(A) Introduction - problems and difficulties. (Read the passage.)
There is a lot of disagreement amongst genuine Christians about the work of the Holy Spirit. There is much less controversy over the saving work of Jesus or the providential and gracious care of God the Father. So it is likely that believers will differ about the significance of Pentecost.
Some consider that it was a one-off experience to mark the beginning of the church age. Others believe that it is an experience that has been repeated, but only infrequently, and at special times in church history such as during revival. Finally the charismatics teach that a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit is something all Christians should long for and receive.
I think most Christians would have to admit that what happened at Pentecost has not happened to many of Christ's followers through the centuries. Very few of us have heard a sound like the blowing of a violent wind or seen what seemed to be tongues of fire come to rest on our fellow believers. Few have spoken in foreign languages that they have never been taught. Perhaps, it is for this very reason that Pentecost is not celebrated in the same way as Christmas and Easter.
I find strange the huge contrast between the success of Jesus as a teacher with only 120 convinced followers and the almost immediate success of Peter empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to preach a sermon that led to 3000 converts. If a Pentecostal blessing produces such spectacular effects and dramatic church growth why doesn't it happen more often?
I hope to get clearer about the work of the Holy Spirit by looking at the two symbols - the wind and fire. I believe these have important lessons for us.
(B) Lessons from the wind.
The Greek and Hebrew words for wind and spirit are identical. Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the wind in John3v8: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (See exposition on John3v1to12.) We can draw four lessons from this:
There was something mysterious about the wind in the days of Jesus. No-one knew where it came from or where it went. There are still aspects of the wind that are difficult to explain such as why it assumes a wavelike motion in the upper atmosphere. That wavelike motion has a considerable bearing on wind direction and strength at the ground. Although the wind is mysterious it is very obvious when it is blowing. Everybody can hear the wind and see what it does.
The operation of the Holy Spirit is beyond our understanding but that does not stop us feeling its affect in our lives or seeing what it does to others. The words used of the Holy Spirit's operation like 'filled' and 'baptised' suggest it has a very significant influence on the lives with which it interacts.
(b) One of the effects of the Holy Spirit is to enhance or magnify aspects of our spirits. It is almost as if the Holy Spirit resonates with our spirit.
The wind as it blows over the sea produces waves. The height of those waves does not only depend upon the strength of the wind but the size of the sea.
We are fortunate to have in our church a very cheerful man called Peter. If he is with other fairly cheerful spirits he will greatly enhance or magnify their cheerfulness. If he is in the company of a lot of old miseries and moaning Minnies then even his cheery spirit is quenched.
I think a man with an extremely generous spirit will encourage others to give unless avarice has them in its grasp.
So God's spirit will resonate with a man's poverty of spirit to bring him under conviction of sin and to the Saviour for forgiveness and redemption. Similarly the Holy Spirit can magnify the gratitude and thankfulness of believers so that they are overwhelmed with joy and caught up, as it were, to the seventh heaven. There has to be something there in a man or women for the spirit to resonate with. The wind cannot create waves in a puddle.
(c) The wind is variable in strength. I believe that the influence of the Holy Spirit is also highly variable.
In John20v22 we read: Again Jesus said, (to his disciples) "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Nothing is recorded as happening to the disciples when Jesus breathed upon them. It was a gentle breath. It reminds us how Jesus, himself, received the Spirit at his baptism. It descended upon him like a dove.
At Pentecost the Spirit did not come as a gentle breath or a dove but in great strength - roaring like a violent wind. It had an instantaneous and dramatic effect upon the 120 who experienced it. They were excited, ecstatic, spoke foreign languages of many sorts and Peter preached with such assurance and power that 3000 were converted.
It is not easy to explain why the operation of the Holy Spirit is so variable. First of all it has something to do with need. My conversion experience was very quiet. I gradually came to see that I should follow the Lord Jesus Christ. As my understanding grew so too did my faith and my will hardened behind the decision to serve Jesus. It was not apparent to me when I first became a Christian. I never felt different from one day to the next. The Holy Spirit certainly never influenced me like it did the Philippian jailer. But then I had every advantage. I was brought up by parents who were devoted to Jesus. My grandparents were keen Christians. The chapel I attended had a big influence in the little village in which I lived. All my boyhood friends attended Sunday school. I did not need a dramatic work of the Holy Spirit - just a gentle breath.
