Filled with the Holy Spirit: Charles Fox Parham & the Pentecostal Tradition
Acts 2:1-11

How many of you have ever attended a Pentecostal church before? If you have, you know that they are drastically different from other Protestant traditions. Contrary to the high and tight liturgical forms we find in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions, Pentecostal churches are typically described by words like spontaneous, unpredictable, boisterous, free-flowing, music-driven, and emotional. If one is not used to this style, it might even be classified as chaotic.

            In addition to the usual elements of worship such as prayer, Bible reading, singing, and a sermon, Pentecostal worship services often include raised hands, dancing, speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances, faith healing, and a practice called “slain in the Spirit” when person becomes so overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit that they supposedly pass out and remain unconscious for a short period of time.

            If you have never attended a Pentecostal church before, allow me to recommend giving it a try at least once in your life. Even if it is not your cup of tea, you will gain a glimpse of how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ (over 280 million) worship God all around the world.    

 

Pentecostalism: A Brief History

Pentecostalism is a relatively recent movement within Protestant Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The term Pentecostal is derived from Pentecost, the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. For Christians, this event commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ after his ascension to heaven, as described in Acts 2.

Like other forms of evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism adheres to the authority of the Bible and the necessity of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. It is distinguished by belief in the baptism in the Holy Spirit that enables a Christian to live a Spirit-filled and empowered life. This empowerment includes the use of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and divine healing—two other defining characteristics of Pentecostalism. Because of their commitment to biblical authority, spiritual gifts, and the miraculous, Pentecostals tend to see their movement as reflecting the same kind of spiritual power and teachings that were found in the Apostolic Age of the early church.

Unlike other Protestant traditions, Pentecostalism was not founded by one person or group. Instead, at the dawn of the 20th century, many isolated Christian groups were experiencing charismatic phenomena such as divine healing and speaking in tongues. Charles Fox Parham, an independent holiness evangelist who believed strongly in divine healing, became an important figure to the emergence of Pentecostalism as a distinct Christian movement.

In 1900, Parham started a school near Topeka, Kansas, which he named Bethel Bible School. There he taught that speaking in tongues was the scriptural evidence for the reception of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. On January 1, 1901, after a watch-night service, the students prayed for and received the baptism with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. Parham received this same experience sometime later and began preaching it in all his services. Parham believed this was xenoglossia and that missionaries would no longer need to study foreign languages. After 1901, Parham closed his Topeka school and began a four-year revival tour throughout Kansas and Missouri. He taught that the baptism with the Holy Spirit was a third experience, subsequent to conversion and sanctification. Sanctification cleansed the believer, but Spirit baptism empowered for service.

At about the same time that Parham was spreading his doctrine of initial evidence in the Midwestern United States, news of the Welsh Revival of 1904–05 ignited intense speculation of a coming move of the Spirit which would renew the entire Christian Church. This revival saw thousands of conversions and exhibited speaking in tongues.

In 1905, Parham moved to Houston, Texas, where he started another Bible training school. One of his students was William J. Seymour, a one-eyed black preacher. Seymour traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching sparked the three-year-long Azusa Street Revival in 1906. The revival first broke out on Monday April 9, at 214 Bonnie Brae Street and then moved to 312 Azusa Street on Friday, April 14. Worship at the racially integrated Azusa Mission featured an absence of any order of service. People preached and testified as moved by the Spirit, spoke and sung in tongues, and fell in the Spirit. The revival attracted both religious and secular media attention, and thousands of visitors flocked to the mission, carrying the “fire” back to their home churches. Despite the work of various Wesleyan groups such as Parham’s and D. L. Moody’s revivals in the late 1800’s, the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the US is generally considered to have begun with Seymour’s Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

Over the past century, Pentecostalism has spread wider and faster than any other Protestant denomination. It is still rapidly expanding today, especially in South America, Africa, and Asia.

            Like all the other Protestant traditions we have studied, it is not only important to understand their history and practice, but we must also look at their biblical foundations. Pentecostals point to many New Testament passages to substantiate their beliefs, but unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to treat them all in one sermon. Therefore, let us look at the primary passage of Pentecostalism: Acts 2:1-11, where the Holy Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost.

