Pentecost: Not the birthday of the church - but what is it?

Birthday cakeNot the birthday of the church

You’ll often hear Christians call Pentecost (also known as Whitsun) the birthday of the Church. The idea is passed around as part an oral tradition but it’s actually not true.

Far from being born on the Feast of Pentecost that followed Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Church has its origins in the Old Testament, going back at least as far as Moses. For more about this see my separate article about the Church in the Old Testament.

Not the coming of the Holy Spirit

Another wrong idea about Pentecost is that it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit – as if the Holy Spirit stayed in heaven and then came into the world on that day of Pentecost for the first time. In fact the Holy Spirit has been in the world from the beginning – see Genesis 1 v 2.

It wasn’t the first time people were filled or baptised with the Holy Spirit either. Elisabeth, Zachariah and Mary were all filled with the Holy Spirit and Daniel is described as having the Holy Spirit while David prays asking God not to take his Holy Spirit away from him.

So what is Pentecost all about?

The enthronement of Jesus

Ten days before the Day of Pentecost, Jesus ascended to heaven. Some of the disciples watched him go as he disappeared into a cloud. He had promised that he was going to his Father. But they had to take it on faith that this was where he’d gone. On the Day of Pentecost Peter confidently proclaimed to the crowd,

“Exalted to the right hand of God, he has poured out what you now see and hear.”

The wind, the fire, the miracle of speaking in foreign languages, were like a postcard from Jesus, saying “I’ve arrived!”

Impartation of power

Before ascending, Jesus promised the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”  This promise was fulfilled on the Day pf Pentecost. But it was not power for the sake of power, it was power to fulfil a mission – to be Jesus’ witnesses to every nation.

The harvest of the Gentiles

Pentecost is so called because it occurs 50 days after the Passover. It is a Jewish Festival also known as Shavuot. For Jews it celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai and is also connected with the grain harvest. The law of God failed to produce men and women who live righteous lives. It serves only to show us how unrighteous we really are. Through his perfect life and atoning death Jesus the Messiah has obtained the opportunity for forgiveness of sins not just for Jews but for Gentiles too.  Harvest is a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching, used as an image of people being gathered into God’s kingdom. Isaiah 60 promises a time when people from all nations will recognise God and come to him. As Jesus’ first disciples took out the message they were beginning the harvest. It’s still going on, we can be part of it and everyone, of whatever nation, is welcome to come to God, to experience his mercy and to begin to live under his protection, following his ways.

tongues of fireAn international message

The power the disciples received was to enable them to be Jesus’ representatives and witnesses to his resurrection, not just in Jerusalem. Judaea and neighbouring Samaria but also to the ends of the earth. That’s the whole point of the miracle of speaking in tongues. In the languages that were spoken in Jerusalem at the time, the word “tongue” was not used only for the organ in a person’s mouth. It was used for a flame of fire and also for what we would call a language.

The Talmud appoints Psalm 29 to be read on the day of Shavuot or Pentecost, In the Greek Septuagint translation that was widely used among Jews in the first century Psalm 29 verse 7 says :

“The voice of the Lord  divides the flames of fire.

The flames dividing to settle on each disciple’s head were a sign that said, “Pay attention, God is speaking.” The first use of the word  “flame” in the Old Testament was when Moses saw the burning bush and turned aside out of curiosity to see what was happening. On the Day of Pentecost the flames of fire and the noise of the wind attracted people’s attention in a similar way. Like Moses, they turned aside to see what was happening and they then found people who were speaking in the languages and dialects of the areas they had come from.

The disciples were announcing the coronation of the King of Kings and proclaiming his message to every nation.  That was the significance of the miracle of speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost and it is also the significance of the gift of tongues referred to in 1 Corinthians. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of speaking in tongues is, every time it happens it’s a reminder that the good news of salvation is for all nations.


Birthday cake image © copyright accessed from Alphalim's photostream on under a creative commons license.

Flame image © copyright Michal Jobling