The Holy Spirit
After Jesus ascended to heaven, nothing we had seen before or after could compare with this event. I wish the other followers had been with us those moments, especially Jesus’ mother. Having given birth to him and been his mother and then suffer the spectacle of his death, his resurrection had been the fulfillment of her life, and yet this one last glorious appearance would have meant so much to her. But Jesus’ last appearance before ascending to heaven was meant only for his disciples. Not one citizen of Bethany, including Lazarus and his sisters, claimed to have witnessed the display in the sky, and yet it made a lasting impression on townsfolk when they heard the news. Many of those who had fallen away during Jesus’ ministry, after hearing about this latest wonder, now stepped forth to join the growing ecclesia. Except for Lazarus and his sisters, who remained in Bethany, those friends and neighbors, who had been bolstered in their faith, left Bethany, with Peter’s encouragement, to join the congregation in Capernaum. Gathered together with us in Bethany for our return to Jerusalem were Cleopas, Matthias, Barnabas, Justus, Jonas, and several early converts, including Azariah and his wife, and Galileans, more recently joining the Way.
Mary Magdalene agreed to return to Capernaum to be with most of the followers. Mark’s mother would be assisted in her care of the smaller group returning to Jerusalem by Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, both early converts, who would pay for much of our provisions. Only Luke and I mentioned Joanna and Susanna in our writing; otherwise present day believers would not have heard of these selfless devotees of Jesus. As the wife of Chuza, who was no friend to members of the Way, Joanna was considered a courageous woman. Little was known of Susanna’s past even among her contemporaries, except for the fact that Jesus healed her of an evil spirit, after which she quietly joined the Way. Because she had been among the constant stream of sick, lame, and demon-possessed souls seeking a cure, we were only able to identify this humble follower when she volunteered that day to help Mark’s mother care for our needs. From unknown sources, Luke wrote that Joanna had also been among the people cured and had visited Jesus’ tomb after his crucifixion. Like Mary Magdalene, Mark’s mother, Lazarus’ sisters, and many other faithful women followers, both Joanna and Susanna would dedicate their lives to the welfare of the disciples and other members of the Way.
Because of the contributions of so many men and women, the word disciple had lost some of its importance. Already, as I reflect, there was a division between the chosen (apostles), the ordained (disciples), the appointed (servants), and the general population of believers. There was none of the hierarchy seen in Roman or Greek institutions nor was there the structure which resembles the Jewish synagogue. The most we had borrowed from the Gentiles was the term ecclesia, which simply meant ‘assembly’ in Greek.
One day, not long after the ascension, as the expanded circle of the Lord convened in the upper room, the long table provided by our host was filled on both sides with our group. Those who didn’t get a place sat on chairs Mark’s mother managed to provide or sat on the floor. Because it was Pentecost, which was the Jewish celebration of the beginning of the early wheat harvest, we sensed that the Holy Spirit Jesus promised was imminent. What better time—a holiday in commemoration of new birth—would there be? James had asked. Everyone agreed with James. The air seemed charged with expectation. We could barely eat our meal or drink our wine because of our excitement. Everyone, even the women, who wanted to share the experience with us, sat quietly, their ears perked up for the sound of footfall or an angelic chorus, their eyes raised to the ceiling or gazing at the stairwell where Jesus first reappeared, and their minds focused on but one thing: the Holy Spirit.
Then suddenly, we heard that strange, deep humming, the eerie chorus of voices that had accompanied Jesus ascension, causing us to jump expectantly to our feet. Everyone gasped aloud. The women and a few of the men screamed. When the sound reached a peak, we placed our hands over our ears to lessen the noise. This time there was no band of angels descending to earth nor did our Lord appear in our midst. For this was his spirit, as he sat with the Father in heaven. Now, as we stood on our feet, we heard another noise—this one coming from the room below. Like a violent gale, it echoed in the stairwell, whistling and groaning as a storm off the sea. When it entered the upper room we expected to be blown asunder. Huddling together, we held hands and arms, not knowing what next to expect. When the wind ceased, we felt a warmth not of the physical world—a warmness of the soul we later interpreted as the breath of the Lord. What seemed like tongues of fire danced over our heads, from one member to another, joining us into one common mind. It was, we knew at once, the Holy Spirit.
