Acts 2:1-21: The Holy Spirit working through the Word

Peter preaching (610x351)On the day of Pentecost, people gathered because they heard a powerful, mighty wind. And as they gathered, curious about the sound, they saw something astounding. Tongues of fire had come down on the New-Covenant Church, on all 120 people.

Of course, none of us has experienced such an event. And that makes perfect sense. For verse 1 of Acts 2 says, literally from the Greek, “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled.” What happened that day fulfilled what John the Baptizer and Jesus had spoken of earlier. It even fulfilled what the Old-Covenant Prophet, Joel, had prophesied. So there won’t be another day of Pentecost.

Yet, being who we are, being a people impressed by 4th of July pyrotechnics, we could easily succumb to thinking that if we could put on a show like that, we’d have people clamoring to worship at our church. Wouldn’t that resolve our budgetary woes? That’s the temptation. We want to do what WE can do to grow the Church of God.

But the truth is that no church in the world could pull off the events of Pentecost. You would need special effects that don’t even exist. You’d need a way to create a mighty sound like wind with no source of that sound. You’d need fire to appear spontaneously in the air with no source of fuel for that fire. And you’d need a way for people to speak in languages that they had never studied or knew before.

Fortunately, for us, Acts 2:7 doesn’t read, “And they were astonished, saying, ‘Did you see those tongues of fire blazing on top of their heads? That was awesome!’” No, it wasn’t the tongues of fire that astounded the people. It wasn’t the sound of the rushing wind. If what they saw had impressed them, they didn’t say so. What impressed them was that they heard the mighty acts of God in their own language.

Today our paraments are red. They are red because red reminds us that the Holy Spirit appeared on the day of Pentecost in tongues of fire. And over the past 2,000 years, it has become popular to associate the work of the Holy Spirit with fire.

We naturally gravitate to what is flashy and showy. We want flashy, special effects in our movies. And some of us want our worship services to blow us away like a rock concert. We think that will get people in the pews and money in the offering plate. And that might be true. Eye-popping special effects and moving music might get people in the door. But that doesn’t mean it will get them into the Christian faith.

If we wanted to show from the Scriptures that flashy spectacles bring people into the one, true faith, we’d have a hard time doing that. In the Scriptures, you’d find that flashy spectacles caused people to fear God and despair of their salvation. The result of such spectacles is rarely faith; usually, it’s terror, despair, or unbelief.

That’s what God’s use of miraculous spectacles did to Pharaoh in the Old Testament. Even the Israelites, who were delivered through the plagues, fell into unbelief many different times. When Isaiah saw a vision of God that He described in Isaiah 6, he thought he was a dead man. And on the day of Jesus’ transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus blazing in all His glory, Peter ignored what Jesus was saying and wanted to set up tents to stay there, instead.

The people on the day of Pentecost got it right. They ignored the fire and paid attention to the words. It was the words that, in the end, fulfilled the promises Jesus had made about the Holy Spirit. It was the words that were testifying of Jesus. It was the words that kindled faith in the hearts of those who had gathered that day.

Luke wrote the book of Acts. If the Holy Spirit had wanted Luke to spend much time talking about how incredible the day of Pentecost was to see, he could have done that. He could have described the flames and the people’s reaction to them in great detail. But he didn’t. The Holy Spirit devoted more than ten times as much space to Peter’s sermon than He does describing the eye-popping flames of fire.

God the Holy Spirit didn’t want us to focus on the flames but the words. The Scriptures have no place for the saying, “Seeing is believing.” In the Church, hearing is believing. The ear, not the eye, is the organ of faith.

That’s why the Holy Spirit doesn’t give any space to those who were awestruck by the flames. If there were people who were more overwhelmed by what they saw than by what they heard, Scripture says nothing about them.

The Holy Spirit comes to you today in the same way that He came to the people on the day of Pentecost. He comes to you in words. If you respond with amazement and joy to the Holy Spirit’s coming, it should be for the same reason the people were amazed on Pentecost, 2,000 years ago. They said, “We hear them speaking in our own languages about the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).

And what were those mighty works? Peter proclaimed them in the sermon that he preached on that day. He said:

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was clearly attested to you by God through miracles, wonderful proofs, and miraculous signs that God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. Although he was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge, you, with the help of wicked men, crucified this very man and killed him. But God raised him from the dead, ending the pains of death, because death had no power to hold him. [Acts 2:22-24]

That’s how the Holy Spirit worked on that day of Pentecost. He came as He had promised to come. He came in the way that He most loves to come. He came in the Word that was preached by the one whom He had sent to preach it.

That Word that Peter preached cut the people to the heart. It cut them to the heart because Peter minced no words with them about the Word Himself, Jesus Christ. He said that his hearers had crucified and killed Jesus through the hands of wicked men.

Those were heavy and harsh words. Most of the people that Peter was speaking to that day had nothing to do with our Lord’s crucifixion. Only some of the thousands of Israelites who had gathered that day had been in the crowd that shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Some of those gathered that day were probably hearing about Jesus’ fate for the first time. But Peter makes no distinctions. All of his hearers killed the Lord of Glory. All of his hearers are guilty of murdering the Son of God.

The Holy Spirit still has pastors of the Church to preach such a sermon, even now. He sends pastors to preach repentance into the forgiveness of sins, to speak both the Law and the Gospel (Luke 24:47). Each sinner must hear that it was his sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. And that’s true: You and I are both personally responsible for the Lord’s death. Let that soak in for a minute.

That was the point Martin Luther made when he once said:

God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.[1]

Luther wasn’t encouraging you to sin and not worry about it. Instead, he was reminding us of what Peter had preached. We are sinners, real sinners. And only real sinners need a real Savior.

But Peter didn’t stop with those condemning words. He continued by saying:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this promise belongs to you and to your children, and to all those who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself [Acts 2:38-39]

Peter wanted everyone who heard his sermon to know that Christ had set up a way for them to receive His forgiveness and the Holy Spirit that He had promised to His people. On the same day that Peter told the people that they were responsible for Jesus’ death, he told them that Christ had gone to the cross to remove those sins far from them.

He told them that through baptism they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit, who brought them to faith through the Word that Peter had preached, would live in them through the waters of holy baptism. The Holy Spirit wanted to deliver to Peter’s hearers everything that Jesus had won for them on the cross.

Peter preached to them the worst news possible–that the hearers of his sermon were responsible for murdering God in the flesh. But Peter followed that bad news with the best news possible–that through that same act of murder, God had forgiven their sins.

Today, on this day of Pentecost, you receive the same miracle that the people received 2,000 ago. The Holy Spirit comes to you with the word of Law and Gospel. You are responsible for crucifying Jesus, for your sins nailed Him to the cross. Yet, God took that worst miscarriage of justice and uses it to forgive and free you. And God gives you what Jesus did for you on the cross in the waters of holy baptism.

God loves you and has done everything needed for your salvation. So, rejoice, people of God. You are forgiven, and you are free! Amen.



[1] “Let Your Sins Be Strong”: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon, Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg (Segment). Translated by Erika Bullmann Flores