Whitsun Day

by James Hastings

(About the Author: James Hastings was born in Huntly, Scotland, in 1852. After his liberal arts and divinity education at Aberdeen University, he held Free Church pastorates (and after the union in 1901) in the United Free Church, from 1884 to 1911. He retired from the pulpit in 1911 to devote himself to writing and editing. He had founded the monthly Expository Times in 1889, which he edited until his death in 1922. His other works include a five-volume Dictionary of the Bible (1898-1904), a two-volume Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (1906-08), and a two-volume Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (1915-18). He is probably best known, however, for the vast 12-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1908-21). He was also a magnificent preacher, whose message was always unmistakably evangelical.)

"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4).

1. The Day of Pentecost, or Whitsun Day, is the birthday of the Christian church. Not till Pentecost were Christians a distinct corporate body. On that day the life of the Holy Spirit of God was infused into its members, and the first cry of the newborn church was praise: "They spake in other tongues the wonderful works of God."

The day chosen was striking and suggestive. Proselytes from various countries were all gathered together with the Jews of Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Weeks. It was Pentecost, the fiftieth day-a week of weeks-since Passover. At Passover a sheaf of ripe barley had been waved in the Temple; at Pentecost the two loaves of fine flour made from the newly-gathered wheat were now being waved in the Holy Place. And it was harvest. What better occasion for the outpouring of the Spirit, the "Giver of life," than this feast of Pentecost, when the first fruits of the great Spiritual harvest of both Jews and Gentiles were offered unto the Lord who had redeemed them?

Moreover, Pentecost was celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the law from Sinai, after the wanderings of the children of Israel for seven weeks from the first Passover in Egypt. How fitting a festival for the first outpouring of the Spirit, whereby that law might be observed in it fullest meaning, not as uttered amid the terrors of Sinai, but as revealed in Him who fulfilled the law and the prophets to the uttermost.

2. On this great festival the Apostles and disciples were assembled together in Jerusalem. They were praying. They were waiting for the promise of the Spirit. Suddenly the whole place was shaken as with a tempest, and bright flames, like tongues of fire, flickered for a moment over every head. These were, indeed, wonderful outward signs; but we must not think of this rush of tempest, and this shower of flaming tongues, as the most wonderful thing that happened. They were but the outward signs of something more wonderful still. The Holy Ghost filled the hearts of all, and they burst out into loud shouts of praise and thanksgiving to God.

3. On whom was the gift bestowed? It is impossible to say whom St. Luke intended when he spoke of "all." Perhaps the more general belief has limited it to the Apostles, as the Whitsuntide preface in the book of Common Prayer unhesitatingly teaches; there is ancient testimony, however, to the inclusion of "the one hundred and twenty," and some extension beyond the Twelve is almost necessitated by the language of Joel's prophecy, which, St. Peter says, was fulfilled on this occasion. The expression was perhaps intended to embrace all the believers in Christ then congregated in Jerusalem.

I. The Coming of the Holy Spirit

The promise of the Paraclete brought little light to Jesus' disciples understanding, and apparently less comfort to their hearts. Probably they were too full of trouble to comprehend their meaning. Love in tears is apt to be petulant. It was not until the Ascension that their eyes were opened. The Resurrection filled them with a great joy, but not until they witnessed His return to the Father did they realize the true greatness of their Lord and the meaning of His mission in the world. As they beheld Him rise, the mists lifted from their understanding, and they returned to Jerusalem rejoicing and praising God. The vision of the opened heavens had given them a new conception of all things in heaven and on earth.

For ten days they waited with their eyes set upon the heavens where they had seen Him disappear from their sight. With Pentecost came the fulfillment of His word, and the Gift in which they found the complete realization of all that He had said.

1. The coming of the Holy Spirit is symbolized in the elements of wind and fire. Let us then consider the meaning which underlies these symbols.

The wind is a favorite biblical image for the movements and goings of God's Spirit. Prophet and psalmist alike speak of the wind as symbolizing God's power. "Come from the four winds, O breath," cried Ezekiel, in the vision of the dry bones.

God's Spirit still comes like the zephyr, wooing and winning, like the breeze which you can scarcely feel upon your hand, though you know it on your more delicate brow. So He comes to many hearts in pensive hours in times and seasons of holy quiet and blessed meditation. But the Holy Spirit also comes as a mighty rushing wind as He came of old, and then He comes with great and stirring power; and the church has so known the Holy Spirit's coming in the times of great revival.

Oh! That God's Spirit would come in both ways to the church today, kissing spirits until they live, moving and thrilling the heart of the church until there is a great revival of spiritual religion, and a quickening and bracing of all the powers of righteousness in our beloved land.

The wind is also sometimes a winnowing wind, separating chaff from grain, the false from the true; or it sometimes comes as a blight. There is, for example, the sirocco that starts in the heart of Africa, and, with its blighting breath, passes over whole tracts of country, leaving nothing but destruction in its train. Yes! The wind blights as well as gives health and strength; and so does God's Spirit. God's Spirit gives health and vigor to every virtue we possess, and it seeks to blight forever every sin that besets our nature or reigns in our life.

Fire has three uses-it gives light, it gives heat, and it purifies.

The Spirit of God comes as light to enlighten us and to teach us many things which we cannot know without Him.

Fire gives heat as well as light. The Holy Spirit not only teaches us about God and about Christ, but He makes our hearts flame up in love to Him.

