Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
The Miracle of Pentecost
Next to the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church is the most momentous fact in history. Itself a miracle, it could only enter the world with a retinue of miraculous appearances. Yet, it daily reappears, on a smaller scale, in every individual regeneration, and will thus be perpetually repeated, till all humanity shall be transformed into the image of Christ and united with God. For we have here not an isolated and transient occurrence, but the generative beginning of a vast series of workings and manifestations of God in history; the fountain of a river of life, which flows with unbroken current, through all time, till it merges in eternity. The Holy Spirit had thus far only temporarily and sporadically visited the world, to enlighten certain specially favored individuals, the bearers of the Old Testament revelation. Now he took up his permanent abode upon earth, to reside and work in the community of believers, as the principle of divine light and life, to apply more and more deeply and extensively to the souls of men the redemption objectively wrought by Christ. The relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son is like that of the Son to the Father. The Holy Spirit reveals and glorifies the Son in the church. “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Spirit,” (1 Cor. 12:3). Our Lord had expressly connected the bestowment of the Spirit of truth on his people, as their permanent possession, with his ascension to the Father. “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter (Helper) will not come unto you: but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” This mission of the Holy Spirit was the burden of Christ’s parting discourses before his death, as well as of his last words to his disciples at his ascension (Acts 1:8), when he also directed them to tarry in Jerusalem till the promise should be fulfilled, and they should be baptized with the Holy Spirit (v. 4, 5). For “out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined,” (Ps. 50:2). “Out of Zion,” as predicted in Isa. 2:3, should “go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
That this great fact, which, in the highest sense, forms an epoch, might be known at once to all the world, God had chosen as the time of its occurrence one of the great feasts of the Israelites, and, indeed, the very one, which bore a typical relation to the founding of the Christian church, like that of the Passover to the death and resurrection of Christ Pentecost fell on the fiftieth day after the day following the Paschal sabbath (Lev. 23:15 sq.), and was therefore reckoned, according to the common acceptation, from the 16th of Nisan, when the corn-harvest began (Lev. 23:11. Deut. 16:9). It had, with the Jews, a twofold import, physical and historical. It was, first, a festival of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest, which had been gathered during the preceding seven weeks. Hence it is called in the Old Testament the feast of weeks, or the feast of harvest. At the same time, according to the old Rabbinical tradition, this feast had reference to the founding of the theocracy, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, which occurred at this time of the year, seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. According to Jewish tradition, the giving of the law was on the 6th of the third month, Sivan, and thus exactly on the fiftieth day after the 16th of Nisan (comp. Ex. 19:1). This feast was accordingly called also the feast of the joy of the law. In both these views the day was strikingly suitable for the first Christian Pentecost, in which the Old Testament types were to find their glorious fulfillment. Then were gathered into the garners of the church the first-fruits of the Christian faith, the ripe harvest, as it were, of the Jewish people. Then was founded the fellowship of the new covenant, and that no longer merely for one nation and a few centuries, but for all mankind and forever. Then God wrote the law of the life-giving Spirit upon the hearts of men, as formerly he had written the law of the letter, which kills, on the tables of stone.
