The Significance of the Day of Pentecost
Acts chapter ten is a very unique portion of the New Testament. It commences by introducing the reader to a splendid citizen of Caesarea, a Roman centurion whose name was Cornelius. Though a Gentile, Cornelius had been attracted to the concept of Israel’s one God. Hence, he was devoutly religious and a splendid example of high moral ideals. He was, in fact, held in high regard by the Jews, a rather unusual circumstance in that era of religious bigotry.
One day, as this Roman military man was observing one of his regular hours of prayer, an angel appeared to him, instructing the centurion to send for Peter, the apostle of Christ, who was at Joppa some thirty miles to the south. No Gentile, of course, had entered the Christian system at this point, insofar as the record is explicit. It was thus necessary for God to prepare his Jewish apostle for this experience. Accordingly, as the messengers dispatched by Cornelius made their way toward Joppa, Peter experienced a vision. It involved a sheet let down from heaven containing various creatures, classified by Old Testament law as “unclean,” which the apostle was commanded to eat. Peter initially resisted, but finally, as the messengers arrived at the residence he was visiting, the apostle was persuaded by the Lord that this supernatural scene represented the “cleansing” of the Gentiles, i.e., their right to share in the blessings of the gospel.
Peter invited the Gentile servants to lodge with him overnight (a remarkable example of insight and courage), and the next day, accompanied by six Jewish companions, the obedient apostle made his way to Caesarea. There he found a willing company waiting—Cornelius and his family and near friends. The facts of the gospel were proclaimed to these eager Gentiles. They believed the message and Peter commanded them to be immersed (10:48).
Significantly, in conjunction with this momentous event, there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon that Gentile company; as evidence of it, they were empowered to speak in foreign languages and they magnified God. Actually, the Lord was providing divine documentation that this acceptation of the Gentiles had the validation of Heaven. This proof would surely be needed in the face of Jewish prejudice.
When the report of the Gentile conversions reached Jerusalem, Peter, taking his half-dozen Hebrew witnesses with him, journeyed to that city to deal with the unrest generated over the matter. Certain Jews “contended with him” (11:2), accusing the apostle of violating decorum by fraternizing with these undesirable people. Peter needed to make a defense of his actions. He thus rehearsed the details of his encounter at Caesarea. He affirmed that the entire episode was God’s working. His clinching argument was this: as he had begun his preaching to the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit “fell on them, even as on us at the beginning” (11:15).
The Uniqueness of Holy Spirit Baptism
There is an important inference that must be drawn from this apostolic incident. First, let us make this observation. It is a well-known fact that many modern religionists of the “Pentecostal” persuasion contend that Holy Spirit baptism is a common phenomenon—even today. Some allege that this experience will be given to all new converts as an evidence of salvation received. If this assumption were true, then every saved soul, from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10)—a period of possibly a decade—would have received Spirit baptism. That obviously was not the case inasmuch as Peter, in order to find an analogous experience to illustrate what had happened at the house of Cornelius, had to go all the way back to “the beginning” of the Christian movement for a precedent! It is thus quite clear that Holy Spirit baptism had not been received by the multitudes since that auspicious commencement. It is not an event that accompanies the regular reception of redemption.
Of particular interest, though, in this context is the expression “the beginning” (11:15). What does it signify? It certainly does not refer to the beginning of the universe—or the origin of the human family. Rather, it denotes the beginning of Christianity. It is an allusion to the events of the day of Pentecost. There is scarcely a New Testament scholar who does not acknowledge this fact (see Hackett, Robertson, Bruce, Kistemaker, etc.). The fact is, the day of Pentecost was the beginning of a number of very significant events associated with the Christian religion.
The Last Days
Human existence may be divided into three major eras of religious history. First, there was the Patriarchal dispensation, a universal period of “father rule,” from the time of Eden to the giving of the law of Moses. At Sinai, the Israelite people were separated from the balance of humanity, and for fifteen centuries they lived under the Mosaic regime. The Mosaic system was never intended primarily for Gentiles.
Finally, at Pentecost, the Christian age began. This is the final era of earth’s history, and it spans the period from Pentecost to the second coming of Christ. For this reason it is known as “the last days.” It was foretold by the prophets (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Joel 2:28-30) and identified with the day of Pentecost by the inspired apostle (Acts 2:16, 17; cf. Hebrews 1:1). This truth clearly militates against the notion that there is yet to be an earthly reign of Christ consisting of a thousand years.
Universal Remission of Sins in Jesus’ Name
Prior to the day of Pentecost, the remission of sins was technically available only on a “promissory” basis, i.e., through the animal sacrificial system of the Old Testament regime. Forgiveness of sin was granted upon the ground of shed blood (Hebrews 9:22). The problem was, those systems prior to the death of Christ had only animal blood, which had no permanent efficacious power (Hebrews 10:1-4). Even the remission of sins connected with John’s baptism (Mark 1:4) was dependent upon the sacrifice of the Lamb of God (John 1:29). The death of Jesus was required for ultimate forgiveness of all sinners, both before and since the Savior’s atoning mission (cf. Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 9:15-17), though, of course, the citizens of ancient societies, from a practical vantage point, enjoyed pardon as they yielded to the divine requirements of the systems to which they were amenable. In view of this, shortly before his ascension into heaven, the Lord proclaimed: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47). This began to unfold on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38f).
