The Holy Spirit: Getting the Facts, Missing the Point

This message from Acts 1 was preached on Pentecost Sunday, 2020. It can be read below or viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebZnMjCbpok (the sermon begins at 21:05.)

(Acts 1:1-8) In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is Pentecost Sunday, the day the church celebrates the reality-transforming, church-birthing, human-metamorphosing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The God who so loved that he gave his Son also so loved that he gave his Spirit … and nothing has been the same since.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. It has been said that a person without the Spirit can never be more than a second-class Christian, but St. Paul went further than that. He said that without the Spirit, a person cannot be a Christian at all: “…if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).

Without the Spirit, there would be no church. A religious group can have a nave, altar, sacristy, pulpit, and steeple, but they’ll only have a church if they have the Spirit.

The Greek phrase ἐν πνεύματι (in or by the Spirit) appears 152 times in the New Testament. We are led by the Spirit, we rejoice by the Spirit, we worship the Father by the Spirit, are indwelt by the Spirit, are gifted by the Spirit, are marked as God’s people by the Spirit, love each other by the Spirit – I could go on.

With the Holy Spirit, we are connected to God’s own life. With the Spirit, we are connected to each other. With the Spirit we can confess Jesus Christ and actually know him. With the Spirit, we can live the Christian life now and expect glory in the future.

But what is the Holy Spirit—so ominously called by earlier versions the “Holy Ghost”? First, let’s get our nomenclature right. People sometimes refer to the Spirit with the impersonal pronoun “it,” as though the Spirit were something subpersonal – a force or an influence. It is more appropriate to refer to the Spirit with the personal pronoun, for the Spirit is a person who teaches, chooses, acts, reasons, and can be grieved. You wouldn’t want to be referred to as an “it” – neither does the Spirit. Now it is true that the Spirit is more than a person, as we understand personhood, but he is not less. He is “suprapersonal.”[1]

St. Luke wrote a sequel to his Gospel, known as The Acts of the Apostles (though that title is not original) which is all about the Holy Spirit. In fact, a better title would be, The Acts of the Holy Spirit or The Acts of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is mentioned in the first sentence of this book, and then 55 more times as the story progresses.

When we read Acts, we can’t help but be impressed by the importance of the Spirit. Again and again, we see what sort of things the Spirit does but might miss why he does them.

Let me illustrate how a person can know what and yet miss why. Say someone from a church in southeastern Mali, a church with whom our church has connected, comes to Michigan to stay for six months and you open your home to him and offer your hospitality. You want to give him a distinctively American experience, so you take him to a ball game.

He has already watched a couple of games with you on TV, and you’ve explained to him that when one team is on offense the other is on defense. You’ve explained that, while on defense, a team will have 9 players on the field but on offense a team always starts with just one player. If he hits a ball and no one gets him out, the team on offense gets to add a second player to the field, and so on. He asks you what it means to “get him out,” and you explain that bases as safe zones and that on offense the goal is to go from base to bases until you reach home. He takes all that in.

With this as background, you take him to a Tiger’s game. He cheers every time someone (doesn’t matter which team he is on) hits the ball. He shouts out, “He’s safe!” “He’s out!” He knows about pitching and hitting, about outs and innings, and offense and defense. The one thing you forgot to tell him – so basic you didn’t think to mention it – is that teams keep score. So he knows lots of things about baseball and has a general framework in mind, but he doesn’t know about winning, losing, and keeping score.

That’s rather a big thing to miss, isn’t it? (Especially when the visiting team hits a grand slam in the ninth and he stands up and cheers!) When it comes to the Spirit, we can understand many individual truths but miss the big thing: what winning is. Winning in The Book of Acts and in the Bible is the victory of the kingdom of God.

The Book of Acts is about God’s kingdom. Luke lets us know that in the second sentence of the book: “[Jesus] appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” In the closing sentence of the book, Luke again mentions the kingdom of God. In biblical scholarship, this is known as an inclusio, the practice of setting out one’s subject or thesis by opening and closing with it.

