Writing ahead of Pentecost Sunday, Lucy Peppiatt says the greatest gift the early Church received was not signs and wonders, but a fresh revelation of the love of God
Later this month, the Church will celebrate the gift of the Spirit poured out on all people, men and women, young and old.
Before Jesus ascended, he promised his disciples he would send them a comforter, one who would remind them of all the things Jesus had taught them while he was with them; the Spirit of truth who would clothe them “with power from on high” (Luke 24:49; John 14:16-17). The disciples, along with the rest of the Jewish nation, were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the first wheat harvest.
It was at this gathering that the Spirit fell upon them. There was visible power: a sound like a violent wind, tongues of fire appearing on their heads and speaking “in other tongues” (Acts 2:1-4). They were so physically affected that people around them thought they were drunk! Peter preached the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, and 3,000 were added to the Church that day. The disciples were empowered to preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, pray, praise and prophesy.
The Church received many gifts that day, but the gift that empowered them the most was not the signs and wonders but the love of God, poured out into their hearts. This was the gift that underpinned all the others, without which, as Paul later writes, the other gifts are just empty, discordant sounds (1 Corinthians 13).
Love in action
The text in Acts 2 doesn’t speak specifically about an outpouring of God’s love, but it does tell us, remarkably, that after that day, they had “everything in common” and “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Such behaviour was, no doubt, inspired by love. It is Paul who connects the Spirit with the love of God, writing in Romans 5:5 that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”.
Paul also connects the themes of the Holy Spirit and God’s love with sonship. In Romans 8:14-16, he writes: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
We see this same sonship when Jesus is baptised by John. The Spirit rests on him, and those around him heard a voice from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22, my italics). This is echoed at the Transfiguration where Peter, James and John hear the same voice: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5, my italics).
When God looks at us, his heart is so utterly full of love and contentment for who we are
When God gives us the same Spirit that rests on Jesus, and comes from Jesus, the Spirit shows us that when we are in Christ, we are also God’s children. We are loved by the Father with the same love he has for his Son and become “sons” through the Son. The Spirit speaks to our hearts in the same way, communicating the deep love of God for us as individuals.
It’s tempting to say “we are sons and daughters”. Of course girls and women are God’s daughters and Christ’s sisters, but if we lose the idea of sonship, we miss the full meaning of this gift. We’re all called “sons” because, in the ancient world, the firstborn son received the inheritance. Thus, we receive Christ’s inheritance with him and through him. We’re his co-heirs, inheritors of the riches of the kingdom, including the unbounded love of the Father. That’s what the Bible is communicating to all the children of God – including women.
The knowledge of being the beloved stays with Jesus throughout his ministry, even as he goes to the cross. As Steven Duby writes in Jesus and the God of Classical Theism (Baker Academic): “Even on the cross as he bears our guilt, he is the object of the Father’s delight.”
The idea of the Father not only loving, but delighting, in his children can also be seen in Zephaniah 3:17, which English theologian John Owen translates as: “The Lord thy God in the midst of you is mighty; he will save you, he will rejoice over you with joy, he will rest in his love; he will joy over you with singing.” These verses tell us God silently, contentedly loves his children. It is God who rests his love on us first, so that we might then rest in his love.
For Owen, this means that God has no complaint about us. “This God does upon the account of his own love, so full, so every way complete and absolute, that it will not allow him to complain of anything in them whom he loves, but he is silent on the account thereof.” It also means “he will not remove [his love], – he will not seek farther for another object. It shall make its abode upon the soul where it is once fixed, for ever.”
When God looks at us, his heart is so utterly full of love and contentment in who we are. And this loving gaze is fixed on each of us, not roaming and not restless; not looking for anything better, because there is nothing better in God’s sight.
As we celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit poured out on us this Pentecost, let’s celebrate the outpouring of God’s love into the world and pray that many, many more come to know this in their hearts.