When I tried to share this with James beside me, I found myself babbling what sounded like nonsense. When James replied, what came out of his mouth sounded like gibberish too. Rejoicing in our experience we were all speaking different tongues. What exactly were the languages we spoke was not recorded, but I could have sworn I heard Peter shouting Greek words, which I might translate as “Praise be to the Lord!” and Andrew shouting back the same words in Hebrew, a language none of the rustic fishermen knew. Perhaps James and I had been speaking Persian or some other strange tongue, which explains why it sounded like gibberish to us. I recall picking up snatches of Latin and Syrian words, which, like Greek and Hebrew, I’m familiar with, that expressed similar exclamations to what Peter and Andrew said, but most of us were speaking languages James and I were unfamiliar with.
To describe those moments we received the Holy Spirit is difficult, since my mind, like everyone else, was filled with illumination that went beyond mere words. When it was over, we stood looking at each other, blinking like children awakening from our naps. Our ignorance of the mystery was over; we were reborn, as Jesus promised, baptized with fire, and instilled with the Holy Spirit, because Jesus indwelled in us. We had received the divine wind collectively, but each of us had experienced a second rebirth. The spirit had poured into us, filling us with purpose. What now?, was my first thought. Was this the beginning of a great spiritual odyssey in which we all went our separate ways?
As if to answer my unspoken question, Peter led us all out of the building, his eyes blazing with purpose. To our surprise, a crowd was assembled on the street.
“What, by Abraham’s ghost, was all that commotion?” asked a graybeard, frowning severely.
Not knowing at that time that the man, a merchant, had asked him in Syrian, instead of our language, Peter answered him in the man’s native tongue. Had I not heard this I might not have believed it. When other witnesses to this miracle, asked other members similar questions—some in Greek, some in Latin, and even Egyptian—all of which I recognized from my travels, they also answered the questions in their native tongue. Andrew, Philip, John and his brother, Matthew, Simon, Thomas, Bartholomew, James, Cleopas, Matthias, Mark, Barnabas, Justus, Jonas, and the three women (Joanna, Susanna, and our host Mary), and I followed Peter’s example and went into the crowd boldly recounting Jesus’ resurrection and preaching the simple message of salvation.
“Most of those folks are Galileans,” an old man marveled in a crackly voice. “How is it that they know our tongues?” There were, we would later recall, not only Greek, Syrians, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and Cretans which we understood, but also merchants and visitors from Parthia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia, Africa, Cyrene, and Asia. None of the others, except James and myself, even knew about most of these countries, and yet for those wondrous moments we understood them all. It was as if everyone spoke one common language—with different words for different things, but with the Holy Spirit translating them into one universal tongue.
A handful, who came late to the crowd, accused us of being drunk and a few even thought we were possessed, but the vast majority, who witnessed this event, were also changed that day. They had witnessed a miracle. Peter, now our shepherd, raised his voice, addressing the crowd: “Jews of Jerusalem and the provinces, listen to me. A few of you thought we were drunk on wine or mad. No, my friends: we’re drunk on the Holy Spirit. If we’re mad, it’s a divine madness, for the spirit of the Lord has filled us. Not only did we speak in tongues, but His words filled our heads. Here, in fact, is was spoken by the prophet Joel:
the last days, God says,
I will pour out my spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men
I will pour out my spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
Before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord,
the sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood.
everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
“Fellow Israelites,” his voice grew impassioned, “listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man recognized by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know, but he is much more. This man was handed over to you by God’s plan and foreknowledge, but you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from its agony, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Listen to what our King David said about him:
saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my
my body will also rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead
and won’t let your holy one see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life.
You will fill me with joy in your presence!’
“Fellow Israelites, King David
died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and
remembered that God had promised him that he would place one of his descendants
on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of
the Messiah, who wasn’t abandoned to death nor decay in the tomb. God raised our Lord up to
life. We here, among you, are witnesses
to this. As the Son of God, sitting to
the right of his father, he poured his spirit out to us—the Holy Spirit, which
you have seen and heard today. Though
David, himself didn’t ascend to heaven as Jesus, he said of our Lord, ‘…Sit at
my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Messiah and Lord!”
Peter, a rustic fisherman, who could barely read, was filled with unlearned knowledge, further proof of that day’s wonders. When the people heard his message, after the miracles of the tongues, many of them came forward, greatly perplexed and moved, asking him what they must do. Answering quickly, Peter cried out, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, too!”
