The Day the Church Was Born (Acts 2)

Approximately 23 minutes

We are looking today at Acts 2, which recounts the origins of the Church. When God poured out his Spirit on the 120 Jesus-followers who had gathered in Jerusalem, they went from being friends and associates with a shared history to being the church of Jesus Christ with a shared, eternal future.

The same Spirit that was in Peter was now in Mary Magdalene. The Spirit in John was in Cleopas. The Spirit in Matthew was in Mary the mother of Jesus. These people who had long known each other were suddenly together in a way they had never been before. They were united. The Spirit of God was coordinating their thoughts and actions. They had become the church.

This is one of the epoch-making moments in the history of the world. It marked the threshold of earth’s last era and triggered the transformation (or evolution, if you prefer) of humanity into a new kind of existence. To material beings of the animal kingdom, the homo sapiens sapiens, was added the divine Spirit. This would prepare humans for resurrection and life in the age to come, but it also connected them to each other in the present.

As I was exegeting this passage and preparing to preach it, I outlined it in five parts. We have: What Happened: The Event (vv. 1-4); What Was Going On: The Setting (vv. 5-13); What it Meant: The Sermon (vv. 14-35); What to Do About It: The Application (vv. 36-41); and What Resulted: The Church (vv. 42-47). That could be unpacked for hours, but since we don’t have that long, let’s get to it by looking at what happened.

It was the day of Pentecost, the celebration known as the Feast of Weeks. It was called Pentecost because it took place 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits. (Pentecost is Greek for 50.) Jesus’s apostles, along with more than a hundred of his followers had been together much of those 50 days – ever since the resurrection.

On the day of the feast, they were together – perhaps in the same upper room where they had gathered on the night before Jesus was betrayed. The house where they stayed must have been near the temple because only houses in the temple district were large enough to accommodate so many people.

The giving of the Spirit was accompanied by three extraordinary phenomena. There was the unaccountable sound of a violent wind. There was the astonishing sight of something that looked like a flame of fire appearing above the head of every person present. And there was amazing testimony as the people began speaking in languages they did not know, enabled by the Spirit that was within them.

That is what happened. In verses 5-13, Luke pans out a little and gives us the setting in which this took place. When people came to find out what was making the strange wind-like sound, they heard a second strange sound: Jesus’s people were talking about God in fifteen different languages! They asked, “Aren’t these people all Galileans?” Galileans were known for their distinct way of speaking. We would say they had an accent. A linguist would say they dropped laryngeals and aspirates.[1] But the foreigners said, “They’re speaking my language!”

Notice what they spoke (v. 11): the wonders (or, as the Greek has it, the great things) of God. Very often in Scripture, and nearly always in Luke’s writings, the Holy Spirit is associated with the way people speak. Some bible students say the evidence that a person is filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues. But the Bible goes beyond that: the evidence is speaking in love. Someone who speaks in tongues on Sunday and speaks with contempt on Monday is not someone who is filled with the Spirit.

Most of the people who heard the disciples were amazed. (In fact, Luke uses three different Greek words in this passage to indicate wonder or amazement.) But some just mocked them and said they’d had one too many. Perhaps they were, like the apostles, Galileans, who didn’t hear the dropped laryngeals and aspirates. It is the people who think they know you who frequently miss what you are saying.

Notice that the Spirit’s presence in the disciples led people to ask questions. Jesus’s people were different. They still are. People ought to be asking questions about us: our generosity, our fearlessness, our love for each other, our honesty, kindness, hopefulness.

There is something else to understand about what is happening here, but we will miss it if we are not familiar with the Old Testament. After God created human beings, he appointed them to rule the world as his regents. But humans (this is Genesis 3) turned away from God – theologians call it “the Fall” – and everything began falling apart (that is Genesis 4-11).

When we arrive at Genesis 11, we see how bad things have become. The people of the city of Babel are constructing a ziggurat – a kind of temple – to reach heaven. They are trying to force their way into God’s place – into authority and power – without God. At Babel, God brought that attempt to an end by scattering the people and confusing their languages. No longer would people be able to understand each other – a loss that has impoverished and divided humanity.

