PART ONE: PENTECOST – ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Since my extended family is spread throughout the southern part of the United States, seeing grandma required a prolonged journey for my young children. Each trip, though exciting, was also torturous. How it happened is still a mystery to me, but somehow, my children learned the annoying, frustrating question: “Are we there yet?” No one taught it to them; the instinctual drive to irritate parents is the only possible explanation for their inquiry.
In the days before inexpensive portable DVD players, tablets, WIFI, and cell phones, my wife and I had limited options for occupying the children’s attention. We debated the wisdom of coaxing them to take a long nap. Though doing so would have shortened the trip from their perspective (and given us some peace), getting them to sleep that night would have been problematic. Instead, we taught them the same games previous generations used to fill boring travel time. We worked on switching their focus from when to while – not “when will we get there?” but what can we do “while we’re traveling?”
Though we adults don’t often ask the question—certainly not in rapid succession—it still occupies our thoughts. Are we there yet? The push to arrive at the destination is not a trait reserved only for children or road-trips, nor is it true solely of our time.
Two millennia ago, Jesus and His eleven remaining disciples stood on the Mount of Olives. They had endured a tumultuous time. First, Jesus’ followers lost Him in the crucifixion, and then, they got Him back through His resurrection. For the subsequent 40 days (the period of testing), Jesus appeared to groups of various sizes in multiple venues and encouraged the witnesses to evaluate the evidence and validate that He stood before them (1 Cor. 15:5-6). He also used that time to give the Eleven some final instructions.
One member of the group—we are not told who—asked a question. “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) The name of the inquirer doesn’t matter; the subject was on each of their minds.
Are we there yet?
It echoed a question posed earlier (Matthew 24:3). They, like us, merely wanted the trip to be over. Jesus did not indicate that He was annoyed with their question. The only twinge Jesus might have had was that they spoke of the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6) though He had spoken of the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
The interest they showed in the kingdom was a positive thing. Over the previous weeks, Jesus had focused His conversation on the Kingdom (Acts 1:3). It was natural for this thought to be on their minds. Also, early in His ministry, Jesus taught them the priority of seeking His Kingdom (Matt. 6:33). Their question was not irrelevant or ill-conceived; it’s just that Jesus had something more pressing for them to consider.
Jesus’ responded to their question the same way that my wife and I did when it came from our children. He diverted their attention from when to while. He said, “Don’t concern yourself with something over which you have no control. The when is up to the Father. But while you’re here, I have a gift for you to receive and a mission for you to accomplish.” With that, Jesus gave His disciples some final directives.
“He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait” (Acts 1:4)
The disciples were excited! Jesus, their leader, had defeated the worst His enemies could hurl at Him. The number of people who openly declared their allegiance to Jesus was growing. There were 120 now, and that number included Jesus’ family members (Acts 1:14) who once thought Jesus’ claims were evidence of insanity (Matt. 12:46).
No longer did Jesus’ followers congregate in small groups and hide in the shadows. Over a hundred of them stood publicly with Jesus on the Mount of Olives. This may have appeared to be the opportune moment for Jesus to initiate His disciples into their post-resurrection ministry. Jesus did not agree. He told His followers to wait before they went.
Timing was vital to Jesus. He knew the danger of rushing into action before everything was ready (John 2:4; 7:30; Gal. 4:4), and Jesus’ followers were not yet equipped. They needed the indwelling of the Spirit. Jesus promised the Spirit, but it was necessary for them to wait at Jerusalem for that pledge to be fulfilled.
John the Baptist was the first modern-day prophet to speak of the Spirit. In his message of the Messiah’s impending unveiling, John unabashedly announced the limitations of his baptismal ministry. Doing so allowed him to magnify what Jesus would soon do. “The best I can do is to get you wet,” John said, “but He will set you on fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
John understood the significance of what Jesus promised. The Spirit had inflamed John since his birth (Luke 1:15). Talk about your ADHD! Oh, what a toddler John must have been!
Zechariah and Elizabeth, John’s parents, knew the struggle of postponement. They had to wait decades for the birth of the first permanently Spirit-indwelled human (Luke 1:7). He was long overdue, but John was worth the delay.
Jesus’ disciples would wait only a little over a week after His departure for their filling. Waiting, however, was still necessary. It was the longest nine days of their lives! The disciples were without Jesus or the Spirit. No wonder they confined themselves to the upper room. To attempt anything of a spiritual nature in their current condition would likely have resulted in abject failure.
The disciples wanted to know when. Jesus told them to wait. He did not give them access to what they desired, but He granted them precisely what they needed and what they should have been asking for all along (Luke 11:13).
“you will receive power…you will be My witnesses” (Acts 1:8)
Jesus’ followers needed the Spirit, but they also needed convincing of their deficit. They initially thought they could accomplish their mission on their own. The time they spent away from Jesus doing miracles and casting out demons was meant to embolden them and give them a taste of what lay in store (Luke 10:17-19), but it probably served as well to heighten their already present sense of self-dependence (Luke 9:54).
Jesus’ disciples shared a tendency with us modern Christians—the inclination to attempt what Jesus requires using only carnal strength (Rom. 8:8-9). That is the primary reason they kept stumbling through Jesus’ earthly ministry. If they were to succeed in Jesus’ mission, it was crucial for them to recognize their dependence. Therefore, rather than providing the Spirit at the beginning, Jesus waited.
The disciples were weak. They now knew it. Their actions on the night of Jesus’ arrest verified it. The disciples’ failings humbled them and persuaded them of their desperate need for something – or Someone – greater than themselves. When Jesus spoke of them being His witnesses, they had to be thinking, “Who would be justified in listening to us?”
The disciples were correct. They had no right to authority or power to accomplish change. Jesus, however, gave them His.
In Matthew 28:18, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Here in Acts 1:8, He says, “But you will receive power.” So the transaction Jesus offered went something like this: “I have it. You need it. I give it.”
