The Promised Spirit Makes a Prophetic People
Passage: Acts 2:1–2:21
Christianity confesses that the only true God is triune. There is one God eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today you’ll hear a lot about the Holy Spirit. We’ll especially talk about him filling the church for mission. Some have called him the “Forgotten God.” In one sense, that’s part of his primary duty, though. He comes to shine the spotlight not on himself but on the Son, Jesus Christ.
At the same time, it’s right that we recognize how active he truly is alongside Father and Son. Throughout the Bible’s storyline, the Holy Spirit advances God’s purpose for his people. Where there’s chaos, he brings order. Where there’s a ‘nobody,’ he makes a ‘somebody.’ Where there’s death, he gives life. Where there’s defilement, he purifies. Where there’s a desert land, he brings forth a garden-paradise.
Acts 2 is another significant example of the Spirit’s work. The story in Acts so far goes something like this: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead (Acts 1:3). Jesus is bringing God’s kingdom on earth (Acts 1:3, 6). Jesus ascended to the heavenly throne (Acts 1:11). Jesus restores the Twelve as the beginnings of his new people (Acts 1:24-26). Now they’re all together, about 120 of them (cf. Acts 1:15), waiting for Jesus to pour out the Spirit as he promised (Acts 1:4-5). Let’s see what happens, beginning in verse 1...
1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [i.e., these 120 (cf. 1:15)] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Overview of Chapter 2
Let’s start with the big picture of chapter two. It’ll take a few weeks to flesh this out, but there’s three big sections. First, the events (Acts 2:1-13). Luke describes what happened when the Spirit came—a sound of a mighty wind; tongues of fire; Jews speaking all kinds of foreign languages. If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. Some think they’re just wasted. Others ask, “What does this mean?”
Great question! A question Luke then answers in the next twenty verses (Acts 2:14-36). That’s the next big section. We get a little from the prophet Joel, a couple Psalms; and it is rich and powerful! Prior revelation in the Old Testament interprets this later revelation in the New. So we get the events, the meaning, and next is the results.
Chapter two closes with a snapshot of the new community the Spirit creates (Acts 2:37-47). It’s a beautiful picture of the church praying, breaking bread, giving, witnessing—I can’t wait to get there! But those things won’t flourish without first understanding the Spirit’s coming at the front end of chapter two. I want to make some observations under six headings…
1. The Spirit comes from the exalted Lord Jesus.
Number one, the Spirit comes from the exalted Lord Jesus. Verse 2: “and suddenly there came from heaven.” The word “heaven” appeared last in 1:11—“this Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven…” Jesus went “into heaven”; the Spirit is now coming “from heaven.” Now look at 2:33: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (cf. Isa 32:1, 15).
The Spirit comes from the exalted Jesus. John 7:39 had said before that “the Spirit was not yet [sent], because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Jesus has now been glorified, so he sends the Spirit. It’s not that the Spirit was never at work before, but that the way he was work before only anticipated a much greater outpouring once Jesus’ work was finished on the cross.
We’ll discuss that more in a moment. The point here is that the Spirit brings the heavenly reign of Jesus into his people. He brings heaven on earth. Where is the kingdom now? It’s in God’s Spirit-filled people. The church is—or, should I say is supposed to be—the very theatre where Jesus displays his present rule on earth.
That means the church isn’t a community that does whatever the culture around us or the feelings inside us think is best. Jesus pours out his Spirit to enable people to do his will on earth. Anything else is of a different “spirit.” But when we follow his Spirit, how incredible to think that God uses us, broken and weak as we are, to display one of the greatest realities in the universe: Jesus’ reign and power over sin.
2. The Spirit is the presence of God indwelling his people.
Number two, the Spirit comes to indwell his people, bringing them God’s presence. Luke describes two phenomena in verses 2 and 3. There’s a “sound like a mighty rushing wind.” Then there’s the “divided tongues as of fire.” Why this great sound? Why something that looks like fire?
In the Old Testament—let’s think of God coming to Adam: he hears the sound of God in the wind of the day (Gen 3:8); let’s think of Israel at Mount Sinai: loud sound, fire, pillars of smoke (Exod 19:18-19); let’s think of the tabernacle or the temple: again, the Lord’s fiery presence fills the dwelling place (Exod 40:38; 2 Chron 7:1-3).
