In the Last Days
|"Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles" by Mikhail Vrubel|
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“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We are living in the last days and the end of the world is drawing near. I don’t say this because of anything in the news today. I don’t say this because I have some sort of inside source. I say this because of our reading from Acts 2, the account of the first Christian Pentecost. Pentecost was one of the three great festivals that God had established for Israel. Also known as the Feast of Harvest, it followed the completion of the barley harvest, and was a kind of firstfruits thanksgiving for the early wheat harvest. Every pious Jew tried to be in Jerusalem for this feast, which was observed each year 50 days after Passover.
But God had special events in mind for this Pentecost in 33 A.D. About 120 of Jesus’ disciples gathered together for prayer and worship. Suddenly, a sound like “the blowing of a violent wind” filled the whole room. As the disciples looked about, they saw above their heads what appeared to be tongues of fire. This was the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prediction: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus’ promise before His ascension: “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).
The tongues of fire came to rest on each person present. Everyone received the baptism of the Spirit, for each would have work to do in carrying out the Great Commission. Certainly, these disciples already possessed the Holy Spirit. Every believer’s faith is worked by the Spirit, who then dwells in the heart. In fact, the apostles themselves had received the Spirit directly from Jesus when He breathed on them after His resurrection (John 20:22-23). But now the Spirit would give special, new gifts to equip them for the work ahead.
For this occasion, the most apparent gift was the ability of the believers to speak in foreign languages they had never learned. This gift would help them to begin carrying out the assignment that the Lord had given to His church—to make disciples of all nations. For not coincidentally, a crowd quickly gathered that came from “every nation under heaven.”
Amazed and perplexed, some of them asked: “What does this mean?” Others mistook the speaking of many languages for drunken babbling. But that charge was easily dismissed. At this hour of the morning, even those who might be given to wine would more likely be sleeping off the previous night’s excesses.
Peter seized the moment. These amazing phenomena, he said, are the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for God was now pouring out His Spirit on all people. Some eight centuries earlier, God had promised that in the last days all people, male and female, old and young, would receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Everyone would be equipped to proclaim God’s message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to others after receiving His revelation.
We live in the last days. They began on that day of Pentecost.
Perhaps you’re wondering: Are you sure we are living in the last days? Where is the Holy Spirit? We can’t see Him. How do we know He is really here? The sanctuary is not filled with the sound of a loud, rushing wind. Nor are there tongues of fire dancing on the top of the heads of anyone. We are not speaking in languages we have not learned. In fact, no one really looks all that excited.
Those things haven’t happened since that day nearly 2,000 years ago. And it’s not a big mystery why. When something big happens in the Lord’s plan of salvation, He kicks it off with something special. At the crucifixion, there was darkness, earthquake, and a torn temple curtain. At the resurrection, saints were raised from the dead and testified. At the first Pentecost, there was rushing wind and fire and speaking in foreign languages.
What do we have? We have the Word of God—the Good News that Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins. We don’t have any living apostles to speak to us in our own language, but we do have their teaching in the New Testament. The same message that saved 3,000 people that day is the one that is proclaimed here. We also have Holy Baptism. The same Baptism received by 3,000 that day, brings you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, too. We have the Holy Spirit. He comes to us in God’s Word and Sacraments.
Amazingly, with all the wonderful promises connected to the Gospel and Sacraments, there are still those who insist on trying to find the blessings of the Holy Spirit elsewhere. Luther labeled such theologians “Schwaermer” or enthusiasts. He writes, “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself.”[i]
Luther understood the dire consequences of teaching people to find the Holy Spirit in places other than Christ’s Word and Sacraments. What are some of these consequences? First, when people say that they have found the Spirit outside of the Gospel, it always involves some kind of experience replacing the Word of God. The proclamation of Christ requires hearers to look outside of themselves at the Word. But if the Holy Spirit comes without the Word, then you need some feeling or experience to be sure that it’s Him. In Eden, Satan claimed that there would be blessings apart from God’s Word. When Adam and Eve gave into temptation, experience replaced faith in the Word. And we all know how that ended for them.