The first type of authority Jesus gave His disciples, including you and me, was the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). Being is always a prerequisite to doing. Authority, however, is not primarily about the chair you sit in but the changes you make. God meant for energy and authority to be used, not permanently stored. They had the authority to do something.
Physical science teachers speak of the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the force an already moving object can exert on its environment. For example, a car traveling at 70mph can inflict a great deal of damage.
Potential energy is the term used to describe when an object is on the verge of impacting its environment but has not yet. All it needs is a little push.
Jesus knew His disciples had something to offer (potential energy), but He wanted to get them moving (kinetic energy). So He gave them the two components they needed: extraordinary enablement and a powerful purpose. He provided the Spirit, and He made them His witnesses.
The Spirit, who would soon invade their lives, radically altered them and the productivity of the movement Jesus initiated. As individuals and as a group, the disciples began to operate at the level Jesus had always intended. An extended time of prayer (and probable fasting) preceded the Spirit’s arrival (Acts 1:14). No one fell asleep this time (Luke 22:45-46). And finally, the disciples, instead of jockeying for position (Luke 22:24; Matthew 20:20-24), expressed the unity that Jesus so fervently sought in His prayer to the Father (John 17:11; Acts 1:14)
Imagine the reaction of that group had they known how God was going to use them that first day! Three thousand revelers moved from rejoicing over the harvest to being the harvest because of Peter’s Spirit-empowered words (Acts 2:41). The 120 likely would have doubted Jesus if He had told them this outcome. It was just too impressive.
Greater still, that group of strangers, from various parts of the world, formed a fellowship unlike any that had ever existed! They daily met together, ate together, prayed together, sacrificed together, and rejoiced together over each person that came to faith (Acts 2:42-47). They experienced community.
A stronghold for the church now existed in Jerusalem. However, the effort to reach the world for Jesus Christ had just begun, and attacks from the Enemy’s forces would soon multiply and intensify. These Jesus followers quickly learned to heavily rely on their community and the Spirit who empowered and connected it.
Jesus first commanded His disciples to wait. Then, He told them to operate (Luke 19:13). There was one more component to the instructions Jesus’ disciples received.
“This Jesus…will come in the same way” (Acts 1:11)
After giving instructions to His disciples, Jesus left earth on His journey back to the Father. The record of the event is not as specific as we might like. Did Jesus, as He was talking, begin to levitate and then rise into the clouds? Did a cloud descend and obscure Jesus from their sight as had happened at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5) and then carry Jesus into the sky? The disciples watched something ascend; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been looking up.
The details of how Jesus’ ascension happened is not important. What matters is that, in reverse order, it will happen again! God’s white-robed messengers announced what Jesus had already promised (John 14:1-3). He is coming back!
As a result of the day’s events, the disciples anticipated the Spirit’s coming and Jesus’ return. One would be soon; the other would be a long time in coming. The preparation for the first was to wait. Their conditioning for the second was to work. Jesus didn’t want them permanently sequestered in the upper room or lounging on top of a mountain in booths while they awaited Him (Matt. 17:4; 1 Thess. 3:6, 10-11). They had a mission to accomplish.
That’s what the circumstances of Jesus’ ascension meant for Jesus’ disciples. What does it mean for us?
First, waiting is just as much a part of ministry as working. Don’t despise the discipline of delay. Delay is not denial. It is preparation. Pray, gather your team (Acts 1:21-22), and listen for the sound of God’s empowerment to come in His timing (Acts 2:2).
Second, whether or not you believe it, you have God-sized potential. If Christ has rescued you, then you already have the Spirit and the mission. Therefore, you are in the same place Jesus’ disciples were—just needing a little push. You are like a sippy cup on the edge of the table, a roller coaster at the top of the hill, the child who receives a super soaker on the hottest day of the year, a dragster waiting for the green light, or the hound dog that just spotted a rabbit. Go for it!
Finally, watch for Jesus’ return. Two millennia have passed since Jesus left. We are still waiting, but fewer and fewer prophecies have yet to be fulfilled.
God has given us, through the remainder of the New Testament, so much more revelation concerning Jesus’ return than His original disciples had when they stood searching the sky. Jesus’ admonition to them to put the timing of the Kingdom’s arrival to the side may or may not apply to us. However, Jesus’ command for His followers to be His Spirit-empowered, world-reaching witnesses is more fitting now than ever.
It is a struggle to live for Jesus in a society that is increasingly hostile to Christ and His teachings. You are tired. You want to go home. You are tempted to turn your eyes heavenward, searching the skies and hoping for Jesus’ soon return. That is appropriate. Do it.
However, with just as much intensity as you examine the signs and perhaps with greater frequency, you need to lower the angle of your vision and see what Jesus saw—people and their needs. When you see people, it promotes the compassion that leads to action. Jesus, like you, got weary. He never allowed His human weakness, though, to prevent Him from doing ministry (John 4:6-7; Mark 6:30-36).
Jesus’ disciples established the pattern. As instructed, they stopped gazing and got to work. Their activity was not in place of their anticipation; it was because of their anticipation.
So as a Watchman, what do we do? Do we watch, or do we warn? YES!
Instead of focusing all of our attention on the question, “Lord, when will you return?” ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do while You’re gone?” Ask the right question, or better yet, listen to the answer He has already given. “You will be My witnesses.”
We know two facts for certain: Jesus is coming, and people who don’t know Him are dying. If you genuinely desire the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom on earth (Matt. 6:10), then demonstrate His rule over your life. Obey His final command.
PART TWO: UNPREDICTABLE
Some days are predictable. You know from their beginning, with some level of certainty, how they will end. Pentecost was not one of those days.
“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.” (Acts 2:41)
Fiction writers sometimes begin with exciting events that are near the conclusion of their story to immediately grab the reader’s attention. This technique motivates the reader to ask how the characters got to that point. The author, to answer the question, takes his audience back to the beginning of the story; “Thirty-six hours earlier” or, “Two years in the past.”
A skilled writer, after communicating where the story is going, will successfully weave a beautiful, intricate tale to explain how it gets there. He must be careful, though, to avoid plot holes—inconsistencies in the development of the plot or the characters’ lives. He desires a believable story but also one that offers enough complexity to prevent the audience from guessing the next step.
