But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.” Luke 1:13,15 What did the Israelites know about the Holy Spirit before that momentous first day of Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus? In the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49). For those of us who have grown up in the Church, we have understood that Jesus wanted them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. This is what is referred to in the phrase “power from on high”. Yet, here in Luke’s opening lines, we find Zacharias' and Elizabeth’s son being filled with the Holy Spirit “while yet in his mother’s womb”. If people could already receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before Jesus’ resurrection, why exactly did the disciples have to wait for anything? Another way to phrase this question would be, “What was that first post-Easter day of Pentecost really all about?
I’m just going to let the cat out of the bag from the start here and say that I “speak in tongues” on a regular basis. And by that, I don’t mean that I can interpret Spanish or speak Swahili but that I speak a language in prayer that I do not know or understand. I find this gift helpful and useful. That being said, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that first post-Easter day of Pentecost is not about speaking in tongues. What the day of Pentecost is about is central to Luke’s entire gospel. Only in a world that has been in the habit of individualizing the gospel message out of its’ original context could we come to the conclusion that the meaning of the gift of the Holy Spirit could be narrowed down to whether or not an individual speaks in tongues or not. Luke’s gospel has been about the return of Israel’s God to Zion, the capital city of the nation and the home of the beloved temple where Israel’s God was supposed to come and live among His people. The presence of Israel’s God among the people of Israel in the Temple is what set Israel apart from every other nation on earth. It is what made Israel, Israel. It was because of the manifest presence of this God that Israel believed she was led out of slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, was protected and fed in the wilderness and was finally led into the Promised Land where the same God gave her military victory over the inhabitants who lived there. And it was the continued manifest presence of this same God that would lead Israel, or so they believed, to somehow be the solution for the world that had gone wrong because of the disobedience of Adam. This was the hope and the calling of Israel.
Yet, Israel’s sins of worshiping and pursuing other gods and forsaking the worship of the One true God of Israel, led the nation into exile. Because Israel had abandoned her God, Israel’s God had abandoned His people, or at least, so it seemed. But the prophets had declared that a day of forgiveness was on the horizon, (even if it was far off!), and the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, declared: “And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold; He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1. This is, I submit, what that first day of Pentecost is really all about, the return of the glory and manifest presence of God to dwell with and in the community of faithful Israelites. This obviously includes the individuals as well, but it is much more than that. The day of Pentecost is not about the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy but about the gift of God Himself taking up residency in and among His people, revealing His glory, and accomplishing His work. It is about Israel becoming the Israel that it was always meant to be, a light to the world, a city set on a hill, and a people for God’s own possession.