The Book of Acts is a good, true story. It is full of events and dialogue, rising action, falling action, conflict, resolution, protagonists, antagonists, setbacks, suspense — it has it all. It is a good, true story. And that is actually perfect for us, because we as humans are what you might call “story animals.” Now, no doubt we love propositions. We love Book of Romans, right? — when things are clear and straightforward. But stories are still unique in the access they have to our hearts.
Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall has this book called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and in it he explains that stories are so inherent to human beings that we can’t even answer the most basic questions about life without them. Even when we were to ask someone “how they are” or just simply say “what’s up,” the response is usually a mini-narrative from our lives. Or consider relationships. Relationships are rooted in and nourished by conversation, and conversation in most every case, is the telling of stories to one another.
Stories are what make the world go ‘round. One theologian has said that stories are the moral map of the universe, that we can’t know what we are supposed to do unless we know of which story we are a part. We tell stories and we inhabit stories, and stories, therefore, have this unique shaping power over our everyday lives.
And so the Book of Acts, though it isn’t full of prescriptions and commands, it is meant to change us. This book—this story—is meant to shape us and mold us and help us find our place in God’s bigger story.
That is true throughout the whole book and that’s true in Acts 2.
The Holy Spirit Is Poured Out
Acts 2:1–13 is where we see the Holy Spirit who was promised be poured out. And in this event, I think there are two pieces that Luke really wants us to see. The first is how it happens, and the second is what it means. So that’s where we are going.
We’re here in the story, walking along with Luke, the Holy Spirit is now being poured out.
- How Does This Happen?
- What Does This Mean?
How Does This Happen?
Now we know theologically where the Spirit comes from. The Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed, both written way back in the third and fourth centuries, tell us that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. And then we also have several other places in the New Testament that talk about the Spirit — so we know where the Holy Spirit is from, but I want us to see it in this text. How is Luke getting this across?
I think you can see it in one phrase he uses in verse 2. So he is setting the scene for when the Spirit is poured out, and he writes,
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound . . .
Let’s just stop right there. It’s significant that Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came from heaven because of how he has already talked about heaven in Acts 1. The word “heaven” is actually used four times in Acts 1. But notice where… Acts 1:10–11,
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
So in these two verses what does Luke tell us about heaven? Heaven is where Jesus is.
Where Is Heaven?
Now, we have to wonder, we must ask the question, where exactly is that? Where is heaven? Do we mean the sky? Is he up above the clouds? You know, we’ve got satellites up there, and telescopes down here.
If heaven is a real place, can we get there in a spaceship?
See, these are questions we may not ask, but five-year-olds do, and they are important questions. I remember when Elizabeth, my oldest daughter, told me one day that she believed in Jesus, but there were a couple issues she was struggling over: 1) she has never seen him; and 2) she had never heard him talk.
My wife and I decided a long time ago that one of the things we were going to do in our family is talk about Jesus a lot. We knew that we would swing and miss on several things in parenting (and we do), and that we won’t always shepherd their hearts perfectly (and we don’t), but we know that could, at the least, talk about Jesus like he is a real person because he is.
So when Elizabeth softly mentioned these two facts, that she has never seen Jesus and never heard him speak, it occurred to me with a new relevance that there is a blaring dissimilarity between Jesus and everyone else our family talks about. It’s that Jesus is not here, and rather than live the Carolinas, he is heaven and we don’t FaceTime with him.
So then where is heaven? This is big, you know. Because if heaven is real (and it is), and if Jesus is real (and he is), what do we mean when we say that Jesus is in heaven?
Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow have this excellent book on the ascension of Jesus that discusses this question. For starters, they acknowledge that most people (this me and probably all of us) have an idea of heaven as if the universe were some sort of three-story building, with the main floor as earth, the top floor heaven, and hell is in the basement. This is how most of think by default, and that’s because the metaphors in Scripture about heaven are to ascend, to go up — the sky is also referred to as the heavens. But that is just imagery. A better way to think of where heaven is — the heaven where Jesus is at — is to think of heaven and earth as two separate planes that intersect. Chester and Woodrow write,
The up and down imagery [of heaven and earth] captures the separateness. The heavenly realms transcend earthly existence. But there is also an intersection between the two. Heaven is not a far away place at the corner of the universe. Angels do not need to teleport to appear to people. They simply step from one dimension into another. (The Ascension, Kindle Locations 727–728).
So then, rather than think in terms of the three-story building, we should think of heaven and earth as two different dimensions of reality.
You can actually see this in the Transfiguration. Do you remember how the Transfiguration worked? Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a far away galaxy lightyears out of sight. No! They just walk up on the mountain, and here on this earth, Jesus’s body is seen in its glorified form.
Contrary to what we might think, heaven and earth are really just different dimensions — two dimensions that inhabit the same space-time — and heaven is the dimension where Jesus is.
This not too different from how C. S. Lewis envisions Narnia as a world that can we reach by simply stepping through a wardrobe. So don’t think distant, far away land, but rather think of a reality outside of what we experience now.
This is helpful for us, I think, because every human has some sense that there is more to life than what we see. We perceive and operate in our world in three dimensions. We live in 3-D.