Prequels, a relatively new genre, have become an anticipated part of the entertainment industry. Audiences want to know how a character or plotline reached its current situation. Such stories give increased understanding and depth to the characters. They allow the writer to include information he may have had in his head, but which he did not include in the original storyline.
For example, the first scene in the Star Wars franchise acquainted movie-goers with Darth Vader and his quest to retrieve the stolen Death Star plans. It took almost forty years for the account of that theft to come to theaters in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (May 25, 1977 – December 16, 2016). Though the movie had a sad ending, it left the audience with a feeling of satisfaction. I can testify. I was one of them.
The conclusion of a story – the goal toward which everything else is moving – may be the first image in the creator’s mind. He knows the end, but he may struggle with the details of how to make that happen. Such was not the case with God.
The ultimate Author knew what conclusion He wanted to reach, and He understood what it would take. In response to Peter’s assertion of Jesus’ identity, Jesus said, “I will build My Church” (Matt. 16:18). God’s goal was the Church, and He planned from before He formed the universe how He would do it (Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3; 9:6; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8).
Countless twists laced the grace-filled story—unlikely heroes, human failures, opportunities to cheer, and shock-inducing enemy victories. All of this laid the foundation on which God built the surprise of Pentecost.
What did the 120 gathered in the Upper Room expect? They understood that their prolonged stay in the heart of enemy territory and the promise of the Spirit were connected. There is no indication, though, that they knew the Spirit would come on Pentecost, that signs would accompany His arrival, that they would have the opportunity to declare the Gospel on the Temple steps, or that there would be such an overwhelming response to Peter’s message. Only God would be bold enough to write that script! It was too unpredictable.
Whenever the Spirit is present, He always brings a twist, a surprise, something that throws the current situation off-balance. That’s probably why most Christians are hesitant to yield control to the Spirit. Though they find satisfaction in seemingly disjointed entertainment that confuses them until the masterful culmination in the final scenes, they want their present reality to be foreseeable and safe.
God never promised what most would consider a “safe” life. If you’re going to follow God’s directives as a Christian and especially as a Watchman, you would be foolish to anticipate ease and comfort. However, based on what happened with the believers at Pentecost, there are certain things you can expect when the Holy Spirit is present.
The Spirit will amaze you with enhanced experiences (Acts 2:2-3).
Those gathered in the Upper Room heard a sound “as a rushing mighty wind” and saw “tongues as of fire.” The word “as” means the Jesus followers had a point of reference. They had something with which they could compare their current experience.
Wind was a sound they had heard before…but this was different. Fire was something they had seen before…but this was different. They had spoken in the past, but their previous communication was not like this! What God did was not only different, it was better.
Your experience will likely not be the same as that of the 120. If you expect God to manifest His presence to you the same way He did to them, get ready for some disappointment.
However, the Spirit will enable you to hear His voice through Scripture and grasp people’s true need even when their words struggle to conceal it. He will open your eyes to the world’s pain and remove your blindness to what you can do to help end it.
You believe you can presently hear and see, but once He gives you spiritual senses, you will be astonished you were ever satisfied with what you had.
Your speech will change (Acts 2:4, 22-24, 40).
However one understands what happened on that day, the disciples’ speaking indisputably changed in several ways. First, the words they said were not words they naturally spoke. They used a language that was unfamiliar to them but understandable to their audience.
Second, the “wonderful works of God” (v. 11) became the subject of every conversation. God-talk would have been expected at Pentecost, but it normally would have focused on the people’s thankfulness for the harvest or centered on what God did in the distant past. These worshippers spoke of recent events—a man named Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah and evidenced it through His authoritative teaching and miraculous deeds.
Though the Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding area knew of Jesus, not all Israeli regions may have. Those coming from distant lands had heard rumors. The message of the 120 provided the details.
Third, there was a new boldness among Jesus’ followers. That boldness is most evident in Peter, who weeks before denied he knew Jesus. Now Peter proclaimed Jesus from the Temple steps and accused the Jews of murdering Him! There are other, less obvious, examples. The 120 included many women (Acts 1:14). For women to put aside their fears and join a predominantly male feast crowd, and proclaim Jesus to them, required great courage.
When God’s Spirit rules you, all these speech patterns become true of you. You begin to say things you wouldn’t normally say, and you say them in a way that meets people where they are. Who He is and what He has recently done in your life fill your conversations.
Talking to Jesus is normal for most Christians. Talking about Jesus in a forum where doing so might require sacrifice is less common. People rarely ignore that type of discussion.
People will notice a difference (Acts 2:5-12).
Jerusalem at Pentecost was an exciting place. There was much to see and do: items to purchase, old friendships to renew, a fresh harvest to celebrate, and gatherings to enjoy. The Law required every male Jew to be there or face serious consequences, so the city was crowded.
One hundred plus people, walking through the crowded streets, speaking languages they had never learned, captured people’s attention. Those arriving from various parts of the map recognized that something noteworthy was occurring. People speaking their language but clearly not from their land caused amazement and confusion. People listened.
To get people to hear your message, you must first gain their attention. So what do you have that makes you different enough to divert people’s ears from the innumerable voices they hear and recognize today? Good character.
One work, among many works of the Spirit not mentioned here in Acts 2, is His reshaping us. He works to make us like Jesus (Eph. 5:22-23). The reason this work of the Spirit is not mentioned here is that character development, like fruit ripening, takes time, and Pentecost happened quickly.
You may wish that God would give you the ability to speak in tongues and thereby enable you to gain attention. He has given you a much more powerful tool by radicalizing your character. Here’s why.
Hearing someone speak in another language, with a different dialect, or using a quaint accent causes others to stop what they’re doing for a moment and listen. If you don’t believe me, try speaking in a Deep Southern accent in a New England restaurant. People listen with interest. That interest, however, is only curiosity which quickly wanes.
