Next Sunday is Whitsunday, now often known by its Jewish name of Pentecost, it was often now as Whitsunday – -literally ‘White Sunday’ – for it was a day when people dressed in white for baptism. What an experience that first Whit Sunday baptismal ‘service’ must have been. There were 3000 candidates. In the Congo I had the joy of participating in a baptismal service with over 100 candidates, but I was but one of ten baptizers. I wonder what happened that first Whitsunday? Were the 3000 candidates shared amongst the 12 apostles?
The baptisms that first Whitsunday were a consequence of a powerful sermon by Peter. Peter accused his hearers of having crucified God’s Son. He spoke of how God had reverses their sentence of death on Jesus by raising him from the dead – “and of all that we are witnesses” (Acts 2.32). Therefore , “know with certainty that God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (2.36). Not surprisingly Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart”, or as the GNB puts it, they were “deeply troubled”, and they said “What should we do?” (2.37). Peter replied: “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts 2.38).
In the first instance, Peter called for repentance. To our ears ‘repentance’ sounds a very old-fashioned term. However, as the GNB makes clear, it is about ‘turning away’ from our sins. Repentance involves changing direction and beginning to go God’s way. In that respect we all need to ‘repent’. For although none of us had a direct hand in the death of Jesus, the truth is that we are all as selfish and self-centred as anybody else. Sin is essentially egocentricity – it is all about ‘Me First’. In that regard we are all sinners – and from God’s perspective every time we put ourselves first, we thump the nails even deeper into the hands of Jesus. That’s why Peter spoke of “every one of you” having to repent, for all of us need to change direction. The journey (back) to God begins with repentance. In that regard on a visit to Russia I noted with interest that the term Russian Baptists first and foremost talk of Christians as ‘penitents’ rather than ‘believers’, for the term ‘believer’ can be applied to people of many faiths.
But another response is called for: we are to “be baptized” (2.38). I shall never forget attending a ‘tent crusade’ in Manchester’s Platt Fields. The evangelist had taken as his text the words of Peter in Acts 2,38, but instead of urging his listeners to ‘repent and be baptized’, he urged us to ‘repent and believe’. Yet nowhere in his sermon does Peter talk about the need to believe. In my experience most evangelists treat baptism as an optional extra and as a result the need to be baptised does not normally feature in their preaching. Yet baptism is just the other side of the coin to believing. We see that in the response of Paul and Silas to the Philippian jailer when following the massive earthquake all the doors of the prison were opened. The terrified jailer asked “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16.31) Paul and Silas replied “Believe in the Lord Jesus”. Whereupon the jailer along with his family were baptized. The fact is that in New Testament times there was no difference between believing and being baptized. Baptism was a public ‘demo’, in which people publicly gave their lives to the Lord who had loved them and gave himself for them. In this regard Anglicans and other paedobaptists are as much in the wrong as the evangelist at the tent crusade: he regarded baptism as optional, whereas Anglicans and others appear to regard faith as optional – and all the more so where there is the practice of indiscriminate infant baptism, where not even the parents are people of faith, As many paedo-Baptists admit, there can be no theological justification for baptising children of nonbelievers.
On that first Whitsunday 3000 people responded to Peter’ turn away from their sins and be baptized. God in turn responded by pouring out his Spirit on these new believers: “you will receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). The gift of the Spirit is not a second-stage experience but rather part of the conversion process. This, of course, is what we celebrate on Whitsunday. The Spirit is no longer reserved for the spiritual ‘greats’, but is given to all who believe. Who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the presence of God in our lives He enables us to enter into a new intimate relationship with God Almighty, in which we can call God Father. This was the true miracle of Pentecost: God became real in the hearts and lives of those who loved him. Compared to that, the wind and the fire, together with the ability to speak in other languages, were unimportant.
One final response took place that day: those who were baptized were “added” to the church (Acts 2.41). Here we learn that God doesn’t want us to be a bunch of loners. Commitment to Jesus inevitably involves commitment to his people. For many the idea of joining a church is a real ‘turn off’. The Danish philosopher Kirkegaard once quipped that whereas Jesus had turned water into wine, the church had managed to turn the wine into water. Sadly, that is true of some churches. However, just as we don’t write off the institution of the family because some families are dreadful, neither can we write off the church because some have failed to live up to God’s intention.
That first Whitsunday, then, involved a fourfold response and provides a pattern that still holds for today.