I hope the Book of Acts is easy for you to find because you’ve got your handy dandy Acts bookmark with you. This is not just a bookmark; it’s also a reminder of the great themes—we’ve called them the keys—to the Book of Acts. They’re listed here on the bookmark. I don’t know if you remember when you were a kid the special decoder rings. Remember those? I never got one, but I always wanted one. Well, this is like a decoder bookmark, a special decoder to the Book of Acts. Let it help you; let it guide you and your reading of Acts over the weeks and months ahead.
(Read Acts 2:1–12)
God has a plan
So what are we going to do with a momentous, I mean really momentous, passage like this? Here is this long-promised, long-awaited event, anticipated for not just years but for centuries. And here in the scope of 12 verses we see it happening. This has been promised multiple times by the Old Testament prophets. Very clearly, at least 600 years back by the prophet Ezekiel, and then with even greater emphasis and passion by the prophet Joel. Many had alluded to it over all of those long years that the Old Testament prophets spoke. And then Jesus came. Actually, first John the Baptist came, and when he came baptizing, he said, “Don’t look at me. I baptize with water, but after me is coming someone who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
And then Jesus did come, and he spoke of this very openly. At one point in John 7, Jesus stood up and he cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” And then John says, “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
But as the day grew closer, Jesus gathered his disciples. In fact, on the night before he was crucified, he gathered them in the upper room and told them repeatedly that he would send to them another Helper, the Holy Spirit, who would be with them and in them. After his death and resurrection, just before he ascended to heaven, returning to the Father, he said to his disciples—look back at Acts 1:4-5—“While staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” Then look at verse 8, Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
So this longstanding promise—spoken of multiple times by the prophets who were speaking God’s Word, and then with an especially heightened emphasis and urgency from Jesus—now all of a sudden it’s here. This is a really monumental thing in terms of God’s unfolding plan in history that we read about here in the opening verses of Acts 2. The question that gets asked there at the end of verse 12 is exactly the right question: What does this mean? All this sound and you guys all speaking in foreign languages. What’s that mean? But we know what happened. The Holy Spirit had come. Luke tells us that, and he has prepared us for that. But nonetheless, it’s helpful for us to ask the same question. What, really, does this mean?
Now, let me tell you. We’re going to get a full and really wonderful explanation of what this means in what follows in chapter 2. Luke will give us this starting at verse 14 through Peter’s sermon. But even before that, there are some things to be said about what this means from what we see right here in these verses and from how it relates to what we’ve already seen back in chapter 1, when Jesus told his disciples to wait for this, when he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” So let me try to answer that question, at least in a preliminary way this morning. What does what we see happening here in verses 1–12 mean?
God is faithful to his promise
Well, first it means we have a faithful God. God is faithful to keep his promises. What God said he would do, he has done. He has sent—just like he promised—the Holy Spirit. Listen to what God had said through the prophet Ezekiel 600 years before this, in Ezekiel 36: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you, and I will give you a new heart and a new Spirit I will put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Now here it is: “And I will put my Spirit within you.”
Listen to the words of Joel that Peter will make so much of later in Acts 2. This is Joel 2, God speaking: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” Think of the words that Jesus spoke reiterating to the disciples this promise from God that had been spoken. You will be baptized by the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit will come upon you. He will be with you. He will be in you. I mean, you can imagine the expectation and the anticipation of these disciples and those others who follow Jesus gathered there in Jerusalem.
They knew the Old Testament Scriptures. They’d heard those passages from Ezekiel and from Joel as they gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath day many times. And they’d heard Jesus, they’d been there when he said those things. Their lives had been radically altered. I mean, that’s what happens when you follow Jesus. Your life is radically changed. Then they were devastated by his death, and then again they were full of joy and hope when it became clear that he was alive again. Then when Jesus made this promise and he told them to wait there in Jerusalem. At this point, Jesus had made two monumental promises. He had told them, “I will build my church, and I will send you the Spirit.” They might not have understood everything about how those two related, but they’d heard him say those things. So you can imagine their expectation and their anticipation, and now suddenly here it is.
In Acts 1, the disciples were waiting for the coming of the Spirit; in Acts 2, he comes. This is God being faithful to his promise, God doing what he said he would do, God faithfully moving forward in the accomplishment of his purpose. The coming of the Holy Spirit, foretold by the prophets, foretold by John the Baptist, foretold by Jesus, is now an accomplished fact. The Spirit has come. Now, clearly, this particular faithfulness of God is not some kind of unique incident; it’s not some isolated thing. God is faithful in all his works. I don’t know if you know this, but the characteristic of himself about which God speaks the most—do you know what it is? It’s his faithfulness. He wants us to know that about him so that we will trust him.
