Celebrating Pentecost Sunday provides the occasion for Christians to recognize God’s Holy Spirit at work in the life of the church and in the lives of individuals. What is this day? Where does it originate? The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word pentecoste, which means fiftieth; and on the Christian calendar, Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Christ’s resurrection. The Jewish festival of Pentecost is also called Shavu’ot, or “weeks,” because it follows Passover by seven complete weeks.
The Christian traditions surrounding Pentecost originate in Acts 2, where the gathered disciples experience the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit. The account speaks of a sound “like the howling of a fierce wind” and something like “individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them” (verses 2-3, CEB). The disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak” (verse 4, CEB). In fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8, the disciples received power from the Holy Spirit to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. The Christian world views this empowerment as the birth of the church.
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity
The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Nicene Creed explains the Trinity in this way: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in essence but three in “person” or “individual reality.” Think of a chord on a piano: There are three notes but one sound that is richer than each individual note. In the same creed, we learn that the Son is “begotten” of the Father and the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. When we think of God this way, we affirm that God’s dynamic nature is directed toward our well-being. Through the three Persons of the Trinity, we recognize that God creates, saves, and empowers all of God’s creation.
The Spirit in the Bible
Both the Old and New Testaments offer insights into the working of God’s Spirit. The Hebrew and Greek words for “Spirit” are ruakh and pneuma, both of which can also mean “breath,” “wind,” or “air.” The words are associated with a wide range of realities in the Bible: divine energy and presence, the human core or essence, the beginning and ending of life, and demonic and angelic beings. They frequently describe the divine energy that resides in all living and breathing human beings.
The Old Testament offers insights into the creating and empowering presence of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is the source of life (Genesis 1:2; Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30). The Spirit is a teacher (Nehemiah 9:20; Job32:8; Psalm 143:10). The Spirit is God’s presence (Psalm 51:11; 139:7; Haggai 2:4-5). The Spirit interrelates with the people of Israel (Nehemiah 9:20, 30; Psalm 106:32-33; Isaiah 63:10-14; Zechariah 7:11-12). The Spirit empowers people, including artisans who work on the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:3; 35:30–36:1; 1 Chronicles 28:12). The Spirit empowers leaders such as the 70 elders, Joshua, and King Saul (Numbers 11:17, 25-29; 27:18; 1 Samuel 10:6-7, 10; 11:6; 19:18-24). The Spirit gives power to the judges of Israel (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29;13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). The Spirit empowers prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 18:12), Elisha (2 Kings 2:9, 13-15), Isaiah (Isaiah 48:16-17), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1-3), and Micah (Micah 2:6-7) to communicate for God.
The New Testament understandings of the Spirit are consistent with those in the Old Testament. The Gospels tell us that the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34), accompanies him into the wilderness during a time of testing (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), and empowers his ministry of teaching and healing (Luke 4:14-19). Throughout the remaining books of the New Testament, the Spirit is God’s presence and power in the lives of believers.
A powerful and personal way to think about the Spirit is to think about spiritual fruit and gifts. The New Testament teaches about the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-26, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, which are qualities that the Spirit gives to us and matures in us. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists several gifts of the Spirit. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes that inverse 10 of the same chapter, Paul mentions the “discernment of spirits” (or “the ability to tell spirits apart to another,” CEB) as a spiritual gift. The problem at the church in Corinth was that certain persons had the spiritual gift of glossolalia, or “tongues,” but these people boasted in this ability. In 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul explains that there are many spiritual gifts, including tongues, but he does not want the Corinthians to be elitist and status-conscious about such gifts. Instead, he stresses the Spirit’s freedom to give spiritual gifts, which in turn are given not for the status of a few but for the benefit and support of the whole community. For instance, in the famous 1 Corinthians 13, love is the greatest spiritual gift of all.
Some Christians who consider themselves “Pentecostal” or “charismatic” believe that the experience of the disciples in Acts 2 is normative for all Christians. They believe that although we receive the Spirit when we believe in Christ, if we really want to have the power for Christian service, we must seek out a “second work of grace,” which is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Other Christians, however, understand the first Pentecost as a non-repeatable event, just like the Resurrection and Ascension. Thus, Pentecost has a permanent effect on believers. They believe the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit are in our lives in many ways, so a second work of grace is not necessary.
The Holy Spirit and Christian Life
As Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit, we grow in a desire to serve God through service and mission. That means focusing not only on spiritual growth but also works of justice and peace and service to the poor, imprisoned, and suffering. When we witness or participate in such acts, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit is at work.
The joy of the spiritual life is constantly learning about God’s grace and God’s care. John Wesley’s emphasis on God’s grace illustrates his understanding of the work of God’s Spirit throughout our lives. Prevenient grace is with us from birth and works us toward justifying grace when we are converted to the faith. With salvation comes our growth in sanctification (holiness), wherein God perfects us. Wesley believed we must continue in grace in order to enter into the kingdom of God. In all these aspects of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit works in our heart, emotions, mind, and will, helping us grow and transform. By “perfection,” Wesley does not mean we never make mistakes or that we are never weak. He means it as a growth of love for God and one another and a removal of our desire to sin. Such growth, as individual Christians and as communities of faith, illustrates the dynamic and vital presence of God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit is both the daily presence of God and the way by which we grow as Christians. Pentecost Sunday is an excellent time to celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit within us and within our churches.
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