What's the Point of Pentecost?

El Greco - Pentecost, 1610 at Prado Museum Madrid Spain

El Greco - Pentecost, 1610 at Prado Museum Madrid Spain

Acts is the only historical book in the New Testament that deals with the life of the church.

Normally a church history would focus on the internal life of the church — organization, theological disputes and development, church and culture. They aren't the main story. They stay in the background.

What is the main story? According to Harry Boer,

Acts is governed by one dominant, overriding and all-controlling motif —  the expansion of the faith through missionary witness in the power of the Spirit. 

Restlessly the Spirit drives the Church to witness, and continually churches rise out of the witness.

His book on Pentecost and Missions is a classic. If you're quick you can get a second-hand copy for $2.

After Easter, Before Pentecost

Peter and John Running to the tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection, Eugene Burnand  c.1898.

Peter and John Running to the tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection, Eugene Burnand  c.1898.

I’ve been thinking about the time between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. What was it’s purpose? Let’s see what Luke has to say in Luke 24 and Acts 1.

The disciples needed time to know that Jesus truly was risen from the dead. He was not a phantom for a product of their imagination. He walked with them. They shared meals. He taught them. This really was Jesus. But not a resuscitated Jesus that somehow had survived the Cross. His was a real body, that was no longer limited to time and space. Over 40 days Jesus gave them many convincing proofs.

This surprises me — Jesus went on to teach them from the Old Testament. Surely it’s enough to have the living Word in the room, but Jesus wants to take them from Moses through all the Prophets and everything inbetween. That’s how seriously he took the Scriptures. 

As Jesus met with them and taught them from the Scriptures the shock subsided, their eyes were opened, and they recognised him. They finally understood the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead.

He made it clear this was not the End but the beginning of the End. There was now a job to do. They were to take what he had taught them to the ends of the earth, starting in Jerusalem. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations. 

It doesn’t get clearer than that. They have convincing proofs of his resurrection. Jesus has opened their minds to what the Scriptures teach about him. Now before he returns, they must take the message to the world.

Then he tells them, there’s one more thing. . . .

The heart of mission in Acts

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For over a century Westerners have been reinventing the gospel and mission with disastrous results.

Jim Hamilton helps blow away the confusion with a careful study of the central theme of the book of Acts. This is what he concludes on the gospel in Acts:

God’s justice is seen in his righteous reversal of the unjust condemnation of Jesus, in his just calling to account of those who perpetrated that crime, and in the proclamation that forgiveness of sins is available through Jesus.

Forgiveness is available through Jesus because Jesus has satisfied God’s justice in his death on the cross. Thus, the justice of God is of a piece with the salvation of God. God demonstrates his mercy by making a way for sins to be forgiven through the death of Jesus. Upholding his justice through the death of Jesus, God can extend mercy to guilty people who deserve only justice.

This mercy is offered to those who crucified the Messiah, and the redemptive mercy of God is put on display through the healings and teachings that the witnesses to the resurrection do in Acts.

God’s justice and his mercy balance one another. The justice keeps the mercy from becoming insipid sentimentality, while the mercy keeps the justice from crushing all with just punishment.  Justice and mercy serve a higher aim … for both display God and evoke the glory that God rightly deserves.

Jim Hamilton

Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts as one story told in two halves. 

Acts shows that at the heart of mission is the spread of the gospel resulting in disciples and churches to the glory of God.

What if this is as good as it gets?

I recently finished reading Anthony Beevor’s account of the WWII battle for Stalingrad. An excellent account of the horrifying destruction of a city and its people.

The siege of Stalingrad was one of the many tragedies of the 20th Century. Thankfully, both Fascism and Communism lay in ruins by the end of that century. Meanwhile others have taken their place. The same story continues with different actors playing their part.

What if this is as good as it gets?

What if wars, famine and natural disasters are the norm of human history?

Jesus thought so. That’s what he taught his disciples to expect. Right up until the end of the age, expect trouble.

When Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom of God, he was announcing the beginning of the end times. One day he will return in glory. Until then, expect trouble. Read Mark 13 —wars, famines, natural disasters and deceptive religious movements. Expect them.

Somehow people think that because the kingdom has arrived in the person of Jesus, his death and resurrection, the world will be transformed in this age.