We all understand the Bible within a particular framework, just like our Malian friend understood (or misunderstood) baseball within a particular framework. The most common framework among evangelical Christians is built with four major planks: Creation, Fall, Redemption (which is most of the Bible) and New Creation. That is a helpful way to look at the Bible, which gives us the major components but might leave us missing the point – it might not tell us what it means to win. To understand that, we need to understand kingdom.

A kingdom alteration to that framework might help: God the Artist-Creator King makes a universe and rules over it, including humans whom he made to rule the earth as his regents – as sub-kings and queens. That is Genesis 1 and 2 and parallels the creation plank. But notice the kingdom dimension.

With that kingdom dimension, we realize the next plank was not just a fall but a rebellion. The humans chose not to rule under God but to try to rule alongside him – to “be like God.” That is Genesis 3, with supporting material that follows through chapter 11. In chapters 4-11, we see everything falling apart. There really is a “fall” but it was preceded by a rebellion.

The redemption plank is not just about how humans get to heaven but about how God is restoring his own kingdom and restoring humans to the place of regents, as glorious sub-kings and queens. God chose a person Abraham (that is Genesis 12) whose family would accept his rule (that is Genesis 18) and extend it (that is Exodus 19) as a “kingdom of priests” and through whom all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.

Abraham’s descendants, however, make the same mistake Adam made. They choose to rule themselves rather than have God rule them (that is 1st Samuel 8). So God gives them what they desire – a king other than himself – but he also gives them a promise: that one day he will place his own king on the throne, a king who will be his son (this is 2nd Samuel 7, Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and many other places), and will rule forever.

This was the hope of God’s people at the close of the Old Testament: God’s kingdom will come. The narrative takes a giant leap forward in the Gospels, when God incarnates himself in human flesh in Jesus Christ and bursts on the scene with the announcement: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Through Jesus the God-Man, God’s rightful place as the king of kings and humanity’s rightful place as kings under the king are restored. This is how God wins and we win with him.

Notice that when the apostles ask Jesus (verse 6): “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” he does not answer, “No, we gave up on that plan,” but rather, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set…” (verse 7). In other words, that’s not your business, but you do have other business to attend to (this is verse 8, the key verse in The Book of Acts): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

(I say that is the key verse because Luke organized the entire book around it. What Jesus says here launches a world-wide Kingdom of God campaign, which Luke chronicles. He pauses the story at different points to provide progress reports on the campaign. In 2:47 and 6:7, Jesus’s people are witnesses in Jerusalem. In 8:1 they are in Judea. In 9:31, Samaria has been reached. In 12:24, they have become witnesses outside of Israel’s borders. By 16:5 they have reached Asia and Galatia. In 19:20, the witnesses are set to cross into Europe. And in 28:31, the Kingdom of God has come to Rome, the heart of the Empire.)[2]

Now notice that Jesus did not say, “When the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will witness for me” (a verb) but rather “You will be my witnesses,” (a noun). That’s important. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just empower us to do things. He transforms us into a certain kind of person – a Jesus-kind of person. The presence of the Spirit in a person is a catalyst that causes the person to change / evolve / transform into a different kind of being, a metamorphosis from what St. Paul calls in Greek, “a sarkikos” (a merely biological being) into “a pneumatikos” (a spiritual being).

You’ve heard people talk about the next step in evolution? Well, this is it: not a step from a lower form of biological life to a higher, but from solely biological to a spiritual/biological hybrid, which is to say, to a genuine human being.

Jesus didn’t order his apostles to go witness but he promised them that they would become witnesses, after the Holy Spirit came on them. The presence of the Spirit and the transformation he engenders in both individuals and (even more importantly) in churches is a powerful witness for King Jesus. The church is a kingdom colony in the world. A transformed individual is a wonder. A transformed community of individuals – that is, the church – is proof that the kingdom of God has arrived.

