Every May, liturgical calendars point Christians to Pentecost Sunday. In recent years, evangelical churches have begun to see the value of marking a special Sunday to revel in the good news of God’s coming upon His people in power through the Holy Spirit.
We are right to celebrate Pentecost. Without the sending of the Spirit of God, we would have no church withstanding the gates of hell for 2,000-plus years. This indwelling presence of God in His people was the fulfillment of a promise repeated throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The prophets spoke of a time when God would breathe out His Spirit upon His people, endowing them with new spiritual life (Num. 11:29; Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27). In the book of Acts, Peter explicitly says this outpouring they witnessed was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Holy Spirit upon His people (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). In the gospel narratives, John the Baptist picked up on the Old Testament prophecies, declaring his baptism to be merely a picture of a greater cleansing— baptism of the indwelling Spirit of God (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16). This new day was also a theme of Jesus’ ministry. In His final words to the disciples in the upper room, Jesus promised the coming of God’s Spirit (John 14:16). And after His resurrection, Jesus again prophesied the descent of the Spirit (Acts 1:8) and instructed His disciples to wait for it (Luke 24:49).
Sadly, too many Christians read the Acts 2 narrative only to confirm their convictions on second-tier matters, such as the sign gifts, and miss the main thrust of what God is doing with His people.
Pentecost, a Jewish feast of firstfruits, bursts with the theme of new creation. The same Spirit that is said to have hovered over the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), the same breath of God that gave life to humankind is now giving new life to His people through the regenerating wind of the Spirit of God. This is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision to bring life the dry spiritual bones (Ezek. 37:1-28; see also Eph. 2:1) and a confirmation of Jesus’ own post-resurrection promise (John 20:22).
That day 2,000 years ago marked the beginning of the Christian church. It reminds us that the body of Christ is built not by our clever machinations but through the power of the Holy Spirit, filling ordinary men and women who proclaim the life-saving gospel message.
But as we celebrate Pentecost, we shouldn’t miss another important theme, a subtext that will help us experience the fullness of the moment. Luke is careful to write that present at the gathering in Acts 2 were “men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).
Sin distorted the image of God in humankind, pitting brother against brother, dividing by race and class. But the promise of Pentecost is that the gospel reverses this curse, undoing the confusion of the Tower of Babel and drawing people into the body of Christ from every race, tribe, and tongue. If you listen closely to Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, you’ll see that the gospel is not simply restricted to the people of Israel, but would go out to all nations (Matt. 28:16). This was always God’s intention, but it would be the church through which this worldwide, race-transcending gospel would be broadcast (Acts 2, Romans 4, Galatians 3 and 4, Ephesians 2 and 4). In Revelation, we see the final consummation of God’s gathering of all peoples. It’s not that Christians shouldn’t acknowledge ethnicity; rather, we can recognize it as a gift from God and catalyst for worship.
Our failure—particularly in the mostly white evangelical church—to fully recognize and celebrate the “all nations” part of the Great Commission and the Pentecost narrative may help explain why the church still struggles with racial reconciliation. Speaking of the American church, Alan Cross, author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, says, “Perhaps if we had understood Pentecost better and the implications of the gospel, we would have been historic champions of Civil Rights instead of opponents.”
Luke’s account of Pentecost and John’s vision of the kingdom remind us that diversity is a vivid sign of the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power in the church. David Prince and Ruben Cabrera write: “A local church is an already visible outpost of the kingdom of Christ. A local church provides a vertical display of gospel reconciliation (God-to-man) but also a display of horizontal gospel reconciliation (man-to-man) … The Bible calls us to celebrate our ethnic identity and heritage, not as ultimate, but as a providential marker of the expanse of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
There are many obstacles, of course, to a racially diverse congregation. We likely won’t see this fully achieved until we gather for worship around the Lamb’s throne in eternity. Until then, we should both celebrate the diversity of Acts 2 and pray for the Spirit to do in our congregations what we saw Him do at Pentecost.