I want you to imagine, if you will, what it would have been like to be in the old city of Jerusalem on that morning of Pentecost, the day the world changed forever. It would have been late May, and the air would have been alive with vibrancy of summer. The land of Isra’el tends to only have two seasons – that of summer and winter. It would have been hot too; an average daytime temperature, at that time of year, would have been in the mid twenties centigrade. The city, with its high walls, would have meant virtually every part of it was a windless sun trap. The streets would have been literally full of people and animals there for the feast; people from every corner of the then known world. The air would have been full of different languages, as the Hebrew pilgrims filtered into the city to ready themselves for the Feast of Shavuot.
For the Hebrews, this was a time of celebration. They were celebrating God giving Moses the Torah, the Law, and the feast was to mark their continued acceptance of that Law. The people would have been excited. Of course, much had happened since they were last there for Passover, seven weeks ago. Rumours would have been flying around about a man, perhaps a prophet, who had been raised from the dead after being crucified for blasphemy. The excitement that these rumours would have generated would have been quite unusual for a city which was hardened to the things of God. Could it be that the Sanhedrin had got it wrong? Did they crucify God’s prophet – the first one for over 400 years? Did you hear that the veil was torn in two – from top to bottom? Surely that was a sign from Yehovah? It was clearly business as usual for the priesthood, but could this man have been the Mashiyach Ben David (the Messiah, Son of David) whom we have waited so long for?
And as they walked through the streets towards the Temple courtyards, as they climbed the Hill of Ascents, and the shofars sounded to announce the start of the feast, another sound was heard. Multiple languages being spoken all at once. But wait, each man could discern his own language and was able to understand what was being said. The words were praising God for His salvation. A salvation that has come through one man, this Yeshua, whom the Sanhedrin executed on a cross. But wait, they say He was the sacrifice, the Lamb of God just as the herald John had said He would be. His sacrifice has paid the price for every sin, all sins were atoned for. And because sin had nothing on Him, because He was worthy, death couldn’t hold Him, and He was raised from the dead, by the power of Yehovah. The Kingdom of God is at hand for those who hear and understand this message.
They would have followed this sound and been led away from their climb to the Temple. The open windows of an upper room were the source. The air was filled with the very presence of Yehovah Himself, and these men and women were praising God and declaring some really good news in different languages. Their accents were clearly from Galilee; how did they acquire the ability to speak languages from far-off lands? What is this?
Some of those in the street said to ignore them. They’re drunks, they said. They should be readying themselves for the feast, but instead, they’ve started on the wine early. Then one of them comes to the window. A hushed silenced descends upon the packed street below as this stranger, this man from the Galil speaks. He had their attention.
And that is how I imagine it to be that morning when the world changed. As we follow on the text from Acts chapter two, we see that the languages the people in the street heard included everything from Parthian to Egyptian. Those who heard the message in their own language were amazed by it. When Peter stood up to silence the mockers, those who had travelled far and wide to the feast stood and listened in silence.
Peter stood and declared that prophecy was being fulfilled in front of their very eyes. It wasn’t drunkenness. It was the Spirit of God being poured out. Peter’s speech makes a seminal moment in church history for by associating not only the prophecy contained in Joel chapter two, but also David’s prophecy from Psalm 16, he confirms that the fulfilment of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind was entirely linked to the person of Yeshua. In verse 21 Peter, still reciting Joel’s prophecy finishes on this line:
“And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” [Acts 2:21 NKJV]
Let us just pause here for a moment and discuss what that name he mentions actually is. The NKJV version of the Bible, like most modern translations, uses the word LORD in capitals as what is known as a reverse circumlocution, that is a simple workaround to a difficult problem. The difficult problem in question is that since around AD 130, when the Romans made a law prohibiting the use of God’s name in their oppression of the Hebrews, the scribes and teachers of the Law, created a workaround to avoid explaining themselves. Because Rome had banned the Hebrews from using the name of Yehovah in either spoken or written form, they reverted to a previous circumlocution which they had adopted when the Greek empire had imposed similar sanctions in the 2nd century BC. The Hebrew language doesn’t have any letters for vowels. Vowel sounds are created by adding certain punctuation marks above and below consonants. In Hebrew, without the vowel marks, the name Yehovah reads YHVH, which is made up of the Hebrew letters Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey. Because the Hebrews didn’t like to even say those letters, and the word itself is unpronounceable without the vowels marks, they came up with a workaround. Every time they read from the Scriptures and came to YHVH, they would say ‘Lord’, or rather in Hebrew, Adonai, which means Lord.
In the Tanakh, the Old Testament, the word YHVH appears 6,828 times, and on each and every time, instead of using His name, Yehovah, they still choose to say Adonai, or even HaShem (The Name). What I am trying to explain to you is that this is a tradition that the elders and sages of the Hebrew people adopted and never let go of. It is not a commandment from God. As a result of this man-made tradition, all translators of the Bible came to believe that we also weren’t allowed to use the name of God, despite the Roman Empire collapsing some time ago. We are allowed to use His name. He wants us to use His name. His name is Yehovah. If you would like a detailed explanation of all of this you will find one in an article The Name of God.
