Read Acts 1, 2
Fifty days after His death, resurrection, and ascension, on the day of Pentecost, the Eternal Son returned in the Holy Spirit to dispense His life into a group of people who were waiting for Him in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2).
Pentecost, which became the birthday of the church, originally marked the end of the wheat harvest (Deut. 16:9-12). In the later fixed calendar it was reckoned seven weeks, or, to be exact, fifty (pente) days from the Sabbath following Passover (Lev. 23:15f.); hence the name Pentecost in New Testament times. Shortly thereafter 3,000 souls were added to their number.
What had taken place? The Body of Christ was born on the earth. But what does that mean? It means this: The literal body of Jesus Christ had returned to earth! And it had expanded! God now had a Family! Jesus Christ had dispensed Himself into His Body on earth. He returned to earth in the form of His Body, the church, and His species was reintroduced on the planet.
Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ coming to earth, God had no expression. In the same way, without the Body of Christ, Jesus Christ has no expression. You and I are now sons of the living God. What so sons do? They display the life of the father. We are also the Body of our Lord. What does a body do? It expresses the one who indwells it.
Jesus Christ is now in the Spirit. And He craves expression also. He seeks to make His life visible through a many-membered body. The difference is that Christ doesn’t possess a person’s body. He inhabits a person’s spirit and seeks to dwell, or make His home, in it (Eph. 3:17). Possession is forced control. But when Christ inhabits a human body through the Holy Spirit, He doesn’t override the person’s will.
The Book of Acts is a record of the continuation of Christ’s life and ministry on earth. In other words, Acts is the continuation of Jesus now in His enlarged form as the Body of Christ! To quote John, as Jesus was in the world, so now is the church (I John 4:17).
As a resurrected, life-giving Spirit, the Lord Jesus continues to “do and teach” through His Body. Consequently, Acts is an account of Christ’s
Post-resurrection ministry. It’s a chronicle of the continuation of His incarnation. Throughout its pages, we see Jesus Christ preaching the gospel, reaching out to the Gentiles, and raising up corporate expressions of Himself throughout the Roman Empire.
Luke deliberately crafted both his Gospel and Acts around the same story line. We will not trace the parallels here but notice that both books open with the birth of the Body of Jesus Christ. Strikingly, Luke uses the same language and the same Greek words to narrate the birth of the Lord’s spiritual Body as he does in narrating the birth of the Lord’s physical body.
The Gospel of Luke opens with Christ conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. Acts opens with Christ being conceived in His people by the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, the entire Book of Acts is a duplication of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ through His church.
The Spirit who comes at Pentecost is, of course, the same Spirit who animates all life. At Pentecost he comes to reconnect our lives with God, to revitalize life, to give us life in all its fullness. Unfortunately, people have all too often thought of spiritual life as some kind of rather ethereal, attenuated life, as though it were what you have when you stop living. But the Spirit is not life-denying; the Spirit is above all life-affirming. The Spirit’s very nature is life. The new life the Spirit gives at Pentecost is precisely real life, everything life really should be. The Spirit brings our lives to life, puts life back into our deadened and dying lives, re-sources our lives from the God who is the source of all life.
And because the Spirit is life-giving and life-affirming, because the Spirit breathes in all that lives, this new life the Spirit gives at Pentecost doesn’t cut us off from the life of God’s creation. The Spirit doesn’t take us into some special supernatural sphere where we no longer have anything to do with the ordinary life of God’s world. Quite the opposite. As the Spirit reconnects us with God, the source of life, so the Spirit reconnects us with all of life. Experiencing the Spirit as new life from God gives us a new love of life. It opens our eyes to see the Spirit of God in all life. It makes us care about life; that people are dying around the world; that there are places where life is more like death than life; that in our own society life is becoming cheaper, less valued, disposed of almost casually at times; that unborn children are deprived of life without reason; and that whole species of life – dozens of them – become extinct every day because of our own one species’ misuse of the earth. It always puzzles me that people can be passionate about some of these things and completely indifferent to others. In fact, they are all parts of what Pope John Paul called “the culture of death.” Those who live by the Spirit of life cannot be indifferent to any of them.
