Pentecost is far from the first biblical incident with a strange occurrence of fire. Exodus alone records several, such as Moses’ encounter with the God of Israel in a crackling, fiery bush; the fiery pillar that descended upon the Israelites as they crossed the dried ground between the towering walls of the Red Sea; and the blazing cloud, shining in brilliant glory, that filled the tabernacle, the ornate tent Moses and the Israelites had constructed.
In each occurrence, the message from God was the same, “I am with you.” It was both an affirmation of God’s presence with Israel and a declaration to the world that the place of God’s presence is here, with these people, in this land, and eventually, in this temple (and not elsewhere).
For these reasons, Pentecost is both another occurrence in the repetitious pattern, but also a departure from its previous meanings. This Pentecostal fire is somehow different.
In each prior occurrence, no matter how mammoth in size or magnificent in exhibition, there was always only one single body of glorious fire. The difference is that at Pentecost, there were several, perhaps even upwards of 120 bodies of flame, each one flickering above the head of a disciple.
The departure from the previous message was plain. From God, to each recipient of those flickering tongues of fire, “The place of my presence is now in you.”
Jesus had instructed them to wait for a power that would enable them to be his witnesses. This power was the presence of God himself in their very beings, the Holy Spirit. This departure is pivotal because now, instead of God’s presence being hidden away within some sacred, beautiful structure, it is displayed within the life and witness of every one of his followers. Now the presence of God does not merely wait for others to search for it, but it flows outwardly, delivering the possibility of receiving that presence to those who would never seek it.
We continue to live within the story of this everflowing delivery, and our mission is the same. To be His witnesses, “from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Our existence alone, as people who follow Jesus, removed from Pentecost by two continents, an ocean, 2,000 years, and several different languages is a testament to the power that drives this mission. And this power, as testified to by each individual flickering tongue of Pentecostal fire, inhabits every single one of us.
There is a world full of people waiting for their chance to become the recipients of that same fiery glory. And the power to deliver that possibility, to be witnesses, is in us. So this day, have confidence in His power, His presence, and His word, as you join your life to His story as His witness. Because the place of the presence of God is in you.
William Faulkner famously said, "The past is not dead. It hasn't even past." He puts in words something that is often going on in our hearts unseen to those around us and maybe in even unacknowledged by our very selves. That our pasts have shaped who we are today and continue to impact how we see the world around us.
In Acts 1 we see the beginnings of a new community being formed for the sake of a movement of the gospel expanding across the world. Christ has promised them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And so, the Apostles are in a season of waiting and preparation for the coming Holy Spirit - and are centering themselves and developing their sense of expectancy for the fulfillment of Christ’s promise through their devotion to prayer.
Peter then stands amongst them and brings up the elephant in the room. The memory of what had happened in the past - that had not past - that there were only eleven apostles in the room (not twelve) because one of them had betrayed Jesus.
In v17 Peter emphasizes the personal nature of Judas’s betrayal, that he was their friend, that he was a partner with them in ministry. On top of which, in v18 we read of how Judas’ betrayal was not only personal but an ugly and public stain at the very outset of their leadership. And so, why does Peter bring it up?
Because we all have Judas’ in our pasts. Stories of betrayal and disappointment. Dead-ends and failures that continue to linger in our minds dulling our sense of expectation for what God has still prepared for us.
Peter brings up the painful memory of Judas to renew the Apostles' confidence in the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Holy Spirit's coming. He points the Apostles back a thousand years to when the Holy Spirit prophesied through King David (v16) of the one day betrayal of Judas, and in so doing he reminds them that when the Holy Spirit speaks all of history bends in line with His purposes.
Peter reassures the Apostles that although Judas was responsible for his sin, although the betrayal was real, and they will likely never forget it - the betrayal - was not outside of God's purposes. And so the hurt, and disappoint, and ugliness , that we have experienced - is not outside of God's purposes either. Peter is giving us (along with the Apostles) a framework for accepting our past disappointments - so we can look ahead without being held back.
