The Meaning of Pentecost

Acts 2:2-4.---' And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind. . . . And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.'

This is one of the most amazing stories in the world. There is none which should be more interesting to Christian people, for it is the story of the launch of the Christian Church. It is the story of how the Church which had been slowly shaping in the quietness and obscurity of that Upper Room became conscious of life and power and set out upon its mission. So far these men and women have been rather ordinary people, their love for Jesus Christ the one thing keeping them together. They were perplexed, terribly timid, and very conscious of their weakness. Then, as they waited, all on a sudden as it seemed, something happened which changed their personalities. They became conscious of a unity which broke down every other barrier. They found themselves in possession of faculties they had never dreamed could be theirs. They lost all fear of people and all thought of themselves. They were fired with a message, and a passion to tell people about it, to spread the good news of a love which had flooded their lives and carried them off their feet.

All ages are aglow with this fruit of the Spirit. "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man," was the cry of a Christian to the aged saint in the day of his trial. "Eighty-six years have I served Christ," answered Polycarp to his judge, "and He has never wronged me, how can I now speak evil of my King and Savior?' And so he died. Our hearts still thrill as we read the words of Ignatius on his way to his martyrdom: "Come fire and cross; come crowds of wild beasts; come tearing and manglings; wracking of bones and hacking of limbs; come cruel tortures of the devil, only let me attain to Jesus Christ." It has ever been the same. The conquests of Christianity have ever been through men to whom Jesus Christ has appealed on the side of their strength, and whose hearts His Spirit has fired with high resolve. The Christian army is not an ambulance corps but a storming battalion.

As we read the story so many centuries away, there is a question we inevitably ask: What really happened at Pentecost? The New Testament people spoke continually of a Holy Spirit. They must have meant something by it. For they were not romancing in the realms of theology for a pastime. They were people who had made a great discovery. They had had a real experience and they were trying to write it down so that others should know about it; much as a man fighting his way through a desert, who has found a secret spring on which his very life was nourished, writes down the information, lest in the drift of things the spring should get choked and buried, and for want of it, those who are to carry on his battle and take his place should fall back or perish by the way. What did they mean by the Holy Spirit?

In the first place, they meant by it God's power of immediate contact with our life. That was the great thing which the Spirit signified for them. They realized that God was in contact with them, was within their very souls. They did not need any kind of outside help. They could go out and face the world and be confident that God would back them up; that somehow His very Spirit was in living touch with theirs, deep down in the place where the mind did its thinking, and the heart its loving, and courage and hope had their secret spring. Within them there was a fountain from which sprang up everything that was good. And now they knew that this fountain ran right down into the being of God, and that somehow He was there within them by His Spirit, active and loving and gracious, able to make new men of them, able to revive their courage and faith so that they could face anything. That was what the Spirit meant to them.

What a new power it would give us to realize this---that God is within. What a new vitality it would bring to prayer to realize that He does not stand without us but already manifests Himself in our hearts in the very urge that sends us to our knees. What new strength it would add to every demand of duty or faith, what new meanings to those high thoughts that visit us from time to time and lift our life for the moment to new heights of hope and aspiration, to know that in them and in obedience to them, we are meeting with and yeilding to the inexhaustible energy of the Spirit of God.

A second thing which the Spirit meant for them was the experience that the Christian life has its roots in an original impulse. It is a living thing which works from their heart---not a mere mechanical copy of a pattern on which we artificially mould our lives. We often speak of Christianity as a way of life, and so it is. It is a way of doing things, a certain code of practices, a style of high living and true thinking. It becomes, by and by, a certain type of character which we learn to call Christian. But how is that character produced? Is it produced merely by a painful and accurate copying of Jesus, sitting down before His portrait as an artist sits down before a picture, and slowly modeling our lives on it line by line and act after act? Or is it produced by getting together a set of rules and regulations out of the New Testament and systematically obeying them? That is how we often think of the Christian life; and that is why it is often such a dreary and unattractive business, and, even with all our efforts, so utterly hopeless.