The narrative of this momentous event is given, though very briefly, in the second chapter of Acts. On the Pentecost after the resurrection of the Lord, in the year 30 of our era, on a Sunday,2 the apostles and other followers of Jesus, to the number of a hundred and twenty, ten times twelve (comp. Acts 1:15), were assembled with one accord for devotion in their accustomed place, most probably an apartment of the temple, perhaps Solomon’s porch (comp. 3:11. 5:12). During the first hour of prayer, about 9 o’clock in the morning, unusual signs announced the fulfillment of the Saviour’s solemn promise, for which they had anxiously waited and fervently prayed—the outpouring of the Spirit and the beginning of a new moral creation. As, through the mysterious sympathy between the physical and the moral worlds, the great epochs of history are usually preceded or accompanied by extraordinary phenomena in nature; as, for example, the promulgation of the divine law on Sinai was solemnly announced by “thunders and lightnings and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud,” (comp. Ex. 19:16 sqq.); so was it here; and the disciples recognized in the sensible form, under which God now revealed himself to them, a fit emblem of what was taking place in the spiritual world. A sound from heaven, as of rushing wind, suddenly filled the quiet house of prayer; a precursor, announcing the approach of the supernatural power of God. The Holy Spirit, who had once brooded over the chaos of the material world, as the creative, animating breath of God, now, in a higher form, as the Spirit of the glorified Redeemer, with all the fullness of his theanthropic life; as the principle of the new moral and religious creation; as the Spirit of faith and love, of truth and holiness; descended upon the worshipers, and rested upon them in the form of cloven tongues, like as of fire. Wind and fire are here plainly symbolical of the purifying, enlightening, and enlivening power of God; the sacramental channels, as it were, of the promised baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3:11); and, at the same time, prophetical of the lofty inspiration of the messengers of the faith, and of the life-giving nature of their future labors. These heavenly tokens, moreover, were probably visible only to the inward eyes of the believers, like the effulgence of the opened heavens at the baptism of Christ and the death of Stephen.
Through these significant symbolical channels were the hundred and twenty disciples, and especially the apostles, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:4). This phrase, which must be understood in its full New Testament sense, describes the proper essence and the main feature of the Pentecostal miracle. The disciples were not merely enlightened in the ordinary sense, but transferred into a new, supernatural sphere of life, into the center of Christian truth and holiness, and transformed into organs of the Holy Spirit, according to the Lord’s prediction: “The Spirit of truth shall testify of me, and ye also shall bear witness,” (John 15:26-27). “It is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaks in you,” (Matt. 10:20). At this moment was performed the proper act of inspiration, which forms, in some degree, the continuation, in the apostles, of the incarnation of the Word. Inspiration is as much a practical as a theoretical process. It is a communication as well of life, as of the knowledge of Christ, and affects not only the subsequent writings of the apostles and evangelists, but also all their oral instructions. Henceforth, they always spoke, wrote, and acted, out of the fullness of the Spirit. He was the pervading and controlling principle of their entire moral and religious being. This supernatural equipment was their solemn ordination and inauguration to the apostolic office.
The first effects of this miracle were in perfect keeping with such a creative beginning, and with its vast significancy for the future. Among them, we must distinguish (1) the speaking with tongues, or the utterance of the new life in a new form of prayer and praise; (2) the testimony of the apostles concerning Christ, given in intelligible language to the assembled multitude, which, at this hour of service, was at any rate on its way to the temple, and which was the more attracted thither by the rushing sound and the speaking with tongues; (3) the result of this preaching, the conversion and baptism of the three thousand Israelites. The speaking with tongues here makes its first appearance, and the obscurity of the subject demands for it a more extended consideration.
The Speaking with Tongues
The speaking with other or with new tongues, or simply speaking with tongues, (Glossolaly), which, along with miraculous powers, the Lord had expressly promised to his disciples before his ascension, (Mk. 16:17), marks, in its first appearance, that creative act of the Holy Spirit, in which he for the first time broke through the confines of nature, took forcible possession, so to speak, of the human mind, and solemnly consecrated human language to become the organ of the gospel. As in general the inward and the outward, soul and body, thought and form, are intimately connected; so here, the new spirit created for itself a new language. The speaking with tongues, however, was not confined to the day of Pentecost. Together with the other extraordinary spiritual gifts which distinguished this age above the succeeding periods of more quiet and natural development, this gift, also, though to be sure in a modified form, perpetuated itself in the apostolic church. We find traces of it still in the second and third centuries, and, (if we credit the legends of the Roman church), even later than this, though very seldom. Analogies to this speaking with tongues may perhaps be found also in the ecstatic prayers and prophecies of the Montanists in the second century, and of the kindred Irvingites in the nineteenth; yet it is hard to tell, whether these are the work of the Holy Spirit, or Satanic imitations, or, what is most probable, the result of an unusual excitement of mere nature, under the influence of religion, a more or less morbid enthusiasm, and ecstasis of feeling. They are, however, at all events, interesting psychological phenomena, which may serve to throw some light on supernatural states of mind.
