I wonder how many people had their TV sets switched on yesterday morning at 5 o’clock. That’s when the CBC coverage of the royal wedding began and for the next five hours I can only imagine that millions of viewers were glued to their screens, trying to catch a glimpse of this or that celebrity among the six hundred who were invited to the event.
Long before it took place, countless hours of television time had already gone into the anticipation of the wedding—and for the publicists it was all big money. While the costs of the wedding are estimated to top $36 million, it was expected to generate over $860 million in revenue. If it is anything to go by, memorabilia sales alone for the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton seven years ago amounted to more than $380 million.
By this time you may already have been asking yourself, “What is this preacher fellow getting at—and what does all of this business about royal weddings have to do with the Bible anyway?” Well, for Christians today is the anniversary of another big event, when three thousand souls were added to the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers who had come together that morning to pray.
Little could they have imagined when they gathered in the upper room that they would be swept off their feet (spiritually if not physically) by a “rushing mighty wind”, touched by fire, and speaking in languages never before heard from their lips! So completely strange was what happened to them that it is little wonder that it all began to attract a crowd of people who were no less amazed and perplexed than they were. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
So today, while the rest of the world is recovering from the royal wedding or preparing for Game Five in the playoffs between Vegas and the Jets, we Christians quietly celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. And quite rightly our attention is fixed on the miraculous events that occurred that morning: the mysterious whistling of the wind, the flames of fire that divided and settled on each of the believers, and the praises of God in all the varied languages of the known world.
It was a remarkable event—and I don’t know how many times I have preached on it over the past forty-plus years. Yet this year as I began my preparations, it dawned upon me that my attention has always been focused on the events in the opening verses of Acts, chapter 2. At the same time it began to occur to me that maybe what Luke wrote in the closing verses of that same chapter has even more to teach us about the real meaning of Pentecost and about the work that the Holy Spirit yearns to do in you and in me. So allow me to read them to you.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
There are three aspects of this brief summary of the first days of the church I would like us to focus on. The first of them can be summarized by the word “devotion”. Luke begins, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
My Greek lexicon tells me that those words “devoted themselves” can be translated in a whole variety of ways: “persist in”, “attach oneself to”, “be faithful to”, “be busily engaged in”, “hold fast to”, “persevere in”, “spend much time in”. By now probably you get the idea. Those first believers were not prepared to allow anything to stand in the way of learning from the apostles or from coming together regularly for fellowship, worship and prayer.
Early in my own walk with Christ many years ago, my pastor encouraged me to begin memorizing Scripture. The first verses I ever committed to memory were Psalm 119:9 and 11, and I quote them as I learned them in the old King James Version:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?
By taking heed thereto according to thy word…
Thy word have I hid in mine heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
By taking heed thereto according to thy word…
Thy word have I hid in mine heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
It seems to me that those early believers did exactly what Psalm 119 counsels us to do: they were taking God’s word to heart with an unshakeable commitment to the apostles’ teaching. Now of course they had no New Testament and they wouldn’t for a couple of generations. But they had the apostles themselves and they spent time learning from them, drinking in their words—and we’re not just talking about a weekly twenty-minute sermon or even a forty-minute one. Acts 20 tells us of an evening when the apostle Paul went on talking till midnight—to the point where one young man drifted into sleep and fell out the window!
But the point was that they could never hear enough. Like the two companions who met with Jesus along the road to Emmaus on that first resurrection day, I can only imagine that their hearts burned within them as they learned from the apostles and opened the Scriptures together.
Some years ago we had the privilege of hosting Ernest Gordon, who had been held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma along what was known as the railway of death. Although he was not a believer at the time, he and some of his men began reading the New Testament together. It did not take long before they found that they could not put it down, for they had the amazing experience that the same Jesus whom they found on its pages was there among them.
Yet much of this seems so far from the experience of the church in our part of the world today. A recent study revealed that only forty-five percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Almost twenty percent say they never read the Bible—and that is about the same percentage as those who read it on a daily basis.  That seems a far cry from our early forebears who lived in the shadow of Pentecost, who could not get enough the apostles’ teaching. Would that the Holy Spirit would stir the same thirst in us today!
Those first believers showed a devotion to the apostles’ teaching. But Luke also tells us in verse 43 that “everyone was filled with awe”. Again, if you read that verse in the old King James Version, it would sound like this: “And fear came upon every soul.” The word in the original in fact is phobos. We find it in words like “claustrophobia”, the fear of small spaces, “acrophobia”, the fear of heights, and “arachnophobia”, the fear of spiders.
There was a German philosopher of a century ago called Rudolf Otto, who came up with the phrase mysterium tremendum—the sense of something so mysterious that it causes you to tremble. This, he said, is what happens to us when we come into the presence of the living God.
We see it in Moses as he tended his flocks in the wilderness and approached that strange bush that burned but was not consumed. The book of Exodus tells us that when Moses began to realize in whose presence he stood, “he hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Or think of Isaiah in the temple, as he gazed at the six-winged seraphs and heard their cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty…” and felt the stone floor shuddering beneath him. “Woe to me!” was all he could think to utter, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:3-4).
Or we can turn to the New Testament, to the story of the centurion who came to Jesus on behalf of his servant. “Lord,” he said to him, “I do not deserve you to come under my roof…” (Matthew 8:5-9) Think too of the occasion when Peter and his companions had just hauled in an enormous load of fish because Jesus had told them to let down their nets in spite of there being no fish. He fell down before Jesus and wailed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:1-10)
Our forebears in the faith had that same sense of awe as they gathered to learn from the apostles, to break bread and to pray together. The letter to Hebrews tells us,
You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
How we need to ask God to inspire in us that same sense of awe—each time we gather to take time to come before him consciously and deliberately and ask him to open our hearts afresh to the unfathomable mystery of his love and power. I have no doubt that we would know more of the Holy Spirit’s presence if we did.
A devotion to the apostles’ teaching, awe in the presence of the living God—and a third characteristic of those first Christians I would like to emphasize comes in a word for which there is really no adequate English equivalent. It is the word koinonia. Most often it is rendered “fellowship” as we see it in this morning’s passage. But if you think of fellowship (as I suspect most of us do) as what happens over a cup of coffee after the worship service, then we have fallen woefully short of what the New Testament means when it uses the word koinonia.
What it really means is having something in common on a profound level—and Luke gives us a picture of how that works out in practical terms in those last verses of Acts 2. Let me read them to you once again:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Now for us who have been immersed from infancy in the independent-minded, freedom-loving principles western society, that is a strange and even frightening picture. It may relieve you to know I am not advocating that we seek to replicate detail for detail all the practices of the early church.
What I am saying is that there was a genuine sense of caring and sharing among those first believers that you would not have found outside the church. I remember some years ago a pastor friend telling me of a member of his church who was part of a small group that met for Bible study and prayer. The man happened to work for a tobacco company. Over time he became convinced that as a Christian he could not in good conscience continue to do this and he shared it with the group. To his surprise, they all agreed that if he felt that this was the direction in which God was leading him, they would give him any financial support he might need in order to make the change—and they ended up caring for him and his family for the better part of a year until he found a new job.
Those people knew the meaning of the word koinonia. It was our Lord Jesus himself who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so I don’t believe it was by coincidence that Luke concludes the day of Pentecost with these words: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
As we look back on the mighty, rushing wind and on the tongues of fire that came upon those first believers, may we pray not for them to happen again, but for what they led to: to a wholehearted devotion to the apostles’ teaching, to a life-changing awe as we gather in the presence of the living God, and to a sense of community that is costly and real. In a word, may the Holy Spirit lead us to being the authentic body of Jesus in the world today.