When the Spirit was given, he was given to Jesus’s people corporately, not just to certain people individually. Peter and the Apostles were not the only recipients. This was something new and it suggests the crucial importance of the church in God’s kingdom strategy.

After Jesus was taken up before their eyes, the men just stood there, looking up into heaven. I don’t know how long they would have stood there, but something happened to move them along. (These are verses 10-11): “…suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’”

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” say these two men (presumably angels). In other words: “Didn’t you hear what Jesus said? You don’t want him to find you staring up into the sky with your mouths open when he comes back, do you? You’ve got things to attend to. You better get busy.”

And they got busy. But notice how they got busy (v. 14): They didn’t organize a march or plan a campaign or hold a seminar. They got busy praying.

As Jim Cymbala put it, “The Christian church was born not in a clever sermon” (or, I would add, an inspiring worship service, a seminary class, or an evangelistic crusade) “but in a prayer meeting.”[3]

There is no a formula for being filled with the Spirit but notice what these believers did. They not only prayed, they obeyed. They obeyed the Scriptures (particularly Ps. 69 and 109, which, I suspect, came to their attention while they were praying the psalms in their prayer meeting.) They obeyed the Scripture as best they knew how.

That is how to wait for the Spirit: pray and obey. When we do that in the context of longing to honor Jesus, the Spirit comes. No amount of doctrinal correctness, liturgical propriety, or religious enthusiasm can take the place of a genuine desire to exalt Jesus. That is what the Spirit does. That is what he cares about. And when he finds people who also care about that, he comes.

And when he comes, people change. Churches change. Neighborhoods change. Communities change. Eventually, everything changes. You have heard the disturbing news about the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent riots in Minneapolis. You know Mr. Floyd was black but you might not know that he was our brother. The blood that flowed for him flowed for us: the blood of Jesus.

The world is talking about how this man from Houston’s Third Ward died but his friends from Houston are talking about how he lived: how he helped ministries come into the neighborhood, stood up with people at their baptisms, told young men, as a friend of his described it, “that God trumps street culture” His friend said, “he wanted to see young men put guns down and have Jesus instead.”[4]

The racial injustice, suspicion, and hatred flaring up all over our country is frightening. It is heartbreaking. It must stop – but how? Electing a black president didn’t stop it. Education hasn’t stopped it. Race and equity training hasn’t stopped it. But there was a brief time and a defined place in U.S. history when, for a while, it did stop.

It was during one of the worst decades of racial violence in America’s history. In the decade prior to 1906, lynchings of African Americans skyrocketed. Though official records were not kept, historians believe that more than a thousand blacks were lynched. And during that time, hundreds of thousands of Americans were joining the KKK.

Then in 1906, God poured out the Holy Spirit in an Acts 2 way in Los Angeles. People call it the Azusa Street Revival. One of the principal leaders was a black man, William Seymour. Tens of thousands of people – rich, poor, men, women, native-born, immigrants, blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos – encountered the Spirit of Jesus. In this place where the Spirit controlled, whites weren’t lynching blacks, they were embracing them and being embraced by them as brothers and sisters. Frank Bartleman, who has written on the Azusa Street Revival, put it this way: “The color line is washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ!”[5]

But the Spirit does not come because we want to improve racial relations, though where he comes that happens. The Spirit comes because he sees an opportunity to honor Jesus. When that is what we want – to honor him, to be like him, to introduce people to him – the Spirit comes.

That is what happened in Acts 2. The Day of Pentecost is about Jesus because the Spirit is about Jesus. When we are about King Jesus, we will experience the presence and power of the Spirit. We will be transformed. We will be his witnesses. And our church will be a place where love and justice and peace – the hallmarks of the kingdom of God – pervade everything.


[1] Anthony Thistelton, “The Holy Spirit and the Life of the Church,” https://www.catalystresources.org/the-holy-spirit-and-the-life-of-the-church/

[2] See Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Ac). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Jim Cymbala, “Leadership,” Vol. 14, no. 4.

[4] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html

[5] Rich Nathan, Both-And (IVP Books, 2013), page 48.

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