We must here distinguish between the proper essence of this speaking with tongues, as a gift of the apostolic church in general, and the particular form, under which it made its first appearance on the day of Pentecost. In examining the first, we must call to our aid the extended and accurate description of it, by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, though of this, we shall speak hereafter by itself.
First, as to the general nature of this phenomenon. It is an involuntary, spiritual utterance in an ecstatic state of the most elevated devotion, in which the man is not, indeed, properly transported out of himself, but rather sinks into the inmost depths of his own soul, and thus, into direct contact with the divine essence within him; in which state, however, for this very reason, his ordinary consciousness of himself and of the world, and with it his common mode of speaking, is suspended, and he is controlled entirely by the consciousness of God, and becomes an involuntary organ of the objective Spirit of God, which fills him. Hence it is said, Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This inspiration affects matter and form, thought and style. Paul terms speaking with tongues a praying and singing “in the Spirit,” (πνεῦμα,) denoting the highest power of intuition, the immediate consciousness of God, in distinction from the “understanding,” (νοῦς,) that is the intellectual consciousness, reflection, (1 Cor. 14:14, 15). The things thus uttered were praise for the mighty acts of God’s redeeming love, in the form of prayer, thanksgiving, and song.2 This gift stands next to that of prophecy, which likewise rests upon a direct inward revelation of divine mysteries, and, in Acts 19:6, is immediately connected with the first. But these gifts differ in two respects. First; the one, who speaks with tongues, addresses God; the prophet addresses the assembly Secondly; the latter speaks intelligibly, even for unbelievers; while the former, at least in the Corinthian church, could not be understood without an interpreter, (1 Cor. 14:2 sqq.) Hence Paul gives the prophetic gift the preference, (1 Cor. 14:5), and compares speaking with tongues to the tinkling of a cymbal, (1 Cor. 13:1), to the uncertain sound of an instrument, (1 Cor. 14:7, 8), to the language of a barbarian, which no one understands, (1 Cor. 14:11), and which seems to the uninitiated like raving, (v. 23). Speaking with tongues was, therefore, a dialogue between the enraptured soul and God; an act of self-edification; and became edifying to others only through the gift of interpretation, by being translated into the language of common life. Yet in this latter respect the gift of tongues as it appeared on the day of Pentecost seems to differ from that described by the Apostle; and this leads us to the second point.
As to the peculiar form, which this gift at first assumed. The language seems to have been at once, to a certain extent, intelligible to the hearers without interpretation. At least there is nothing said of interpretation in the narrative in Acts. Yet even in this case, an inward susceptibility was necessary to understand what was said. For some of the multitude mocked, and attributed what they witnessed to drunkenness, (Acts 2:13); and this agrees perfectly with what Paul says of the impression made on unbelievers by the speaking with tongues, (1 Cor. 14:23). Then again, we must consider,—what is commonly altogether overlooked,—that the speaking with tongues was, even in this case, primarily an address to God, and not to men. It was an act of divine worship on the part of the disciples, the ecstatic expression of their gratitude and praise, and belonged, therefore, to the inward life of the church itself. For it began even before the multitude had collected, (Acts 2:4, cf. v. 6); and it could produce in the hearers only a vague astonishment, an impression that God had wrought a miracle, and a desire to understand it more fully. It was then explained to them, not by a new act of glossolaly, but by the clear discourse of Peter, in the language of their every-day life, (v. 14 sqq.), the object of which was to spread outwardly the new life of faith, which had so powerfully broken forth within the apostles in the speaking with tongues. Thus, the accounts of Luke and of Paul, as to the relation of the speaking with tongues to the speakers and hearers, do not differ so much as might at first sight appear.
