The first Pentecost meant many things, fulfilling many types, shadows, and prophecies from the Old Testament.
Pentecost marked the beginning of a new creation, and a new humanity. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the original formless and void creation to shape and fill it, so the Spirit of God rushed like a wind over the assembled believers to form them into the sons of God who would remake the creation. As the Lord God breathed life into the nostrils of Adam, so the Spirit breathes life into the disciples in Jerusalem to make them live.
Pentecost is also a reversal of the judgment at the tower of Babel. At Babel, the Lord confused the languages of the peoples of the earth, and the nations were divided and estranged from each other. Through the gift of the Spirit, the Lord works another miracle of language, but this time to reunite the nations. The assembly in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost included men from every nation under heaven, and by the end of the chapter these are knit together in one body, through one Spirit, sharing one baptism, devoted to one faith in the one Savior and Lord Jesus. Through the Spirit, the church becomes the one and only United Nations.
Pentecost is the coming of Jesus in fulfillment of His promise to His disciples. As he prepared to leave, He told His disciples that He would not leave them orphans, but He Himself would come to them. He comes at Pentecost through the agency and in the power of the Spirit. Even though Jesus is really absent from the church in body, He is truly present to the Church in the Spirit, which Spirit forms the church into His body. Because of Pentecost, Jesus remains present on earth through His people.
It is unfortunate that one group of Christians have been able to get a corner on the term “Pentecostal.” But it is especially unfortunate because what “Pentecostals” mean by “Pentecostal” Christianity downplays or ignores some of the main themes of Pentecost, some of the main work of the Spirit.
To be a “Pentecostal” today means that you believe that people still speak in tongues as the apostles did in the first century, still prophesy, still performed miracles and spectacular healings. To be a Pentecostal means that you want to relive the phenomena of Pentecost – the rushing mighty wind, the tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles, the miracle of tongues, the huge numbers of converts.
For the New Testament, these spectacles are not at the center of Pentecost or Pentecostal Christianity. 2 Corinthians 3 tells us what is central.
Paul contrasts the two covenants in terms of their “writing.” The old covenant had the law on tablets of stone; in the new covenant the Spirit comes to write on tablets of the human heart, to enable those who receive the Spirit to obey the law. At the same time, Paul introduces two other contrasts: The two covenants differ in their effects and they differ in relation to glory.
First, the effects. According to Paul, Moses was the mediator of a “ministry of death.” This was true in the sense that the Torah that prescribed death penalties for various crimes, that tracked the spread of deathly uncleanness with clinical precision, that did not give life but killed. But it was even more directly true because the Jews did not keep the Torah. The Torah came as a guide to life, as a means for delivering life. But it didn’t, because Israel didn’t keep it. It became a ministry of death. By contrast, the new covenant is a covenant of righteousness and therefore a covenant of life. The new covenant comes with the Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life.
Second, glory. Even the old ministry of condemnation came with glory (v. 7). If that ministry came with glory, Paul’s ministry, which is a ministry of righteousness, comes with even more glory (v. 9-10).
Paul describes the superiority of the new covenant through a complex interpretation of the veil that Moses put on his face (Exodus 34:33-35). This story takes place soon after the incident with the golden calf. While Moses was on the mountain, Israel became impatient for his return, and lassoed Aaron into constructing a golden calf to be a focus of their worship and to lead them as Moses had been leading them. When Moses came down from the mountain, he called on all the faithful to destroy the idolatrous Israelites, and 3000 people died by the sword, mainly killed by Levites.
Because of Israel’s stiff-necked character, Yahweh said that he would no longer go among them. If His glory came among the Israelites, they would be destroyed. Moses pleaded with Yahweh to go with Israel to the land, which the Lord promised to do, but He said He would not go up “among them.” Moses again pleaded, and finally the Lord relented and promised to send His glory among the Israelites. But the glory that was going to be among the Israelites was the glory reflected on the face of Moses himself. The Lord passed in glory before Moses, and then Moses went down from the mountain glowing or “horned” with the glory of Yahweh, his face shining like the sun.
Here is where Paul’s picks up the story. Yahweh has renewed the covenant, Yahweh has given new tablets of stone to Moses. But when Moses goes down shining with the glory of Yahweh, the people cannot look on his face.They were afraid. They still remember the threat of Yahweh, that His glory would destroy them. So, Moses covers his face as long as he spoke to the Israelites, but uncovers his face when he went into the tent. In this way, he becomes a mediator of the glory of Yahweh, but that mediation was obstructed by the veil.
Paul gives us the reason: “their minds were hardened” (2 Corinthians 3:14). So long as the Hebrews had hardened minds and hearts instead of hearts and minds of flesh, they could not stand before the glory of God. They could have no face-to-face communion with Him. Paul no doubt means for us to think of another veil as well – the veil that formed a barrier between Israel and the enthroned glory in the Most Holy Place. That veil too was a result of Israel’s hardness of heart. The Jews of Paul’s day (and ours) still read Moses through that veil. So long as they are living under the letter they are unable to receive Moses.
What removes the veil is repentance, turning to the Lord Jesus (v. 16). The Lord to whom one turns is the “Spirit” who brings liberty (v. 17). In the context, Paul must be saying that “turning to the Lord” solves the problem of “hardness of mind.” When one turns to the Lord who is Spirit, then the mind and heart are renewed so that he can be face-to-face with God’s glory (cf. 4:4-6). The result of the gift of the Spirit is a renewal of the glory of God in man. The Spirit comes to enable us to stand in the presence of God’s glory in Jesus, without any veils, and thus enables us to be transformed into the “same image” of Christ from glory to glory (3:18). This, Paul says, is a new creation, the shining of light in the original darkness (4:6).
For Paul, Pentecost makes all the difference. Because of Pentecost, his ministry writes on tablets of human hearts, since he ministers the Spirit to the Corinthians. Because of Pentecost, the new covenant is the covenant of righteousness and life rather than a covenant of condemnation and death. Because of Pentecost, those who have turned to the Lord who is Spirit can stand before the glory of God, stare the glory of God in the face, and be transformed into the image of that glory.
Pentecost makes all the difference. This all sounds wonderfully mystical, but what does it mean concretely? It means fulfilling the purpose of the law, it means glad, joyful, and above all obedient lives. This is the pattern in all of Paul’s letters. Christ has come to die and rise again; the Spirit has been given. And what’s the practical upshot?
People living patient, productive, loving lives. Parents loving children and children loving parents. Husbands loving wives and wives showing loving respect for their husbands. Servants and masters working in mutual respect and concern. People producing the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The first Pentecost was spectacular – the rushing mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the miracle of tongues, the three thousand conversions that are the firstfruits of the harvest of nations. The effects of Pentecost are not all spectacular and impressive. But they are miraculous. The Spirit is given so that we can live full, abundant, joyful, obedient lives; the Spirit is given so that we can be fully human.
Peter J. Leithart is the President of Theopolis.