A second consequence of seeking the Spirit outside of the Word is uncertainty. Without the Word, there is no objective authority. The distinctions between speaker and hearer, pastor and people, even true and false are often blurred. One cannot say for certain, “We can find the Spirit here in God’s Word.” Instead, the Holy Spirit becomes a fleeting feeling or ecstatic experience.
A third consequence of seeking the Spirit outside of the Word is division. People argue about where to find the Spirit. Some people are said to have more of the Spirit than others. Resentment results. The church of Christ should never be divided between “haves” and “have-nots.” In Christ, we are all “haves.”
Fourth, and most important, when people say they have found the Spirit outside of the Gospel of Jesus, then Christ Himself ends up taking a backseat. Remember, it is through the Gospel that the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. If God is said to be working through something other than the Gospel, then Jesus is diminished. Our own subjective feelings and experience overshadow Christ’s objective work of justification on the cross for the sins of the world.
By God’s grace, we have the Gospel. We have the Holy Spirit. And this is a great blessing as we live in the last days spoken of by Joel, begun on Pentecost.
What we don’t have is wind and fire. We don’t have speaking in tongues or other visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have mass conversions with thousands baptized in one day. Life here at St. John’s/Trinity/Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church is not near as exciting as the first Pentecost. Some would say that it’s not even as exciting as some of the other churches in the area.
Given that, it’s easy to see how some could become discouraged. We can easily get the impression that our church isn’t all it could be. We find ourselves thinking things like, “Yes, we have good doctrine, but we’re not ‘alive’ or exciting like other churches.” “We’re getting smaller and older and we just don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep going.” At times like that, we’re quick to stray from the Word of God. We look at other churches that are growing faster and want to adopt their methods for growth—scriptural or not. We grow weary of being careful with doctrine and practice. We justify such thoughts by thinking, “Nobody’s going to benefit from our sound doctrine if we can’t get them in the door.”
For these things, we need to repent. The measure of any church is not how big it is in terms of facility or numbers or budget, but whether it remains faithful to the Scriptures. The measure of any evangelism efforts is not how many people join our church, but in our faithfulness in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So let’s not doubt or be discouraged. Let’s faithfully examine God’s Word and preserve His precious teachings. Preserve it, not in the sense of keeping it to ourselves, but by continuing to proclaim exactly what God’s Word declares, that all people might hear and believe. For the Lord continues to pour out His Spirit through His means of grace. This is the Good News of life and salvation. Indeed, there’s no better news to be heard. Isn’t it great to live in the last days?
The Lord continues to call pastors into the Holy Ministry so that they might publicly proclaim His Word and administer His sacraments. By these means, the Lord continues to grant forgiveness and faith to His people. The Lord continues to send His Holy Spirit, calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying you so that you might depart from this place and go about the vocations that He has given you. And, as the opportunity arises, you give an answer to all who ask—friends, co-workers, and family—about the hope that is within you.
This is the evangelism program that God declares in His Word. This is the means by which God has chosen to send His Holy Spirit. If each of us truly rejoices in the means of grace and goes about the vocation that God has given us, there is no time or room for discouragement. There is only joy in the Lord.
Dear people of God: don’t be misled to be discouraged or ashamed of what we teach and practice here. If it’s in accordance with the Word of God, then we have the blessing of our Lord. Though there’s no wind or fire, what happens here is exactly what happened on the birthday of the Church. In these last days, the Lord still pours out His Holy Spirit, granting you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He does so with the same means He used on that day—His Word and Sacrament.
Through these means of grace the Lord has provided life and salvation for the sake of His Son. Through these means of grace the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify you and the whole Christian church on earth. Through these means of grace our Lord continues to bring you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.