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Strange Fire Conference: R.C. Sproul

For the third session at Strange Fire, John MacArthur introduced his good friend R.C. Sproul. Because of issues with his health, Sproul was unable to travel to California, so instead he sent along a video message. And his task was to speak about Pentecost.

R.C. Sproul

He began by saying, “I want to look specifically today at the redemptive-historical significance of Pentecost.” We’re aware that the modern Pentecostal movement began at Azusa Street and that it occurred outside of the mainline denotations until the middle of the 20th Century. Then it moved into Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, etc. circles. Initially when it came into these various denominations there were several attempts to assimilate the theology into their creedal foundations. At the same time, Pentecostals were gathering their beliefs into a creed, which became Neo-Pentecostal theology.

One of the most significant aspects of this theology is the idea that it is normal or even normative for people to have the baptism of the Holy Spirit after their conversion. It is admitted that some people can have conversion or regeneration simultaneously with their baptism by the Holy Spirit, but in the main there is a time difference between original conversion and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is this particular point I want to address today.

The fundamental weakness of Neo-Pentecostal theology is that it understands the original Pentecost differently than the apostles, and that it considers this Pentecost too lowly. The significance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit has to do principally with the Holy Spirit empowering Christians for ministry. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit he was promising power and strength.

In the Old Testament a person could only be a believer by being born again of the Holy Spirit. But the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament with respect to Pentecost is that in the Old Testament the Spirit was only given by God selectively to isolated individuals, such as the prophets or the judges when they needed strength for the particular task.

The most Spirit-endowed person in the Old Testament was Moses. His miracles and leadership were worked out through the extraordinary endowment of the Holy Spirit. He is called the mediator of the old covenant anticipating the mediator of the new covenant who was even more heavily endowed with the Holy Spirit. There came the point in Moses’ ministry when he could hardly bear the burden of leadership any longer. Numbers 11:24ff tells us that the Lord took of the Spirit that was upon Moses and placed the same upon the 70 elders, and when this happened they prophesied. Joshua saw this and asked Moses to forbid them. Moses’ answer is important to our understanding of Pentecost. He replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would to God that everybody would get the Spirit!” This wish of Moses’ later became a prophecy in the mouth of Joel (Joel 2:28-29). So what was first a prayer or a wish of Moses became a prophecy of Joel’s for the future.

Fast forward to Acts 2:1ff. Those who were observing the events thought that the speaking in tongues was a result of drunkenness. But Peter responds that this is rather the fulfillment of the prophecy Joel had made. The apostolic interpretation of the day of Pentecost was that it was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Those who were gathered on that occasion were gathered for a Jewish feast—they were Jewish believers. And notice that all present received this endowment from God. There were no haves and have nots. The Spirit fell upon people who had been believers and now received the Holy Spirit. So you can understand how our Pentecostal friends would see the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a secondary experience for Christians. But because this was a unique redemptive historical event, it was not intended to become a model for how every Christian should experience the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts follows the Great Commission of Jesus—showing the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. There were four distinct people groups with which the book of Acts is concerned: the Jews, the God-fearers, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. The God-fearers were for the most part Hellenistic Greeks who had converted to Judaism. They believed in Yahweh and embraced the teaching of the Jewish community, but they were not fully accepted because they had not submitted themselves to circumcision. When the new covenant comes along, the question becomes, “Where do these people fit?” As the book of Acts progresses, we see then not one Pentecost experience but four. We see four outpourings of God’s Spirit upon certain people.

In Acts 8:14-17 we have the record of what happened among the Samaritans. There is a second Pentecost among the Samaritan believers when Peter and John lay hands on them. In Acts 10:44-48 the Spirit falls on the God-fearers, which Peter recounts in 11:13-18. This is Pentecost number three. Just as in the case of the first and second Pentecosts, all of those present received the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19:1-7 the Gentiles in Ephesus receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered for ministry.

So you have four separate Pentecosts, one for each people group in Acts. When Paul was dealing with the Corinthian church, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 that by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Here he speaks of the universality of the Sprit’s empowering of every believer. That’s the significance of Pentecost.

In Ephesians 2:11-19 Paul again addresses this issues that threatened to divide the 1st century church, the issue of what role the Gentiles have in the body of Christ. Paul’s “mystery” in Ephesians and Colossians is that Christ has folded Gentiles into his body and indwells them. “Through Christ we both have access through one Spirit to the Father.” This is a Trinitarian work.

My concern with Charismatic friends is that they have a low view of Pentecost. They don’t see it as a signal of the outpouring of God on all Christians. They believe all Christians can have it and should have it, but they miss the point that the pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that all Christians already have the Spirit and have been empowered by him, and that they don’t need to be baptized by the Spirit again.

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