The power and purpose of Pentecost

By Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

Most Christians could not imagine having a year go by without celebrating the holidays of Christmas and Easter. It is understood by all Christians, of all denominations, all over the world, that no Christian calendar and no church programming is complete without the observance of those two days and seasons.

Christmas is when the church marks the birth of Jesus. Easter is when the church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Everything, we, as Christians, believe about the divine nature of Jesus is imbedded within those two events — birth and resurrection, Christmas and Easter. Heaven help the pastor, the minister of music or the leader of the praise team that does not plan sermons, choruses, pageants and decorations that mark those two Christian observances.

However, there is a third holiday — a third observance, a third sacred event — that is just as central to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be part of the life of the church. That third event is Pentecost, and remarkably, a great many Christians do not observe that day at all. Pentecost shifts the focus of the Christian community away from the singular focus on the life of Jesus and on to a clearer focus of the ministry of the church in the world. The word Pentecost literally means “50th” or “50th day.” The term originated with ancient Judaism’s celebration of the first harvest of the agricultural year. Pentecost was the time when they gave thanks to God for what the land had produced and for what their labor in the fields had yielded.

The observance of Pentecost for Judaism occurred seven weeks after the observance of Passover, and involved Jewish men gathering in the Temple in Jerusalem to mark that agricultural cycle. Pentecost went by various names in the Bible. It is called “The Feast of Weeks” in Exodus 34:22 and in Deuteronomy 16:10. It is called “The Feast of Harvest” in Exodus 23:16. It is called “The Day of First Fruits” in Numbers 28:26. Scholars note that these various names for the same event support the notion of various sources contributing to the formation of the first five books of the Bible.[1] This is the Documentary Hypothesis of four sources known as JEDP, standing for Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly traditions that were blended into the language and theology of the Torah or the Pentateuch (five books).[2]

The Christian observance of Pentecost is so called because it occurred during this major Jewish festival, when Jews from all over the Mediterranean world were gathered in one place. It happened 50 days after the end of Passover. However, rather than being observed as an agricultural festival, the Christian observance of Pentecost is marked as the birthday of the church.

Pentecost is the day recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Holy Spirit suddenly filled the room where the disciples were gathered. What appeared to be cloven-shaped tongues of flame appeared over the head of each of them, and the disciples began to speak in a language that allowed all the people that had gathered in Jerusalem from more than a dozen different countries to understand what the disciples were saying in their own native language (Acts 2:5–8). The power of Pentecost was that the confusion of languages that was associated with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9 was being reversed, as people from all over the known world were able to hear the message of the gospel in their own language.

Pentecost was a refashioning of the notion of an agricultural festival, since, on that day, more than 3,000 souls were added to the followers of Jesus (Acts 2:41). The Day of Pentecost resulted in a great harvest for the early church. That great harvest of converts occurred after the power of the Holy Spirit was on full display in the life and words of the apostle Peter. It must be remembered that, approximately 50 days earlier, it was Peter who said on three different occasions not only that he was not a follower of Jesus, but that he did not even know Jesus (Matthew 26:69–74, Mark 14:66–71, Luke 22:55–61, John 18:15–17 and 25–26). Then, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter boldly declared the message about Jesus in front of the same crowd of people to whom he had previously been afraid of even speaking Jesus’ name (Acts 2:14–40).

How did Peter go from being cowardly to courageous? How did Peter go from being frightened to fearless? How did Peter go from denying Jesus to defending Jesus and declaring him to be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel? It was the power and purpose of Pentecost that made the difference in his life, and that same power is needed in the lives of all Christians if the church is to have any positive and lasting impact upon the world. Peter did not simply change his mind about Jesus; Peter himself was changed. The Peter who feared for his own life in the minutes after the arrest of Jesus, as recorded in all four gospels, became the Peter who possessed parrhesia, or bold speech as described by the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:13.

I remember a voice message left on my home phone, when I was serving as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio. The message said, “the church has no power.” What the caller meant was that electric power in the church’s neighborhood had been disrupted, so there were no lights or power to operate any machines in the church. I have never forgotten that phone message because it serves as a reminder of what can happen when Christians fail to observe Pentecost. Christ may well be risen, but without Pentecost, “the church has no power!”


Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

[1] Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, editors, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, New York: Harper & Row,1961, p. 536.
[2] John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 61.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.