But theoretical physicists say that there are at least ten dimensions in the universe, possibly eleven. And the way they relate to one another isn’t so much in miles and distance, but in space-time overlap. All of that is to say, agreed on by the smartest people in the world, that we as 3-D beings have serious limitations with what we’re able to perceive. There is more out there than meets the eye. [I feel like at this point we need a break, but hang in there.] ||| We see what we see, and who we don’t see right now is Jesus because Jesus is in heaven. And because Jesus is in heaven, from heaven, he has sent his Spirit here. Jesus is there, and the Spirit is here, and we need to know the relationship between the two.
Jesus and the Spirit
There is an important unity and distinction to hold together. On one hand, the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, so much so that we can say “Jesus is in the room” (meaning his Spirit is at work in this dimension of reality), or Jesus himself can say to us in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you to the end of the age” (meaning, his Spirit is with us in this dimension of reality), or the writer to the Hebrews can say in Hebrews 13:5, “Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you” (meaning, his presence in this dimension of reality is irreversibly ours by his Spirit).
So that’s the unity. We can talk like that. But we must not forget that Jesus and the Spirit are still two different persons in two different places. There is still Jesus, the God-man — Jesus in his human body in heaven; and there is the Holy Spirit — the Spirit who he has sent to be at work here in your life. It’s important that we understand the distinction because if we dissolve the two persons and places then we miss out on the good news of them both.
Jesus in heaven is Jesus reigning as the death-conquering king over everything. It means Jesus is presently seated over and controlling the new creation that is invading this old world. He is there, as Hebrews 7:25 tells us, always living to make intercession for us. He is there praying for us, fueling our faith, securing our salvation, preparing us for the new creation reality that is going to overtake the world. He is our man there, our advocate, our representative, our king of the world that is coming.
And . . . if we understand that, can we even begin to fathom what it means that Jesus being there has given us his Spirit here? Do you know that the Spirit of that Jesus makes his home in your life?
The Spirit who indwelled Jesus when he resisted the devil’s temptation to vain glory is the Spirit who indwells you when there’s a chance to make yourself look good at another’s expense. Or the Spirit who empowered Jesus to reject false worship is the Spirit who empowers you not to click where you should not click — when you are tempted to go and bow before the deranged god of lust — do you know the Spirit who lives in you? Or what about the Spirit who helped Jesus to pray, that dark night Gethsemane, as sweat drops of blood rolled down his face, “Nevertheless, Father, not as I will, but as you will. Must I drink the cup of suffering? If I must, I will.” (Matthew 26:39).
That Spirit is the Spirit that Jesus in heaven has sent to us here. That is the Spirit here now. That is the Spirit who lives in you.
So don’t think for a moment that because Jesus is not mentioned in Acts as being on the ground, that he is somehow not part of the story. The Spirit working in and through his people is his Spirit. And the Spirit working in and through you in his Spirit, the same Spirit. So remember that tomorrow morning when the alarm goes off and another work-week starts, or when you find yourself in temptation, or frustration, or despair.
Jesus lived, died, and was raised for you, and he is in heaven now for you, and he has sent his Spirit here for you.
So that’s how the Spirit happens. Now, what does that mean?
What Does This Mean?
One good thing about this last point is that it’s the easiest. And it’s the easiest because the question and answer are right here in the text. Look at Acts 2.
After the Spirit is poured out and the apostles speak in the several languages represented by the Jewish people gathered there, we read about people’s reaction. Acts 2:12,
And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
(And then, quickly, there is verse 13. I think, simply, Luke here just wants us to Meet the Mockers. And I think that Luke just puts that there to remind us that there is always that bunch of naysayers, mockers, cynical folks — and although as a church we’ve not experienced that yet, Luke would say, just wait, it’s coming.)
The main thing to see is their question: “What does this mean?” verse 12. They wanted to know what the pouring out of the Spirit means.
Then Peter gives the answer in verse 14.
“But Peter, standing with the eleven” — there’s my man, he’s standing again.
And lifts up his voice and says,
Actually, no. We’re not drunk, but this is exactly what the prophet Joel said would happen.
And he quotes the Old Testament, Joel 2:28 and following (verses 16–21).
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Peter says, in short, if you want to know what the sending of the Spirit means: it’s that this day of which Joel’s prophecy speaks from so many years ago is finally here. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. The prophecies of Isaiah 32 and Ezekiel 37 of the Spirit poured out and a new Israel united together under God’s salvation and presence, that day has come. It’s now. It’s happening.
And what that means for us is that we have something good to say. We can say that these promises have come true. That this is an amazing moment in history, and that whoever calls on Jesus right now will be saved. That whoever you are, no matter what your past might be, if you call on Jesus, he will forgive you and save you. We all get to speak this good news.
And when I say all, I mean everyone in the church, because the Spirit is poured out on everyone in the church. You may have noticed that in the Joel prophecy. It’s young men and old men, sons and daughters, men and women, all socio-economic groups. We all, because of the Spirit, have something good to say.
So know, as a church, we believe the apostolic word that those who exercise the formal teaching authority of a local church should be men — should be like dads. But that doesn’t mean that only the men have something good to say. No. The Spirit is for all of Jesus’s church, which means that all of Jesus’s church — men and women, older and younger — we all have something good to say, and we should say it.
Our Part in the Story
And we should say these good things — we should tell the good news — because, after all, this is our part in the story. This story that we read about in Acts that shapes us is a story to which we also belong. In the grand, glorious redemptive story of God in Christ by his Spirit saving humanity, he has drawn us in. He has given us a part.
And we remember that at the Table.