This gave them pause. Imbued with two thousand years of Hebrew tradition and the ceremony of the priests, this simple formula seemed to good to be true. To many it was too great a break with the old ways. This group, which included graybeard critics, snarled and walked away. For the larger group, however, who remained, muttering to themselves and shaking their heads after hearing Peter’s claims, it took but a little nudge from all of us. True to his role as a fisherman of men, he cast his net while the fish were in one spot, scooped them up, and led them, staff in hand, through town. On our way to a town square where there was a communal well, we were, with few exceptions, unmolested by critics, who mostly gazed with curiosity or frowns of disapproval while we passed by. Aside from a handful of hecklers following along, claiming that we were drunk or possessed by demons and one addled elder on the sidelines shaking his cane, it was a peaceful procession. Even a troop of soldiers on their way back to the Antonia, let us pass. Stepping aside they gave us the right-of-way, without a challenge. Joanna, Susanna, and Mark’s mother had slipped away to gather up a dozen or more empty skins, which we quickly filled with water, as the multitude crowded in the square.
Each of the eleven apostles, including Peter, and six disciples separated one line of initiates from the multitude so that there were seventeen lines—one for each apostle and disciple, aimed like spokes of a wagon wheel around the well. By now we had already attracted a growing audience that swelled in size at the town square. What a sight we must have been! At the harvest or, in fishermen’s jargon, the catch, initiates were given the words and baptized into the Way. Several onlookers at the wayside, apparently moved by the proceedings, joined one of the lines. Among this number, I recognized one of the hecklers in one line, who had made fun of us for speaking in tongues, and also a man I recalled hurling insults at Jesus during his procession to the cross. When it was finally over, Peter estimated that there were three thousand new members in our ranks. Most of the converts, after hearing the words and being baptized, were delirious with happiness and apparently experienced what the inner circle had experienced in the upper room. A smaller group appeared to be embarrassed by the excesses of the majority, who hugged and kissed each other and, what’s worse, rolled their eyes and shook as they babbled in tongues. Peter dismissed the disappointment of those unable to utter the ‘sacred language’, by explaining to them that there were different gifts given by the Lord: the skill of teaching the word, the ability to heal, or the blessing of speaking in tongues. All of the apostles and disciples would use this reasoning on disappointed believers or those new preachers who found this gift unnecessary, even offensive, to potential converts. A similar encouragement would also be given to members later by Paul and Luke. Though I had experienced the Holy Spirit myself and spoke in tongues, I agreed with Peter that it wasn’t a requirement for the Lord’s blessings. The greatest gift Peter reminded all of the converts that day was that Holy Spirit, which they all shared, and the knowledge that they were reborn and saved.
“The Spirit may come to you at any time, without warning, giving you his wisdom. Listen with your heart and mind. He will tell you what to do. Though giving the world your counsel, remain apart from it. Preach to it and be an example, but remember that you’re his children now, not tools or servants of men. Therefore, when you’re called, go forth into the world and spread the gospel of our Lord. Be brave, vigilant, and wise. Jesus told his apostles that one day there would be a second coming when he would return again in the flesh. Yet no one knows the hour or the day. Be ever alert, children. Watch and listen for the signs!”
With those ominous words was born the legend of Christ’s imminent return. Jesus had never given a timetable and neither did Peter, but Peter’s words, like Jesus’ words, left the impression on many believers that he might return at anytime. It was, of course, this notion that kept John, the Revelator, alive all these years. Jesus had once implied within our hearing that John would live on after us. Even Paul and Luke, who had the benefit of hindsight and the writings of the apostles, drew this conclusion. In many ways, the trials and tribulations of the ecclesia were nurtured by the belief Christ would soon return. During the persecutions of Nero, it reminded those awaiting death that it mattered little what they suffered in the arena: all of the evils of this world would soon be swept away by the Lord.
I know now, as I contemplate the blood of the martyrs, after so many years of beatings and close brushes with death, that Jesus was talking about a more distant time, which he had promised, Peter had quoted, and John recorded as prophecy in his great work. I knew that Jesus, as in so many of his sayings, spoke for the ages. And yet he many times spoke in parables and abstractions, which sometime confounded even us. Today, with so many interpretations of what he said by his own apostles, was it any wonder that Paul, Luke, and their disciples, would put their own version on his life. Information was added, deleted, or it seemed modified from what I had seen for myself. Through it all, however, the basic message of salvation and meaning of Jesus’ life is shared in all of the writings. This is all that matters to me. In the latter days, when I began preaching in Antioch, I concentrated on Jesus’ basic message of redemption. Though Jesus, himself, once promised believers they could, if they had enough faith, speak in tongues, I gave converts the same advice Peter once gave about this subject when they asked me, “What gift will the Lord give me?” “If nothing else,” I would tell them, “be a witness to what you have heard and seen.” The best practice I tell new preachers now, in fact, is ‘Don’t bring up the subject of tongues at all,’ a decision shared by my brother James and the other apostles as well.