It seems to me that the sound and the fire are consistent with the way God manifested his presence before.[i] How could it be anything less? We’re not talking about an impersonal energy, but the third person of the Trinity? The only difference is that now he was making his dwelling the church. It was initially the Garden, then the tabernacle, then the temple, then ultimately in Jesus Christ—Jesus has the Spirit without measure. Now Jesus was sending the Spirit to dwell in the church, God’s new temple.[ii]
The book of Revelation also describes the church as a lampstand (Rev 1:12, 13, 20). The imagery comes from Zechariah 4 where the lampstand signifies the Spirit’s presence in the temple. It looked forward to a day when God would build his new temple in the power of the Spirit (Zech 4:6-7).[iii] John picks this up in Revelation 11:1-4 and links it to the prophetic witness of the church during great opposition and persecution.[iv] The point is that the divine presence in his people strengthens them for prophetic witness against evil. I can’t help but relate the fire-like tongues resting on each person here with the lampstand imagery in Revelation.
It’s also true that John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (e.g., Luke 3:16). There may be a sense in which God’s presence in us purges evil from us.[v] But Luke’s emphasis is that God’s empowering presence was no longer limited to a temple in Jerusalem; God’s empowering presence would be in his people. Not merely with his people but in them (John 14:17).
This isn’t the god of deism that stands aloof from his creatures. This isn’t the god of Islam who’s too transcendent to condescend. This is the true God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ and gives himself to his people in the Spirit of Christ. He doesn’t say with Mormonism and Jehovah Witnesses and Pharisees, “You change first and then I’ll let you come to heaven; he brings heaven down to then change us.” His presence turns broken people into vessels of witness; he makes defiled people into sanctuaries of praise.
This building is not God’s house; you are, if you’re in Christ. We don’t “go to church” to find a holy place; God has come down to make you a holy person. God now dwells in his people. Shall we not give him the praise?!
3. The Spirit fills everyone in God’s new community.
Three, the Spirit fills everyone in God’s new community. Notice Luke’s specificity. Verse 3: “tongues as of fire,” he says, “appeared and rested on each one of them.” Then verse 4: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Not some of them, but all of them. These are the 120 folks mentioned back in 1:15. Some of them were fishermen. Some of the women once had evil spirits in them. One had seven demons that Jesus cast out, Luke 8:2 says (cf. “the women” in Acts 1:14). The Spirit “rests on” and “fills” all of them. In the scope of God’s saving plan, this was huge!
There was a time when the Spirit didn’t fill every individual in the community like this. The Spirit was poured out on chosen individuals like the prophet and the priest and the king—maybe a few others. The Spirit empowered these chosen leaders to lead and judge and mediate and speak on behalf of God. But not every individual enjoyed the same blessing, the same empowerment and knowledge of God’s will.[vi] It was largely mediated through these other individuals.
We even see Moses wishing that all God’s people had the Spirit like we’re seeing here in Acts. There’s this episode in Numbers 11. God comes down in the cloud. He takes some of the Spirit that was on [Moses] and puts it on these seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesy (Num 11:25). Same happens to these other two guys, Eldad and Medad; the Spirit rests on them too, but they prophesy in the camp instead of at the tent of meeting (Num 11:26).
This raises concerns. So someone runs and tells Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua…said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses says to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Num 11:27). That’s his wish. He wished everybody in the covenant community had the Spirit like that.
Well, that wish then gets picked up by Joel the prophet. During one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history, Joel announces a new age was dawning. Judah was languishing in exile; God judged them for their sin. But now God would have pity. He would turn their nothingness into abundance; he would turn their shame into praise—and the one thing changing it all was that he’d be in the midst of his people (Joel 2:18-27).
It’s in that context that God then says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” Remember Moses’ wish and notice the language here: “all flesh…sons and daughters…young men…[and] old men…male servants and female servants.” In other words, the new age would be way better than any age that preceded it; the Spirit would fill everyone in the community, not just a few.
4. The Spirit empowers God’s people to speak for God.
And what does he fill them to do? That brings us to number four: the Spirit empowers God’s people to speak for God. The Spirit does a number of other things as well—producing joy in the community; transforming our behavior; enabling love for one another; and so forth. That’s just not Luke’s focus here.
Luke’s focus is how the Spirit empowers witness when he comes. Verse 4 says they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These tongues aren’t uncontrolled, mindless babble; they’re other human languages. Verse 6, “…they were bewildered because each one was hearing him speak in his own language.” Verse 8, “How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Verse 11, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” This is not a miracle of hearing; it’s a miracle of speaking.
