Not long after I became a Christian, I became fascinated with early church history. A friend at our church in Houston recommended Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. I discovered the church history F.F. Bruce, author of such works as New Testament History and Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. I read 19th century church historians, like William Ramsay.
A few years later, when I was in my master’s program, I took a seminar called “Athens and Jerusalem” and one in early church history. I read some of the great secular church historians of the 19th century, like Adolf von Harnack (whom my seminar leader always referred to as “the great von Harnack,” emphasis upon “the great”). And Peter Brown’s wonderful biography Augustine of Hippo. I read a lot in the early church fathers, and discovered Tertullian, a third century lawyer whose fire and passion in his defense of Christianity still breathes even in English translation. (For the record, Tertullian was known for being something other than totally orthodox, but it’s unclear what the something was.)
And the question, or questions, that kept nagging at me were, what fueled the growth of the church? Why did it become stronger in persecution? What did the early church have that we did not? Was it simply a matter of being closer in chronological time to Jesus and the disciples?
The answer to all of these questions turned out to be the same: the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised his disciples that he would send a helper. And he told them to wait. It’s the part of the passage in Acts 1 that is easy to miss or skip over – the waiting. The helper was coming, but not on the disciples’ timetable. No, the helper would arrive on God’s timetable, at God’s timing. (We Americans are okay with the idea of a helper, especially if we’re the ones doing the helping, but the idea of waiting? We want to get it done now.)
The disciples didn’t have to wait long. On Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, 50 days after the resurrection, the helper comes But he comes in a totally unexpected and original way: the disciples, gathered together, hear a sound, a sound that fills the whole house where they are together. The sound is like “the blowing of a violent wind came down from heaven.”
And it’s not just the sound. The disciples see tongues of fire that apparently appear together and then separate, coming to rest on each of them. It was those tongues of fires hovering or resting on each disciple that “filled all of them with the Holy Spirit.” And the impact was immediate: each of them began to speak in different languages, recognizable to the people in Jerusalem for Pentecost. This wasn’t mere babbling of sounds but real languages, understandable languages.
People were amazed and shocked. And from the start, there were the cynics and scoffers, sneering that the disciples must have drunk too much wine. (Obviously, someone missed a marketing opportunity here – “drink the wine and speak a foreign language.”)
And from that day, the fishermen, a tax collector, a prostitute, a political zealot and others from the lower end of the economic and cultural worlds would go on to capture an empire, the mightiest empire the world has known.
“For some reason,” writes Francis Chan in Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, “we don’t think we need the Holy Spirit. We don’t expect the Holy Spirit to act. Or if we do, our expectations are often misguided and self-serving. Given our talent set, experience, and education, many of us are fairly capable of living rather successfully (according to the world’s standards) without any strength from the Holy Spirit.”
We don’t wait. We rely on our own abilities instead of God’s. We can do this on our own.
And very little of lasting value happens. We certainly don’t conquer empires.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading Chan’s Forgotten God. To see more posts on this chapter, “I’ve Got Jesus. Why Do I Need the Holy Spirit,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.
Photograph of the ruins of the library at Ephesus by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.