 

Filled with the Spirit: A Brief Pentecostal Theology (Acts 2:1-11)

In Acts 1, we find the resurrected Christ gathered with his disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. He commanded his Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. From there, he led them to the Mount of Olives and commission them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Then they watched his glorious ascension into heaven. After this, they returned to the upper room, chose Matthias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, and waited for the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2 opens with the Apostles praying on the day of Pentecost, the first day of the Jewish harvest festival. This term comes from the fact that the festival is celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Passover, which marked the end of the wheat harvest and the beginning of the barley harvest. It was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, when pilgrims would journey to Jerusalem to present their gifts and offerings to the Lord at his Holy Temple.

During Pentecost, Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over the world. Ironically, the coming of the Holy Spirit was about to propel the gospel to the ends of the earth by bringing people from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem. During the great harvest festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was about to inaugurate a great harvest of souls by endowing the Apostles with supernatural power to be Jesus’ witnesses.

In verse 2, the Holy Spirit bursts on the scene with audio and visual effects choreographed by God. First, there was a loud noise reminiscent of a violent wind. I have never been in a tornado, but I have heard that it sounds like a train is coming right toward you. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “wind” can also mean “spirit”. Wind was an Old Testament symbol for God’s presence.

Second, something that seemed like tongues of fire came and rested upon each Apostle’s head. Fire is another Old Testament symbol for God’s presence, as the fire at the burning bush before Moses. These physical manifestations were proof that the Holy Spirit had come to empower Jesus’ followers to fulfill his mission to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.

As the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, they all began to speak in other tongues. These were real languages, not some kind of unintelligible gibberish. The Holy Spirit miraculously empowered these disciples to preach in languages that they did not know. Why did the Spirit do this? Because there were Jews there from all over the world who needed to hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When these people heard a bunch of uneducated men from Galilee preaching in their own native languages, they were utterly amazed. Luke mentions at least fifteen different languages that were represented.

These disciples spoke about “the wonders of God”, which refers to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it would not have been for the Holy Spirit, they would not have been able to proclaim the gospel in such a way. Everyone present there experienced a genuine miracle.  They all experienced the power of the Holy Spirit on that day!

            Now the big question for us is this: Is what the Apostles experienced on the Day of Pentecost normative for Christians today? Most Pentecostals would respond with a resounding “Absolutely!” Others would say, “Absolutely not!” And then there are still other Christians like myself who would say, “Well, sort of.” Let me explain.          

            First, the miracle of Pentecost is a unique event in the history of the church. I have known some Christians who try to reproduce Pentecost today.  They say things like, “If we just pray hard enough, or pray the right way, then God will give us an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Or if we could just speak in tongues, then we would have the power to reach the world for Christ.” 

            The reality is that we cannot manufacture revival. Sure, there have been periods of great outpouring in history.  I think about the Great Awakening that took place here in New England 250 years ago, but I believe we would be misapplying this text if we tried to recreate what happened here at Pentecost.  This filling of the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to give the Apostles divine power to witness for one day, it was meant to empower them to witness for the rest of their lives.

            Most of us will never hear a sound like a rushing wind or have tongues of fire dance on our heads. Most of us will never speak in tongues, but the Holy Spirit empowers us to be his witnesses every day. Anytime we share “the wonders of God” and someone makes a commitment to Jesus Christ, a great miracle has happened. We would never be effective if the Holy Spirit didn’t empower us. Every true Christian has this power, but many don’t even know that they have it!

            That brings me to my second point: Even though the miraculous events of Pentecost are not normative for all Christians in all ages, I don’t think the Holy Spirit ceased all miraculous functions at the end of the first century. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and has the power to operate in the same ways as in the Apostolic age. Therefore, I do believe that the Holy Spirit sometimes empowers people to miraculously heal, utter words of prophecy, and speak in tongues. I just don’t think that it happens as often or regularly as some Pentecostals claim.

            I have been in some contexts, Pentecostal and otherwise, where I have experienced genuine displays of the Holy Spirit’s power, and it is amazing. But unfortunately, I have been in other Pentecostal contexts where I believe the so-called miracles were manufactured by human manipulation. The difficulty is knowing the difference, but that will have to be another sermon for another day.

 

            Until then, let me just conclude with this: I am not a Pentecostal, but I deeply appreciate the Pentecostal church’s emphasis on the person and power of the Holy Spirit. May we learn from its strengths, beware of its excesses, and labor together for the gospel of Jesus Christ!

 

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