For now, I want you to understand that what Peter would have said for all to hear that day was that ‘whoever calls upon the name of Yehovah will be saved’. Why is this important? Because God has linked salvation exclusively to calling upon His name, Yehovah. Salvation cannot be obtained by any other means. And when you call upon the name of Yehovah, He answers. He sent His Son to save every one of us. And the name of His Son confirms that His salvation is from Yehovah, for His name, as Peter says in the next sentence, is Yeshua (Yehovah Saves) of Nazareth.
Peter continues to tell the crowds of how this salvation has been made available as part of the promise made to king David about his future family line. The Hebrew sages declared long ago that there would be two people they were waiting for to see God’s Salvation; two Messiahs. They were waiting for Mashiyach Ben David (Messiah, Son of David) and Mashiyach Ben Yosef (Messiah, Son of Joseph). Whilst the sages were right to predict two events, they failed to see that it would be the same person; that both Messiahs were one and the same. He came first as the son of Yosef – only the Hebrews were looking to someone from the House of Yosef, not the House of Yosef the carpenter from Nazareth, and when He returns and restores the throne of David, He will come as Mashiyach Ben David.
Here’s what the text says as Peter finishes his speech:
“Therefore let all the house of Isra’el know assuredly that God has made this Yeshua, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Yeshua Mashiyach for the remission of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation.”
Then those who gladly received his word were baptised; and that day three thousand souls were added to them.” [Acts 2:36-41]
Three thousand souls. You will recall that the Feast of Shavuot is celebrated to remind the Hebrews of when God gave Moses the Law. You might also remember that on that day when Moses descended from the mountain to find his people dancing around the golden calf, that three thousand men lost their lives as a result of their disobedience (Exodus 32:26-28). Here, on the day the world changed, God redressed that balance by saving the same number.
I have often heard mention of such a number as were saved on Pentecost used as a justification for the building of a megachurch. The line goes that we need to build something big in case God does that again. What would we do with them all if we didn’t have a megachurch? Well, they managed back then.
There is something of a discussion that needs to be had about the drive which the modern church has for building such venues. I almost don’t want to open this particular subject because I know the opposition I will attract. However, I can procrastinate no longer. The issue has to be addressed. First, some qualifying remarks lest I be dragged away by an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.
Around a year or so ago, a young pastor accused me of being anti-church. I am not anti-church. In fact I am very strongly pro-church. I am pro the kind of church which Yeshua taught His disciples to build. I am pro building church from the living stones of people and not from bricks or rock, built upon the foundation of the apostles and Christ as the Chief Cornerstone. Of course, there is an obvious problem with that approach – it is impractical when you have a large number of people who believe. But that problem only exists when you look at it from a worldly perspective. Before I set out what I see as the solution; the solution which is found in the pages of the Bible, I want to address some of the reasons why I think we have got to this place in which we think that God wants us to erect huge buildings to house large numbers of people simultaneously.
Let’s start with the text above as I have heard it bandied about in order to justify planning large establishments. The three thousand souls that were added to their number that day, I surmise, were largely made up of people who didn’t permanently dwell in Jerusalem. The vast majority of those saved that day were, in fact, only there for the Feast of Shavuot. The text certainly suggests that to be the case because of the references to their varied home nations and languages. It was God’s plan that they might be saved. In verse 41 it talks about those who receive the word – those who heard the message and understood it and would go on to produce a rich harvest. The seed. It was God’ plan that on that day the gospel would be spread throughout the known world, carried in the hearts of those new converts. I suspect very few of them remained in Jerusalem more than a few days after the feast. They were simply God’s couriers.
We have a tendency to constantly fill in what we think are the blanks when it comes to things like this. We approach it all from a position that unless there is something clearly defined in Scripture, then God has given us freedom to do as we think is best. Personal experience has taught me that God almost never works like this. He will, of course, allow us to go ahead on our own, carving out a future that we think is appropriate, but seldom does it turn out to be truly in line with what He wants (see Proverbs 16:9). Now, just because Paul didn’t write a letter to the church at Ephesus saying not to invest God’s money into buildings, or Yeshua didn’t mention that we shouldn’t look to measure success by the number in our assembly, doesn’t give us licence to do as we see fit. And just because Spurgeon preached to 25,000 at the Crystal Palace and had the Metropolitan Tabernacle which held up to 10,000, doesn’t make it God’s design. When David had in his heart to build for God a Temple, he was rebuked by God. God told David that He was content in His tabernacle and had no need for a Temple made by David. Better a tent of God’s design than a temple of David’s desire, as one commentator put it. The point is, just because David had the desire to do such a thing, doesn’t make it God’s will.
God’s design of what church should look like is carefully included in the pages of Scripture. It is there for all to see. The modern church fails to see it, on the whole, because it doesn’t want to look. It thinks that we need to be modern and business-like in our approach. It thinks that the models found in the pages of the Bible are out-dated – for a time long since passed. The trouble with that approach is that once you start to disregard something that God has said, it is difficult to find where you should stop. I mean, the moment you don’t accept the model, you might as well forget the Bible as any kind of reference point.
