Less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christian congregations he had founded in what we now call southern Turkey. At that time there was a controversy going on in the Christian church about whether you had to be Jewish to become a Christian. After all, some people said, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so it made sense to think that it was the Jews he came to save. This meant that in order to become a Christian, you first had to be circumcised and commit yourself to obeying all the Jewish laws – keeping kosher, observing the festivals and Sabbaths and all six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah.
To Paul, this was nonsense. In Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). All that’s necessary is to believe in Jesus, get baptized, and learn the way of ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6). And Paul has a knockout argument he’s going to use to prove his point. Listen to what he says in Galatians chapter three:
The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?…Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:2, 5).
Now, I doubt very much whether any of you here have lost any sleep at all over the issue of whether or not you need to become Jewish in order to be a Christian! That stopped being an issue in the Christian church nearly two thousand years ago! But what I do want you to notice is the extraordinary argument that Paul uses here. He assumes – and he knows he can assume – that every single person in the Galatian churches has had a supernatural experience that they understood as ‘receiving the Spirit’. How did that happen? Was it by obeying the Jewish law, or putting your faith in Jesus? The Galatians know the answer: they believed in Jesus, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and then they began to experience other supernatural events in their lives – miracles being worked among them, as Paul says.
I think this would be a difficult argument for me to use in a sermon today. If I stood up in the pulpit and said to you: “Look, folks, answer me a simple question. You remember the time when you received the Holy Spirit? Was it because you put your faith in Jesus, or was it because you obeyed the Ten Commandments?” My guess is that a lot of people would frown and think to themselves, “Uh, what does he mean by ‘receive the Holy Spirit’? How do I know whether or not I’ve received the Holy Spirit? How can you tell?” In other words, something that was a normal part of the Christian life when Paul wrote Galatians – something so normal that he could assume that every single person in the congregation had experienced it, and would know they had experienced it – has now become something completely foreign to us, something we don’t understand.
And that’s why this Feast of Pentecost is so important for us. It’s clear from the rest of the New Testament that Pentecost was not an isolated event. The specifics weren’t repeated – the rushing wind, the tongues of fire and so on – but the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit is assumed throughout the New Testament. It happens again to the same believers in Acts chapter 4; it happens to a group of new converts in Samaria in chapter 8; it happens to Cornelius and his household in chapter 11, and to a group of believers in Ephesus in chapter 19. And in the gospels, Jesus assumes that it’s a gift the Father wants to give to every one of us; he says,
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).
So let’s take a closer look at this Pentecost story and see what we can learn from it.
Read the rest here.