The Facts of the Gospel
The word “gospel” translates a Greek term literally meaning “good tidings.” A verbal form of the word is translated in that fashion in Luke 2:10, where an angel declared to those Judean shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” There is a sense in which those good tidings had been proclaimed for centuries. At the beginning, God had announced that eventually the woman’s seed would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Scholars refer to this as the protevangelium, the “first gospel.” It was the good news of Christ’s final victory over the enemy, and so has been called the gospel “in promise.” Later, Jehovah declared to Abraham that through his seed all families of the earth (the Gentiles) would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). In a sense, this was a prophetic gospel proclamation to the patriarch, as Paul indeed affirmed in Galatians 3:8. John the baptizer, as the harbinger of Christ, preached the gospel in a preparatory fashion (see Mark 1:1-4). It was not until the day of Pentecost, however, that the full facts of the gospel, namely the good news regarding the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, were announced (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Pentecost was, therefore, the beginning of gospel proclamation in the fullest sense of that term.
The Establishment of the Church
It has been common across the years for denominationalists to allege that the church existed in actuality throughout the centuries of Old Testament history. Some would argue for its origin in Eden; others suggest the church was set up in the time of John the baptizer, or perhaps during the personal ministry of Jesus. None of these views is correct. It has been refreshing to observe these theories increasingly have been repudiated by some sectarian scholars. For example, theologian H. C. Thiessen declared that the book of Acts “recounts the founding of the Church on the Day of Pentecost” (1955, 187). The fact is, approximately six months before his death, the Lord spoke of building his church as a future event (Matthew 16:18). The church did not become an established reality until Acts 2. Pentecost is thus the beginning of the church, the commencement of Christianity.
The New Covenant
The prophet Jeremiah foretold of a coming day when Jehovah would make a “new covenant” with Israel and Judah which, in many respects, would stand in marked contrast to the Mosaic code (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Isaiah, in speaking of the same system, declared that it would be a law for all nations (2:2-4). When did this new law become operative? It could not have been functional before the death of Christ, for a testament avails only after the death of its testator (Hebrews 9:15-17). Moreover, it is clear that the old covenant was not a legal obligation after the event of Calvary, for, figuratively speaking, that system was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14), abrogated by the death of Jesus’ body (Ephesians 2:14-16). All of the relevant biblical data lead only to the conclusion that the new covenant, ratified by the Lord’s blood (cf. Matthew 26:28), became operative on the day of Pentecost as that new law went forth from Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 2:3).
There are numerous religionists (e.g., our sabbatarian friends) who desperately need to learn that we are not under the Mosaic regime today, and that attempted allegiance to two systems places one in a position of being in spiritual adultery (see Romans 7:1-4). Pentecost marks the beginning of human obligation to the new covenant.
New System of Worship
In the ninth chapter of Hebrews, the inspired writer has a discussion of the Mosaic tabernacle system and the various components that characterized it. These things, says he, serve as “a figure” for the “time present” (v. 9). The author goes on to describe the Old Testament economy as one of “carnal ordinances” which were imposed “until a time of reformation,” that is, until superseded by the Christian system. The term “carnal” is interesting. It derives from a Greek term meaning “flesh.” It represents a lower element of service than that which animates the nature of Christianity.
Under the new regime, animal sacrifices are no longer offered; they have been replaced by the offering of the Lamb of God (John 1:29) and the spiritual sacrifice of the Christian’s body (Romans 12:1). We do not burn incense, for our prayers go up as incense before the creator (Revelation 5:8). We have no fleshly priesthood, as such was the case under the law; rather, all children of God are priests (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6). We do not pluck the harp (or use other instruments) as an act of worship to Jehovah; we “pluck” the strings of our hearts when we sing songs of praise in worship (Ephesians 5:19). Why would anyone want to abandon the spiritual emphasis of the new covenant arrangement and clamor for the carnality of the Mosaic law? Pentecost was the beginning of a new, spiritual order of worship.
New Marital Requirements
God’s original plan for marriage, as evidenced by the home’s initial design at the beginning, was a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. As humanity drifted from Jehovah’s perfect domestic pattern, such digressions as polygamy and capricious divorce became common. Due to the hardness of heart that was a part of the fabric of the antique world, God permitted a relaxation of the divine marital standard during that era (Matthew 19:8; cf. Acts 14:16; 17:30). Jesus Christ declared, however, that with the implementation of his reign, marriage would be restored to its original status. The day of Pentecost initiated a new era of marital responsibility (see the author’s booklet, The Teaching of Jesus Christ on Divorce & Remarriage).
In light of the points emphasized above and perhaps other considerations, the expression “at the beginning” (Acts 11:15) takes on a very significant flavor. The day of Pentecost was one of the most important days in world history!
- Thiessen, H. C. 1955. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.