But that was not how the people of the New Testament thought of the Christian life or experience it. What they found was that through Him they possessed a root of life, a spirit alive in their souls, growing up in them, shaping character from within and finding its outlet in a certain way of life and service and in all their attitudes to one another. They found that they could think with His mind and were not slavishly dependent upon His words. The life was in them as an original impulse, breaking out in them in a way of feeling and thinking and doing, as the life in a tree breaks out in blossom and fruit when the Spring sap stirs in its veins. And so character was a fruit, and service was a fruit, and all that was good in their lives was a fruit of the Spirit, which had somehow grown and been awakened to life in them through Him. Now this is the original thing in Christianity. There are people who are fond of telling us that there is teaching in other masters and other faiths which is as noble as that in the Gospels. But the original thing in Christianity is the power it has to create Christian personalities, to make men think like Jesus, and grow like Jesus, not from the practice of a rigid obedience but from the power of an inward life. Jesus laid down no rules---He communicates a Spirit. And the measure in which we have that Spirit is the measure of the spontaneity and freedom and reality of our Christian life.

Yet again, their thought of the Spirit was the guarantee of progress, of new things, of the changed world, of the living and victorious Church. Christianity does not rest upon a tradition; it lives in a vital experience, an experience which is ever renewing itself. That power of infinite renewal is what the gift of the Spirit means.

It means, for instance, the discovery and the unfolding of new truth. Jesus said as much. There were things He could not tell His disciples, but the Spirit would lead them into the secret. The Spirit is the living mind of God at work in the minds of men, unfolding and enlarging their thoughts, awakening new ideas, revealing new truth. There are secrets we do not know at present, but who is to say that one day even here on earth men will not discover them? We know little about the origin of evil; but why should we not discover it one day as men hope one day to find out the origin of cancer? There are things about God we do not know. The nature of God is largely veiled, though not so veiled as others have pictured it. But who is to set limits to the things which shall be revealed by the Spirit?

The Christian has constantly the consciousness of being on the threshold of fresh knowledge of God. The fact that a revelation is progressive is no argument that it is not Divine; it is, in fact, only when free current of the religious life is dammed up that it turns into a swamp, and poisons society.

Of course, we must be ready to admit with all humanity that our notions of God are probably unworthy and distorted enough; but that is no reason why we should not follow the light that we have, or mistrust it on the ground that it is 'too good to be true.'

The gift of the Spirit means new guidance, for the new circumstances we may have to face. There are people who take the view that because Christ did not say anything definite about certain problems which confront us today, about war for instance, or industry, or poverty, or the housing question, they may safely be kept outside the range of the living conscience. But surely this is to deny the whole New Testament doctrine of the Spirit. The Spirit is a living Spirit. His guidance develops with need. He fits His word for conscience to the circumstances.

And there is, in the promise of the Spirit, the hope of infinite renewal. The day of revival is not over. Pentecost is only its beginning. For the Spirit is God's infinite power of access to the hearts of men and the possibility of the constant reviving of faith and religion. The Spirit that made Pentecost, and gave the truth fire, and the message wings, and brought thousands of people to their knees calling Jesus 'Lord'---that Spirit lives and His work is going on till the Kingdom is brought in.

We have, perhaps, an exaggerated idea of the men inspired at Pentecost. Unconsciously we have thought that they belonged to some different order of beings to those of the present day. Such ideas are artificial, but habits of thought are easy to acquire and we adopt them without challenge. It has so long been the custom to speak of Pentecost as past that when its wonders are taking place under our very eyes we question it because it has not come in the way we were led to expect. We have magnified the first messengers of the gospel beyond all human likeness, and it needs a revolution of our ideas to take in the fact that these are the days of Pentecost, that the men by whom the world is being evangelized, with whose face and voices we are familiar, are the very descendants and followers of the apostolic preachers.

By whatever name we call it, we cannot do without this doctrine of the Spirit. And we certainly cannot do without this experience. How does it come? 'Go and wait,' said Jesus, giving them directions. 'Go and think about Me'; that is the secret. It is when we think about Christ, when we get into His presence, so to speak, and are waiting and willing to be led and taught and guided and helped, and in that attitude face life, that the Spirit comes. The gift of the Spirit does not mean the domination of our will. A man is never so active with his will, his mind, his struggle and effort, as when the Spirit is finding a center in his heart---when he realizes, as did Paul, it is 'I, yet not I.' And this attitude, quietly receptive and passionately eager, is the deep secret of the Christian life and the Christian victory.

In Christ, timothy maranatha