Luke’s got a thing for how the Spirit energizes people to speak for God. In Luke 1:41-45, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she blesses Mary about Jesus. Then Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, and he prophesies: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people…” (Luke 1:68-69). Again with Simeon in Luke 2:29-32: the Holy Spirit comes and he says, “My eyes have seen your salvation…” John the Baptist is another in Luke 3 (Luke 1:15-17; 3:3, 18).
Even Jesus. The Spirit anoints Jesus in Luke 4:18, and what does he say? “The Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19). Then you reach the end of Luke’s Gospel and see the same will be true of the church—when the Spirit comes, witness will go out (Luke 24:47-49).
Acts teases that out. These folks are declaring the mighty works of God; and they’re doing it in languages they hadn’t grow up with nor had they learned. It was a spontaneous outburst of praise in with no explanation for how these unlearned Galileans were speaking this way. It’s why they’re so puzzled.
Does that mean we should expect the same thing to happen? Is Luke’s purpose to say that every individual Christian must speak in a foreign tongue, otherwise it’s questionable whether they’re full of the Spirit? No. We know he’s not saying that because the Spirit “fills” people in other instances in Acts and they don’t speak in foreign tongues (e.g., Acts 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:17). If God has it for some not to speak in a foreign tongue when he fills them with the Spirit, let’s not build a theology or a denomination that makes it the criterion for all.
He is saying, though, that the Spirit of prophesy makes a prophetic people. Let’s not reduce what the Spirit does do in his people just out of fear of past abuses in church history. There are aspects to Pentecost that are unique and unrepeatable, yes. But Luke’s point isn’t that the Spirit filled the church this once and then quit.
Rather, Luke is telling us of an entire new age that has dawned: he says in verse 17 “in these last days.” Verse 18, “in those days.” He’s talking now—the last days in between Jesus’ first coming until Jesus’ second coming. These are the days in which the prophetic Spirit is poured out on everyone in the covenant community. Remember Moses’ wish: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets…!” (Num 11:27). Joel later made that wish into a promise. And Luke is now telling us it’s here!
Does that mean we can speak new words of revelation that add to Scripture? Absolutely not. The Bible carefully distinguishes between prophecy that carries Scriptural authority—which belonged to the chosen Prophets and Apostles—and prophecy that’s built on Scriptural authority (e.g., Num 12:6, 8; 1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21). The Bible has categories like this.
Also, please notice that the Spirit of prophecy doesn’t always produce the same kind of verbal communication? Even here we see some speaking in a language not their own, and Peter speaking in a language that is his own. The one draws; the other saves.
You also find in Acts visions and dreams (Acts 7:55-56; 9:10-18; 10:10-20; 16:9-10), instruction (Acts 11:28; 13:2), guidance (Acts 8:29; 10:19; 20:22), insight to truth (Acts 5:3; 13:9), wisdom to defend the gospel (Acts 6:10), encouragement (Acts 9:31), spontaneous praise (Acts 2:4, 10; 10:46), preaching (Acts 4:8, 31; 5:32; 9:17), teaching (Acts 9:31; 13:52), evangelism (Acts 1:8)—there are all kinds of verbal ministries that the Spirit of prophecy produces in his people.[vii]
In this broader sense, all of God’s people are prophets. We speak for God based on the revelation he has given us in Christ. The Spirit came not for mere personal experience but for powerful outreach.[viii] Your mission isn’t to get your lost friends to church, so that the “anointed” pastor can then tell them about Jesus. The Spirit of prophecy is in you to declare the mighty acts of God yourself. He equips all.
Joel includes people from each gender, every age, all social classes and races. One thing matters: do your allegiances belong to the exalted Christ? If so, you get the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:39). At the same time, we must pray for him to fill us. That’s the dynamic of the New Testament. We can be full, and yet still need daily filling. We see this with the church in Acts 4. They already received the Spirit at Pentecost, but they still pray for boldness to speak. The Lord grants it, and the go out preaching boldly.
5. The Spirit’s new work impacts all nations.
That leads to number five: the Spirit’s new work impacts all nations. You see a host of places and peoples listed in verses 8-11: Parthians and Medes and Elamites and so forth. They’re all Jews or converts to Judaism, but look where they’re coming from [show map]—all four corners of the map.
