t already out there on the streets of Jerusalem, fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission… During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he was as bold and outspoken and ambitious and fearless as they come! Remember, he was the one who stepped out of that boat on the Sea of Galilee and started walking out to Jesus when all the other disciples were trembling in fear? Remember, he was the one who said, “Even if I have to die with you, I’ll never deny you”?4
So why didn’t Peter, at least, go and get started on fulfilling the Great Commission, instead of waiting around for ten whole days?
Because I think that Peter’s difficult and painful experience of failure had taught him something—when he was sinking below the waves, and when he was denying Jesus three times—and what his experience taught him was this: that you can be as bold and outspoken and ambitious and fearless as you want, but without the Holy Spirit working in you and through you, you will fail!
The church, at this point, knew that they needed the Holy Spirit in order to be successful in fulfilling their mission! So they waited. Even Peter!
How easy it is to forget that we need the Holy Spirit to be successful in our mission! Or at least it’s easy for me to forget!
I was listening to the podcast of Matt and Anne Kennedy, a clergy couple at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, who minister up in Binghamton, New York. They described an experience 15 years ago in which a famous evangelist was coming to their city. And all the churches in the area were pulling together to help organize and sponsor this big outreach event. And they were excited because, after all, this event, they believed, could revive their churches, revive the city!
“Let’s have a revival!” they said. “Think of all the people who will pray to receive Christ and be saved! Think of how this event will transform our city!”
And after all the preparation, all the money they spent, all the careful planning, all the hard work, by all the pastors and all churches in the community… Matt said, “I think only one person in our church prayed to receive Christ.” And then Anne chimed in, “Yeah, but even that person was confused… Remember? Because that person was already saved.”
How many times has something like that happened to me in my ministry?
Sometimes I think I am so hungry and so thirsty for revival I can almost taste it! Sometimes I feel desperate to see revival in our church and in our community! Sometimes… I know many of y’all do, too.
So what’s missing?
As a church can make well-thought-out, sensible plans for revival! And we can spend a lot of money! And we can advertise and promote what we’re doing. And we can put forth relentless effort… But we can never be successful in our mission… and we can never bring revival and renewal, and we can never have lives set on fire for Jesus… without the Holy Spirit.
So what can we do about it? The same thing the church in Acts 2 does… Listen to Jesus in his Word, obey Jesus in his Word, pray together, worship together… and… this is important… expect the Holy Spirit to show up… Pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit will show up! Have a holy dissatisfaction if the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up!
And we should tell ourselves, “This effort, this initiative, this activity, this outreach will only be successful if something supernatural happens… If the Holy Spirit show up and makes it successful.” And then tell God about it in prayer: “Father, pour out your Holy Spirit on this event! Fill us with your Spirit! We need you to work in a supernatural way!”
And if we really believe that, brothers and sisters, we’ve got to have more faith! We’re living in a post-Pentecost world… We have the exact same power available to us that the disciples in Acts 2 had! We need to have a supernatural orientation and understanding of everything we do as a church!
I have been challenged and inspired by the following experience of Dwight Moody. I hope you will be, too. Moody became a powerfully effective pastor and evangelist who ministered in Chicago in the late-19th century. But he wasn’t at first. Not until 1871, when two women in his church felt called by God to pray “that the Lord would give him the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire.” He didn’t like this. He thought they were judging him—like, “Are you saying that I’m missing something?” Reluctantly, he agreed to join them in prayer, so they prayed weekly together that Moody would be filled with the Spirit. Again, Moody was already a Christian; he already had the Spirit. But like Paul says in Ephesians 5, they sensed that he needed more of the Spirit… more of the Spirit’s power… he needed to be filled with Spirit.
A few months later, Moody’s church burned down in the great Chicago fire of 1871. He went to New York City to raise money to rebuild the church. Listen to his description of what happened while he was there:
One day, in the city of New York—oh, what a day!—I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name . . . I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world—it would be small dust in the balance.5
That happened because those two women were praying for it to happen!
Brothers and sisters, please pray for us pastors like that! Please pray for one another like that! Please pray for our church like that! Please pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us in such a way that both personal and corporate revival and renewal will happen right here at Toccoa First United Methodist!
Dear God, let the fire of your Holy Spirit come down right here! Amen!
- 1 Corinthians 14:1 ESV
- John Wesley, “The More Excellent Way,” wesley.nnu.edu. Accessed 20 May 2021.
- Acts 1:14 NLT
- Matthew 26:35
- Dwight Moody in John Piper, “Tongues of Fire and the Fullness of God.” desiringgod.org. 14 October 1990. Accessed 28 May 2020.