Instead Jesus taught his disciples to expect a battle right up until the end. He promised us hardship and persecution, not “human flourishing.”

The one thing he did promise was that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).

In the end, God wins, but not without a costly fight.

Great Commission - I am with you

The Great Commission ends, not with a command, but with a promise. Jesus says “I (emphatic) will be with you”. His name is Immanuel (Matt 1:3) — God with us. In the Old Testament when God called people to a task, he promised to go with them (Ex 3:12; Jos 1:5), The risen Lord now makes the same promise.

This is a promise, not just to be present, but to be active on their behalf as they obey his Commission. He is not working with them, they are working with him. Jesus still leads the way.

He will be with them always, literally “the whole of every day.” He will be with them always, and to the end of the age. This Commission is not just for the original disciples, but for all those who will follow, until the end of history.

The kingdom has come, but the present evil age continues until the mission is complete — making disciples of every people group, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. Do this and the risen Lord promises you will never be alone.

The series so far:

Emerging from the missional fog


For years I've been saying that the church in the West is lost in a missional fog. Ask eighteen missional experts what they think is mission is and you'll probably get nineteen different answers. One will have two views.

Only half of them will identify the Great Commission and the making of disciples as the essence or heart of the mission of Jesus.

Perhaps it's time to get back to basics and look again at the words of the Risen Lord and ask afresh how we can obey them today.

The Commission itself is amazingly compact. No words are wasted in a powerfully clear statement. No fog here.

Let's look at the structure. There is one main verb, 'make disciples' supported by three participles, 'going', 'baptizing' and 'teaching'. [ed. My high school English teacher would be proud]. Jesus' one command is to be carried out in three ways.

The goal of our mission is to make disciples, we do that by going, teaching and baptizing.

So far so good. Jesus has told us what to do and how to do it. So let's step out of the fog created by experts and take Jesus at his word. Let's assume these are the words of our Risen Lord. Every one of them is true and binding on us, his disciples. We are to obey what he says.

If you want to emerge from the fog it's a good place to start.


What on earth is 'the work of the Lord'?

Paul and Apollos  Tate

I recently received an invitation to a conference at which one of the speakers described himself as someone who was,

“passionate about combining parish-based ministry and urban agriculture as platform for integrating personal discipleship, community, and eco-mission.”

How our understanding of mission has changed over the last hundred years. At least in the West.

Mission has become everything we do in the name of Christ. There are no priorities.

In 1 Cor 15:58, Paul concludes his great defence of the resurrection of believers by drawing the ethical implications. Given the resurrection, the Corinthians can and should devote themselves ‘to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [their] labour is not in vain’. But what exactly does Paul mean by the phrase ‘the work of the Lord’? 

In Surprised by Hope, NT Wright represents a new generation of evangelicals who have broadened their understanding of mission. Regarding 1 Cor 15:58 he says,

What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—all these things will last into God’s future.

Paul Stephens agrees that 1 Cor 15:58, “brings new meaning to those whose toil is in so-called secular work: the arts, education, business and politics."

But is that what Paul meant by “the work of the Lord”?

Not according to Peter Orr who argues that 'the work of the Lord’ refers to what believers do to advance the gospel among unbelievers and to establish believers in the gospel.

In exhorting the Corinthians to abound in ‘the work of the Lord’, Paul is calling on them to give themselves to the specific work of proclaiming the gospel and building the church (i.e., evangelism and edification). Throughout this letter to the Corinthians, this is precisely what Paul has exhorted them to do (1 Cor 10:31–11:1; 14:12). What this looks like in practice will, of course, vary. It could mean risking their lives like Epaphroditus (Phil 2:30); it could be serving the needs of other believers like Stephanus (1 Cor 16:15); and it could be speaking the truth in love like the Ephesians (Eph 4:12).

But crucially the goal of this work is building the church, and it is this that the Corinthians are to prioritise. Because there is a resurrection and those who are ‘dead in Christ’ will be raised to bear glorious bodies like Christ, believers must give themselves to the work of calling men and women to faith in Christ and to the work of ensuring they remain in Christ.

You have one life to live. There is nothing more important than understanding and obeying Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he has commanded. So, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.