Uncommon character – patience, kindness, peace, self-control – has the power to hold people’s attention indefinitely. They will see the difference in you and how you respond to the world. For some, your uniqueness will prove attractive. Others will be frightened by it.
You will face ridicule, opposition, and accusation (Acts 2:13).
The crowd did not understand the miracle. It was a mystery, a puzzle to solve. The unexplained can be disconcerting to people. If they can’t contain something, then they cannot control it. So, they offered explanations—“They’re drunk.”
The attempt by some to offer an implausible explanation was a common way to deal with the unknown or what they considered absurd. When Jesus cast out demons, the Pharisees attributed the work to the power of Satan (Luke 11:18). When Jesus healed a man born blind, again, the religious leaders struggled to explain it and ultimately denied it and banished the evidence (John 9:26-34). When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees again buried the evidence (John 11:53; 12:10-11).
To prevent their embarrassment over their state, the willfully ignorant will work to make you look foolish. They will scoff. The greater their level of resistance to what you advocate, the stronger their response will be. Push, and they will oppose. Threaten them or their territory, and they will attack.
Just as the crowd misinterpreted what sounded like gibberish, people will not understand your changes either. They may attack. Be prepared, and respond gently. If you feel you must defend yourself, do so with a bit of humor.
God’s promises will become clearer (Acts 2:16-21, 25-31).
As part of Peter’s defense, he initially explains why the crowd’s assertion that the speakers were drunk could not be correct. It was too early in the day. Most do not attribute a sense of humor to Peter, but I imagine he said it with a slight smirk.
To promote an accurate understanding of what was occurring, Peter quoted two prophecies. The first, from the book of Joel, gave a biblical context to the day’s events. God had, as promised, poured out His Spirit on His followers.
The second prophecy, found in Psalms, stated that either David would never die or that his body would not decay. Peter explained David’s words were not prophetic about him, but one of his descendants—Jesus Christ.
Peter was familiar with these two prophecies. So was the crowd that stood before him. Just as there are multiple interpretations and theories today about how prophecy will play out, the same was true then. Peter and others had struggled to understand what these once confusing promises of God meant. Now, because the Spirit illuminated it to him, he understood, and he communicated the meaning to his audience.
Any student of the Bible will admit there are portions of the Bible which are difficult to understand. There is help.
For one, time aids us in our understanding of Scripture. Archaeological discoveries and increased understanding of biblical languages give us greater insight. Once a promise of God has come to pass, it is easier to interpret. Peter took advantage of that, especially in David’s prophecy. With Joel’s prophecy, though the promise began to see fulfillment that day, there are still parts that have a future completion.
The second help is the Spirit. Jesus told His first disciples that the Spirit would give them an understanding of what He said (John 16:13) and how to apply it to their current situation (Luke 12:11-12).
The Spirit does the same for us. He is the Author of every word in the Bible (2 Peter 1:21). He wrote the history, poetry, prophecy, and teaching. Rely on Him for your interpretation of God’s Word.
The Spirit will expose sin (Acts 2:37-39).
Peter preached a clear, straightforward message. He named Jesus as the prophecied Messiah. He informed the crowd that Jesus had risen from the dead—not a good message for those who were guilty of His murder. And then, Peter identified Jesus’ killers. He accused the people there at the Temple.
Many times, Jesus confronted people with His identity and their sin. It usually did not end well. Either His disciples walked away, or His enemies picked up stones to kill Him. Hard hearts rarely respond favorably when confronted with their failures. This time, however, repentance resulted from Peter’s message.
Was the success due to Peter? No. The next recorded time Peter preached at the Temple he got arrested. Part of the reason Peter was able to accomplish what Jesus did not was due to purpose.
Jesus’ mission was to die, not to amass a large following. Once Jesus rose from the dead, the focus switched to establishing a strong foundation for the Church.
An equally significant reason for the response on that day was the newly expanded presence of the Spirit. Jesus promised the Spirit would cause people to see their negative spiritual condition (John 16:8). Peter presented the evidence, but the Spirit convinced them of their guilt.
Not every result of the Spirit’s presence is a pleasant one. Sometimes He exposes sin in others. Other times, He reveals sin in us. Conviction is the first and most important step in the salvation process. No one seeks forgiveness if they are blind to their spiritual faults.
People will confess Jesus (Acts 2:41).
Three thousand people expressed faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior that day. They came to Jerusalem expecting this gathering would be much like many they had experienced before. They did not know they would go home forever changed. They came to celebrate the harvest, but because of the Spirit they became the harvest.
The Spirit is every pastor’s greatest Friend. First, He stabs the heart with the realization of the person’s dangerous position before God. But then, He softens that heart toward the truth that can set him free. And finally, He convinces that person of the truth of Jesus’ identity, the authenticity of God’s offer of forgiveness, and his need to respond.
When few people get saved, it does not necessarily indicate that the Spirit is absent. However, people repenting of their sin and taking Jesus Christ as their Savior is concrete evidence that He is present.
Christians will love each other and operate as a team (Acts 2:42-47).
Few Christians read the description of the early church here and in Acts 4 without a slight twinge of envy. What they had is what every church desires—community, effectiveness, and joy. The modern church, especially in the West, is not generally characterized by the descriptors used of the first church.
What can we do to improve the church’s current condition? The initial answer to that question in most situations is to add a new program. That’s often what churches do to fix perceived areas of weakness in the body. It rarely works.
Examining Pentecost and its outcome would suggest a different answer – Let the Holy Spirit take control. That answer may sound simplistic, but it’s actually just simple. What man mutilates through religion, God heals through relationship.
God initiated the Church Age with the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was the conclusion of the beginning—the first installment in a best-selling series. The book of Acts and the Epistles continued the heart-pounding narrative.
God’s story did not end with the completion of the Bible. Each time a repentant sinner acknowledges his need for the Savior, each time a nominal Christian goes ALL-IN for Jesus, and each time a local church responds favorably to the global spiritual drought, God picks up His quill and adds another segment to His tale. The universal audience then gives their full attention because they know God is about to do something grand.
