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From Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church,Volume 1, Chapter 4

The ascension of Christ to heaven was followed ten days afterwards by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon earth and the birth of the Christian Church. The Pentecostal event was the necessary result of the Passover event. It could never have taken place without the preceding resurrection and ascension. It was the first act of the mediatorial reign of the exalted Redeemer in heaven, and the beginning of an unbroken series of manifestations in fulfillment of his promise to be with his people “always, even unto the end of the world.” For his ascension was only a withdrawal of his visible local presence, and the beginning of his spiritual omnipresence in the church which is “his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.” The Easter miracle and the Pentecostal miracle are continued and verified by the daily moral miracles of regeneration and sanctification throughout Christendom.

We have but one authentic account of that epoch-making event, in the second chapter of Acts, but in the parting addresses of our Lord to his disciples the promise of the Paraclete who should lead them into the whole truth is very prominent, and the entire history of the apostolic church is illuminated and heated by the Pentecostal fire.

Pentecost, i.e. the fiftieth day after the Passover-Sabbath, was a feast of joy and gladness, in the loveliest season of the year, and attracted a very large number of visitors to Jerusalem from foreign lands. It was one of the three great annual festivals of the Jews in which all the males were required to appear before the Lord. Passover was the first, and the feast of Tabernacles the third. Pentecost lasted one day, but the foreign Jews, after the period of the captivity, prolonged it to two days. It was the “feast of harvest,” or “of the first fruits,” and also (according to rabbinical tradition) the anniversary celebration of the Sinaitic legislation, which is supposed to have taken place on the fiftieth day after the Exodus from the land of bondage.

This festival was admirably adapted for the opening event in the history of the apostolic church. It pointed typically to the first Christian harvest, and the establishment of the new theocracy in Christ; as the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and the exodus from Egypt foreshadowed the redemption of the world by the crucifixion of the Lamb of God. On no other day could the effusion of the Spirit of the exalted Redeemer produce such rich results and become at once so widely known. We may trace to this day not only the origin of the mother church at Jerusalem, but also the conversion of visitors from other cities, as Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, who on their return would carry the glad tidings to their distant homes. For the strangers enumerated by Luke as witnesses of the great event, represented nearly all the countries in which Christianity was planted by the labors of the apostles.

The Pentecost in the year of the Resurrection was the last Jewish (i.e. typical) and the first Christian Pentecost. It became the spiritual harvest feast of redemption from sin, and the birthday of the visible kingdom of Christ on earth. It marks the beginning of the dispensation of the Spirit, the third era in the history of the revelation of the triune God. On this day the Holy Spirit, who had hitherto wrought only sporadically and transiently, took up his permanent abode in mankind as the Spirit of truth and holiness, with the fullness of saving grace, to apply that grace thenceforth to believers, and to reveal and glorify Christ in their hearts, as Christ had revealed and glorified the Father.

While the apostles and disciples, about one hundred and twenty (ten times twelve) in number, no doubt mostly Galileans, were assembled before the morning devotions of the festal day, and were waiting in prayer for the fulfillment of the promise, the exalted Savior sent from his heavenly throne the Holy Spirit upon them, and founded his church upon earth. The Sinaitic legislation was accompanied by “thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud, and all the people that was in the camp trembled.” The church of the new covenant war, ushered into existence with startling signs which filled the spectators with wonder and fear. It is quite natural, as Neander remarks, that “the greatest miracle in the inner life of mankind should have been accompanied by extraordinary outward phenomena as sensible indications of its presence.”

