Pentecost 2017

4 June 2017
St. John 14:23-31


Unfortunately, people have a lot of wrong ideas about the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. So let us consider the beginning of today’s second reading, from Acts 2. All the disciples were together in one place, in a house, “and suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1–4). The Holy Spirit did two miraculous things. He gave them the gift to speak real languages that they had never learned, and He put His words into their mouths. St. Paul calls these gifts “tongues” and “prophecy” (1 Cor. 12, 14). Let us consider these two gifts, and then decide whether they still happen today.

What are tongues? Nothing other than real human languages, not the babbling of misguided Pentecostals, which has been proved to be no real language at all, and which the false prophets of other religions can do just as well. The true gift of tongues was the ability to speak real human languages that one had never learned. Those are tongues. Now what is prophecy? I personally have never met a real prophet, and you probably haven’t met one either. So we have to learn from the Bible what prophecy is. A prophet speaks words that the Holy Spirit gives him to say. The Lord said: “If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD” (Num. 12:6–8). That is to say, the Lord speaks or shows things to a prophet, and the prophet tells other people what God has to say.

Now there is more than one way to have the Holy Spirit and to prophesy: in a holy way and in an unholy way. Not everyone who prophesies is holy! When the people of Israel came out of Egypt, a pagan prophet named Balaam gave some true prophecies about how Israel would win great victories, and even about how Christ our Lord would one day be born (Num. 24). Yet Balaam was not a holy man; he had the Holy Spirit in an unholy way. At the time of Jesus Christ, the chief priest Caiaphas said that Jesus should be killed so that the people could be saved, and the Gospel says, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the people” (John 11:51). Yet Caiaphas was not a holy man; he had the Holy Spirit in an unholy way. Evil King Saul received the Spirit in an unholy way too. When Saul was trying to kill David, he sent messengers to find him. When the messengers found the prophet Samuel, they prophesied instead. That is, they completely forgot about their job and they stayed with Samuel, probably seeing visions, and raving and raging. Then Saul sent other messengers, but when they came to Samuel, they, too, prophesied. Then this happened a third time. Finally, King Saul himself went looking for David. But he, too, found the prophet Samuel instead. And then one of the most bizarre things of the Bible took place. We read in 1 Samuel 19: “And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night.” This is madness. This is losing your mind. This is a bizarre and dangerous way to prophesy. In fact, it is unholy. When I say that these unbelievers “had the Holy Spirit,” that is totally different than “receiving the Holy Spirit” and “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” For Balaam, Saul, and Caiaphas, the Holy Spirit was just using them to do His work. He was not filling their hearts; He was not hallowing their souls. What happened with them was completely different than what happened today, on the day of Pentecost. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the disciples to make them holy, to make them saints. And here the Holy Spirit shows Himself as a sober, peaceful spirit, who causes them to speak the great works of God. This is the true, New Testament prophecy, the kind of prophecy that St. Paul described with these words: “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:32–33).

We have been discussing what happened when “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” We haven’t yet touched on the words “they were all.” If you look back to the first chapter of Acts, you’ll find that in those days after Jesus ascended to heaven, the apostles were not alone. “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Therefore I see no reason to deny that they, too, were filled with the Holy Spirit. Traditional Christian artwork depicting the day of Pentecost gets this right: usually St. Mary is painted with the apostles, and they all have tongues of fire on their heads. What does this mean? It means that everyone needs the gift of the Holy Spirit. There are different gifts, different vocations, but the same Spirit. The women prophesied too. They, too, spoke the great works of God. Yet they did it in a holy way. These were holy women. They spoke in such a way that they were not teaching men in public. That day of Pentecost was very similar to one of our church services. We have a mixed group here—young and old, male and female—and we all have the words of God in our mouths, but only some men, the called ministers of Christ, do the teaching. In a similar way, there is a difference between a classroom teacher’s speaking and the students’ speaking. You see, these holy women would face trials and temptations, too, no less than the men. They needed the Holy Spirit, too. The gift of the Holy Spirit came to all the disciples without exception, so that Peter in his sermon could quote the prophet Joel, saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This is not a special grace given to ministers, but a grace common to all the Christians at that time. The special gift given to pastors for carrying out their duties is a different gift of the Holy Spirit—something distinct from this.

So that is prophecy, that is tongues. But now we need to know, does it still happen? The answer is maybe, and the answer is yes. First the maybe. Does God still give the miraculous gift of tongues? Are there still true Christian prophets? Maybe. Maybe God still gives these gifts. Our Lutheran Confessions mention a monk by the name of John Hilten who lived around the year 1500. Our Lutheran Confessions say that he prophesied many things that actually happened. And many of Luther’s followers considered him to be a prophet. So maybe these fantastic gifts of the Holy Spirit still happen. Or maybe not. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). That is to say, at some point in time, there will be no more prophecies, and no more miraculous gifts of tongues. Have we reached that time? Maybe so. But it really doesn’t matter. Miracles are not important for our time. St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the early 400’s, wrote some wise words about this. He wrote:

One cannot find which is the true church either from miracles, which have been removed, or from the behavior of Christians, which has deteriorated.” From this he concludes: “Whoever wants to learn which is the true church of Christ, from what source shall he learn it except only through the Scriptures? Because the Lord knew what great confusion would occur in the last days, He commands that Christians, those who are in Christendom, who want to have the firmness of true faith flee to nothing other than to the Scriptures.[1]

So does this still happen today? Does God still give miraculous gifts? Maybe, maybe not.

But if we’re talking about being filled with the Holy Spirit, if we’re talking about the Holy Spirit coming to you and living within you, if we’re talking about the Holy Spirit giving you His best gifts of faith, hope, and love, then the answer is absolutely, unmistakenly, categorically, YES. This still happens. The Holy Spirit still comes to you. He comes to you through the Gospel and He comes through the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit comes to you and does two things: He forgives your sins because Jesus died for you, and He heals you. Those are the two things. Forgiveness and eternal life. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t just behavior improvement. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not in any way some kind of Pentecostal raving, like what happened with evil King Saul. The gift of the Holy Spirit is about salvation. He comes to save you who belong to Christ, you who have been justified, and He gives you the holy life of eternity.

What I’m saying is that the Holy Spirit is not just the hallower, He is also the enlivener. He is the Lord and giver of life. We confess this in the creed. It is based on the Spirit’s work in Genesis 1–2, and He keeps it going in an ongoing way even to this day. The Psalmist sings about this: “Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth” (Psalms 104:29-30). He is the Lord and giver of life. So it does not seem right when the Lord “takes away their breath, they die, and return to the dust.” We miss our friend, brother, father, as the case may be. We say with Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life, and just as the Lord Jesus did not remain in death, neither will His Christians. Christians have the Holy Spirit as their gift from God, and with the Spirit in them, their death must be a temporary rest, until, like the valley of dry bones, the Spirit comes upon them, the army lives, and as the Psalmist says, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” This will happen! And it is the Holy Spirit who will do it.

This is the joy of our high and holy feast of Pentecost. It still happens. The Holy Spirit comes to you and fills you with Himself.

To God the Father be glory with the Son and this same Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes

[1]          Quoted in Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Church, § 138 (Preuss edition, 5:378A).


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