For me, Pentecost (or Shavuot) comes with a mixture of joy and grief – joy inexpressible for the Holy Spirit and grief over what, in the Church at least, has become a forgotten feast.
And yet without the fire of the Spirit, there would be no Church. The Lord commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel in all the world – but not until they were endued with power from on high (Luke 24:49).
They were to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism with the Holy Spirit – the baptism of fire spoken of by John the Baptist (Matt 3:11). And indeed, when the Spirit came down, tongues of fire rested on the recipients.
As I mentioned last week, Shavuot is traditionally seen by rabbis as a celebration of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, where it came with fire, smoke and thunder. Now, however, it lights up people’s passions and puts fire in their bellies, empowering them to boldly go where no-one has gone before with the glorious gospel of Jesus. The law written on tablets of stone is now written on human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3) Oh, how we need that fire!
Announcing the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel as he laid the foundation of the temple, Zechariah recorded: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty (Zech 4:6). Or, as Salvation Army founder General Booth put it: “Oh God of burning, cleansing flame, Send the fire!”
Without Pentecost, we have no fuel for the journey of faith and proclamation. As famed author/pastor A W Tozer said, “If the Holy Spirit withdrew from today’s church, 95% of our work would continue without us knowing the difference!”
Many churches tragically believe that the gifts of the Spirit went out with the Apostles, and that we have no need of the baptism with the Spirit repeatedly mentioned in the New Testament. Or that it comes with our initial conversion.
But the biblical record contradicts this position (see, for example, Acts 19:1-7). And so when the Pentecostal movement emerged at the dawn of the 20th century, it was met with much derision, especially over the resurgence of speaking in tongues.
The movement soon circled the globe, bringing fresh fire to hundreds of millions. Then, in the 1960s, similar experiences began to infiltrate the more established institutional churches.
It became known as the ‘charismatic movement’ (charis = gift in Greek), which received an enormous boost though the ministry of a skinny preacher from rural Pennsylvania called David Wilkerson, son of a Pentecostal pastor.
Touched with compassion by the plight of murderous gangsters in New York whom he read about in the papers, this courageous young man felt the call of God to help them. Risking his life, his weapon was neither a switchblade nor a gun, but the Bible. He was absolutely fearless.
As writer Elizabeth Sherrill put it, “He just read them the riot act, telling them that God loved them, and that he would love them.”
Many began to experience a miraculous and instantaneous deliverance from heroin addiction. It was supernatural signs like this, along with words of knowledge and healing, that spawned the international ministry of Teen Challenge and a best-selling book, The Cross and the Switchblade, which sold 16 million copies in over 30 languages, written with the help of John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Such power of the Spirit brought hope and transformation to desperately lost teenagers. And today’s young people sure need it just as much!
The book was published by a secular Jew, and when it was suggested that tongues was so controversial it should be left to the last chapter, he said he wanted more of it and brought it forward to the early chapters.
And what about racism, such a big issue today? Did Pentecost have anything to say about that? When the modern movement began at Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles in 1906, it broke down the colour barrier. Early meetings were led by a black man called William Seymour with a harmonious mix of blacks and whites in the congregation.
Journalist Frank Bartleman wrote that “the colour line has been washed away in the blood”. As for fire, some claimed to have seen the glory of God over the building at night. The fire brigade was apparently once called out as a result.
Pentecostals and charismatics still abound in various guises, but they have lost much of their fire – in the West at least. Anglican preacher and author Simon Ponsonby says the Church resembles a carp he once rescued from the shallows of a fishpond during a very hot summer – gasping for breath instead of swimming in the deep, enjoying the rivers of living water offered by our Saviour.
My wife Linda has been profoundly affected by Christians exercising the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. As a new believer attending a retreat, she was shocked rigid when – quite out of the blue as she descended the stairs – a stranger told her to stop reading her horoscopes. It had been a regular habit of hers, and she had no idea it was forbidden in the Bible.
A little later, as she began growing in her faith at her charismatic Anglican village church, she was challenged by a lady who did not know her situation: “You must forgive your father!”
She duly acted upon what she knew for certain must be a word from God, and has never looked back. And her dad has since become a devoted Christian.
The icing on the cake for Linda was the personal prophecy she received about someone special coming into her life, followed a year later by having a vision of her own wedding during a tour of Israel. And it happened at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine at a marriage feast. It all came true exactly as she was shown.
We surely need the power of Pentecost as never before. At a time when opposition to our message is becoming increasingly fierce, we need all the help we can get.
After all, Jesus said: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.