The second picture of the Spirit comes from the story of Pentecost itself. Everything at Pentecost when the house where the disciples were gathered was filled with the sound of a great driving wind (Acts 2:2). That was the arrival of the Spirit, because again the very word “spirit” in the language of the Bible means not only breath but also wind.
Jesus, in a little parable which uses the wind as a picture of the Spirit, says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). You can’t see the wind; it’s an invisible, mysterious force, but you can see its effects. It’s unpredictable and it’s uncontrollable. The wind is a movement which we cannot predict or control, which seems to come from nowhere, which affects things and carries things along with it in its movement.
So it is with the Spirit. It is not under our control. You can’t catch the wind and direct it where you want it to go. You can’t get control of the Spirit and channel it where you think it ought to be going. The church has always been tempted to try to do that, to confine the Spirit like a genie in a lamp that only the people who know the right magic words can dispense. Modern people are even more tempted because we are addicted to control. We think life is better the more we have it under control. Taking control of our lives is what’s it’s all about. And there is limited value in that. But it misses the fact that so much of what is really important in life is precisely what we do not control and cannot predict – what happens to us, the people we encounter, the situations that occur, the tragedies that overtake us, the unexpected opportunities that come our way. It is very often in these unpredictable aspects of life that God meets us – sometimes forces himself on our attention because we wouldn’t otherwise be noticing, sometimes pushes us in a direction we would never otherwise have thought of going.
Another picture of the Spirit which is very common indeed in the Bible is the Spirit as water. This is used in lots of different way. For example, the image of being “filled” with the Spirit, frequent in the New Testament, is of people as vessels, filled to the brim with the liquid of the Spirit. To be “baptized” with the spirit is, literally to be plunged into a bath of Spirit, or, perhaps, to be deluged with the Spirit pouring down on one as in a shower. But here we shall focus on just one of the uses of this picture of the Spirit as water. Peter in his sermon at Pentecost said that what was happening then was what happens when God pours out the Spirit (Acts 2:17, 33). That’s a picture of God pouring the Spirit down on us like rain from heaven. To appreciate this image we need to think of rain as Palestinian farmers knew it; rain falling on the dry ground to make it fertile and fruitful. Isaiah has God saying: “I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my Spirit on your descendants (Isa. 44:3). And another passage in Isaiah, foreseeing the future, speaks of a time when the “Spirit from on high is to be poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15).
The Spirit is the rain that falls on our lives to water them so that they can bear fruit. This is also the picture Paul has in mind when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). All those qualities of Christian life are the fruits we bear when the Spirit waters the soil of our lives, vitalizes it, makes it fertile and fruitful for God.
The fourth and final picture is of Spirit as fire. At Pentecost, when the house filled with the noise of the great hurricane, the other thing that the disciples noticed was a flame of fire, shaped like a tongue, resting on each of them (Acts 2:3).
This is best understood as the fire of God’s passionate love. The Spirit brings God’s love into our lives, and God’s love is not just some kind of bland benevolence. God doesn’t just wish us well and want to be nice to us. God loves us passionately. God’s love is a flame which burns with passionate concern. And, as fire does, it sets other things alight. As it burns into our lives it kindles a flame of love in each of us. It sets us on fire with love for God and for God loves. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love that binds the members of the Trinity together. He is also the body of love that binds the members of the church to Christ and to one another.
And lest we run away with the impression that experiencing the Spirit is all rather exciting and uplifting and fun, the fire reminds us that there is pain involved too. Fire hurts and purges. Passionate love involves pain, as our English word “passion,” with its double meaning of intense love and intense suffering, itself reminds us.
The image of the Spirit as fiery passion is important for us. What afflicts a great many people in our society is a kind of apathy: the sense that there is nothing really worth caring very much about, nothing worth devoting oneself to, nothing worth giving oneself to unreservedly, nothing to be passionate about. People have come to be cynical about all great causes, skeptical about real and inspiring meaning in life. All one can hope to do with life is amuse oneself. It’s not difficult to catch that cultural mood. So we constantly need the Spirit to warm our cold hearts with the flame of God’s love, to rekindle in us the passion without which life is not worth living –the fire of devotion to God and the fire of passionate concern for all that God cares about.