The best way to build trust is to make promises and then keep them. So I told my daughter, as I left the house early in the morning, that I would be back before 11am. When that happened, that built just a little bit more trust into my daughter’s heart. If I hadn’t and then I acted as if nothing was wrong, that would have eroded a little bit of trust in my daughter’s heart. Now, that’s just a small promise, but it was a promise. Almost 29 years ago, I made some really big promises. Twenty-nine years ago I stood before a minister who happened to be my future father-in-law and a whole bunch of witnesses and made some promises to Beverly that were among the most important words I’ll ever speak. I told her I would be faithful to her and not leave her until death parted us. That’s a really big promise. And you build trust by making promises and then keeping them.
That’s what God is doing all through the Bible, all through his dealings with his people. Here is God having made a very concrete promise, keeping it, and thereby showing himself to be faithful, trustworthy. So as he continues to unfold his plan through history, we can trust him that he will do what he has said he will do. He has said that he will continue to gather those people whom he has redeemed for himself.
Do you trust that he will faithfully do that? He has said that he will keep those that he has redeemed safely all the way through to the end. Do you trust that he will faithfully do that? He has said that he will gather—at some point he will gather his people and present them before himself on that day, blameless, based on the righteousness of Christ applied to them. Do you trust that he will faithfully do that? He has said that he will bring all his redeemed, all who are in Christ, into heaven where they will experience indescribable joy forever. Do you trust that he will faithfully do that?
One of the things that is happening here in Acts 2 certainly means is that God is a faithful God. He does what he says he will do. He keeps his promises. He is a faithful God, accomplishing all that he says he will do, and in that, we should find incredible rest and peace and joy.
The gospel is for all people
The second thing that we see here in the beginning of Acts 2 is that God desires all people to hear the good news about Jesus and to receive salvation through him. Or to put it more simply, the gospel is for all people. This is probably the most apparent and the most striking thing that is communicated by what happens here in Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit comes upon these believers, they’re all gathered in one place—Luke tells us that there in verse 1. We don’t know exactly what this place is, but it’s large enough to contain the 120 or so believers that Luke told us about back in chapter 1, and remember, it’s the day of Pentecost. That word Pentecost simply means 50th. And it gets its name from the fact that it was 50 days, the 50th day after Passover. Remember Jesus had been crucified at Passover. That’s when that happened.
There was a very important, symbolic reason why Jesus’ death happened at Passover. God orchestrated that. Just like the lamb that every Passover was sacrificed, Jesus was the sacrificial lamb whose blood was shed for the protection, the rescue, the salvation of his people. Then remember, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples, he interacted with them, for 40 days. Luke told us that back in chapter 1, verse 3. Then he ascended, but as he said to his disciples, “Listen, wait here in Jerusalem, you’re going to be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days, not many days, from now.” They didn’t know how many days. God knew exactly how many days—about 10 days. Because the day of Pentecost was also going to be a very symbolic thing for what God was going to do on that day. Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, was also called the Day of First Fruits. It was a day when the first fruits of the barley harvest were gathered, and they were presented to God. They would gather some of the very early barley and they would bake little loaves, and they would present them to God as an offering. So you can see how symbolic this would be, the first fruits of a harvest, the beginnings of a great gathering-in.
Pentecost was one of three what were called pilgrimage feasts or festivals, times when Jews from all over the world would do their best to come to Jerusalem. So many, many people were there from different places, some of them from very far away. They would be there in Jerusalem. In fact, estimates say that the normal population of Jerusalem, which was about 50,000 people, as best we know at that time, that population during these feasts would swell to four times, well over 200,000 people in that city. Jewish people came from all directions, literally, from the north, from the south, from the east, from the west, every direction.
So the city is full, and Luke tells us on that day—this highly symbolic day, the day of first fruits, and this highly strategic day when all these people are gathered in the city of Jerusalem—the Holy Spirit comes. Just as God had said, just as Jesus had promised. There is this great sound; there is like a roaring, like a mighty, rushing wind. Luke doesn’t say there’s a wind blowing everything around. He says there’s a sound like a wind. He is trying to communicate that there is something powerful going on here, God’s presence is there and moving among them, and there is this appearance of fire. It comes right on the disciples there. Fire regularly represents the presence of God. Remember when Moses was out there in the wilderness and he saw that burning bush? God spoke to him. Remember how the Israelites would walk through the desert led by a pillar of fire? Fire denotes the presence of God. I believe in this case that the fire appeared over each one of them to clearly communicate that the Holy Spirit had come on and into each one of them. This wasn’t just the Holy Spirit kind of coming into the room. No, each one was baptized, filled with, come upon by the Holy Spirit. Luke says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus said back in Acts 1:5. To be baptized by the Holy Spirit. This is what he said in Acts 1:8, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” They were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Now, notice verse 4, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Other tongues. Other languages. This is not just random, nonsense sounds; this is languages, foreign languages. We will see that very clearly in a moment, and it’s for a reason. In fact, it’s for a very exciting reason because that sound attracted people from around the area. All of that excitement of what’s happening, people are being attracted.