The circumstances of a man who gave his testimony one Sunday evening on Songs of Praise could hardly have been more different. He was not raised in a Christian home. His friends were not Christians. He got in with a group of football hooligans whose main aim in life was to engage in 'aggro' before, during and after England matches. His knowledge of Jesus was minimal. So when his mates knocked a rival fan over before a football match between Sweden and England, started to put the boot in and he suddenly despaired of his way of life and cried out, "Jesus please change me," something dramatic did happen. The Holy Spirit knocked him off his feet, put him into the foetal position and overwhelmed his emotions with the warm assurance that God loved him. He needed an experience like this to save him because he had none of the advantages of my upbringing.
The other reason I think the activity of the Holy Spirit is variable is linked with the task God wants a man or a woman to do. The early disciples were pioneers. Their task was to establish the church. It was a difficult task. They did not possess the New Testament. There was no history of the church. Christian literature did not exist. The church was not organised. They were starting from scratch and needed a lot of help. So the Spirit fell on them like a mighty roaring wind.
I think it is true that the Spirit is still experienced as a gentle breath or as a violent storm depending upon need and the work that has to be done.
(d) Jesus said: "The wind blows where it pleases." John3v8. The Holy Spirit is free but not capricious. The Holy Spirit makes intelligent choices and decisions. The wind would not blow over a puddle to make big waves or at a child's windmill to generate electricity!
The Spirit is not going to work where there is nothing in a man's spirit to work with and magnify. The football hooligan who was struck down and overwhelmed had despaired of himself, acknowledged his helplessness and opened his heart to Jesus before the dramatic intervention of God's Spirit.
Two groups were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The 120 were desperately keen to obey Jesus. They were joyful that he had risen. They were waiting expectantly for the Spirit to empower them for the work Jesus had given them to do. The Holy Spirit came and enhanced their assurance of sins forgiven, magnified their joy and increased their confidence in the worth of their message.
There was also in the city at this time thousands of God-fearing Jews from every nation. They had journeyed to the temple for the Passover and had stopped on for the feast of Pentecost. Many of them were anxious to please God. Possibly, they had heard something of Jesus - his death and rumours of his resurrection. Maybe, they were wondering whether a grave injustice had been done. Certainly they had a hunger for spiritual things and longed to be right with God. They were available to the Holy Spirit. He was able to interact with their spirits and bring them into the kingdom. It is when the fields are white unto harvest that the Spirit is active in revival power. There is rarely a Pentecostal outpouring when the seed is scarcely sprouting in the rows.
(C) Lessons from the fire.
John the Baptist said of Jesus: "He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Mt3v11. Fire has two very important affects:
When we are worried about the state of a room we might turn on the light to examine it more carefully. When a man begins to worry about the state of his soul the Holy Spirit can reveal his true condition and bring him under conviction of sin. Before the Philippian jailer cried out, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts16v30) several processes had been at work - Paul and Silas singing in prison, an earthquake, Paul's intervention that kept him from suicide. All of these forced the jailer to examine his life. The Holy Spirit would have greatly assisted the process and drew from him the saving cry for help.
The Holy Spirit illuminates the mind of the believer. One of the great differences between a Christian and an unbeliever is that the Christian has an interest in, and an understanding of, the things of God. Before a man is converted he probably has no real interest in the Bible but after conversion he is vitally concerned with what it has to say to him. This change can be dramatic and sudden and is the work of God's Spirit. A disciple of Jesus is subsequently helped by the Spirit to see the significance of Christ's saving work, teaching and example.
I expect Peter had been thinking on the days leading up to Pentecost about how he could witness for his Master. The Holy Spirit would have guided his thoughts. On the great occasion when he received the Spirit in abundance the message he had to deliver suddenly became so clear that he uttered it with incredible fluency, confidence and power. It would be wrong to think that the message was just given to Peter in its entirety. The Spirit assisted Peter and brought to completion the results of his meditations.
This at any rate is my experience. I read thoroughly and think hard about all the talks I prepare. However, I am sure that the Holy Spirit assists me at the end of the process. One minute I am not sure how to proceed, what approach to take - the next it is all clear. Paul deals wonderfully well with this subject in 1Cor2v10to16. It is something to have the mind of Christ!
