This last weekend, Christians of many traditions from all over the world celebrated Pentecost, “the birthday of the church”. Many Christians see the day of Pentecost as the beginning of the Christian Church as we know it, the day the Holy Spirit came down and stirred the disciples up to street-preaching, converting thousands.
Like so many things, the events of Pentecost are best understood against the backdrop of history and context. So how far back do we need to go to understand the events of Pentecost and the mission God has for us to fill?
Well, let’s start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start). In Genesis 1, God creates the world, and then He creates us.
“‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness: let them have dominion over [every other living thing on earth]. So God created man in His own image […] then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:26-28, NKJV, paraphrased)
From this passage, we can learn several things, of which two are:
(1) Human beings are created in the image of God
(2) Human beings, the image-bearers, are to fill the earth
Unfortunately, just a chapter or two later, we human begins messed it up; we sinned, our close relationship with God was tainted, and the image of Him which we carried was distorted. Sin was rife; one brother killed another, and wickedness abounded, and God was so grieved about it all that he came very close to wiping it all out and starting with a clean slate.
You know what happened instead. But we find something very interesting at the beginning of Genesis 9:
“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and the fear of you [shall be on every other living thing on earth]’.” (Genesis 9:1-2, NKJV, paraphrased)
Sound familiar? Even though we had messed up, God’s mission for us remained the same: “You are My image bearers: fill the earth with My image.”
But we have a habit of messing up. Many churches who follow the liturgy read another passage from Genesis on Pentecost: Chapter 11:1-9. This is the story of the Tower of Babel.
There are many things to comment on about that incident, but in the context of this story of God’s mission for man, there is one which I want to draw out. Proper to Genesis 11, God’s dealings with humans were on a ‘God-to-mankind’ basis: we were all one sort of homogenous lump. After Genesis 11, and the establishment of different people groups, ethnicities, and languages, God got specific.
In Genesis 12, God speaks to mankind again, and reiterates his mission again. Or, rather, I should say, God speaks to a man.
“The Lord said to Abram: […] I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing […] in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, NKJV, paraphrased)
God’s mission hasn’t changed. His mission is still that His image will be spread to the ends of the earth. But His method has changed. No longer does He speak to all the humans as a whole; He has chosen a single nation to show Himself to the world.
Of course, the nation had to cook for a couple of hundred years first, before it became clear exactly how He would go about blessing the entire world through this one nation. In Exodus, He brings His people, now numerous, out of Egypt and gives them an identity of their own. In Exodus 12, we see them leave, and Passover (Pesach) is instituted. About fifty days later, in Exodus 19-31, God gives them His Law.
Okay, they mess it up almost before He had finished giving it, and Moses had to write it out again, and then God says:
“‘Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people, I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you’.” (Exodus 34:10, NKJV)
What had God told Abra(ha)m? “In you, I will bless everyone on earth”. Now, he’s telling the Israelites, “With you, I will show myself to everyone on earth.”
The people then launch into a God’s-house-building frenzy, and in Exodus 40:34-38, we see the glory of God filling the tabernacle, cloud by day and fire by night, and staying with the Israelites for the rest of their journeys. It’s a visible, dramatic sign to the world, “The God of Israel is real. God is with us.”
And there’s another feast Jews celebrate to this day based on this event: Sukkot (Tabernacles), when they build a little tabernacle and remember when God’s glory came down to live with them.
So God has chosen His people, and He’s said that He’s going to use them to show himself to the world. How, exactly? Moses answers this question for us, immediately before the Israelites entered the Promised Land to set up their great nation:
“Be careful to observe [God’s statues and commandments], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgements as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8, NKJV)
Israel’s job was, by following God’s Law, to be blessed by Him so that everyone on earth would be able to look at them and go, “Wow! Look at them! Surely their God must be real, look at what He’s done for them and how righteous their society is.”
Unfortunately, Israel, as we know, didn’t do such a great job at that. In fact, the closest they ever came was during the reign of Solomon.
Incidentally, during this period was what God’s glory, which had been living in the tabernacle at Bet-El, moved into the Temple at Jerusalem, which Solomon built, and Jerusalem, ruled over by Solomon who had been encouraged on several occasion by God to be righteous, started attracting the attention of the rest of the world.
In 1 Kings 10, we read the details of one particularly visit to Jerusalem, in which the Queen of Sheba says, “I did not believe [the report about your land and your wisdom] until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me! […] Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:7-9, NKJV, abridged)
Here we see God’s plan for Israel in action: Follow God’s Law, be blessed by God, and show His image to everyone so that they might believe.
I don’t need to say once again that this didn’t continue for very long. In fact, Solomon’s son only lasted three days before the kingdom split in two, and about four hundred years of mostly unrighteous kings and degradation later, Israel went into exile and God’s glory left the Temple (see Ezekiel 10 for details).
In fact, things got so bad that God didn’t even talk to His people for about four hundred years.
Enter Jesus, “God in flesh”. Of course, a book could be written – and many, many books have been written – about exactly what Jesus accomplished on Earth, but I’m going to skip forwards to the end of His time down here with us, when he said two things.
The first, found at the end of Matthew, is this:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
God’s mission hasn’t changed one bit, but his method has. No longer is the method “come and see”, it’s “go and show”. Consider this: the plan for Israel was that, by following God’s commands, they would be able to show His image to the world.
In Jesus, we have seen the image of God; in fact, we’ve seen God, but with one crucial difference: God in human form, an utterly righteous human being, connected to God. The work of a disciple is to become like the discipler; the work of the Disciples was to strive towards the image of God himself… and then to go out, make disciples of their own, to pass on the image of God.
In order to do fulfill this mission, they were equipped, just as the Israelites were back in Exodus 40, with God’s power. As Jesus himself said, immediately before ascending into heaven,
“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NKJV)
We see this fulfilled a week later, in the next chapter – the Day of Pentecost, the fifty days after Passover (see Leviticus 23 for details) – the Feast of Tabernacles, the anniversary of when God came down and His glory stayed in the camp, among the people.
And exactly the same thing happened again.
“Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)
“They were all with one accord in one place, and suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1-2)
What were the Israelites to do, now they had the glory of the Lord in their midst? They were to stand as a sign to the whole world, showing every other people and language group that their God was real.
So what were the Disciples to do, now they had the glory of the Lord on them? They were to go out into the whole world, showing every other people and language group that their God was real.
We, the bearers of the image of God, are to carry His Spirit out into all the world, showing everyone our relationship with God, making them disciples – sharing the image with them – showing them how to love and obey God.
In six thousand years, God’s plan for us hasn’t changed. We are still His people, His image-bearers, tasked to live in a loving relationship with Him and to fill the earth with His image.