What would you do if all of a sudden I yelled, “Fire!” Would you stop and look around to see what I was talking about? Would you just get up and run out of the building? Would you try to locate the fire-extinguishers? Or maybe you’d grab a pack of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate for s’mores. What would you do if one Sunday you walked into this room and it was full of fire, wind, and smoke? Would you think, “ah the perfect place to worship the Lord”? Or would you turn around and run back out? At the very first worship service of the very first church something like this happened.
Acts 2:2-3 (NIV) 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
There was a “violent wind” and “tongues of fire” (no smoke). Something wild is happening, something uncontrollable. God is filling the room and the people. But if it was your first day at that church you might have thought it made no sense, but it actually made perfect sense. The disciples in that upper room, perhaps as many as 120 of them, were Jewish and would have recognized what was happening as a continuation of the same story the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) had been telling. I want to tell that same story today to help us worship better. To do so we have to go back to the beginning.
Genesis 1:1-2 (NIV) 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
In the beginning absence, darkness, nothingness, chaos—all churning together like a stormy sea; and the Spirit of God hovers like a bird over the waters. The Hebrew word for Spirit is rûaḥ and can also mean “wind” or “breath.” The Spirit of God is there transforming chaos into creation. God made everything, and it was good, chaos no more. But man and woman, Adam and Eve, we reintroduced chaos. We choose our own way instead of God’s way and suddenly everything fell. But God has a plan. A long time later he shows up, this time to a man named Abram. God promises this man that he’s going to bless him and his descendants and through him bless all the nations.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
God is going to bless Abram, his descendants, and the whole world through them. But he says, “How can I know this?” The Lord God answers him by having him sacrifice animals by cutting them in half and laying them out as a pathway to walk through. According to the culture of this time Abram might have been thinking, “Oh if I don’t obey God, he’s going to cut me up like these animals.” But God isn’t saying that.
God puts Abram into a deep sleep and then the Spirit of God comes down and hovers, this time as a “smoking firepot with a blazing torch” and as those things God passes through the split animal pieces. God is saying, may this be done to me if I don’t keep my promises to you. The God of the Bible is someone you can count on. He’s trustworthy. He doesn’t break his promises found in Scripture.
The Spirit of God shows up again, this time to Abram’s (now Abraham’s) descendants, the Israelites. God shows up as a burning bush and tells Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Israel (Exod 3). Moses leads them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to a mountain called Sinai. There God tells Abraham’s descendants that if they obey him they will be his priests to all the nations.
Exodus 19:5-6a (NIV) 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
The Bible Project’s Exodus video says for Israel to be a “kingdom of priests…” “This means they will become God’s representatives to the nations and show them his character by how they live.” The people agree to God’s terms—absolute obedience—and then guess what shows up? A cloud and fire!
Exodus 19:16-18 (NIV) 16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The cloud is a theophany, a visible manifestation of God’s presence to his people. The form he chooses to reveal himself is in a storm cloud and fire. Fire can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing if it keeps you warm and cooks your food, but it’s a curse if it burns down your home. Likewise, God is safe, but he’s not. God sets forth terms that he too will be a blessing if the people obey, but a curse if they don’t. Most of all God wants to bless them with his presence, which he does at the end of Exodus when the Israelites finish building the tabernacle tent.
Exodus 40:34-35 (NIV) 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
God’s presence comes down and fills the tabernacle. The fullness of God’s presence dwells among his people. Notice the form God’s presence takes when the Lord leads his people away from Sinai.
Exodus 40:38 (NIV) So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.
God’s Spirit lead them forward as a flaming column of fire by night and cloud by day. If you could have God lead you this way would you do it? What if he lead you someplace you don’t want to go?
He led the Israelites to the promised land but when they get there they don’t like it. They complain and disobey God and have already broken the terms of the covenant. God shows them mercy, and sticks with them, even though year after year for hundreds of years they keep disobeying God.
That’s the thing, right? We need God even though we disobey him. We need him because we disobey him. Do you realize you need God even though you disobey him? Most of the time we think we have to clean up ourselves before God will love us. Yet we find God sticking it out with Israel for hundreds of years.
Eventually King Solomon builds a permanent temple for God’s presence to reside. After they finish building it God’s presence fills the inner room called the Most Holy Place like he filled the tabernacle.
1 Kings 8:10-11 (NIV) 10 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. 11 And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.
It’s this great and awesome and wonderful moment and it probably felt like it was going to last forever, but it doesn’t. Even though God promised Abraham he was going to bless him and his descendants and through them all the nations, and God promised it unconditionally, for the Israelites to actually get to enjoy the temple and God’s presence in the promised land they had to obey the promises they made at Sinai. And the people don’t do it. God is patient, but for hundreds of years they disobey God, and so one day the prophet Ezekiel gets a vision of God’s presence (pictured as a cloud) leaving the temple.
Ezekiel 10:4 (NIV) Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.
The presence of God is departing the temple’s Most Holy Place and filling the courtyard. God leaves step by step, almost reluctantly. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? Watching God depart?
Ezekiel 10:18-19 (NIV) 18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. 19 While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground… They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
I have preached the history of God’s presence filling and departing the temple before. Today I’m expanding on it. When I first preached on this I told you about an illustration I heard when I was going to seminary. The speaker put up a slide of a chest x-ray and said he would ask his medical students what was wrong with the x-ray. His students wouldn’t spot the problem; nor could we. There was no cloudy mass, no cancer, no breakage or chipping, nothing. But, something was indeed wrong. What was it? A bone was actually missing, completely gone. The problem wasn’t presence but absence.