Once again, we know the conclusion—what the Author is driving toward. Jesus will soon return and retrieve the Church. The Spirit who indwells the Church will cease His present role and leave with the Church when she vanishes (2 Thess. 2:6-8). What began on Pentecost will end at the Rapture. Seven years of unparalleled tribulation followed by one thousand years of unprecedented peace will culminate with a New Heaven and New Earth where evil will no longer exist. Even that will be a conclusion of a beginning because God’s story – the greatest ever written – has no end.
You are a character in His-story. Most of your contemporaries will not know of your contribution to the plot. Your name will never become a part of the biblical record. However, God has recorded your name and your service in multiple books (Mal. 3:16; Rev. 20:12). This day, you have an opportunity to keep God’s quill dripping with ink and thereby excite the heavenly hosts. Don’t waste your chance.
Maybe you want predictable. It brings order and peace to your life. But if you want your life to be a God-sized adventure – if you want your record in God’s books to be more than a footnote – then the Spirit requires that you give up control. Yield to God’s Spirit, and hold on. Get ready to take your place in God’s amazing tale!
PART THREE: MY TONGUE ALWAYS GETS ME IN TROUBLE
That is the message my phone delivered to my friends one Monday night. They did not know what to make of it or how to respond. “Chris must be sleeping on his keyboard” was their humorous attempt at an explanation. Ten minutes later, they received a second message.
“@@plmm/@@@mmm/M. ..n ..@@/M.mMMmm………….”
Not surprisingly, no one answered. They ignored these words (if you could call any of those words).
I did not intend to make this exchange. My phone was acting on my behalf without my knowledge. It’s called “butt-dialing.” When I finally had a chance to check my messages, I discovered the nonsensical characters I accidentally sent. After apologizing, I took steps to prevent further miscommunication.
The lack of a clear message being sent or received that day was of no consequence. It did not require any action from my friends. They correctly assumed I was not experiencing a medical emergency and did not need the attention of first responders. The message was unintentional gibberish.
“Unintentional gibberish” is the explanation some offered for what they heard from Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13). To them, the message delivered in foreign languages was unintelligible and as dismiss-able as the message my phone created as I re-positioned in a chair. The spiritual gift of tongues has created controversy from that day to this one.
Only a few biblical records exist of someone speaking in tongues. The first was on the day the Holy Spirit came to indwell the 120 gathered in the upper room (Acts 2:4). Cornelius and those with him who believed Peter’s message shared a similar experience (Acts 10:44-46). The third and final recorded instance was when Paul encountered twelve disciples at Corinth and administered the gift to them (Acts 19:6-7). The temptation to use what happened in these circumstances as the entire understanding of tongues would be unwise.
While we do not have to evaluate experience to receive benefit or enjoyment from it, you must properly interpret it, whether it be yours or someone else’s, if you want to discover the truth it conveys. The truth can be difficult to assess because everyone brings bias to their explanation.
Take, for example, the dessert a customer consumed. The waitress found it unnecessary to ask the patron his level of satisfaction after he ate a thick slice of double fudge chocolate cake. His closed eyes, folded arms, and devilish smile, along with the dab of chocolate on one side of his face, clearly indicated all she needs to know.
Suggesting he might want to examine the nutritional cost of eating the cake would be detrimental. The treat was good for his soul. Knowing what it did to his body would only serve to sour his stomach and diminish her tip. The waitress would be better off just to offer him another piece.
Some people are satisfied with experience. They have no appetite for truth.
Many years ago, I spoke with a friend about what the Bible teaches concerning tongues. I showed her some inspired statements that conflicted with her experience. She concluded our discussion with these words: “I don’t care what the Bible says. I know what I saw!”
Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 separate experience from the teaching of truth. Both passages are significant for an accurate understanding of this gift, but each has its purpose. The first passage is descriptive. It tells what happened at Pentecost but does not include much detail about tongues itself. The Spirit came, people spoke in languages that were foreign to them, and the unusual sound drew a crowd.
The second section and the one people reference less frequently when discussing tongues is 1 Corinthians 14. It is prescriptive. It gives precise directives for how believers should use the gift. Because of these differences between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, Paul’s letter to Corinth is the better choice for determining the proper utilization of tongues.
For our purposes, let’s define tongues this way: the ability the Holy Spirit gives to communicate in a language the speaker has not learned. This is a broad description. We could further limit it, but because the Bible suggests that there may be more than one type of tongues—a human one and a heavenly one (1 Cor. 13:1)—we will use this scope.
Before examining what 1 Corinthians 14 says, we need to understand two facts. Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit (the same Spirit that empowers the spiritual gifts), wrote 1 Corinthians to a confused church with some tumultuous issues. In their pride, the church had perverted the Lord’s Supper, God’s intention for marriage, sexual boundaries, and the gifts of the Spirit. God sent the letter to correct their thinking and practice.
Secondly, what the Spirit teaches in 1 Corinthians 14 deals with the use of tongues in public, particularly in a church service. Verse 26 references “when you come together” (v. 19, 28) “in the church.” Though he mentions the private practice of tongues (1 Cor. 14:2), Paul does not here focus on proper etiquette for tongues-speaking in that environment. With these two foundational thoughts, let’s examine the stipulations the Bible puts on the gift of tongues.
Love Your Audience (1 Cor. 13:1; 14:1)
Regardless of the language used, words alone are weak. They are rarely enough to convey meaning. This is especially true when the other components of communication – tone, and gestures – contradict what emanates from the mouth. The lips say, “Yes,” but the eyes say, “No.”
Most people have heard the following words from a frustrated parent: “It’s not what you said, but how you said it!” The way a message is delivered impacts the perception of that message. Correcting the message’s tone at Corinth was part of Paul’s mission for this epistle.
1 Corinthians 14 is the final segment of a major section on spiritual gifts. The main thrust of this chapter is the supremacy of prophecy over tongues. Two chapters earlier, Paul lists many of the gifts, warns of their dangers, and explains their purpose. Sandwiched between the two chapters is Paul’s well-known affirmation of love.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Those are the words Paul uses to begin chapter 13. He continues this theme regarding the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, faith, mercy, and generosity. Paul’s message is clear. Love is the only motivation God accepts. Without it, all our efforts are vain, powerless, and futile.