This passage ends with the Apostles replacing Judas. They bring forward Justus and Matthias who are both qualified as Apostles. Both have heard the teaching of Jesus and both have seen the resurrected Christ. Then in v24 the Apostles pray, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen…”
After Christ has chosen the original twelve, and even though one of His choices led to hurt, betrayal and disappointment - the remaining Apostles are willing to recognize Christ’s authority to choose once again.
Come what may - their confidence is renewed - and by casting lots they are willing to roll the dice and bet their lives afresh on the indomitable purpose’s of God. And only then does their season of waiting and preparation end - only then does the Holy Spirit fall.
Why Theophilus Prays
“In the first book, O Theophilus…” reads the opening line of the book of Acts, a dedication of interpretive significance. On the one hand, we see that the book was written to a real historical person. But on the other, we’re given a clue as to how to read this narrative.
Theo = God
Philus = Lover
Therefore, Theophilus = Lover of God.
Meaning, the proper way for us to approach Acts, is as people who are reading in order to grow in our love and understanding of God, which is a conclusion that holds true when weighed against the contents of the book.
What we receive in Acts is an account of the dawning of a new period in the mission of God. A period which to this day is still unfinished. Meaning, Acts presents us not with an ancient story, far removed from our own lives and concerns, but rather, with what our current context truly is, the larger story we’ve all fallen into. And in doing so, it presents us with the opportunity to play our roles intentionally. We’re given the chance to live with an awareness of that story, and to choose real meaning and significance by shaping our lives according to it. By shaping our lives according to His mission.
Which clearly is significant. But even more than that, what that interpretive clue housed within the dedication provides is not just our place within the story, but what the catalyst for the story is altogether. God is on a mission, and as those who are seeking to grow in our love and understanding of Him, we need to know the reason why. The answer is Love.
“Why is God on a mission?”
“Because God is love.”
“What is the grounding of God’s mission?”
“The love of God itself.”
“What else would compel one to such lengths of pain, suffering, and sacrifice?”
“Nothing. Nothing other than love.”
Because love is the foundation of God’s mission.
This matters because while today the story is still being written, eventually, God’s mission will be finished. It will cease, as will our parts within it. Then, we’ll enjoy the love of God for all of eternity.
Until that day, Mission continues because Love continues. And as “theophilus-es” (lovers of God), the book of Acts is a guidebook for growing in our love and understanding of God. The consistent advice it offers is to join God’s mission. If you want to grow in your love for God, join His mission. It’s that simple. Practically speaking, the very first activity it recommends for doing this is prayer.
The narrative flows as follows. Jesus teaches. Jesus ascends. The disciples are alone. The disciples pray. And that’s it. The dawning of this entire period opens with a few disciples huddled together in prayer.
Jesus himself, after providing the details of the mission, instructs them not to launch out into more obvious forms of missionary activity, but first, before they do anything, they’re to wait. While they wait, what do they do? The only thing they have left, after he leaves. They pray.
The implication being that there is something generative about prayer. Prayer changes things. Because in prayer we plea with God to act, and real consequences result from those requests. But also, in our moments of prayerful silence, as we offer not words but merely our quiet attention to God, He speaks. Often, in prayer, God calls forth hidden aspects of ourselves. Gifts and characteristics, things latent within, are drawn forth in unexpected ways as we engage with the one who first put them there. These things being opportunities given to join His mission.
So, the first lesson of the book of Acts is that if you are seeking to grow in your love for God, join His mission. And the first activity we’re presented with, as an opportunity for doing just that, is prayer.
So whether you join a call, along with a few dozen other people scattered throughout our city, to pray for 30 minutes, or whether you carve out time to be with God while you walk, scrub dishes, or scribble out prayers on a lined sheet of paper—however you find to do it, pray.
Because in doing so, theophilus (lover of God), you are growing in your love for God. You are shaping your life according to the only story that gives true meaning. You are joining His mission. And there’s no telling what might occur as a result of your time spent praying, in the presence of the one whose love you will enjoy for all of eternity.
So start praying, theophilus (lover of God), and don’t stop either.