We’ve been spending the last number of weeks talking about revival. We’ve seen that it’s God’s work, not ours, and that we’re utterly dependent on him—that only God can bring the dead to life, and that’s exactly what he’s on about doing. We took some time to read the end of the story so that we know where it’s going, which is the total renewal of creation: all things (including us) will be made entirely new. We’ve been reminded that everything we have is God’s, and he calls us to spend all of it—our time, our money, our talents and skills—in his service. Where we might use our lives to pile up temporary treasure in this world which is passing away, he gives us the opportunity to use them instead to store up treasure in the next, which is eternal.
With all of that said, we need more—we need to go beyond the limits of our own experience and see what revival looks like. That’s why we’re going to spend the next several weeks in the first part of the book of Acts, which records the first mass movement of the Spirit of God in human history. When the Holy Spirit goes to work on a large scale in the full power of God, what happens?
The first thing I would note is that what happens is beyond belief. I mean that in two ways. One, it’s beyond what we’re prepared to believe. As human beings, we’re wired for faith, but we’re limited by experience—not just our own, but also the experiences others have shared with us. We’re limited by what we’ve learned to be possible, and plausible, and convincing. We can stretch our limits, of course, if we really think about it; but even then we can only stretch them so far.
It’s hard to break out of the assumption that things will continue to go on much as we’ve known them to go on without a whole lot of evidence to convince us otherwise. When the Spirit of God moves, people get that evidence, and they get it all at once. Acts 2:1-2 tells us the disciples were all gathered in one house, and we think “single-family residence,” but I don’t think that’s the case. This was Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, one of the great feasts of the Jewish year, and we know the temple in Jerusalem was commonly called the house of God. I’m pretty sure the disciples were right there in the midst of all the worshipers, right at the heart of their nation, when the sound of a mighty wind filled the temple and flames appeared and settled on their heads.
The wind and fire were unmistakable signs to the Jews that God had just entered the building, and that he had come in power. That was bizarre enough, but then to top that, this gaggle of Galileans—that meant “redneck hillbillies” in Hebrew, with all due apologies to those who know how it feels to be dismissed in that way—these Galileans suddenly turn into international linguists, preaching flawlessly in the first languages of everyone in the temple. You can just hear people’s minds shorting out.
As we see in verse 13, though, the work of the Holy Spirit is beyond belief in another way: it’s beyond what many people are willing to believe. Some in the crowd made fun of the disciples and said, “They’re drunk.” How ridiculous is that? When was the last time you saw someone who spoke better and more clearly because they were drunk? Never mind the idea that alcohol could teach you a foreign language. This is an absolutely insane response, unless we conclude one thing: These people’s hearts are so closed to God, they couldn’t hear it.
There’s a scene in the Chronicles of Narnia, in The Magician’s Nephew, where Aslan is creating life in Narnia, and he gives some of the animals the ability to talk. One of the humans standing nearby, over the course of the larger scene, has worked so hard to convince himself that what he’s seeing isn’t really happening that unlike all the rest of them, he can’t hear speech—only animal noises. I think that’s what we have in verse 13. These are folks who have worked so long and hard to protect themselves against God that when he works this miracle, they can’t hear speech, only a wordless garble.
So, the work of the Spirit is beyond belief. Second, when the Spirit moves in power, he breaks down our walls and bridges our divides. Obviously, as we’ve just noted, some people are so hard-hearted, they resist, but this is what the Spirit is doing. That’s why this particular miracle, because language is the original divider, going all the way back to the curse of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. At Pentecost, God undoes that curse at a stroke and instantly connects all these people to the disciples in a powerful and primal way. Out of nowhere, someone is speaking to them not as spots in a faceless crowd, but in the names that they wear at home, in the languages of their families and neighbors—and they respond to that. They can’t help it.
That response opens the door for Peter to speak, and gives him credibility he could never have won on his own. He doesn’t have to tell them why they should listen to him—they know why. He doesn’t have to tell them he has something to say that they need to hear—they know that too. This miracle of the languages happens on a huge scale, but it’s also an intimate miracle in the ears and hearts of every foreigner there. Somehow, for some reason, God is speaking directly and personally to them, and that demands an explanation. Peter is the one who has that explanation, and so they mustlisten. That gives him a platform to preach the gospel. This points us to the third aspect, which is that when the Spirit moves in power, he does it to talk about Jesus.
Fourth, when the Spirit talks about Jesus, he begins with the bad news and ends with the good news. Too often, the church does this backwards. We start with the good news—as I said a few weeks ago, we say “Jesus died for your sins” to people who never knew they had any, and have no idea what Jesus dying has to do with anything anyway. But if we make it sound really good, sometimes they come even if they don’t really get it; and then we look at them and wonder why they haven’t changed any.
Well, they’re still living pretty much the same way because they don’t see any good reason not to. Their view of their own sin is shallow and small—it’s just not that big a deal—and so they see the gospel as equally shallow and small. They have no idea what they’ve been saved from, or for, and so they have no great reason for gratitude. As Jesus said, who has been forgiven little, loves little, and so without love and gratitude to give them the desire for the holiness of God, they have no motivation to change. So, we use what we know from this world—we try to use the bad news of the law to drive them to change with commands and warnings and threats, and we come to be known as cosmic killjoys.
He begins by convicting people of sin, opening their eyes to the depth of their spiritual brokenness and peril; then, once they know how dire their need is, that they bear a guilt for which they cannot atone, then he tells them of the One who already has.