But a second and more important difference is this. Paul gives no hint, that to speak with tongues was to use all sorts of foreign languages, in distinction from the vernacular. He himself did not understand the language of Lycaonia, (Acts 14:11, 14), though he had the gift of tongues in a high degree, (1 Cor. 14:18: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.”) The tradition of the primitive church, also, speaks of interpreters of the apostles. Thus Mark is called by Papias, “the interpreter of Peter.” Paul’s description seems rather to require the conception of an altogether uncommon use either of the vernacular; or of an entirely new spiritual language, a speaking with the tongues of angels, (1 Cor. 13:1), which differed from all common languages, in proportion as the soul of the speaker was raised above ordinary consciousness and intellectual reflection. The inward rapture, the extraordinary and involuntary elevation of the mind into the divine life, expressed itself also involuntarily in the kind and mode of communication; though undoubtedly, so far as the essential elements of this gift are concerned, the speaker’s native language might be employed. For this reason he could be understood by none, who were not themselves in the same state of lofty inspiration. The book of Acts, on the contrary, describes the speaking with tongues as the use of the various languages of the foreigners, who were present at the feast of Pentecost. For the very cause of their astonishment was, that the unlearned Galileans spoke in languages, which they could not be expected to know, and the command of which must have been suddenly and miraculously given them, (2:6–11). That this is the clear, indisputable, literal sense of the narrative, is admitted even by Rationalistic interpreters.
But if, now, we recognize no difference between the speaking with tongues on the day of Pentecost, and that in the Corinthian church, if we totally deny the use of foreign languages, not acquired in the usual way; we are forced either to admit an unhistorical, mythical element in the story of Luke—which for us, however, is, on internal as well as external grounds, absolutely impossible—or to suppose self-deception on the part of the hearers, whose impressions the narrator simply relates without giving any opinion of his own respecting them. It might be thought, for instance, that the disciples spoke, indeed, in a language prompted by the Holy Spirit, and entirely new, though perhaps closely allied to the Aramaic; but with such power of kindling inspiration, that the susceptible hearers involuntarily translated what they heard into their mother-tongue, as though it were spoken in this, and the barrier of different tongues was for a moment removed by fellowship in the Holy Spirit. Each susceptible hearer felt his own in most peculiar nature appealed to, so that his soul was released from its natural disability by this ecstatic language and operated in a miraculous manner. Or, according to another modification of this theory, it may be supposed, with Billroth, that the disciples spoke in the primitive tongue, which the pride of Babel had caused to be split into a multitude of languages. The children of the new Zion, in their humility, were enabled to gather again its scattered fragments and relics into unity; and it sounded to the inmost recesses of souls seized by the same spirit, as a mysterious memento of Paradise, and a cheering prophecy of the future. In either case, therefore, the miracle would be transferred rather into the hearers.
Yet, we must confess that these attempts at a psychological explanation are not altogether satisfactory to us, since they do not comport with a natural view of the text in the Acts. Besides, we see no reason, why the speaking with tongues on Pentecost, and that in the Corinthian church, should in every point exactly coincide. Here is the error both of the older orthodox view, which supposes in both cases the use of foreign languages, not naturally acquired, for the spread of the gospel; and of the view taken by several moderns, who make the description of Paul the rule for interpreting that of Luke. Rather does the apostle Paul himself seem to indicate a difference in the forms of this gift, by the expression: “kinds” or “diversities of tongues,” (γένη γλωσσῶν, 1 Cor. 12:10, 28), as also by the distinction between tongues of men and of angels, (1 Cor. 13:1). We would, therefore, not confound, by exegetical and philosophical subtilties, things thus distinguished; and, relying on the simple literal sense of the narrative in Acts, we suppose, that, in the first appearance of this creative gift, and in presence of an assembly gathered from all quarters of the globe, there was an extraordinary elevation of soul, in which the Holy Spirit temporarily (not permanently) enabled the disciples, in this state of ecstatic inspiration, to grasp the different languages then and there represented, and thereby to make the deeper impression on the susceptible portion of the hearers.