A supernatural sound resembling that of a rushing mighty wind, came down from heaven and filled the whole house in which they were assembled; and tongues like flames of fire, distributed themselves among them, alighting for a while on each head. It is not said that these phenomena were really wind and fire, they are only compared to these elements, as the form which the Holy Spirit assumed at the baptism of Christ is compared to a dove. The tongues of flame were gleaming, but neither burning nor consuming; they appeared and disappeared like electric sparks or meteoric flashes. But these audible and visible signs were appropriate symbols of the purifying, enlightening, and quickening power of the Divine Spirit, and announced a new spiritual creation. The form of tongues referred to the glossolalia, and the apostolic eloquence as a gift of inspiration.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is the real inward miracle, the main fact, the central idea of the Pentecostal narrative. To the apostles it was their baptism, confirmation, and ordination, all in one, for they received no other. To them it was the great inspiration which enabled them hereafter to be authoritative teachers of the gospel by tongue and pen. Not that it superseded subsequent growth in knowledge, or special revelations on particular points (as Peter receive at Joppa, and Paul on several occasions); but they were endowed with such an understanding of Christ’s words and plan of salvation as they never had before.

What was dark and mysterious became now clear and full of meaning to them. The Spirit revealed to them the person and work of the Redeemer in the light of his resurrection and exaltation, and took full possession of their mind and heart. They were raised, as it were, to the mount of transfiguration, and saw Moses and Elijah and Jesus above them, face to face, swimming in heavenly light. They had now but one desire to gratify, but one object to live for, namely, to be witnesses of Christ and instruments of the salvation of their fellow-men, that they too might become partakers of their “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven.”

But the communication of the Holy Spirit was not confined to the Twelve. It extended to the brethren of the Lord, the mother of Jesus, the pious women who had attended his ministry, and the whole brotherhood of a hundred and twenty souls who were assembled in that chamber. They were “all” filled with the Spirit, and all spoke with tongues; and Peter saw in the event the promised outpouring of the Spirit upon “all flesh,” sons and daughters, young men and old men, servants and handmaidens.

It is characteristic that in this spring season of the church the women were sitting with the men, not in a separate court as in the temple, nor divided by a partition as in the synagogue and the decayed churches of the East to this day, but in the same room as equal sharers in the spiritual blessings. The beginning was a prophetic anticipation of the end, and a manifestation of the universal priesthood and brotherhood of believers in Christ, in whom all are one, whether Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female.

This new spiritual life, illuminated, controlled, and directed by the Holy Spirit, manifested itself first in the speaking with tongues towards God, and then in the prophetic testimony towards the people. The former consisted of rapturous prayers and anthems of praise, the latter of sober teaching and exhortation. From the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples, like their Master, descended to the valley below to heal the sick and to call sinners to repentance.

The mysterious gift of tongues, or glossolalia, appears here for the first time, but became, with other extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, a frequent phenomenon in the apostolic churches, especially at Corinth, and is fully described by Paul. The distribution of the flaming tongues to each of the disciples caused the speaking with tongues. A new experience expresses itself always in appropriate language. The supernatural experience of the disciples broke through the confines of ordinary speech and burst out in ecstatic language of praise and thanksgiving to God for the great works he did among them.

It was the Spirit himself who gave them utterance and played on their tongues, as on new tuned harps, unearthly melodies of praise. The glossolalia was here, as in all cases where it is mentioned, an act of worship and adoration, not an act of teaching and instruction, which followed afterwards in the sermon of Peter. It was the first Te Deum of the new-born church. It expressed itself in unusual, poetic, dithyrambic style and with a peculiar musical intonation. It was intelligible only to those who were in sympathy with the speaker; while unbelievers scoffingly ascribed it to madness or excess of wine. Nevertheless it served as a significant sign to all and arrested their attention to the presence of a supernatural power.

So far we may say that the Pentecostal glossolalia was the same as that in the household of Cornelius in Caesarea after his conversion, which may be called a Gentile Pentecost, as that of the twelve disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, where it appears in connection with prophesying, and as that in the Christian congregation at Corinth.

But at its first appearance the speaking with tongues differed in its effect upon the hearers by coming home to them at once in their own mother-tongues; while in Corinth it required an interpretation to be understood. The foreign spectators, at least a number of them, believed that the unlettered Galileans spoke intelligibly in the different dialects represented on the occasion. We must therefore suppose either that the speakers themselves, were endowed, at least temporarily, and for the particular purpose of proving their divine mission, with the gift of foreign languages not learned by them before, or that the Holy Spirit who distributed the tongues acted also as interpreter of the tongues, and applied the utterances of the speakers to the susceptible among the hearers.