All of us—apostles, disciples, and servants—followed Peter’s guidelines that were given him by the Lord. The gift of tongues, he had instructed us, is between those experiencing the Holy Spirit and the Lord, nothing more. This was, of course, true for all of the gifts given to devout believers, freely but selectively bestowed by the Lord. Many overzealous converts, who thought they were special, spoke nothing but gibberish, jerked around as if they had palsy, fainted dead away, or thrashed about on the ground. Some claimed to have seen prophetic visions. Others even attempted, with little success, to cure the sick, lame, and blind. Added to the list of gifts by recent members were playing with serpents and drinking poison as a sign of one’s faith—both of which, Peter had quickly condemned. Such practices, he scolded them, weren’t spiritual; they were stupid and vain. Those who lost control of their bodies, saw visions, and attempted healings had also missed the point. No one could decide what gifts he or she had. It was, Peter explained, the Lord who gave such blessings. Above all, he advised everyone, keep it simple. A believer’s main concern was sharing the good news (Jesus had risen and they could have eternal life); not performing wonders and showing off as the Pharisees often do.
Peter’s admonishments were based upon sound logic and what Jesus wanted. Though mentioning it in passing, Jesus never spoke in tongues nor did he tempt the Lord by playing with poisonous snakes or drinking poison. No one ever saw Jesus display his powers with undue showiness, whether in healing or prophecy. Jesus wanted preachers, not showmen. Nor did he want his children to abuse their bodies with whips as pagan priests often did or wander around like mystics, spouting gibberish, or acting high and mighty, lording it over others with their greater faith. As Jesus once said in the Parable of the Laborers, Peter reminded us, after John and his brother James asked to sit on each side of him in his kingdom, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave.” Both John and his brother smiled sheepishly at each other upon hearing this, but it was meant for his listeners and intended for the ages.
It was difficult for new converts to be humble in our sinful world. In addition to the misunderstandings shared by many members was their ignorance of the implication in Peter’s preaching of Jesus’ imminent return. Because of the anxiety I saw in most converts, who couldn’t understand why the Lord hadn’t come, I downplayed the timetable, along with the desire to have gifts. If they missed the Lords second coming, I would add half-seriously, this would mean they were in heaven, looking down on this sinful world. Peter agreed with my understanding of this. All of us, in fact, did our best to emulate our new shepherd’s style and fortitude. Though he would, out of humility, argue the point, we were, as apostles, disciples, and servants, in many ways Peter’s disciples now, as we were once the Lord’s.
That day after we ministered to the flock, I had no grand plans. My immediate concern, like everyone else, was the unwashed, unfed mob gathered in the square. There was much planning to be done, explained Peter, but the first order of business was to find quarters for the ecclesia. Newly saved, they were like freshly caught fish, still requiring the net. The great numbers harvested here in Jerusalem, that Peter estimated to be three thousand, was still small in comparison to the number of converts made in Capernaum and Bethany. Despite this fact and the importance of Capernaum and Bethany in Jesus’ ministry, the significance of Jerusalem as the place where he was crucified and then rose from the dead and the fact that the lost sheep, a Peter saw them, had been brought into to the fold, made Jerusalem very significant, perhaps even more important than other towns. It was no longer, in the apostle’s eyes, cursed for rejecting Jesus. It was the City of David, where Jesus rode in triumphantly and where the greatest part of his ministry took place. That there were men and women in this ecclesia now who had mocked and thrown garbage on our Lord and rejoiced at his crucifixion made them, now that they were repentant of their sins, that more precious in the His eyes.
Though Peter graciously accepted all manner of riff-raff into the ecclesia, including those dreadful people who mocked our Lord, it was less easy for the rest of us to accept this element into the fold. Many of the new converts, who had been in the crowd in front of the Antonia calling for Barabbas and in that mob during the crucifixion, were seedy-looking men and women, some of whom had been beggars and low-lives in town. Jesus once told us not to throw pearls before swine. I know that he meant those people who rejected our preaching, but it seemed appropriate now. Despite Jesus’ insistence that we forgive our enemies unlimited times, how do you forgive an entire mob? Also striking most of us as wrong-headed was the breakdown of the ecclesia. This had to one of Peter’s revelations. Once again I’m reminded how the Lord works in mysterious ways. Dividing us into apostles, disciples, servants, and regular members was illogical enough. Apostle, which members of original twelve (now eleven) are called, means simply ‘one who is sent.’ A disciple, on the other hand, is defined as one who believes Christ’s doctrine. He imitates his example and is filled with His spirit. While all of the men, who volunteered in one way or another (no matter how disreputable they appeared) could call themselves disciples, none of the saintly women, even Mary Magdalene, Lazarus’ sisters, and the women in the upper room receiving he Holy Spirit, were given this title. Peter, with the typical prejudice of Jews couldn’t conceive of women as disciples and relegated them all to the role of servants. It might be argued that Mary Magdalene, who fancied herself a preacher like the men, had come from very humble origins, but the other three women had physically and financially supported our cause. Considering the fact that Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who was a wealthy member of Herod’s staff, had jeopardized her status, Susanna had given us her entire inheritance, and Mark’s mother, who owned the house we used as a meeting place, had virtually turned it over to the Way, Peter’s demotion of them seemed quite high-handed.