The attractiveness of an object can be enhanced by illuminating it. I sometimes travel past Melford Church when it is all lit up and looking very impressive against the black night sky.
My mother could be extremely vivacious - when her personality lit up her eyes sparkled like blue sapphires. She wasn't often like this! It depended upon the company she kept. There were kindred spirits that lit her up - like the Rev George Bird the genial and highly popular late pastor of Bethesda, Ipswich. My mother was incredibly attractive when set on fire by her friends and admirers.
The Holy Spirit enhances are better qualities and makes us more attractive to others. The 120 believers on the day of Pentecost drew and held a crowd. Subsequently we read of the church: They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts2v46and47. The early believers were helped by the Spirit to be very attractive to others.
We all know that bulbs vary in their capacity to shine. I use 30-watt bulbs and 150-watt bulbs in my house. It is as well to remember that the same power illuminates them all - it is just their capacity to shine that is different. So it is with Christians. We are not all going to shine with equal brightness. My wattage is on the low side!
(b)It warms up.
The fire warms in two senses. First of all it warms our hearts because it is both exciting and cheerful. I love to stand by a bonfire on a gloomy afternoon or at dusk in the summer. It raises my spirits.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a dramatic and exciting event and it warmed the hearts of the disciples. They were so uninhibited, carefree and exuberant that some in the crowd accused them of drunken behaviour. Well drink gives men Dutch courage but the Spirit makes men and women genuinely bold.
God's spirit fell in such abundance at Pentecost that the disciples of Jesus were stirred up to speak in foreign languages. I think on other occasions the extreme excitement and emotion of a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit produced an ecstatic speech in no known language. This sometimes still happens today - but it has never happened to me.
Secondly the fire is physically warming and comforting. The warmth of a good fire is reassuring. The Holy Spirit can make us very aware, almost physically aware, of the love of God. It can produce intense pleasure, a glow of well-being and a deeply loving response.
The human spirit can of course produce the very same reactions. Lunchtime I was sitting in the staff room when one of the school secretaries looked in. She said, "Mr Reed, Chloe is outside and would like to see you." Chloe had left a few years previously. I went to find her. "Oh, Mr Reed," she said, "I had to see you and I must give you a hug." Later, at registration, one of my form said, "Mr Reed, why are you so happy?"
The Holy Spirit can make us happy by taking our emotions, as it were, and giving them a hug - conveying something of the love of God. Paul says that Christians receive the Spirit as down payment on the bliss to come, a sort of preliminary experience of heaven: He (God) anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2Corv21and22.
This is what the football hooligan experienced when he was flung off his feet and infused with such a sense of warmth and well-being. It is what John Wesley experienced when his heart was strangely warmed.
I must admit that, along with many other Christians, I have never received a down payment like this. I would like it. I have asked for it because I would very much like a taste of heaven. It is wonderful to feel loved. Unfortunately God is not necessarily going to give us what we would like but only what we need. The Holy Spirit does not have to interact with my emotions to convince me that God loves me. I am sure of that. God will give the Holy Spirit to those that ask him but only in ways that they need. Some need a great roaring fire in the grate for comfort others can make do with the single bar of an electric heater.
The fire and the wind pose dangers. They are not like the dove. There is a wild and fearful aspect to both. It reminds us that intense religious excitement is not without its dangers. The church at Corinth, wonderful blessed by the Holy Spirit, was undisciplined and out of control. That is why, perhaps, Pentecostal outpourings of the Spirit with mighty roaring winds and tongues of fire ar a rare occurence.
We also need to remember that the three thousand were not converted by the miraculous tongues of fire, or by the sound of a violent storm, or by the excited and confused hubbub of many voices but by Peter's sermon. We read: When the people heard this (Peter's words) they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brother's what shall we do?" 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." v37and38.
The Holy Spirit convinced them of sin, opened their eyes to the saving and redeeming work of Jesus and as they surrendered to his authority gave them new life in him - a hunger to learn more of him, to meet with other Christians day by day and a desire to serve their risen Lord. Nevertheless the Holy Spirit did not save them. Jesus saves.