This treatise on love continues with Paul listing some of love’s characteristics. Love is patient, kind, and selfless, but envy, boasting, and pride evidence a lack of love. Sadly, these latter issues saturated the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:26-31; 12:21-22). How the people manifested their spiritual gifts gave the greatest evidence of their failure.
Instead of unifying the Church and convincing them of their need for each other, the gifts contributed to the church’s disintegration into factions (1 Cor. 1:12-13). Other than the gift of prophecy, tongues was the only gift Paul mentioned in chapter 12, 13, and 14. Paul devoted a lengthy section to his efforts to reign in tongues-speaking. Using this gift improperly was a major cause for the church’s struggles. It was hindering their relationships.
God desires intimate relationships—His with us and ours with each other (Matt. 22:36-40). God sent His Son as the Word, His ultimate message (John 1:1), to mankind because He wanted to restore what Adam had lost. Jesus’ tone in His delivery varied according to the audience and the need. One thing, though, consistently characterized His message. He always delivered it with love.
God’s people do not always follow Jesus’ example, and the church at Corinth was a prime example. Their individual gifting prompted a superior attitude. They did not love each other or the people whom God called them to reach.
The Church’s primary mission is to convey God’s message to His creation. He wants a relationship with them. He uses us to help build that bridge.
There’s a problem. God’s message has an unpleasant starting point. It tells man’s sinful state and God’s impending judgment. This is where Peter began his message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-23). That negative beginning—the pit you dig with God’s righteous anger—provides a prime opportunity to pour in God’s unfathomable love. The resulting hole then becomes a foundation for grace instead of a place to bury a soul.
There is a part of you that seeks a just world. It moves you, as God’s messenger, to behave in a manner like Jonah’s. Go in, announce the enemy’s doom, and then climb a hill from which you can enjoy eating popcorn until God’s wrath rains down. It makes your job simpler when you resist feelings of compassion for those who will soon experience God’s punishment.
Instead, follow Jeremiah’s example. He too delivered a harsh message of judgment, but he did so with a broken heart. One prophet loved the people who heard his words; the other did not. Of which kind are you?
Strengthen The Church (1 Cor. 14:2-6)
After emphasizing love as the proper way to express any of the spiritual gifts, Paul narrows his discussion to two of them—prophecy and tongues. Immediately, Paul asserts that the gift of prophecy is more desirable than the gift of tongues. That may, at first, seem self-evident.
Most people understand prophecy as the ability to tell the future. Tongues, as we’ve said, empowers you to speak a language you have not studied. Which would you rather do? Which would garner more attention? Many people speak multiple languages, but no one can predict the future on their own.
Prophecy, though, was not primarily used to foretell what was on the horizon. Its purpose was to forcefully communicate to a predominantly resistant audience a message they probably already knew. This was true of the Old Testament prophets, and it was also the case in the New Testament church.
The prophet communicated vital information, information that would determine someone’s eternal destiny. Part of the prophet’s job was to receive a message from God, but he felt no satisfaction until he had delivered it. Often, the words he spoke made him unpopular, and he faced the powerful temptation to be silent (Jonah, Jeremiah). When he resisted that urge and submitted to God’s call on his life, he benefited God’s people.
Prophecy always requires a recipient beyond the prophet for there to be gain. However, a human audience is not necessary for tongues to have value. Since tongues-speaking can manifest as a private spiritual experience, the speaker could be the sole beneficiary of an event that only he and God witness (v. 2). Without an interpreter, tongues has a severely limited impact. The church gains nothing.
Now, there is nothing unethical about personally benefiting from using your spiritual gift. Any Christian will testify that he receives joy when he uses what God has given. One sure way to receive a blessing is to be a blessing (Acts 20:35). That is a by-product, though, not a motivation. God didn’t give any of the spiritual gifts solely for personal benefit. He designed all of them for the good of the Church, not the good of the individual.
Though the gift of tongues can be used in a self-serving way, God would not have given it if it was evil. Neither would Paul have expressed his desire for all Christians to experience it (v. 5). The gift of tongues is good. Prophecy, however, is better. Since the clear words of the prophet require no interpreter, his message has greater potential for an immediate response from the group.
The church’s health was always the predominant thought in Paul’s mind (Phil. 1:22-24; 2 Cor. 4:5, 15). The same must be said of us.
Facilitate Clear Communication (1 Cor. 14:7-20)
Well before radio, telephones, and electronics, people could communicate over long distances. They used reflective surfaces, smoke signals, and flashing lights to deliver messages through sight. Drums, horns, and other musical instruments gave instructions using sound. An imprecise message would result in confusion leading possibly to one side’s territory being overrun by the other. Only accuracy in the delivery and interpretation of the message could result in an appropriate response.
Today, technology has advanced enough to enable the global, instantaneous transmission of words as our primary means of communication. Though smoke still signals a vital message, and Morse Code is something we might use in an emergency, we do not rely on these any longer for everyday communication. It is a good thing. Using these methods to deliver a message requires precision and skill, and we have gotten lazy.
Talking is easy. One-year-olds can do it. Speaking to be understood is difficult. Speaking to motivate change is tougher still. Perhaps, we have succumbed to Jonah’s flaw. Understanding and directed action from our listeners is no longer the goal.
We are too easily satisfied. Hearing ourselves speak somehow has become enough. “I got that off my chest. I feel better now.” Paul calls that, “speaking into the air” (v. 9). You may be speaking, but is anyone listening? More importantly, are your words changing minds and leading people to act?
If you want to promote understanding and action, you must choose your words wisely. Words have meaning. The message you intend to convey and the interpretation the receiver attaches to your words could be vastly different. Something often happens in the transmission of words between source and recipient, resulting in a lost or garbled message. That usually comes from a lack of precision in communication.