The most high-handed of Peter’s revelations, however, appeared to be a last minute decision. Instead of remaining in Jerusalem, the city of their conversion, most of the converts would be sent to Bethany to begin anew until Christ’s return. Until Peter was certain matters had quieted down, only a fraction would remain in Jerusalem. This might be a great relief to Mark’s mother, but it would be a great burden on Lazarus’ household. What would they think when they saw this crowd enter town? Everyone, he informed the new converts in a loud, hoarse voice, must get their affairs in order and return as soon as possible to the front of Mark’s house. Whatever was left to be arranged would have to wait for another day. Sosthenes, a Greek-speaking Jew Peter had baptized, would lead them to Lazarus’ house, where, the elder would hand over a note scribbled out by John, asking Lazarus to find lodging for the members with families in town. When James and I tried convincing him that this was too much to ask, and that it might, like the rich young nobleman rebuked by Jesus, make converts shy away, Peter replied, “Good, it will separate the wheat from the tares!” Switching back and forth between figures of speech, Peter had likened us to fishermen or harvesters, but that day after the great haul of believers, we were herdsmen, with a great flock gathered needing guidance and control.
The Jerusalem catch or bounty, without interference by priests, Pharisees, scribes, or Roman soldiers amounted to a miracle. Like Moses leading the children out of Israel without being stopped, it was, indeed, a wondrous event. How Peter managed this was nothing short of a miracle in itself. What worried us was how long this state of grace would last. The new converts had to be hurried out of town now, while they were in the mood and before Caiaphas’ and Pilate’s patience wore thin.
Jesus had implied at times that believers had to give up everything to follow him, but most people were not apostles, disciples, or servants literally following in his footsteps. When he rebuked the rich young nobleman, it was because he wouldn’t give up his wealth to join our group. The thousands, who had joined the Way, were believers, not necessarily followers. This was particularly true for the Jerusalemites, a fickle mob, filled with one-time enemies, many of whom spoke a foreign tongue. They were, in many ways, the least promising group of converts, and yet, unlike all the other members joining in the past who went home to spread the word, as Jesus had planned, they were considered special. Peter wanted to hold onto this bunch. Jesus never expected him to do this, as he had he never expected converts to speak in tongues or experience the Holy Spirit. He had said many times, that when the seed is planted it’s up to the listener. It might not happen all at once for everyone and for some not at all.
Seen as farmers in Jesus’ footsteps, who spread the seeds of faith, we have done our job. From the point when the seed is planted, as Jesus explained in the Parable of the Sower, it depended on the soil (or the mind of the listener). There are those who hear the good news, but at the very beginning the devil takes the seed of faith or word from their hearts. There are those where the seed falls among thorns (life’s worries, riches, and pleasures) and are never allowed to mature. Then there are the true believers, where the seed of faith is planted in good soil—listeners with noble and good hearts, who hear the word, retain it, and persevering, produce a crop, where newly made disciples and servants tend to it, making sure the harvest can stand on its own. Seen as a flock of sheep as Jesus often likened it, though, there would, during this last phase, still be those who fall away. Because there was only one shepherd now, those fledgling congregations in various towns if they were led at all, it was by self-appointed herdsmen—many of whom were brand new to the faith. It was for this reason that Peter had sent converts of Bethany to Capernaum, the heart of the ecclesia, and clung so tenaciously to the Jerusalem bunch. He had no idea how converts were doing in such far flung provinces as Samaria, Decapolis, and Perea, from which he received conflicting reports. For all we knew, he confessed one day to us, when news of the crucifixion went out in Palestine, a great number of converts did, in fact, turn away. Much later when the ecclesia had matured and Peter had trained herdsmen for the task, many of whom would be chosen from the disciples in Capernaum, there would be visitations by preachers to bolster the spirit of congregations and their leaders, but, until the time of Paul, there was really only one ecclesia, with one shepherd: Peter, the Rock.