Pentecost is the setting of the most spectacular scene in the historical books of the New Testament.
A sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind. Tongues of fire appeared and rested on the disciples — but did not burn them! The men rushed into the streets and began to proclaim Jesus Christ before the multitude in Jerusalem.
The Holy Spirit arrived in a great show of power, attended by amazing miracles, manifest before a cast of thousands.
Jerusalem’s streets were crowded with pilgrims from all over the known world. Pentecost was one of three feasts that all Jewish males were bound by law to observe in the holy city (Exodus 23:14—17). The name Pentecost came from the Greek word for “50th” (pentekostos). In Jesus’ time, the feast took place on the 50th day after Passover.
In Hebrew the day was called the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, because it fell on the day following a “week of weeks” — seven times seven days — counting from Passover (Leviticus 23:15—16). It was originally a harvest festival, a ritual reminder that God was the source of Israel’s blessings, and they owed their first and best of everything to him.
Over the centuries, Pentecost had grown in importance, and it had gathered layers of spiritual and historical meaning. By the time of Jesus, it had become primarily a celebration of God’s giving of the law to Moses (Exodus 24:7—8). As such, it was a completion of Passover.
What God had begun in Egypt, he sealed by giving the law. So Jews who lived in distant lands fulfilled their duty by traveling to Jerusalem.
In that particular year — in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension — the apostles were living in quiet expectation. They knew that something big was coming.
Jesus had promised them as much when he took his leave from them: “He charged them not to depart from Jerusalem. … ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’” (Acts 1:4-8).
It is a dramatic promise. Yet there is a quiet quality to the rest of that opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples go about their business. They lay down rules for succession in their “office” (Acts 1:20), and they select Matthias as a successor for Judas the traitor.
The tone is almost bureaucratic. But then chapter two opens like the detonation of a bomb:
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)"
A multitude drew near — not to see the spectacles, but rather because the apostles were speaking to their hearts. Jews had come to Jerusalem from all over the known world. There were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene and visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:9—11).
The list is orderly, running from east (Parthia) to West (Rome). The people present were ethnically Jews, but linguistically and culturally diverse. At that Pentecost, God made them all one people, even with their differences. Each heard the Good News “in his own native language.” They were empowered, then, to take the Gospel back to their places of origin.
The crowd grew larger as gawkers and scoffers joined the genuinely curious and the piously astonished. Some asked, “What does this mean?” Others said the meaning was simple: these guys are drunk.
Just the day before, Peter had been speaking in whispers behind closed doors. Now he stood and raised his voice to deliver a forceful sermon.
He quoted at length from the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).
Peter described the “last days” in terms that were fulfilled right then. The Spirit was poured out, and the effects were visible in the streets of Jerusalem, noticed even by those who did not believe. This was the day the Lord had promised. From the moment of Pentecost forward, gifts once reserved to a few — such as prophecy — would now be distributed widely, from Parthia to Rome and beyond.
It was not yet evident that this salvation would be extended to non-Jews. But the means were now in place for the message to extend to the farthest reaches of the earth. It would be universal in scope. It would be catholic in its reach.
The Church had a form, from the very beginning. In his book-length study, “Open to the Holy Spirit,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl observes:
"Sometimes the Christian Pentecost is portrayed as a wild, anarchic event, producing a kind of cheerful chaos — a riot of movement with no discernible order. That was indeed the conclusion of the cynical onlookers — those who stood at a safe distance that day in Jerusalem, and who concluded that the apostles were drunk on new wine. But it does not represent the perspective of faith.
On Pentecost, the Church was born with an unprecedented degree of freedom. As God had once given the law to Moses, so now he gave his own Spirit to the Church. The Spirit was manifest in unexpected prodigies and charisms (from the Greek word for “gifts”) — such as speaking in diverse tongues and understanding those tongues. Mere men were entrusted with the means of salvation, a divine action. Yet among those charisms was the gift of leadership, authority. It is significant that not everyone preached on the first Pentecost; not everyone led; not everyone taught; not everyone issued the call to repentance. Peter did; the apostles did. They fulfilled the roles of the office they had been given by Jesus."
The Church, from the beginning, had a hierarchy, a sacred order. Jesus had already commissioned the apostles to do what he himself had done. Now they were empowered to do so.
Jesus told the Twelve: “The harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:2). The great harvest began, appropriately enough, at Pentecost, the feast of the harvest — the day dedicated to the gathering and offering of first fruits.
At every level, the ancient feast found fulfillment that day in Jerusalem. The harvest was in. The new Passover reached its completion. The new exodus brought a renewed Israel to receive the new law — the Spirit of God — and now the new covenant would extend to the very ends of the earth.
This would be the task not of scholars or financiers, not of armies or kings, but of rough men with limited abilities. Even in this detail, the story follows the pattern of God’s choices.
Moses himself was halting of speech. David was the unimposing and least likely among a large brood of brothers to be made a king. The apostles received the divine power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work Christ had assigned them. They succeeded.
The first book of the Bible told the story of how the people of the earth became peoples opposed to one another. It is the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1—9). All subsequent history followed the same narrative of endless division.
Pentecost, however, reversed the process, repaired the breaches, restored broken bonds, and gathered the first fruits — the tribes of Israel from their dispersion. Soon salvation would go out to the nations, the gentiles, as well.
The gift of Pentecost would be extended to every believer through the ministry of the Church. The apostles Peter and John traveled from Judea to Samaria, where a number of believers were eager for the gift. “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14—17).
This remains the story of the Church in every age. In the third century, an Egyptian Scripture scholar named Origen said that Pentecost is the feast most characteristic of Christian life.
The true Christian, he said, “is always living in the season of Pentecost.”
Mike Aquilina is a popular author working in the area of Church history, especially the study of the early Church Fathers. This article is adapted from his book “A.D. Ministers and Martyrs,” available at amazon.com.