Vague words leave interpretation up to the recipient. In poetry, the author sometimes intends for his words to mean different things to various people according to their unique situations. That practice may be acceptable in some genres, but it will not work regarding God’s revelation. God desires the correct response, not just any response. He wants us unified in our pursuit of Him (v. 16).
The use of tongues at Pentecost triggered a mixed reaction. Some expressed amazement. Hearing languages unfamiliar to them prompted confusion and ridicule from others. The words, though clear to those familiar with the speaker’s dialect, were not understandable by all. The crowd did not know what to do.
However, no person there had any difficulty interpreting the prophecy Peter offered: “Jesus is the Messiah, and you murdered Him” (Acts 2:36). The words convicted them, and they asked, “What can we do?” Peter’s direct answer was “Repent” (Acts 2:38). Clear communication gave them the option of choosing Jesus. Those in the group who refused to embrace the message rejected it due to their rebellious hearts, rather than a lack of comprehension.
Making noise is simple. Fireworks do that well. They will draw a crowd. The sight and sound might even prompt some amazement. Most will enjoy the show. But at the evening’s conclusion, the group will go home unchanged (1 Cor. 13:1).
What is your goal? To make a loud, indistinct noise and get people’s attention or to communicate a clear message prompting people to respond? Having your goal in mind will guide the means of communication you choose to use (v. 19).
Consider the Unbeliever (1 Cor. 14:21-25)
When people who did not grow up in church and have no relationship with Jesus walk into your church service, see what you do, and listen to your conversation, what is their reaction? Is it a foreign language to them? Are they drawn in or repulsed by what they experience? This leads us to a larger question. Who did God design the church to serve—saved people or unsaved people?
How you answer that question depends heavily on your spiritual background. If your experience includes time in a seeker-sensitive church and you agree with their model, then to you, the church is for the lost. That belief affects what happens when the church comes together—how they set up the nursery, what amenities greet guests in the foyer, the style of music, the pastor’s clothing, and the content of his message.
Rather than allowing lost people and marketing trends to determine our direction, as followers of Jesus, we must rely on the Bible. According to Ephesians 4:11-12, God put people in positions of spiritual leadership to perfect the saints. The church meeting is just that—the church meeting. The focus during that time should be the preparation of Christians to accomplish their mission.
Should the Church evangelize? Yes. Jesus laid that out as part of our mission (Matt. 28:19-20). However, we must not confuse the church’s mission with the church’s meeting. We gather to grow, re-energize, celebrate, encourage, worship and connect with God. Jesus instructed us to evangelize as we go when we leave the meeting.
Should we, when shaping the meeting, keep in mind the possibility that people with no understanding of Jesus may be there? YES! The spiritual maturity of the audience should not determine the message content, but it should affect how it is delivered and maybe even how long it is.
Paul was not opposed to lengthy messages. He preached a few (Acts 20:9). He was opposed to any message that was incoherent – short or long – or any message that served to distance the lost or give a bad name to Christians.
The people in this church liked to hear themselves talk without consideration of whether the message was getting through or how the audience was receiving it. From the people’s perspective, the more words, the better. That’s a sign of immaturity (v. 20). To them, the audience’s response was the audience’s problem, not the speaker’s. While that is true to a certain extent, the speaker should at the minimum care how his audience is responding.
Speaking in tongues is effective at getting people’s attention, but it is powerless to change their direction. It needs an explanation for that. By itself, it is an ineffective tool for evangelism or church edification (v. 21). If tongues was enough, Peter would not have needed to give a prophetic message on Pentecost.
Paul’s concern was that though a message might be good, the delivery method could obscure it and even drive people away. The message is more important than the delivery method or the messenger. Also, the probable response of the recipient deserves greater consideration than the speaker’s comfort, enjoyment, spiritual experience, or desire.
We dare not change the content of our message for fear that it will offend and cause people to reject it. Nor should the possibility that others will think us weird because of what we say cause us to shy away from any biblical subject, especially the Gospel. However, the same hesitancy does not apply to our method of delivery. If others think us crazy, and if they choose to walk away, let it be because of what we say not how we say it.
Give Proper Respect (1 Cor. 14:26-33)
Paul ends this section with an overriding principle that, at first, might not appear to fit with the rest of the chapter’s content. He states that God is orderly (v. 33). Of all God’s characteristics, this one seems insignificant in comparison to some of the others. Love, holiness, truth, omnipotence—surely these are the traits to consider. But Paul highlights God’s orderliness.
You might ask what that reality has to do with the gifts of tongues or prophecy. Here’s the answer. Since God created an orderly universe, He expects His followers, especially within the church service, to operate in an orderly fashion.
Order does not necessarily mean that happenings follow in a prescribed sequence. In this case, order means that someone is in charge—someone is controlling both what is being communicated and how. That someone is God’s Spirit. Rather than being controlled by human reason, the church service should be Spirit-led.
Spirit-led does not excuse a lack of planning or laziness. It does not mean haphazard or even spontaneous. Following the Spirit’s prompting in a worship pastor’s planning meeting is just as spiritual as altering the plan from the pulpit. God’s creativity and His order are not mutually exclusive.
The church is not a legal proceeding where you might expect to hear “order in the court!” However, of all places, the church should reflect God’s character. Because God is organized, the public gathering of His church must be too. That structure should be represented in more than just a piece of paper that tells when the Sunday morning events happen. Order is important to God, but often, it is not important to His people.
My son asked me why I care if his room is a mess. He reasoned that if he lived in it, and the smell did not bother him, he should be allowed to keep it however he wanted. He questioned why he should restore his bed to a showroom tidiness if he was just going to sleep in it again in a few hours. Sound familiar?
Instead of using the valid arguments of ownership (“Your room is in my house…”) and authority (“Because I said so…”), I took the more spiritual route. I said, “God created you in His image. You are to reflect God to everyone you meet. That includes your character, your actions, and your possessions. Does your chaotic room declare God’s glory?” I waited for a response.