Verse 5 says, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem, Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together and they were bewildered because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” So this crowd is drawn to this place, probably at the same time the disciples are making their way out into the street. It seems like there’s some large, open area. It could be that this house that they were in is very close to the temple and so it could be that they moved now into the outer courts of the temple. We don’t know, but a crowd is growing. Look at verse 7, “And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’” Apparently, some in the crowd recognized Jesus’ disciples. They knew they were from Galilee, and this very well could have been said in kind of a mocking way because Galileans were kind of like the country bumpkins of Israel. They were known as kind of being unsophisticated, uneducated. At least, that’s what people thought. So these people are saying, “Where did they learn these languages?” Verse 8: “How is it that we can hear, each of us in his own native language?” So three times Luke makes it very clear that these are foreign languages. Verse 4, verse 6, and verse 8. He will actually say it again in verse 11. I mean, this would be like me standing up here and suddenly kind of speaking Cantonese, which I know none of, zero. And a visitor who happened to be here from China now hearing me preach the gospel in their own language. This is definite, discernible language. In verses 9 through 11, there is this naming of 15 different locations, different places, different tongues. We don’t know if every one of these 15 places that’s named represents a different language, but clearly the point is that many different languages are represented there in that crowd.
You probably noticed back in verse 5 that Luke had specified that these were Jews. Look there, verse 5. “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem, Jews ….” There were Jews from all over the Mediterranean world who had been dispersed over the centuries for various reasons. They’re Jewish; now they’ve come back home for this feast. But in verse 11, please notice, he says Jews and also proselytes. These would be Gentiles who had converted to Judaism from the influence of those Jews who had been dispersed throughout the world. Because they lived in those places and had lived in those places for years, those Jews, those proselytes would have learned those languages, or known those languages, and now they hear all of this that’s being spoken in those languages, which is communicating something enormous to them all. God intends this message to go out to all people.
Here’s the important thing: What was it that the disciples were saying in those spiritually enabled foreign languages? Were they commenting on the weather? Were they updating people on the latest Jerusalem news? No, look at verse 11. Both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. What is that? What are they actually talking about? Well, the first thing that might come to our minds might be the mighty acts of God that we read about in the Old Testament, like the parting of the Red Sea or the providing of manna from heaven. I don’t think that’s it. That is not the most likely mighty acts of God that they’re speaking of. There are things right here that point us in a different direction. Something far more immediate, something far more relevant to that crowd. Look over at verse 22 for just a moment. Peter is standing up. He says, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst.” See that same phrase? The mighty works of God. So all of the miracles that Jesus did pointed to who he was. Look at John 20:30-31, this is John, writing at the end of his Gospel after he has shared so many of the mighty works of God in Jesus. John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So all of these mighty works of God that Jesus had done, that John records, that Peter refers to, testify to who Jesus is. Now, look back at Acts 2:32. After having talked about Jesus for a bit, Peter says this, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” This particularly mighty work of God that the apostles won’t be able to stop talking about. The resurrection of Jesus authorized the mighty work that God did in the death of Jesus. That great substitutionary work that God did by which Jesus paid our penalty, our sins laid on him, and his perfect righteousness now credited to us. God did that, that mighty work, that substitutionary work providing complete forgiveness for us, complete reconciliation, the gift of life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So here are the mighty works of God in Jesus, what God has done through Jesus. That’s what the disciples are talking about, what God has done in Christ, in his life, in his death, in his resurrection. And all of that being spoken of in Arabic and Coptic and Latin and a dozen other languages so that all of those people can hear about it in their own tongue. It’s amazing. So that people can know Jesus died and rose again to give them life. Many languages but one message. The good news of forgiveness and freedom and new life in Jesus.