But at Pentecost, God began to reverse the scattering. People from fifteen different nations heard and understood each other. Many came to share the same Spirit. What was lost in the world was being reintroduced in the church, which from the beginning has been a multi-national, multi-lingual, ethnically diverse people—and yet united. The scattering of humanity is being undone within the church of Jesus Christ.

So, the disciples heard the surprising sound of a strong, rushing wind in the house where they were meeting. The sound was so loud that people outside the house heard it too. The Christians then saw what looked like a flame of fire resting above one another’s heads and, when they spoke, it was in languages they had never learned. This took place on Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits. Visitors who were in town for the feast heard the disciples declaring the praises of God in their own languages.

That’s what happened. But what did it mean? The Apostle Peter answers that question. He begins by saying what it does not mean. It does not mean that we’re drunk. With good humor he adds, “It’s only nine in the morning!”

What it does mean is that the last days are upon us (v. 17). God is keeping his word through the prophet Joel and is pouring out his Spirit on all people, not just on kings, prophets, and judges. This, as Peter says down in verse 33, is what you now see and hear. The last days have begun.

But why now? Why didn’t it happen in the prophet Joel’s time? Why didn’t it happen in our time? Why now? Peter’s answer is: because of Jesus. Everything changed with the coming of Jesus. He is the hinge on which the door of history turns.

Peter says that “Jesus was a man accredited to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did … through him” (v. 22). In the ancient world, when teachers came to a new community, they brought with them letters of introduction from shared acquaintances or from well-known people. Jesus’s letter of introduction came from God himself, and was written in miracles, wonders, and signs.

And how, Peter asks boldly, did you receive him? You (v. 33), with the help of wicked men (literally lawless men, that is, gentiles), “put him to death by nailing him to a cross.” But God, Peter said, knew this would happen and incorporated your rejection into his plan. Then he raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (v. 24). Peter uses a remarkable metaphor here. The word for agony is the common word for birth pangs. The agony of death turned out to be the birth pangs of the new humanity.

As proof that God raised Jesus from the dead, Peter quotes Psalm 16. It was written by Jesus’s great ancestor King David about a thousand years earlier. In the poem we have the line, “my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead (“sheol” in Hebrew, “hades” in Greek) nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (vv. 26, 27; Ps. 16:9-10).

Peter goes on to argue that King David died a long time ago – everyone knows where his grave is – and his body did decay. David could not have been referring to himself in Psalm 16. No, he was speaking prophetically of the Messiah – a prophecy God fulfilled by raising Jesus from the dead.

And it was this Jesus, raised from the dead and exalted to the place of honor at God’s right hand, this Jesus who is both Lord of all and Messiah of the Jews (v. 36), who is responsible for the events on the day of Pentecost. He has sent the Holy Spirit on the church and launched the final epoch of earth’s history. Jesus is the key to everything.

So far, we have seen what happened (the event), what was going on at the time (the setting), what it meant (Peter’s sermon). In verses 37-40 we see what to do about it (the application).

When people realized what Peter was saying and understood that he was speaking truth, they were aghast. They had killed the Messiah God sent to rescue them. They had got rid of the only person who could help them. Luke says they were “cut to the heart” when they heard this and asked Peter and the apostles what they should do” (v. 37). Was it too late? Were they destined for ruin because they had not recognized their Messiah?

Peter holds out hope for them. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 38). Now, hold on. I thought all you needed to do was believe, but Peter says, “Repent and be baptized.” Well, it is clear to me that Peter’s hearers did believe, otherwise they would not have asked what they should do. Repentance and baptism are not a substitute for, nor an add-on to, belief; they are the outworking of it.

In repentance, a person rethinks his life and makes changes so that he can align himself or herself with what is true. Repentance is that moment when I realize that the road I am on is not going the direction I need to go. Unless I am a fool, I will get off that road and find another. There is nothing meritorious about repentance. It is not some admirable achievement on my part. It is, in fact, a gift of God.

