“Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church”
If I hear another reference to Pentecost as the “birthday of the church”, I think that I will scream. This is certainly what I was taught, in fact, I had a professor in Christian College who had the birth of the church narrowed down to exactly 9 am on Thursday morning the 7th day of the Jewish month of Sivan in AD 33 – 50 days after Easter! He based this on Acts 2:1 & 15. And I’m not inclined to quarrel with his calculations. I have no reason to question my teacher’s math. I’m reasonably persuaded that something did happen in Jerusalem at 9 am in Jerusalem on Sivan 7 according to the witness of Scripture, it’s just that I’m not at all convinced that what happened that day was the birth of the church!
My skepticism is rooted in what Luke tells us at the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost and the faithful response of the people who heard the preaching and were cut to the heart. “So those who accepted his message were baptized and that day about 3,000 people were added to them” (Acts 2:41). My question is: “Added to what?” Clearly something existed before the events that unfolded at 9 am in Jerusalem on the 7th of Sivan to which the 3,000 were then added. So, what was that something?
In Acts 2:1 we’re told that “when the day of Pentecost had arrived they were all together in one place.” It was to this “they” that the 3,000 were added, so just exactly who were “they”? Well, in Acts chapter 1 the “they” were clearly identified as the “120” (Acts 1:16). This seems to be the full extent of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem after His death, burial and resurrection (Acts 1:12-14). And what were “they”? Well, one way to answer this question is to ask another question: “What did they have?” And I’m pretty confident in saying that they had a number of things. They had the Scriptures – which would have been the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-48). They had the Gospel – what I Corinthians 15:1-3 defines as the message of Christ dying for our sins, being buried and being raised on the third day. They had the Gospel ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper – Luke 24:30-32 reads to me like the very first communion service after its institution in Luke 22:14-23. They had a Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) and even a special empowering by the Holy Spirit to carry it out (John 20:19-23). They had the practice of the spiritual disciplines (Acts 1:14).
It’s said that if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then odds are pretty good that it is a duck! So let me go out on a limb here and say that the 120 in Acts 1:15 walk like a church and quack like a church, and so they might very well be a church! In fact, by the standard Reformation definition that the church is where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are observed, the church clearly existed as the 120 before the 3000 were added to it on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. And while I’m not prepared to die on this battlefield, I do believe that it matters. You see, by constantly promoting Pentecost as “the birthday of the church,” I fear that we might actually be “burying the lead,” or worse, perpetrating a misdirection.
In a previous church I served, the only bathrooms in the whole building were right behind the chancel in the sanctuary. Without fail, every Sunday morning, just about five minutes into my sermon, the same little boy would get up from his pew way in the back of the Sanctuary, slowly stroll down the length of the center aisle passing beneath the pulpit with his hand outstretched to gently touch the fringe at the bottom of the parament that was then left swinging on his way to the bathroom. Standing there in that pulpit week in and week out I watched every head turn and every eye focus to follow that little boy as he made his weekly pilgrimage. The misdirection was complete. Nothing I said got through to my flock during his weekly journey; they were distracted; their attention was elsewhere. And I can’t keep myself from wondering if by constantly calling Pentecost “the birthday of the church,” we aren’t doing the same thing to the coming of the Holy Spirit which, Biblically, is the whole point of Pentecost!
Pentecost is about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, as much a part of the Gospel – the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ – as is Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, His death on Calvary and His resurrection from the dead on the third day. When John the Baptist announced the coming of Christ (John 1:29-34), he said that Jesus was going to do two things: (a) He was going to take away the sins of the world as the Lamb of God (1:30), and (b) He was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33). On the day of Pentecost, the promise that was made to those who responded in faith to Peter’s preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit was that: (a) their sins would be forgiven, and (b) that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). What John the Baptist promised found its fulfillment in what happened on Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost.
Pentecost’s primarily reference is to God’s saving work, but this emphasis gets lost in the shuffle of Pentecost always being called “the birthday of the church.” For a Biblically dubious claim at best – “Pentecost is the birthday of the church” – to take center stage at the expense of Pentecost’s real Biblical emphasis – the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh as a consequence on the New Covenant that has been established by the saving work of Jesus as the Messiah (Joel 2:28 /Acts 2:16-21) – seems to me to be a mishandling of the text. And while this is always serious, in this case, I believe that it is urgent. It is the failure to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit with its consequence being us neither calling upon nor relying upon the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence that leaves us so spiritually anemic as Christians and congregations. What the church was given at 9 am on the 7th day of Sivan in Jerusalem in the year AD 33 was the “power from on high” that makes Christianity work (Luke 24:49/Acts 1:8). To borrow the wonderful analogy of Sam Shoemaker, at 8:59 am on the 7th day of Sivan in the year AD 33 in Jerusalem the church was a “fireplace,” and at 9:01 am on the 7th day of Sivan in Jerusalem in the year AD 33, the “fireplace” of the church had some “fire” burning in it. To constantly be talking about Pentecost as “the birthday of the church” is to draw people’s attention to the “fireplace,” when Biblically, Pentecost is all about the “fire.” What we desperately need is the “fire.” But all we seem to want to talk about is the “fireplace.” And I can’t help but think that this is a serious spiritual misdirection. We don’t need cake and ice cream, balloons and steamers to celebrate Pentecost. What we need is an expectation of and an openness to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. DBS+