The Purpose of Pentecost
Tony Cooke

The Purpose of PentecostPentecost—that wonderful day recorded in the second chapter of Acts—is associated with various ideas in the minds of different people. Some will say it is about a personal experience with the Holy Spirit, some will identify it with joy and spiritual elation, others will describe it as an infilling of God’s presence. Yet others will talk about empowerment, and others will be mindful of the “speaking in tongues” that took place on that day. Every one of these is a valid association, but there is a profound purpose, a primary purpose I believe, that is not really captured in any of those words or phrases.

If a Spirit-filled believer can only quote one verse from that wonderful chapter, it is probably verse four, which reads: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” As wonderful as that passage is, is what is described in that verse really the main purpose of Pentecost? We could also ask, “Was their speaking in tongues—in this particular situation—an end in itself, or was it a means to an end? I believe we have strong scriptural indication that their speaking in tongues was a means to an end, and not an end in itself. If we continue reading, I think we begin to see the “end,” or what we might call the purpose of Pentecost.

At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” (Acts 2:5-11, NLT).

Certainly something very supernatural occurred and those who had been filled with the Holy Spirit spoke in other tongues. What I think we’ve sometimes missed, however, is that this was not something being done for the benefit or the “spiritual exhilaration” of those doing the speaking, but for the benefit of those who were hearing! Three times we read, and this is certainly Luke’s emphasis, that these unreached people were being reached because the gospel message was being presented in their own language.

There is another dimension of tongues that Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 14—an expression that is for the benefit of the private individual. Consider these thoughts about the private or personal dimension of tongues:

  • For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries (14:2).
  • He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself (14:4).
  • For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding (14:14-15).
  • I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (14:18-19).

What happened on the day of Pentecost was from the same Holy Spirit, but it was different than what Paul referred to in those verses in 1 Corinthians 14. What happened on Pentecost was a supernatural, spontaneous, instantaneous, hyper-condensed, industrial strength version—a microcosm, if you will—of God’s master plan that was to be carried out all throughout the church age. What is that master plan? Jesus had just laid it out to the disciples before His ascension: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NKJV). Jesus had also told His followers to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19, NKJV), but we find out that heaven will be comprised of people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9, NLT). This was the purpose of Pentecost! Yes, believers were endued with power from on high and were supernaturally equipped for ministry (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). But that purpose of Pentecost was to launch a movement of world-wide missions that would endure throughout the entire age of the church!

In Acts 2 in Jerusalem, the disciples didn’t go to the world, but in a sense, the world came to them—at least Jews who had scattered from the nations had come back home to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Do you remember the list Luke gave (Acts 2:9-11) that includes Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.? Here’s what the Holman New Testament Commentary says regarding those various people groups:

Luke’s list of fifteen geographical locations was a group of nations or areas in which known Jewish populations existed and would likely have sent representative groups to the Feast of Pentecost. Everyone there who spoke a language other than Greek or Aramaic heard the message of the Christians in that language—maybe fifteen languages, maybe fifty, maybe more. The languages differed; the message remained the same: the wonders of God.

The IVP New Testament Commentary says of this same passage:

This multilingual witness coheres with the universal offer of salvation in the church’s message and its consequent worldwide mission. It also highlights the church’s multicultural character. God affirms people as cultural beings. As many a Bible translator knows, our native language and culture is natural, necessary and welcome to us as the air we breathe. No wonder that when persons receive a Scripture portion in their own language, they rejoice: “God speaks my language!”

In 1917, was William Cameron Townsend was passing out Spanish Bibles and speaking about God in a Guatemalan village. A Cakchiquel Indian (they had their own dialect) came up to Townsend and said, “If your God is so smart, why doesn’t he speak Cakchiquel?” It is said that was a life-defining moment for Townsend. Townsend decided to do something about that, and he started a linguistics school (known today as SIL) that trained people to do Bible translation. The work continued to grow, and in 1942 Cameron officially founded Wycliffe Bible Translators. On their website, they say of their work, “Today, up to 1,800 languages are still waiting for a Bible translation to begin, and Wycliffe is working faster than ever to reach those languages as soon as possible.”

When you stop and consider the work of the Holy Spirit—and that’s what Pentecost is all about—there are three direct dimensions:

  • First, the Holy Spirit does an INWARD work in us. He is the One who administers justification, regeneration, and the new birth in our lives. He is the One who cleanses us within, who comforts us, and bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.
  • Second, the Holy Spirit does an UPWARD work in us. Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit is ever pointing us heavenward, to glorify Jesus and the Father.
  • Third, the Holy Spirit does an OUTWARD work in us. The empowerment that took place on the day of Pentecost resulted in a powerful gospel witness and 3,000 people from a variety of background were radically saved!

As you may know, I’m currently working on a Master’s Degree in Church History, and one of my textbooks (not Pentecostal, per se, in its orientation) states:

One of the most momentous developments in the recent history of Christianity must certainly be the emergence of Pentecostalism as a dynamic force around the world. In 1900 there were, at most, a bare handful of Christians who were experiencing special gifts of the Holy Spirit similar to those recorded in the New Testament. By the year 2010, as many as 600 million (or more than a quarter of the worldwide population of Christian adherents) could be identified as Pentecostal or Charismatic.

Pentecostal and charismatic currents have been central in the rapid expansion of Christianity outside the West, with most of the rapidly growing churches in Brazil, Nigeria, Korea, Russia, China, and many other nations. In these situations, Pentecostal and charismatic forms of Christian faith flourish by directly confronting pagan gods and animistic spirits as well as by imparting the direct immediacy of God’s presence.

Should recent trends continue with Pentecostal and charismatic forces continuing to expand, especially in the Majority World, events around 1900 that precipitated identifiable Christian movements defined by belief in the special work of the Holy Spirit will continue to loom as one of the most decisive turning points in the recent history of Christianity.[i]

Our response to this should not be to pat ourselves on the back and to be self-congratulatory, but to be amazed at what God has done and continues to do, and to pledge ourselves afresh and anew to taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the world. That is the purpose of Pentecost.

[i] Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 310-313.