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The Holy Spirit

'The church of Acts was a vibrant, dynamic church which lived and breathed their faith'


Read Acts 2:1-11

 

Before he returned to his Father in heaven, Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for ‘the power from above’ ‘I will not leave you comfortless. I will send you another Comforter, who will be with you for ever.’ ‘But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.’ ‘He will bring glory to me.’ ‘He will tell you what is yet to come.’

In the last few verses of Luke’s gospel we get a flavor of the atmosphere among the disciples as they saw the risen Jesus ascending to his Father in heaven. ‘Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’ Luke now continues the story in that great book of Acts, and in the verses we heard from chapter two we find them still together on the day of Pentecost, waiting perhaps with a mixture of anticipation and fear to see if Jesus would fulfil his promise.

Suddenly the room started to shake with a violent wind, accompanied with tongues of flame. I reckon fear was very much the order of the day now. Was this what they were expecting?

We are told that the tongues of flame separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

The Spirit came with what seemed like wind - the Hebrew word is Ruach (Ruark) a word which means an invisible, mysterious, and powerful force. The same Ruach that drove back the Red Sea and blew the plague of locusts over the land of Egypt and away again. It can also be used to describe some form of empowering from outside. A force beyond human experience takes possession of the person. - And this wind, this Ruach, was accompanied by fire, symbol of God’s presence - remember the burning bush?

Now Pentecost was a major festival and Jews would have traveled hundreds of miles from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem. They came from Egypt, from Arabia, Mesopotamia, and all points east and north of Israel. Originally celebrated as a harvest festival, Pentecost was later regarded as the day when the Law was given to Moses. The streets must have been full of chatter and shouting of all those people of different nationalities, not to mention all the associated street traders and souvenir stalls, but above all that dim rises the voices of the apostles, speaking words that everyone can understand.

Hearing so many different languages being spoken simultaneously must have soon drawn a curious crowd to hear the first ever Christian sermon! ‘Are not these men who are speaking Galileans?’ they asked each other. ‘Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?’ ‘Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’

What did this mean?

Before the coming of Jesus there was no clear expression of the Spirit. In the Old testament the breath of God, ‘Ruark’, conjured up for the Jews a picture of the powerful energy of God in the world. As ‘breath of God’ he creates, inspires, gives leadership, empowers, reveals God’s word and gives creative ability. The prophets heralded Jesus’ coming as Messiah saying that he would be anointed with God’s spirit, in an age when all of God’s people will be visited with the Spirit of God.

Throughout the Old Testament period the Spirit came on people for specific tasks. Again and again we read of the Spirit of God giving people the power needed for special service. ‘The Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon’ in Judges chapter 6, giving qualities of courage and leadership. Or again ‘The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon Samson’ and inspired him to acts of great strength. The Spirit of God gave the prophets their inspiration and communicated the word of God through them. When Jesus came, he was born by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came upon him at his baptism in the river Jordan. He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil, and at the start of his ministry on earth, Jesus declared that he would carry it out through the power of the Spirit.

During his few short years of ministry the Spirit acted in great power, and this is seen throughout the gospel stories in the authority of his teaching, the power of his words and actions, and the whole of his lifestyle. However, as he became aware of his impending death Jesus, Spirit-filled, became the giver of the Spirit, telling his disciples that he would not leave them totally alone when he left them. ‘I will send you another Comforter, who will be with you for ever’, and on that day of Pentecost the promise was fulfilled when they were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and the first Christian church proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, with power.

This coming of the Spirit into the disciples lives was noticeable to everyone around, because of the renewed boldness and power by which they preached, and because they spoke in other languages. As Peter told his listeners, the prophesy of Joel had come true. God had poured out his Spirit on all believers. The very particular gift of tongues may have been deliberately chosen by God as a symbol that the good news was for every race and tongue, that they and now we belong to a universal church.

So what do we know about the Holy Spirit? Well, the Acts of the Apostles is a book in which the Spirit is especially prominent, so much so that one writer has said that the book could be re-named ‘The acts of the risen Christ by the Holy Spirit through the apostles.’

The most important concept to grasp about the Holy Spirit is that we are talking not about an ‘it’ but about a personality. Acts 1:16 ‘The scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago...’ In chapter 2:4 we find the apostles speaking in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Chapter 5:32 ‘We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit Chapter 13:4 ‘The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit Chapter 15:28 ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’ Throughout Acts we find the Holy Spirit described as a dynamic person working in and through people.

There are four very important truths about the Holy Spirit

He is the Spirit of the Church Without the Spirit there isn’t a church. The Spirit was the distinctive mark of the ministry of Jesus and now he’s the power that ignites the early church at Pentecost. The Spirit created out of those gathered in Jerusalem on that day a fellowship of love and unity, and he was promised as a gift to those who respond to the Christian message. In Acts 2:38 Peter replies to the crowd when they ask what they should do to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah ‘Repent,’ he says, ‘and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ....... and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all those who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.’

So where does all this leave us? Are we like those Jews gathered together on that momentous Pentecost, who looked with wonder at the Apostles and asked ‘What does this mean?’ Or do we have a personal experience and knowledge of this power in our own lives. In the early church, faith didn’t hibernate, it didn’t lie dormant like a seed in the ground. The Holy Spirit spurred those first Christians into action.

In the very same way, two thousand years later the Holy Spirit gives to those who follow Jesus the power to speak for God, to defend our faith (Stephen when he met with opposition found himself in heated discussion with members of a particular synagogue but, we are told ‘They could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke’). The Spirit gives us power to speak boldly, to face adversity and endure threats and physical abuse (In Acts 5 we hear that Jews had the apostles flogged and ordered not to speak again in the name of Jesus. So what did they do, go home quietly and nurse their wounds, and make sure they kept out of trouble in the future? ‘The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.’

The Spirit enables us to discern truth from error, both inside the fellowship and from the world outside. Later in Acts we hear about Paul’s meeting with a man called Elymas who was trying to turn a Roman proconsul from his interest in the faith. We read that ‘Saul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the lord is against you

The Spirit enables us to discern new directions for our lives, whether by moving us physically in order to accomplish a particular task or career, or simply to point us towards something or someone. In Acts 13 the Holy Spirit said ‘‘Set apart for me Barnabus and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off’ Earlier we are told of an Ethiopian on his way home from Jerusalem sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah. The spirit told Philip ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

How often in our lives have we felt that little prompt, that little nudge of conscience which tells us that we ought to make ourselves known to a visitor, or speak with someone who’s looking troubled, and how often we’ve ignored it. Ever thought that it might be the Holy Spirit doing the prompting? Philip was obedient and this resulted in the Ethiopian being baptized.

Lastly the Holy Spirit enables us to be of service to others, by all sorts of means - through our administrative talents maybe, by being church treasurer - by giving freely to those whose need is greater than ours - and by caring for the physical and spiritual needs of others. We can do all of these things because the Spirit, as he dwells within the life of the believer, develops the character of Jesus in our lives. It is this character that is expressed in the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ that we read about in Galations. The fruits of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.

Such qualities are beyond our natural ability to maintain. But God is at work within us, just as he was on that Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came with such power to the apostles, and the Christian church was established. If such experience of the Spirit was characteristic of the first Christians, is there any reason why we shouldn’t expect to share it today?

The church of Acts was a vibrant, dynamic church which lived and breathed their faith. And what was the result? ‘About 3000 were added to their number that day.....and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.... So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers..... and after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’

May we as inheritors of that same faith proclaimed by the apostles, know the power, the joy and the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives and in the church today. Amen

© John Birch

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