Much of what we have in our minds today for what we think God wants, is based entirely upon what we see others doing. An ambitious pastor here might be sold on the sight of a Californian megachurch and feel that God has put it in his heart to do the same. It is easy to hear God if it is what we want to hear. In the case of David, even Nathan, the king’s prophet, encouraged him to build a temple on the basis that God appeared to be with him. But it took a visitation from God before Nathan could spell it out for David. When it comes to any of these things, such as committing large sums of money to bricks and mortar, the lesson we should draw from David is that we must first seek God before we embark on any such project. Just because God appears to be with us, doesn’t mean that we can do what we think is right. David thought he was honouring God. The thing that actually honours God above everything else is obedience.
Recently, I have found myself having to call sin sin. That is to say, I had found my way to a place where certain attitudes I could hold towards others, or certain things I did or said, I had managed to find a way to justify them to myself, and therefore failed to recognise these things as sin. But they were, and still are sins nonetheless. And this is what the church has been doing over the centuries, gradually moving further away from what God had said to be nearer, and more relevant, to the world. We cast aside the things we don’t like in Scripture and re-interpret them our way – the way which suits what we do. It is effectively, when you scrape all the self-justification away, little more than the sin of unbelief – the inability to accept God’s way. And that leads to pride and arrogance – when we think we know best.
For myself, the painful experience of coming face to face with these things in my own life was actually very hard. To realise what I had become, despite knowing the truth, was unnerving. To see that I had stop calling sin sin in certain cases, actually meant that I was rejecting what God had said. It is the same with the way in which the church has gradually allowed the gospel to be watered down; to be dissected and divided – keeping only the bits that suit. That’s what I was trying to do – what I had been doing for many years. But, and I can assure you of this, what you find when you reach that realisation, is a loving and merciful God who picks you up and brushes you down just when you are experiencing the most loathsome self-pity. He takes your hand and shows you the way back to the foot of the cross and, in an instant, you realise that all it takes is to turn away from doing what you did, to doing what He said to start with. The burden is lifted. That is all the church needs to do – to come back to the foot of the cross and say that we are sorry. And when we do, He will show us the way. He always does.
I think the trouble is that church leaders, down the centuries, have come to believing that God measures success in numbers. That is the way of the world. God doesn’t measure success in terms of h,ow many people attend a church meeting. He measures it in terms of how many people hear His word and respond with obedience to what He said.
About a decade ago, I spent around a year attending a megachurch regularly. Let me tell you that, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that what was being taught there, what was preached, was less of the gospel which we see in the pages of the New Testament, and more of a self-help gospel where everything is about prosperity for yourself. I say with hindsight because at the time, despite considering myself to be fairly discerning in such matters, I found that I accepted what was peddled as the gospel. It sounded good. It appealed to my ears. Moreover, it appealed to my flesh. Not just the teaching either, although that was particularly enchanting. The music, the atmosphere, the building, the general buzz around the place, were all appealing. But despite their fleshy appeal, none of it satisfied – the flesh always wants more.
Their model was based upon that of a famous American pastor, whose book was the best selling Christian read beside the Bible. The first chapter of the book famously starts with the line, “It’s not about you.” But it was. It was all about the self and getting what you want out of life, all thinly veiled beneath the facade of good works. When you start to look for the substance, and more importantly, for the gospel amongst the pages, you find very little. No repentance. No awareness of sin. No humility. Just self-interest. The book in question has become the manual for the megachurch. Like the manual for a franchise. And that is what the Church Growth Movement has become – a franchise built upon the foundations of a solid business plan, and not upon the apostles or Yeshua.
Ultimately, it all comes down to money. The bigger the building, the more money you need to maintain it. With big buildings you have big overheads. Wage bills and energy bills require constant attention, which means that you need to get more people through the door. You go from two services on a Sunday to three. More people come. It costs more. More money comes in. And, because the light show and the band, are just entertainment for the fleshy parts of people, you need to produce bigger and better shows each time. You can never satisfy the carnal side of people. More money is therefore required. It goes on and on just to maintain what they have built.
Perhaps you will notice that the vision for all of this is only delivered to one person, usually the pastor. He surrounds himself with people who help to enforce that vision. It becomes all about him and his vision and less about salvation.
The trouble is, whilst you are attending these places, rocking the boat or speaking out only leads to conflict. Most just accept the vision as being of God. Those who challenge or question it are run out of town. Not literally. Just in the kind of way which the modern church has developed for dealing with those who don’t ‘get’ the vision. And those who don’t ‘get’ the vision leave, they become persona non grata very quickly – either never discussed publicly, or talked of as though they have been ‘released’ into new pastures. What have we become? How did it get to this? If the church today treats its own in this way, how would we ever expect new believers to prosper?
Well, we will look at all of those issues and more as we go along. In Part Ten of this series, we will look at how the disciples managed all those new converts without a large building to house everyone in.