The special presence of God’s Spirit has left his people and it is spiritually and socially devastating. We need God’s presence in our lives. Without him, it’s devastating. We can’t do this life without God. It’s too hard. If that’s you, you can do what the Israelites did in captivity. They get overthrown and taken into exile in Babylon. That time becomes an opportunity for them to repent and turn to God and that’s what today can be for you. Repent of your sin and believe again in Jesus. Jesus can bring you out of the darkness of your sin and into the light of his hope.
God rescues them and brings them home and they once more build a temple so God’s presence will return. But this is what happens when the people of Israel finish building the temple.
Ezra 6:15-16 (NIV) 15 The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
16 Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy.
Do you see the glory cloud enter the temple once more? No. God’s special presence doesn’t return. This doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in people’s lives bringing them to repentance and faith. We always need the Holy Spirit to believe in Jesus. But it does mean the Holy Spirit is absent from the corporate people of God in a significant way. But God promises he is going to fill his temple once more.
Haggai 2:6-7 (NIV) 6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.
We see this fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and full of the Holy Spirit, full of the very presence of God. When Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple the people ask him by what authority he does this.
John 2:19-21 (NIV)
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
Jesus’ body is the new temple. He houses God’s presence and the Holy Spirit. Remember how the Holy Spirit at the beginning of creation hovered over the chaos waters like a bird? At the start of his ministry Jesus went to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and then this happens.
Matthew 3:16 (NIV) As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
It’s as if Jesus and the Holy Spirit are reenacting the very moment of creation—declaring Jesus is the beginning of God’s new creation. Not that he himself is a created, but that he is the origin of a new way, a new life, a new creation. Do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus has the power to start a new creation in you? To give you brand new eternal life in him? If you want it, God has to do something radical in you. Do you know what John promised just a few verses earlier?
Matthew 3:11 (NIV) “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus is going to baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit and fire. Those listening must have thought of Abraham’s smoking fire pot, of Moses’ burning bush, of Israel’s fiery encounter with God at Mount Sinai, and of the glory cloud and pillar of fire that lead the people of Israel by day and night and filled the temple. Maybe they even asked, “Will God’s presence finally return to his temple?”
Yes, but not a stone temple, a temple made of flesh. An even greater temple had come, Jesus. But Jesus isn’t the only temple. Just like he houses God’s presence he is going to house God’s Spirit in anyone who follows him, the people of God, the church. That day arrives at Pentecost, 50 days after passover, at the beginning of the wheat harvest.” A new harvest is coming through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:1-2 (NIV) 1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
What do we see? We see the Spirt, the rûaḥ, the same “wind” or “breath” that was there in Genesis coming down from heaven, coming down from hovering over the chaos of our world, and filling these people. The columns of fire come, this time much smaller and individual.
Acts 2:3-4a (NIV) 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…
God’s presence has finally come. The Holy Spirit is filling them as he has never done before. Did they already have the Holy Spirit in them? Yes! They believed in Jesus after all. But they didn’t have the Holy Spirit in that same temple sense until now. This applies to us as well. If you know Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit, but we can long to be filled in a special way with the same power and presence they felt.
How can we apply this? Let’s thank God for the presence of his Holy Spirit in us. And also, let’s ask him for a special anointing to live for him and do his work in our world. Corporately, as a body, we need to ask for the Holy Spirit to fill our church family in a powerful way. We want him to lead us.
1 Corinthians 3:16 (NIV) 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
This is a plural “you”—you all. God dwells in you, church. We as the church are the temple of God. I want you to imagine for a moment that your favorite celebrity or personal hero comes into church next Sunday and sits down right next to you. If Tom and Giselle and their kids Benjamin and Vivian came to church next Sunday would it change what you did? Would you smile just a little bit bigger when greeting them at the door? Like not in a creepy way… Would you use your best singing voice? Maybe you’d go outside to throw the football with the youth after church. “Hey Tom, catch!” Would you act differently and give your best? Or, are you already giving your best welcome and worship because King Jesus is here? God’s presence dwells among us, living in each of us. Let’s give him everything.
The Spirit marked a new temple in Acts 2 and filled them so that they could fulfill the blessing Abraham’s descendants are supposed to be to the nations, so Christians can be that priesthood to outsiders.
Acts 2:4-6 (NIV) 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.
Luke includes the word for nation (ethnos) here. He wants us to see the beginning of the people of God reaching all the nations with the gospel. Jesus promised that his Holy Spirit would come, and then his followers would take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The church from its beginning was meant to be an Outward Church. God performs the miracle of language so that everyone can hear the gospel in their native tongue.
My friend Brian from my Ockenga program and Doctorate of Ministry program, who is going to preach here in February, used to be in the Marine Corps and had opportunities to go share the gospel with locals when he was in Afghanistan. He didn’t speak their language and he didn’t have a translator. He was also a cessationist, which means he didn’t think the Holy Spirit performed miracles like translating language anymore. When he got up to speak, the locals listened. When he finished they thanked him and his local contact said that every single one of them understood what he had said. The Holy Spirit had translated his English words to their Afghani ears. It completely changed his perspective. Now he believes.
God is at work. The Holy Spirit is on the move. He showed up in Acts and he’s showing up today! One day, God is going to finish his promise to “fill this house with glory” (Haggai 2:7b). Jesus Christ will return and make all of creation new again. We find this promise at the end of the book of Revelation, which is a vision of this end of days.
Revelation 21:22-24 (NIV) 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
Here we find God’s presence dwelling with his people forever and ever, and his people includes those foreign nations promised all the way back in Genesis 12. So the question is, do you want the Holy Spirit? First, do you want the Holy Spirit to help you repent of your sins, believe in Jesus, and receive eternal life? If yes, that’s the Holy Spirit working on you. Second, do we as a church want the Holy Spirit to anoint us in a special way to spread the gospel to all the nations?
Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes endnotes and references, or share it through Apple podcasts or Google Play Music. Read the story of our church here.