Nor is it difficult to discern the symbolical import of the phenomenon. It was, in the first place, for the apostles personally, a divine assurance and guarantee, that they were called to be witnesses of Christ in the whole world, and it inspired them with courage and joy to enter upon their work. At the same time it was, for all present, an ocular prophetic demonstration of the universality of Christianity as ordained for all nations and countries, and of the fact, that the preaching of the gospel and the praise of God should soon be heard in every language of the earth. It is probably with this view, that Luke, (Acts 2:9–11), specifies the names of the nations. Those foreigners “out of every nation under heaven,” three thousand of whom on that day believed, were the representatives of all the nations in which the church was planted in the apostolic age. In this respect the speaking with tongues on the birth-day of the church, like the day itself, stands forth without parallel in history; and, at the same time, as a significant prophecy, which is gradually being fulfilled in the history of missions, as the gospel advances in triumph from nation to nation, not to rest, till the whole world shall become obedient to the faith, and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil. 2:11). As a personal gift to individual Christians, the power to speak with tongues is no longer needed. The church and the Holy Scriptures now proclaim the wonderful works of God in almost all the languages of the earth. Even in the time of the apostles this gift lost its original form, though in its essence, as an act of worship, as an ecstatic address of prayer and praise to God, it continued still longer. For we can see no reason for supposing, that, in the house of Cornelius, for instance, (Acts 10:46, comp. 19:6), or in the Corinthian church, (in other words, among those who were already believers), it manifested itself precisely in the use of foreign languages. In the Roman empire, the chief theatre of Christianity, the missionaries could make themselves understood almost anywhere by means of the Greek and Latin tongues; and the way in which the apostles themselves handle the Greek, in their writings, shows that they had learned it in the usual way. And the history of primitive missions gives no intimation, that the rapid spread of the gospel was caused or even aided by a supernatural gift of tongues.
We have yet to observe, however, in fine, that the Holy Scriptures represent the origin of the different languages as a punishment of human pride, (Gen. 11); and that Christianity, as it can accommodate itself to all tongues and nations, has power, also, to break down gradually all the partition walls, which sin has set up, and to unite the scattered children of God, not only in one fold under one shepherd, but also in one language of the Spirit. Of this union of nations and tongues the miracle of speech on the day of Pentecost may be regarded as the divine guarantee; so that the end of the development of the church was prophetically anticipated and typified in her very beginning.
The Sermon of Peter and its Result
The astonishment of the well-disposed hearers at these wonderful proceedings, and the mockery of the unbelievers, who ascribed the speaking with tongues to intoxication, called for an explanation and apology; and this first independent testimony of the apostles, poured forth from the fullness of the Spirit, was the effective signal for gathering in the first fruits of the new spiritual creation. Thus, the work of preaching is immediately connected with the founding of the church; and thenceforth it is the chief instrument of extending the kingdom of God. The testimony of the Holy Spirit perpetuates itself in the testimony of those in whom he dwells, (John 15:26, 27). It is at once the fruit of faith and the means of propagating it. The speaking with tongues is followed by the interpretation of tongues, and intelligible, calm prophecy, and the religious faculties, which had been agitated to their inmost depths, are restored to their regular natural action.
True to his character as presented in the Gospels, the ardent, impetuous Peter, born to be a leader and spokesman, came forward in the name of his colleagues and of the whole church, and thus proved himself, with his fearless confession of faith, to be, in fact, the rock, upon which the Lord, as the architect, had promised to build his church. His discourse to the assembled multitude, delivered probably in the Hebrew language, is exceedingly simple and appropriate. It is neither a direct assault upon Judaism, nor an exposition of doctrine, but simply the annunciation of historical facts, especially the resurrection of Jesus; an unpretending, but powerful testimony of the most assured experience, the immediate effusion of the divine life within; an expansion of the fundamental confession before made by Peter, that Jesus was the Son of the living God and the Savior of sinners; in short, a genuine missionary sermon. The contrast here is remarkable between the exalted inspiration just exhibited in the speaking with tongues, and the calm self-possession and clearness of this sermon. But the harmonious union of these two gifts is a characteristic feature of the apostles, who were thus as far removed from cold intellectualism, as from extravagant enthusiasm.
