The Forgotten Presence: Reflections on Pentecost
It was a tragic time for the early followers of Jesus. As hard as they tried, they could not reconcile reality with their cherished ideas and expectations of what the Messiah was to be. They had not expected a dead savior in a tomb. It wasn’t until the dawn of resurrection light that they could envision what the future held for them. The resurrection gave them confidence that Jesus was the “first fruits” of what was to come. Indeed, the resurrection reflected the triumph of divine love over selfishness and death. It redefined God’s image, yet Jesus’ followers still struggled with traditional opinions and dogmas. They still had no clue where to start or what to do.
It’s good to question dogma with scripture and reclaim our confidence in God. The disciples, for example, gathered to study and read. What many forget, however, is that they were counting down the 49 days to Pentecost—starting the day after Passover. They were preparing themselves, waiting with expectation for the Holy Spirit to come upon them so they could receive the promise (Acts 1:3–8).
Passover is not fulfilled by understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus alone. The purpose of Passover is revealed in the reality of Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15-16). I find it significant that the idea of redemption is connected to the first Pentecost, when God gave His commandments at Sinai. Redemption leads to a specific lifestyle, not a religious service. The voice that spoke from Sinai manifested as fire to make the people fully alive. We may think that God brought people to Sinai to dictate rules, but this event was instead about God’s revelation and empowerment (Exodus 19:18–19). It was about bringing people into His Presence, transforming them into a kingdom of priests who declare His wondrous deeds (Exodus 19:6).
The story of Pentecost has been forgotten and neglected. In the first Pentecost, Moses was overwhelmed by God’s Presence. According to Moses, God’s Pentecost calls upon both the church and our lives, and this is as true now as it was then. Moses pleaded so that a repentant people could reconnect: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15–16, NIV).
What distinguishes us from all others? Not the preaching of our belief systems. Not the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is God’s Presence that empowers, heals, creates, and reveals the truth about who He is. Without the empowerment of God’s Presence, we are nothing special.
Where is the power of the Holy Spirit today? The church responds that it has the truth, and the world demands, “show us this power.” Is the power in your church? Is it in your creed? In your politics or expressions of patriotism? Why do we not see evidence of it? We cannot show the world because we are disempowered. Our voices are unready to change the world because we lack the empowering Presence of God. We should not expect God to give it to us when we misrepresent His voice or exchange His Presence for mere religious services. We are to die to our sin and rise with Christ so we are prepared to receive His love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). I think you will agree that it is best to include the events of Passover week—the cross and resurrection—in the Pentecost narrative as the expression of God’s purpose.
As a Christian, I sometimes forget to connect Passover to the Pentecost story. There’s more to do than prove soteriology, the doctrine of Jesus dying and rising for our sins. God never asked me to help by sharing facts. The earliest followers were plagued by similar confusion. They thought they needed to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus to share it, but understanding wasn’t the problem. They needed His Person and Presence poured out as a living doctrine. They were ineffective without God’s power working in and through them.
It must grieve Jesus when we profess Him to others yet remain unempowered to love Him well—when we believe in God but remain disempowered to do the things He wants us to do. In the Pentecost story in Acts 2, I find God empowering regular people to reach their generations.
Theologian Scot McKnight has taught the Book of Acts for decades. In the article “Kingdom Gospel 7,” he describes what happens to a community after Pentecost, when the Spirit of God is poured out:
Here we find a society marked by:
* Restoration with God in prayer and miracles
* Connection to Jesus through the apostolic teaching and leadership
* Elimination of injustices and impoverishment and hunger by caring for one another
* Engaging the culture around them with the gospel
* Serving instead of seeking powerPatheos, May 20, 2009
If I distilled everything to identify the defining feature of my faith, what would it be? It wouldn’t be a single belief or doctrine. While I have many good beliefs, my faith would boil down to God’s character. The world needs to know what God looks like and understand who He is. The Presence of God as revealed in the person of Jesus is the destiny of the church. This is the only distinctive feature of being a special person for God (Exodus 19:6). The only way for the world to share in the good news is for us to reconnect and thus become empowered by God to do so.
More than anything, I want to convey the Presence of God. I want God’s voice to go with me, the empowerment of His Presence moving me. I look to God’s identity, longing for a heart transformed and eyes filled with His beauty. Without these, I’m nothing, and every exercise remains futile. God promises, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). God loves me, you, and everyone else in the world. With Spirt-filled endowment, there’s nothing beyond our ability. God can move mountains and shake empires. He can turn the world upside down through empowered lives, even now.
God wants to use our voices to declare His wonders in the world. No doctrine or argument on earth can do that. I pray for another Pentecost to make us fully alive. Perhaps God is already abundantly pouring His Spirit all around us, but we are not perceptive enough to see it, not willing enough to participate in what He is doing. The God who died for us is the God who raises us from shame and sends His Sprit to empower us, urging all flesh to delight in His unparalleled beauty. May the flames of His Presence descend once more, allowing the world to see its wondrously lovely God.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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