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What is Pentecost?

General Superintendent Doug Clay discusses the nature and purpose of Pentecost.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the magazine Pentecostals.

One of the most vivid memories I have of a Pentecostal experience came when Bernard Johnson, a missionary evangelist from Brazil, prayed for me. He had an obvious prophetic anointing. 
At the age of 8, while I stood at the altar, Johnson placed his hands on my head, and began to pray. The memory of that strong, undeniable Pentecostal experience is forever etched in my mind. I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God. That spiritual life encounter confirmed my calling into full-time Christian service.

Depending on your background or experience, Pentecost may convey a day, a movement, a feast, a doctrinal position — or possibly, nothing at all. The word itself comes from the Greek word for 50, since the Jewish feast of Pentecost (also called Feast of Weeks or Shavuot) came 50 days after Passover. In that context, Pentecost was a celebration of the first harvest.

For Christians, Pentecost is a holiday in which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first Pentecost, which happened a few weeks after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called the Church. So, from a historical perspective, Pentecost was the day the Church was established. It’s also true from a spiritual perspective, since the Spirit brings the Church into existence and empowers it. Pentecost is the Church’s birthday.

If Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church. If Easter marks the day when Jesus was raised from the dead, Pentecost marks the day when the message about Jesus began to be proclaimed all over the world.

Interestingly, in Christmas and Easter, Christ is the primary figure people came to observe. They came to the manger. They came to the empty tomb. In Pentecost, the Church is the prominent focus. Instead of coming and seeing, it’s about going and telling, which is why Pentecost and missions go hand in hand.

Being Pentecostal means living in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He helps us to live with an awareness of the presence of Jesus. Pentecost also helps us to understand the value of the Church in today’s culture. At times, people may think the Church is unnecessary. Pentecost, however, is a vivid reminder of the truth that the Church is central to God’s work in the world. He invites us to be on mission with Him!

1. Pentecost helps us see the Church as the agency that God is using to expand His Kingdom.

Imagine the extraordinary scene with which the Book of Acts opens. Jesus’ followers have seen Him die a violent death. They’ve seen Him resurrected and triumphant. In Acts 1:6, they ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Surely, the promised Messiah was about to do something big! His answer likely surprised them. He told them to gather and wait to be empowered by the Holy Spirit for service and mission.

It’s extremely significant that the Holy Spirit fell on individuals who had gathered (Acts 2:1). The early followers of Christ shared life together and concentrated on teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, corporate prayer, and sharing with one another in need (Acts 2:42-46). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was given to a gathering of believers.

That’s not a coincidence. It underscores the Church’s critical role in the advancement of the gospel. Too often in American culture, people live as if the Church is merely optional. This mentality would have us believe that if we have a personal relationship with God, church involvement is sort of secondary. But Pentecost is a reminder that His Spirit was poured out upon the community of God’s people. An invitation to join Him on mission resulted.

2. Pentecost helps us interpret the Book of Acts as the playbook for a healthy church in any culture.

Acts is the only historical narrative in the Bible demonstrating what the New Testament church life looks like. It is candid, revealing God pouring His Spirit upon imperfect people, yet encouraging by showing the potential of Spirit-led living. Acts is our authoritative model for church life.

The history of the Church over the past 2,000 years is not a record of its evolution. Rather, it demonstrates the spiritual battle in which God’s Spirit arises to restore the Church to its rightful place. God launched the Church from the beginning at Pentecost fully developed, not as a spiritual infant that grew to adulthood later. In periodic renewals in the Church, no new truth was added by God, but rather timeless truth became timely as the Spirit gave life and restored. Spiritual renewal is one of God’s ways of bringing His church into alignment with His intended purposes.

3. Pentecost views Spirit baptism as a distinctive work of grace in the life of a Christian, separate from the salvation experience.

The Book of Acts goes out of its way to demonstrate the availability of an after-salvation anointing of the Spirit for ministry. At salvation, the Spirit comes to live inside all Christians (Romans 8:9), but afterward, Jesus desires to pour the Spirit outwardly upon us for increased ministry anointing (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8).

Jesus’ command for the disciples to wait (Acts 1:4) for power from on high points to a distinct experience needed after salvation. In addition, there was a subsequent need for people who had experienced Spirit baptism to be refilled repeatedly for specific situations and tasks.

This happened to the whole church in Acts 4:31: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” These were the same believers who already had been baptized in the Spirit at Pentecost, yet they experienced a fresh infilling to speak boldly.

This pattern in Acts is seen in the individual lives of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit just moments before his martyrdom (Acts 7:55). The Spirit filled him again so he could see a vision, speak boldly, and endure suffering with victory and joy.

4. Pentecost shows the value and purpose of speaking in tongues.

Acts 2 paints a vibrant image of what happened at Pentecost as Christians gathered. The sound of a violent wind surrounded them. Something with the appearance of flames of fire separated and rested on their heads. Then, they were filled with the Spirit and began speaking in tongues.

Speaking in tongues serves many purposes, as illustrated throughout Acts and the epistles.

Speaking Tongues is the first outward sign of the infilling of the Spirit

We see in Acts 2, 10, and 19 recurring instances of tongues as confirmation of the baptism in the Spirit. The signs of wind and fire don’t occur again in the Book of Acts, but the sign of tongues continued to mark the baptism in the Holy Spirit and those in the Early Church. In fact, tongues became the normative sign throughout Acts that believers had experienced Spirit baptism.

Notice that all heard the sound like wind. All saw the sight like fire. All felt the Spirit come to rest upon them. All spoke with other tongues. This speaking in tongues was not the public gift requiring interpretation and limited by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:30. This was prophetic confirmation showing a new era of Spirit-influenced speech which would mark the Church.

The confirmation aspect of tongues is made clear in Acts 10 when Gentile believers were baptized in the Spirit at the house of Cornelius. The apostles knew they had experienced Spirit baptism, according to verse 46, “For they heard them speaking in tongues . . .”

Tongues enable us to worship God beyond our natural abilities

In Acts 2, 10, 19, and in 1 Corinthians 14:16, we see speaking in tongues also served a purpose of adoration, or praising God and declaring His deeds. While we may not always know what is being said while praising God in tongues, it is clear from Scripture that praise is a key component.

Speaking in tongues strengthens us spiritually

Perhaps you have been in a church service and heard someone deliver a message in tongues, followed by an interpretation of that message. What you have witnessed is the spiritual gift of tongues, as described in 1 Corinthians 14. The apostle Paul treats this spiritual gift in a corporate setting differently than the personal use of tongues for a Spirit-baptized Christian. In this setting, Paul describes it as always needing interpretation, as it serves a primary purpose of edification, which means “building up.” Without interpretation, it’s not possible for those hearing it to be edified, so Paul places parameters around its use.

Tongues enable us to pray more effectively for others

Yet another purpose of speaking in tongues is in prayer. Romans 8:26-27 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Through simple faith and reliance on the Holy Spirit, we can go beyond our limitations and allow the Holy Spirit to pray through us.

I ask you the same question Paul asked the believers at Ephesus: “Have you received since you believed?” My prayer for you is that you would experience the Spirit’s fullness. Spirit-empowered life did not end in the Book of Acts. The same Holy Spirit who empowered the Early Church and gifted them for ministry stands ready to be poured out on you in this generation.

Doug Clay

General Superintendent

The General Council of the Assemblies of God

See full bio.