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What is Pentecost?

Christians celebrate Pentecost (meaning '50th day' in Greek) 50 days after Easter. What are its origins and significance?

Read time: 7 minutes and 47 seconds

Pentecost—originally a Jewish festival—is celebrated in the Christian Church as the occasion when God sent his Holy Spirit to both transform and empower the followers of Jesus for the mission that he had given them. In Great Britain it is also known as Whitsun, from an Old English word meaning ‘White Sunday’—the day on which converts to Christianity wore white garments and were baptised.

The first Christian Pentecost

Before Jesus returned to his Father in heaven in an event known as the ascension, he told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and “wait for the gift my Father promised”. Through this gift, he said, they would “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” (Acts 1:4-8).

'Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.'

For the next 10 days, they devoted themselves to prayer, not really sure what they were praying for or what exactly to expect. But then, unexpectedly and dramatically, they found out. The book of Acts goes on to tell us: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4).

So, what was going on? Let’s ask a number of questions about it.

What happened?

Wind and fire came! Or at least, what sounded like a violent wind and what looked like tongues of fire. Why these two things? Because every Jew of that time knew that wind and fire were common symbols of God’s coming and presence in their Scriptures (what Christians now call the Old Testament). In other words, this event was about GOD coming! God coming to ordinary people to transform and empower them, from the inside, just as Jesus had promised (e.g., John 14:15-18; Acts 1:4-8), and just as the Old Testament prophets had foreseen (e.g. Joel 2:28-29).

Just how every much they were transformed is seen at the end of Acts 2 where we find the new Christians generously and freely sharing their possessions with one another. Just how very much they were empowered is seen in how these disciples who had been hiding in an upstairs room suddenly became bold preachers of the Christian message. It was this act of transformation and empowerment that gave birth to the church.

every Jew of that time knew that wind and fire were common symbols of God’s coming and presence

Where did it happen?

Traditionally, this coming of the Holy Spirit has been located in the Upper Room where Jesus had shared the Last Supper with his disciples and where they had been praying since his ascension. But many New Testament scholars feel this is unlikely, and that the Pentecost event is far more likely to have happened in the Temple in Jerusalem. Why?

First, the Jewish festival of Pentecost was one of three occasions every year when all Jewish men were obligated to attend the Temple; and after a lifetime of following this tradition, it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ disciples would have neglected it. Second, there were at least 120 of them praying (Acts 1:15), far too many for a house in those days, but easy to accommodate within the Temple’s great courtyard. Third, the coming of the Spirit attracted a huge crowd quickly (Acts 2:6)—something that certainly couldn’t happen in the Upper Room (or even the very narrow streets nearby, assuming they had rushed outside, which the text doesn’t say), but that could easily happen in the Temple courtyard at a festival time. Fourth, the converts were baptised immediately (Acts 2:40-41), something that would have been very easy to do in the many ritual bathing pools that surrounded the Temple. And fifth, we read that the wind filled “the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2)—and the Temple was often called ‘the house’ or ‘the house of the Lord’. So, it seems most likely that the Pentecost event took place in the great Temple courtyard as they waited for the start of the Jewish Pentecost ceremony, rather than in the Upper Room.

Does this matter? Yes. Because this very public location underlined from the very beginning that the Holy Spirit was given, not for personal enjoyment or private mystical experience, but rather for turning the disciples outwards to a needy world. Which leads to our final comment…

Continued below...

Christianity What is Pentecost?

Why did God send the Holy Spirit?

God sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, not as some kind of ‘happy pill’ (though no doubt they all felt exceedingly happy!), but for a specific purpose. And the fact that God waited till Pentecost to send his Spirit, rather than on any other day, underlines what that purpose was.

By Jesus’ time, Pentecost celebrated two things: first, the completion of the Spring harvest, and second, the giving of the Law through Moses. So, choosing this day as the day when the Holy Spirit was given was God’s way of underlining that this was a season of a new law and a new harvest: a new law, written now, not on stone tablets like those given to Moses, but on human hearts, just as the prophets had foreseen (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-28); and a new harvest, now not of grain, but of people. It was harvest time, just as Jesus had said (John 4:35).

'a new harvest, now not of grain, but of people'

Even the strange sign of speaking in tongues pointed to this human harvest. Speaking in tongues wasn’t some kind of ecstatic experience or gibberish; the word ‘tongues’ in the original Greek text simply meant ‘languages. In other words, the Holy Spirit came upon these followers of Jesus to help them pray and preach in the languages of the many different nationalities that had come to Jerusalem from across the world for the Jewish festival (Acts 2:7-11). This was a complete reversal of what had happened in early human history at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) when God brought judgment on proud people by confusing their languages so they couldn’t understand one another; but at Pentecost, God reversed that, showing that this was a season, not of judgment, but of blessing, by enabling everyone to understand the message of Jesus through these Sprit-filled followers and so have the chance to be saved.

What’s the relevance of this for today?

So, how does this event of 2000 years ago have any relevance today? Peter gives us the answer at the end of the message he preached after the Spirit’s coming. It was so convincing that the crowd asked, “What shall we do?” And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

Some 3000 people responded to Peter’s message at that first Christian Pentecost, leading to every aspect of their life being transformed

This was the first time anyone had ever asked, ‘How can we experience what you have experienced?’—which is what makes Peter’s answer so important. He told the crowd to repent (owning up to sin and turning away from it), to be baptised (being immersed in water as an expression of a new beginning), to be assured of forgiveness (on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross and not anything we ourselves have done)—and said that those who did this would also receive the Holy Spirit, just like they had. And the good news for us is that he added, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off”. We are far off, both in terms of geography and time; yet we too can experience being filled with the Holy Spirit if we will follow these steps.

And once we are filled with the Holy Spirit, not only can we start to connect with God as our Heavenly Father, for we are now his children (Galatians 4:4-7), but we are also given some of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do the work that God has given us to do (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 27-31)—the tools for the job.

Some 3000 people responded to Peter’s message at that first Christian Pentecost, leading to every aspect of their life being transformed, as we see at the end of Acts 2. Still today, the Holy Spirit wants to do the same in the life of everyone who will submit to Jesus and ask him to come and fill and change them too, just like at that first Christian Pentecost.