So what does this mean? The gospel is for all people. That shouldn’t be a surprise. If you trace the plan and the purpose of God from the beginning, you’ll see this coming. Way back in Genesis 11, people of the earth gather together to build a great tower. It’s called the Tower of Babel. They build it for their own name; they build it for their own security; they want to be independent from God. As an act of judgment on their pride and as a kind of restraint on their ability to cooperate in rebellion against God, God disperses them into a multitude of different languages and a multitude of different places. It’s the beginning of the nations. But immediately after Genesis 11 comes what? Genesis 12. What does God do in Genesis 12? God calls Abraham, and he tells him that he will make of him a nation, through which all the nations of the world—those nations that he’s just scattered—will be blessed and brought back into relationship with him. People from every tribe and tongue and nation. Now, God uses that nation of Israel in a variety of ways, but the main thing is that through that nation, he’s going to bring a Savior who will be for all nations. And when Jesus comes through that nation, we begin to see this. He tells his disciples, “Now, listen, I want you to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations,” and they probably are wondering at that point, “How are we going to do that? We don’t know their language.” Then on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes and enables them to miraculously speak such that all sorts of people from all kinds of places hear the good news about Jesus in their own language. God is sending a very clear message.
All these nations represented there, hearing the good news of reconciliation with God in Christ, and this is just the first fruits of the harvest. What it will become is shown to us in Revelation 7, for example, when before the throne of the Lamb, there are people from every tribe and tongue, and as you get to that beautiful picture at the end of Revelation, you see that heaven is populated with people from all the nations. That’s the second thing this means, the gospel is for all people. God is eager for all to hear the good news and to come to salvation.
I want to just add a little something more personal to us here. Luke really majors on the effect of this on the crowd. Did you notice this? Verse 6: “And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered.” Verse 7: “They were amazed and astonished.” Verse 12: “All were amazed and perplexed.” Luke really majors on how the crowd is reacting. But imagine the effect of this on the disciples themselves. They’re not doing this on their own. This is happening to them, through them, miraculously. What effect would this have had on them? Well, certainly one of the effects is to open their eyes to the people right around them in their city. People from all kinds of different backgrounds, real people with real spiritual needs, with real spiritual destinies. This is to help them see as God is seeing, to get them looking out, paying attention to the people around them.
That’s what God would have us be doing, looking outward and seeing there’s people out there. Seeing the person who might come here on a Sunday morning, who is new and feels uncomfortable, and who knows what their spiritual need is, and reaching out to them like God does. Or seeing that person in your office or at your school. A real person with real spiritual needs, and a real spiritual destiny, and seeing them. Looking and seeing and reaching out like God does. That’s part of what God is doing here, helping his people, helping his disciples have eyes—his eyes—to see, and I believe that is what God is seeking to do in our lives. Seeing people, not just seeing but reaching out, as a church, like God would. I mean, the end result of this is remarkable. Look at verse 41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Who knows how God will use us, but without question, he wants us to have eyes to see and hearts to reach out.
Jesus is building and caring for his church
Alright, there’s one last thing, one last answer to the question, “What does this mean?” It means that the risen and ascended Lord Jesus is actively establishing and building and caring for his church. Even though he is in heaven at the right hand of the Father, he is powerfully active, powerfully present now by his Spirit. He is with us. I tell you, we need to be reminded of this regularly. Jesus is with us. He is here now, always. He said, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” We are to bank on his daily presence with us. Remember Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Then he gave his life to redeem his church, and then he rose from the dead, he ascended to the Father where he is now, and here is this small gathering of his followers, this apparently inconsequential gathering of just 120 people out of 50,000 in that city. They’re told to wait.
I wonder sometimes if you ever feel that way. Here we are, this little group in this place where there are 150,000 people within a 10-mile radius of us. And here we are, this little group, this inconsequential little gathering of people. Then the Holy Spirit comes, and the gospel is preached and thousands are saved. What does that mean? Well, once again, look ahead for a moment to verse 32. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” The risen, exalted Lord actively establishing, building, caring for his church. This is the birthday of the church. The firstfruits. The harvest that we see in the Book of Acts is amazing, to say nothing about the unstoppable gospel going out into the world for the centuries since then. I mean, that list of nations in Acts 2 is just a hint of where this story is going. This was also the beginning of the Holy Spirit dwelling in believers. Jesus caring for them. Remember he said he would send a Helper to be with us. What does this mean? It means Jesus is actively building and caring for his church, and he hasn’t stopped doing that.
Folks, this is our story. We are part of the church that Christ is building, and we are involved with his mission going forward. This is our story, and God wants us fully in it. Quite honestly, I don’t want to be living any other story, and my heart’s desire for you is that you are not allowing your life to be caught up in some other story that’s all about you. Here is a faithful, sovereign God with this amazingly beautiful plan, perfectly overseen by the risen Lord Jesus who someday we will see face-to-face, having brought it all to perfect completion, to his glory.