The former is the most natural interpretation of Luke’s language. Nevertheless I suggest the other alternative as preferable, for the following reasons: 1. The temporary endowment with a supernatural knowledge of foreign languages involves nearly all the difficulties of a permanent endowment, which is now generally abandoned, as going far beyond the data of the New Testament and known facts of the early spread of the gospel. 2. The speaking with tongues began before the spectators arrived, that is before there was any motive for the employment of foreign languages. 3. The intervening agency of the Spirit harmonizes the three accounts of Luke, and Luke and Paul, or the Pentecostal and the Corinthian glossolalia; the only difference remaining is that in Corinth the interpretation of tongues was made by men in audible speech, in Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit in inward illumination and application. 4. The Holy Spirit was certainly at work among the hearers as well as the speakers, and brought about the conversion of three thousand on that memorable day. If he applied and made effective the sermon of Peter, why not also the preceding doxologies and benedictions? 5. Peter makes no allusion to foreign languages, nor does the prophecy of Joel which he quotes. 6. This view best explains the opposite effect upon the spectators. They did by no means all understand the miracle, but the mockers, like those at Corinth, thought the disciples were out of their right mind and talked not intelligible words in their native dialects, but unintelligible nonsense. The speaking in a foreign language could not have been a proof of drunkenness. It may be objected to this view that it implies a mistake on the part of the hearers who traced the use of their mother-tongues directly to the speakers; but the mistake referred not to the fact itself, but only to the mode. It was the same Spirit who inspired the tongues of the speakers and the hearts of the susceptible hearers, and raised both above the ordinary level of consciousness.

Whichever view we take of this peculiar feature of the Pentecostal glossolalia, in this diversified application to the cosmopolitan multitude of spectators, it was a symbolical anticipation and prophetic announcement of the universality of the Christian religion, which was to be proclaimed in all the languages of the earth and to unite all nations in one kingdom of Christ. The humility and love of the church united what the pride and hatred of Babel had scattered. In this sense we may say that the Pentecostal harmony of tongues was the counterpart of the Babylonian confusion of tongues..

The speaking with tongues was followed by the sermon of Peter; the act of devotion, by an act of teaching; the rapturous language of the soul in converse with God, by the sober words of ordinary self-possession for the benefit of the people.

While the assembled multitude wondered at this miracle with widely various emotions, St. Peter, the Rock-man, appeared in the name of all the disciples, and addressed them with remarkable clearness and force, probably in his own vernacular Aramaic, which would be most familiar to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, possibly in Greek, which would be better understood by the foreign visitors. He humbly condescended to refute the charge of intoxication by reminding them of the early hour of the day, when even drunkards are sober, and explained from the prophecies of Joel and the sixteenth Psalm of David the meaning of the supernatural phenomenon, as the work of that Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Jews had crucified, but who was by word and deed, by his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation to the right hand of God, and the effusion of the Holy Ghost, accredited as the promised Messiah, according to the express prediction of the Scripture. Then he called upon his hearers to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus, as the founder and head of the heavenly kingdom, that even they, though they had crucified him, the Lord and the Messiah, might receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, whose wonderful workings they saw and heard in the disciples.

This was the first independent testimony of the apostles, the first Christian sermon: simple, unadorned, but full of Scripture truth, natural, suitable, pointed, and more effective than any other sermon has been since, though fraught with learning and burning with eloquence. It resulted in the conversion and baptism of three thousand persons, gathered as first-fruits into the garners of the church.

In these first-fruits of the glorified Redeemer, and in this founding of the new economy of Spirit and gospel, instead of the old theocracy of letter and law, the typical meaning of the Jewish Pentecost was gloriously fulfilled. But this birth-day of the Christian church is in its turn only the beginning, the type and pledge, of a still greater spiritual harvest and a universal feast of thanksgiving, when, in the full sense of the prophecy of Joel, the Holy Spirit shall be poured out on all flesh, when all the sons and daughters of men shall walk in his light, and God shall be praised with new tongues of fire for the completion of his wonderful work of redeeming love.