God once scattered Israel—north, south, east, and west. But then God also promised to bring them back. He’d gather his sons from afar and his daughters from the ends of the earth. These are the beginnings of that great work. 3000 get saved by the end of Peter’s sermon, and before too long some of them take the gospel out. Verse 39 will say the promise of the Spirit is for everyone whom the Lord calls to himself.
If the Spirit is building God’s kingdom with people from all nations, then there’s no room for prejudice and racism in the church, whether subtle or explicit. There’s no choosing what color of church we want to be or be a part of. There’s no demographic that we ignore, simply because they’re not like us.
But more positively, the only hope for all races is the Spirit working in the church. We’re talking about the Holy Spirit, here! He’s God. He can’t fail in his mission to all nations. He ordered the entire cosmos (Gen 1:2); I think he can order us! He truly changes people. He reconciled Jews and Gentiles! The Spirit gathers people to Christ; and it’s in Christ that he unite us into one body. But he does it through the gospel that he empowers you and me to speak. That’s where I want to close: the gospel.
6. The Spirit’s coming demands that all call upon the Lord before final judgment.
Number six: the Spirit’s coming demands that all call upon the Lord before final judgment. Notice the rest of Joel’s prophecy in verses 19-21: “And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
What’s with this language of cosmic upheaval: blood, fire, smoke, sun darkened, and moon to blood? Some of it reminds us of God’s terrifying and majestic presence on Mount Sinai: “a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them” (Heb 12:18).
But we also see it associated with the great day of God’s judgment. God is of such majesty and power, his glory is of such gravity, that everything in heaven and earth trembles as he approaches to judge (e.g., Isa 13:10; 34:4; Joel 3:15). You see the same language in Revelation 6:12-17:
12When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Joel foresaw this day well. All rebels will give an account to the Lord. All who’ve ignored God and suppressed his truth will stand before him. The world is heading to the judgment. The Lord will roar from Zion, Joel says, and the heavens and the earth will quake at his presence. No one can stand in his holy presence. All will pay the penalty. Unless there’s an escape…
I want you to notice one other place where this imagery appears. Turn with me to Luke 23:44-46—Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” Did you see it? Darkness over the whole land. The sun’s light failed. Matthew adds that the earth shook and rocks were split.
The point is this: the cross is the place where God came down in great wrath against all nations…only he poured out that wrath on his own Son instead. So here’s how it fits together. God pours out his wrath on Jesus for the nations before he pours out his wrath on the nations by Jesus. In between this two-fold judgment—the cross and the final judgment—he raises Jesus from the dead to gather the nations through the outpoured Spirit. In other words, when Luke sees the outpoured Spirit, he knows: the last days are here; judgment is coming; and Jesus is the only hope.
That’s the message we take to the nations. All nations are heading to final judgment. It’s a day of great wrath and terror. It will consign many to an eternity of torment. But you can escape. You can escape it by hiding yourself in Jesus who bore the penalty for you! Call upon the name of the Lord. Jesus! He’s the Lord in view here. He is God in the flesh who paid the penalty for sinners!
Who might you share that message with this week? What person? Write down their name…go ahead. Maybe there are two or three. Who needs to hear it again? Who hasn’t heard it at all? What steps will you take to get them the message? You have the Spirit of prophecy. He empowers his people to speak for God. Pray for him to empower you and to fill you and to fill us. Let’s do that now.
[i]I wonder if the fire resting on each individual may also look to the church becoming God’s lampstand, a lampstand likened to Zechariah’s imagery where the Holy Spirit comes to build the new temple and which John picks up to speak of the prophetic witness of the church (cf. Zech 4:2-6 with Rev 1:20; 11:4)?
[ii]Paul speaks elsewhere of the church as God’s new temple (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19).
[iii]For further treatment, see my sermon from Zechariah 4, "God's Spirit Triumphs through His Anointed: Lampstand & Olive Trees."
[iv]See also G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 15 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 313-27; James Hamilton, Jr., Revelation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 231-44.
[v]But the emphasis here is empowerment for witness as opposed to judgment (cf. Matt 3:11-12).
[vi]The Spirit was certainly at work in God’s people under the old covenant, but only in a way that anticipated the much greater outpouring under the new covenant.
[vii]Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 43-44.
[viii]See also the helpful treatment by Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, NSBT 27 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 132.