Peter begins, with meek condescension and exemplary mildness, by refuting the rude charge of drunkenness with the very modest and apparently trivial, but popular and conclusive argument, that it is but the third hour of the day, (9 o’clock in the morning), before which time the Jews usually indulged in nothing, and even drunkards were sober. This appearance, he goes on to say, is nothing else than the glorious fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel concerning the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which was to be attended with unusual natural phenomena—the outpouring of the Spirit, too, not only upon single extraordinary embassadors of God, as under the Old Dispensation, but upon all people, even the most insignificant and illiterate. This communication of the Spirit is brought about by Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah, who was powerfully accredited to you as such by works and miracles. Ye did, indeed, deliver him up, according to the eternal counsel and foreknowledge of God, and crucify him by the hands of heathen Romans. But God has raised him from the dead, according to the promise in the sixteenth Psalm;2 and of this fact we all are living witnesses. This risen One, exalted at the right hand of God, hath sent us his Spirit, as ye here see. Know, therefore, that God himself has, by indisputable facts, shown this Jesus, crucified by you, to be the Messiah, from whom ye yourselves, as Israelites, look for all salvation.
The great point of the apostle evidently was, to show, in few, but impressive words, the official character of Jesus as Messiah, from a comparison of the present occurrences with the clear prophecies of the Old Testament, which the hearers themselves acknowledged; and at the same time, by touching upon the crucifixion, of which the Jews were the authors, to lead these Jews to earnest repentance. The sermon had its designed effect. The convicted and alarmed hearers anxiously asked: “What shall we do?” Peter required them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and they should receive the same Holy Spirit whose wonderful workings they perceived in the apostles. For the promise was intended for them, and for their children, even for all the Gentiles, whom the Lord should call. Thus repentance and faith, the turning of the heart away from the world and sin, and towards God through Christ, appear here, as in all the Scriptures, as the first condition of participation in the kingdom of God, and in the blessings of salvation, namely, the forgiveness of sins, imparted and sealed by Christian baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit as the new positive principle of life.
After several other exhortations to repentance, those who received the word gladly were baptized, and about three thousand souls were gathered, on this harvest festival of the new covenant, into the garners of Christ’s kingdom. Here for the first time was fulfilled the word of the Lord, that, in consequence, and by virtue of his ascension to the Father, his disciples should do greater works, than he himself wrought in the days of his humiliation, (John 14:12). The awakening testimony of Peter, and the extraordinary operation of the Holy Spirit, supplied the want of longer preparation for the solemn act of baptism, which here coincided with true conversion. But the young plant needed strengthening and care. The believers were constant and united in attention to the four essential elements of all truly Christian associate life,—the instruction of the apostles; brotherly fellowship in active, self-denying love; breaking of bread, i. e. partaking of the Lord’s Supper in connection with the daily love-feasts; and prayer, (Acts 2:42). Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, the fulfiller of the whole Old Testament, was the centre of their faith; and Christianity proved itself not merely a theory, nor an emotion, nor a collection of moral precepts and actions; but life, in the deepest and most comprehensive sense; a power of God to make happy all, who believe in it. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
This was the pre-formative beginning of the church. It has never yet had its like in history, but it will one day be repeated; for the promise of Joel has not yet reached its absolute fulfillment. This young band of believers, with their successors, were to be the salt of the earth, to preserve the mass of humanity from spiritual putrefaction; and the communion then founded was to be thenceforth the basis of every true advance in morality, science, art, social life, and outward civilization, as well as the spring of all great events in later history. The apostles, before shy and timid, we find, from this day forth, armed with undaunted courage in bearing witness of the truth. Before unknown, or little cared for, they become at once the heroes of the day, and soon attract the attention, not only of Palestine, but of the whole world. A few honest, plain fishermen of Galilee, raised to be the official witnesses or the Holy Spirit; transformed from illiterate men into infallible organs of the Savior of the world, teachers of all ages;—truly, this is marvelous in our eyes!
By Philip Schaff