What really happened in Acts chapter 2?
Was it “the first Pentecost”? No. Jews from around the world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, aka the “Feast of Weeks,” when the Holy Spirit filled the little band of disciples.
Was that first Christian Pentecost “the day the Holy Spirit was first given to the Christian community”? No. The risen Christ had already breathed on the disciples, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
On that first Christian Pentecost the Holy Spirit came in a new and powerful way, equipping the disciples to proclaim the gospel.
So does that filling and empowering constitute the “birthday” or beginning point of the Church?
Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century like John Calvin would say “No.”
The Heidelberg Catechism (the 450 year old Reformed summary of biblical Christianity on which I blog valiantly and relentlessly) does not even consider the possibility that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday. It does talk about the Church, though, and along the way it gives a very different view of the Church’s origins.
The topic comes up as the Catechism explains the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Here’s the text in full.
54 Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself, a community
chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.
I’ve added italics to make the point clear. God has always been in the business of gathering the Church, calling people into the community of faith.
You see it when God saved Noah’s family when all the rest of the world was destroyed.
You see it when God called Abram and Sarai among all the families of the earth.
You see it when God made covenant with the people of Israel, giving them the life-giving Way of the Torah (aka the “Ten Commandments”).
Jesus is behind it all, according to the Catechism: The gathering of the Church is always the work of
The Son of God through his Spirit and Word
Jesus finally comes in the flesh, fulfills God’s reconciling work in his life, death, and resurrection. Then, the new subset of his calling, the gathered disciples, are given the Spirit’s indwelling power to fulfill his work — bringing the good news of reconciliation through Jesus to all the world.
Pentecost in Acts 2 is the day that makes possible Luke’s version of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
So no, Pentecost is not the birthday of the Church. Pentecost is the day the Church was empowered to fulfill God’s eternal mission. May we walk in the presence and power of the Spirit in this season of Pentecost!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What has Pentecost meant to you in your own life of faith and discipleship?