And fire is used to purify. Have you every seen a piece of ore? It looks like a bit of common, hard, dirty rick, with just here and there a little, tiny, bright spot. But take it up to a furnace, and there the fierce red and white heat will burn up all the dross, and the pure metal streams forth. A great deal of what is earthy is mixed up in our natures with a little that is pure; then the Spirit of God descends like illuminating and purifying fire. By all our trials and discipline, that Spirit purges out of us all that is base, and false, and earthy. "Our God is a consuming fire," but He will consume only the dross, and will set free the true gold of our nature, so that it may be one day pure enough to be formed into part of the Crown of the King.

II. Filled with the Holy Spirit

Let us now inquire what is meant by the words "filled with the Holy Spirit." Very many people have had their minds more or less exercised touching the blessing of the "baptism of the Holy spirit," as it is often termed. Not a few have been hindered, if not actually thrown back, in their spiritual course, simply for lack of a little instruction in the very first principles of the doctrine concerning the Person, offices, and work of the Holy Spirit.

The first point to be recognized, as clearly set forth in the Scriptures, is the fact, that all Christians have the Holy Spirit. They have not only been brought under His influence, but they have received the Holy Spirit Himself. "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom. 8:9).

At the same time we must recognize the fact that to have the Spirit is one thing, but the be filled with the Spirit is quite another thing. We know from what is recorded in St. John's Gospel that even before the Ascension the Holy Ghost had actually been given to the disciples, that Christ breathed upon them the Holy Ghost. But on the Day of Pentecost they were filled with the Holy Ghost.

There are upon the whole two main aspects or phases of the fullness of the Spirit. There is a special, critical phase, in which at a great crisis it comes out in marked, and perhaps wholly abnormal, manifestation, as when it enables the man or woman to utter supernatural prediction or proclamation. And there is also what we may call the habitual phase, where it is used to describe the condition of this or that believer's life day by day and in its normal course. Thus the Seven were not so much specially "filled" as known to be "full"; and so was Barnabas. Into this holy habitual fullness Paul entered, it appears, at his baptism. On the other hand, the same Paul experienced from time to time the other and abnormal sort of filling; and it thus results that the same man might in one respect be full while in another he needed to be filled.

What, then, have we to do in order to be "filled with the Spirit"? The answer to this question is not far to seek, for Christ has said, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." For "if ye being evil know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" (Luke 11:9-13). If, therefore, we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, then indeed we are not far from receiving the rich blessings of the gift, but we must want the blessing and want it earnestly, for the Holy Spirit will not fill unwilling hearts.

III. Transformed by the Holy Spirit

"They began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance."

The words of the text are significant, and not the less so because in some measure, symbolic. We have already been thinking of the symbols under which the Holy Spirit came-wind and fire, and how these symbols characterize the work of the Holy Spirit in us; we shall now see how the same symbols are connected with the gift of speaking with tongues. Wind is symbolic of power; fiery tongues are symbolic of inspired speech-"they spake as the Spirit gave them utterance."

The Immediate Results

One of the popular ideas of Whitsun Day has been that it commemorates the gift of languages to the Apostles, by which, though uneducated men, they were qualified in a moment of time to preach the gospel to every nation under heaven. But, indeed, this gift of tongues is but a small part of the matter. The gift of tongues concerned only one generation, at any rate, and a very few individuals.

The greatest miracle of that day was the transformation wrought in the waiting disciples. Their fire-baptism transfigured them. Every part of their nature was vitalized, invigorated, and transformed in fire. Their eyes were opened, their memories quickened, and their minds inspired.

The Apostles became new men. They now no longer coveted wealth or power, or the honor of this world. No, the unseen and everlasting world had been opened to their gaze, and they now saw all earthly things in their true light. The only real wealth was wealth within, purified and loving hearts. So they now preached with power; even the power of the Holy Ghost Himself; and this very day of Pentecost three thousand were added to their number, three thousand who the other day might have been among those that cried, "Crucify him, crucify him."

The Permanent Results

From that first Whitsuntide onward God has enabled men, through the doctrine of the blessed Trinity, to realize His Presence everywhere, and what before seemed to men to be local only has become universal. The presence of God is now within: "Know ye not," says Paul, "that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" He meant us to realize that every time we yield to temptation, we sin not only against a God above and about us, but also against a God within us.

The life so filled is transformed. There may be some who will ask "Does the Holy Spirit still fill the hearts of men and transform their lives, as we read that He did in the days of the Apostles?" In answer, let us quote the words of Dr. Swete: "Communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit is not a theory or a dogma, but a fact of personal knowledge to which tens of thousands of living Christians can testify as the most certain of actualities."

Let us go back a century and a half ago, and compare the condition of things then with the condition of things today. In the year 1724 "gin-drinking infected the mass of the population with the violence of an epidemic." Public opinion did not hold the character of any man to suffer through drunkenness. Dr. Johnson says to Boswell: "I remember, sir, when every decent person in Lichfield got drunk every night and nobody thought the worse of them." It was the mark of a gentleman to get drunk, and the standard of comparison was as "drunk as a lord."

Now where is all that gone? What has made drunkenness a low and beastly habit? What has made swearing an utterly vulgar thing? Do you say that education has become more general, and that culture has brought in other and more refined tastes? No; it was the educated and cultured classes who led the fashion in these things. There is but one explanation. Wesley and Whitefield were filled with the Holy Ghost, and as they preached, here and there a little company of men and women went forth amongst the neighbors and began to live a Christlike life. Each became a new moral standard amongst them. Each was a skylight through which the heavens shone down into the midst of the little community. Each of them witnessed that there was another life than that to which they had been accustomed, in every way a better and happier life. Each became a living conscience in which things were so much more definitely black or white than they used to be-blessedly good or uncomfortably bad. Each was a window through which men and women saw beyond the little present out into the eternities and the infinities. That wrought the reformation-witnesses unto Christ.

From Great Texts of the Bible-Acts and Romans I-VIII