Did my reasoning work? No. However, it had nothing to do with my logic. My argument was sound; cleanliness truly is godly. There was a deeper issue that prevented him from accepting my conclusion. Like most of us, he did not want others telling him what to do.
We demand independence even if how we express ourselves in the church service conflicts with what God has already said in His Word.
In this section of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addresses a flagrant lack of order characterizing the church meetings. People came to the church because they had something to share with the group, not because they wanted to hear from God. If someone took too long to finish their “word of encouragement,” the next person would interrupt.
Multiple speakers, some using foreign languages, might be addressing the group at the same time, each upping his volume to make sure he got heard above the competition. They were not going to let anyone prevent them from getting their voice heard. Too many preachers occupied the room with no one left to respond. The church became a place for people to project whatever they wanted to say regardless of who was listening. There was no respect—not for each other, not for people’s time schedules, or for the message that God wanted to deliver. It was a mess, and it stunk, perhaps even more so than my son’s room.
To remedy the situation, Paul laid out some rules of order for individual church meetings. One, a maximum of three people could speak using the gifts of tongues or prophecy (v. 27, 29). Two, if there was no interpreter for tongues, the speaker had to keep silent (v. 28). Three, each person had to wait his turn to speak (v. 30-31). By giving these stipulations, Paul hoped to end the chaos and restore respect.
The temptation then and now is to lay the fault at the feet of the Spirit when people fail to follow these procedures. “I couldn’t help myself. The Spirit took control, and I had to speak.” Don’t fool yourself. Demons may take control, but the Holy Spirit always gives Christians the option of delaying or refusing His prompting (v. 32; Eph. 5:18).
Ask yourself this question: Are you speaking to benefit God and His church, or yourself? God designed the message to be for His glory and the people’s growth (v. 26). If you serve God, you must act according to His commands.
The Spirit will never direct you to behave in a manner that conflicts with the Bible. He inspired the biblical record. Why would He tell you something that disagrees with what He already said? That would be inconsistent. It would lead to confusion (v. 33), and He is a God of order.
These imperatives applied to the church at Corinth in the first century. They apply equally to your church today. God’s requirements do not change regardless of time, location, desire, or social acceptability.
Accept Your Boundaries (1 Cor. 14:34-40)
These are not popular verses for people to read, pastors to preach, or writers to expound. It would be easy to bypass them by saying that Paul was only dealing with something specific to Corinth or that fit the contemporary culture but no longer applies to Christianity. Thinking that way is dangerous. It permits flawed humans to dismiss whatever they feel does not apply to them and their circumstance. The Bible then becomes a smorgasbord instead of a family meal—you take what appeals to you rather than ingesting everything the cook serves.
Paul was dealing with situations present in the church at Corinth. That is why he wrote the book. We know that Paul authored at least one other letter to Corinth that did not survive to become part of the Bible (1 Cor. 5:9). The reason God protected this epistle and made sure 1 Corinthians got included in the canon is that the issues this group faced were not unique to their church or their time.
When we come to sticky teachings like this, it is helpful to remind ourselves of two things. The first is an all-encompassing statement found in 2 Timothy 3:16—“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” Though Paul penned the words recorded in 1 Corinthians, God breathed them. Any question you have about the legitimacy of what is recorded here should be directed toward God, not Paul (v. 37).
Secondly, context is the most crucial factor to consider for the proper interpretation of anything, biblical or otherwise. This chapter deals with what happens inside the gatherings of the church along with the role prophecy and tongues have at those times. With that in mind, these verses do not teach that women are to be silent once they enter the meeting. Instead, women are not to use the gifts of tongues or prophecy when the church gathers for worship.
For some, limiting the use of tongues according to gender, place, and circumstance is difficult. For others, admitting and permitting the use of tongues as a legitimate means for God to communicate with His church today is just as troublesome (v. 39). Both take humble submission to the parameters set by God.
This teaching may still not sit well with you, regardless of your gender. You may ask, “Why should a person’s anatomy impact the way God uses them?” Answer me this: Who has the right to determine who God uses and how He works in their lives? The answer is obvious.
What might not be so clear is why we bring this up on a website devoted to prophecy, End Times, and discipleship. First, the issue of tongues has been divisive in the Church. We need more than ever to be united against a common foe. Peter indicated that the events of Pentecost, including the gift of tongues, were at least a partial fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy about the last days (Acts 2:16-18). The coming of the Spirit, signified by the gift of tongues, began the Church Age. The Rapture will end the Church Age and conclude the Spirit’s current way of working (2 Thess. 2:7). Finally, if we can’t properly interpret and obey what is clear (Paul’s teaching on tongues), how dare we attempt to understand and teach prophecy, which is often obscure?
I speak one language—American English with a southern twang. Attempting to communicate in Spanish, Vietnamese, or German would only serve to get me in trouble. The English words I use, including some of the ones I’ve written here, create enough headaches as it is! Desiring to be multilingual is like wishing you had another hand when the tasks you are attempting are too much for the two you have. Can you imagine how difficult life would be if you had more than two hands, arms, or legs?
The only reason legitimate enough to warrant speaking in tongues is communication with someone who does not currently understand your language or doesn’t understand it well enough for you to reach their heart. And what would be so important a message that God would empower you to speak it in their language? Only the wonderful works of God found in the Gospel (Acts 2:11).
If you have someone who speaks a language different from your own, and your heart is burdened to reach them with the Gospel, you have two options. You could pray for God’s Spirit to miraculously give you the ability to speak in that person’s native language. Or, you could order language software, and do the work necessary to build a bridge of communication between you and that other person. God is under no obligation to miraculously give you what you can gain through hard work and dedication.
Whatever language you use, your mother tongue, one you learned, or one the Spirit gifts you with, deliver your message using the principles Paul laid out here in 1 Corinthians. Love your audience. Strengthen the church. Facilitate clear communication. Consider the unbeliever. Give proper respect. Accept your boundaries. Only by considering the message to be more important than the messenger or the method of its delivery will people respond to the message by giving glory to God and seeing their eternity wondrously changed (vv. 24-25).
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