I love watching magic shows. Sleight of hand and illusion fascinate me. But the one kind of act I hate to see is an escape attempt. That’s probably because when we were kids, my brother and I used to tie each other up and time each other, to see how long it would take us to get out of the knots. I remember the frantic feeling of being stuck and helpless and unable to get out. When you’re with your brother, though, you know you’re safe. But what if you’re alone?
This is how the disciples must have felt after Jesus’ crucifixion. Afraid for their own lives, we find them hiding behind locked doors. Surrounded by both Jewish and Roman threats, they are immobilized by fear and a feeling of abandonment. But then Jesus appears in their midst, giving them His peace and resurrecting their hope. For forty days He continues to appear among them, restoring their faith and promising them power. The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus’ promise, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high (24:49[i]).” Then as He is speaking, He ascends into Heaven.
In the book of Acts, Luke picks up where his Gospel leaves off. But the main character of Luke’s second book isn’t Jesus. Most people call this book “The Acts of the Apostles,” but perhaps a better title would be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” While the human characters change throughout the narrative, the Holy Spirit remains the central character as He does His work in the church.
Just as Jesus promises power in Luke 24, He does so again in Acts 1:4-5. “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” The disciples think He is going to inaugurate His millennial reign at that time, but He tells them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (vv. 7-8).”
In place of the panic that the disciples felt in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus gives them His peace and promises them His power. And then He leaves them. Again, Luke tells the story of the ascension (Acts 1:9-11). Jesus is taken up into the clouds, never to be seen again. But this time, instead of feeling alone and vulnerable, the disciples are filled with hope because of Jesus’ promise. You see, Jesus always keeps His promises.
We are not so good at keeping our promises. We offer something and then make good on it when or if it’s convenient. Throughout the Bible, we are told to keep our oaths, yet we find this easier said than done. This is why Jesus and His brother James both said it’s better not to promise anything, but to simply let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ be ‘no.’[ii] But God, on the other hand, cannot lie.[iii] He is not slow in keeping His promises.[iv] What He says He will do, you can trust. From that day of the ascension to this, Jesus has not physically walked on earth among His people. Yet we do not feel alone, because we know that we can trust His promises. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” In Matthew 28:20, just before the ascension, Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” We are not alone. He continues to be with us in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Trusting in Jesus’ promise, the disciples do not disperse, but gather together in the upper room. They are “all with one mind…continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:14).” “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1-2).” Tongues of fire appear on the heads of the believers, and God grants them the gift of miraculous speech. God grants the disciples the gift of tongues so that an international crowd is able to hear and understand the preachers who swarm out of the upper room. Languages that the men never studied stream from their lips. In one wondrous speaking engagement, the disciples cover the continents as thousands of visitors from Africa, Europe, and Asia all put their trust in Jesus. On Pentecost, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the remotest part of the earth are reached in an instant, and the church is born with this arrival of the Holy Spirit.
After His resurrection, Jesus knew that His disciples were fired up—but passion alone could not fuel the fledgling church. They needed His presence in the person of the Holy Spirit. They needed God’s holy fire to ignite their zeal and empower them to witness to the world. God who never leaves nor forsakes His people[v] wouldn’t simply give them a mission and then leave the earth never to be heard from again. In John 14:16-18, Jesus had said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Pentecost is the fulfillment of that promise.
Today in the Word has something to say about this infilling of the Holy Spirit:
Speaking to a large audience, D.L. Moody held up a glass and asked, "How can I get the air out of this glass?" One man shouted, "Suck it out with a pump!" Moody replied, "That would create a vacuum and shatter the glass." After numerous other suggestions Moody smiled, picked up a pitcher of water, and filled the glass. "There," he said, "all the air is now removed." He then went on to explain that victory in the Christian life is not accomplished by "sucking out a sin here and there," but by being filled with the Holy Spirit.[vi]
This is what happened on that first Pentecost—the Holy Spirit filled the disciples and emptied them of themselves. That same Holy Spirit is available to all believers to trust Jesus as their Savior. Jesus may have physically left the earth, but His Spirit remains with us, filling each believer’s heart and guiding our steps. The book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit is the story of the first generation of believers—their struggles, their faith, and their adventures. But the story doesn’t end in chapter twenty-eight. The Holy Spirit continues to fill every believer, to set us on fire for Christ, and to energize our mission. I hope you’ll trust the Holy Spirit to empower your witness, and that you’ll be bold and declare God’s truth, and that you’ll know that through His Spirit, Jesus is with you always.