But what about baptism? Back in verse 21, Peter said (quoting Joel) that if people call on the Lord’s name they will be saved. Here he is telling them how to call: by being baptized in Jesus’ name. Ananias used very similar language when he said to Saul (who would later be Paul): “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16).

Some of Peter’s hearers would have been upset. In Judaism, baptism was normally reserved for pagan Gentiles who were converting.  The idea that pious Jews needed to be baptized was offensive. What would people think?

But Peter offers no alternative. He requires, as Craig Keener put it, a “public, radical testimony of conversion, not a private, noncommittal request for salvation.”[2] It’s not that a person cannot be baptized privately – the Ethiopian in Acts 8 was – but never as a way of avoiding that public, radical testimony of faith in Christ.

This baptism is “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 38). Because of this verse, some churches do not baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Jesus instructed in Matthew 28, but only in the name of Jesus. I think that is an error. When Peter tells them to be baptized in the name of Jesus, he is indicating what kind of baptism it is and differentiating it from other ancient ceremonial washings. He is not giving a ritual formula to be spoken over the person being baptized. If that were the case, he would have used the active, and not the passive, voice.[3]

We have seen what happened on the day the church was born, what was going on at the time, what it meant, and what to do about it. In verses 42-47 we see what resulted from it. United by God’s Spirit, people were hungry to know about God, and so they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (v. 42). That happens when people are filled with God’s Spirit.

They were also hungry to be together. In verses 42-47, the NIV uses the word “together” three times. The disciples were devoted to the fellowship and its shared meals. They looked out for each other’s needs. Some people insist that the mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues (and that certainly happened in verse 4 and was wonderful), but the more definitive indicator is what we have in these verses: a longing to know God in Christ and a love and affection for his people.

Now, let’s put this all in context, and then we’ll look to see how it applies to us. Acts 2 describes the day the church was born. This is an historic, never to be repeated event, like the death and resurrection of Christ. We do not read again of the sound of a violent wind or the sight of flames of fire, and only once more in Acts do we read of people speaking in tongues, and that was when Gentiles were brought into the church.

This day was unique, but that does not mean that being filled with the Holy Spirit is unique. That happens repeatedly in the Book of Acts, though without the accompanying signs, and it can also happen repeatedly in our lives. When it does, things are always different.

For example (and we see this in our text), under the influence of the Spirit, a person will alter the way he or she speaks. There is a strong link in Scripture, and especially in the two books Luke wrote, between the presence of God’s Spirit and the way a person talks. Speaking in other tongues is the most obvious example (v. 4), but people filled with the Spirit also praise God (v. 11, and in Luke 1:67ff; 10:21) and prophesy (v. 16), and witness (4:8ff; Luke 12:11-12).

What they don’t do is gossip. Or grumble. Paul tells the Ephesians not to let unwholesome (literally, “rotten”) speech come out of their mouths (4:29), and in the very next verse warns them not to grieve the Holy Spirit. A few verses later, he unpacks what he means by rotten speech: shameful and foolish talk, obscenities, and coarse joking (Eph. 5:4). People who are filled with the Spirit don’t talk that way, but they do speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and they give thanks to God for everything (Eph. 5:18-20).

There is some disagreement in the church over whether speaking in tongues is the required proof of the presence of the Spirit. For various biblical reasons, I think it is not, but speech clearly is important. Just don’t limit it to “other tongues.” How you speak in your native tongue is an even more significant indicator of the Spirit’s fullness or absence in your life. At least, more space in the biblical writings is devoted to it.

There is something else here: The Lord poured out the Spirit on people who were all together (2:1). Divisions, animosity, and strife get in the way of what God wants to do in a church and in individuals’ lives. We must forgive each other and be reconciled to each other, or we will not experience the life God intends us to have. If there is something between you and another Christ-follower, do your best to be reconciled. God will honor you for it, whatever the other person does.

And ask God for the Holy Spirit for yourself and for our church. “How much more,” Jesus asked, “will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). Don’t ask so that you can have an experience, but so that you can be the person you were always meant to be.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[2] Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ac 2:37–38). InterVarsity Press.

[3] Ibid.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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