Commentary: The descent of the Holy Spirit

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: The descent of the Holy Spirit

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | May 27, 2010 {1175}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at    
On May 23, the entire church of Jesus Christ around the world celebrated the day of Pentecost. Pentecost was a Jewish festival when the Jews celebrated the gift of the Law. When the disciples of Jesus were observing Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus, they received from God a gift that is greater than the Law. On this day they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples’ experience of receiving this gift is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
Pentecost was a unique event in the history of the church. What happened on this day was so unique that it can never be repeated. What was unique about Pentecost?
Pentecost is not unique because the Holy Spirit gave gifts to the disciples. On that day the Spirit gave the disciples the gift to speak in other languages. The Spirit gives many different kinds of gifts to the disciples of Jesus then and now. Receiving the gifts of the Spirit was not unique to Pentecost. Every disciple of Jesus receives some gift of the Spirit, and part of the life of discipleship is discerning our gifts and using them.
Nor can we say that the disciples’ experience of hearing a sound like the rush of a mighty wind or of having tongues as of fire appearing to them was really unique. The wind and the fire were expressions of the disciples’ own inner experience. Their experience of the Holy Spirit is not really different from ours in some degree or other. For example, what disciple has not felt in his or her heart the fire of the energy of the Holy Spirit?
What makes Pentecost unique

So then, what made Pentecost a truly unique event? To understand the uniqueness of Pentecost, we need to remember the promise, which Jesus made before Pentecost, that his disciples would be given the Holy Spirit.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (14:16).  The Greek word Jesus uses in this Gospel to name the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, which means an advocate, helper or comforter. What Jesus promises is the definitive descent of the Holy Spirit to the church and to the world for the first time in human history. But let us look more closely at what this promise means.

Pentecost. By Jean II Restout. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus’ promise does not mean the Holy Spirit had not been involved with the world prior to Pentecost. Pentecost was not the beginning of the Spirit’s work. The Spirit is the power by which God created the world through the Son. The Spirit is also the power who had inspired all of the prophets of Israel. Even the first disciples of Jesus had experienced the power of the Spirit. According to John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus had breathed on the disciples and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So then, we might say that there had been many “descents” of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost.
What makes Pentecost unique is that it is the final descent of the Holy Spirit into the world. This time the Spirit descends to give himself, not just his power or his gifts. The Spirit descends into the world to abide in it and to never leave it until the Spirit has accomplished his work. The Holy Spirit will not depart from the world to return to heaven nor cease his work in the world until it is completed. So then, Pentecost is unique because it is the moment when the Holy Spirit makes his final and personal descent into our world and will never leave until his work is finished.
Why did the Holy Spirit descend into the world at this time? The Spirit descended on the day of Pentecost because the Spirit was not ready to descend until the Son had completed his work.
The Son is Jesus, and he had completed his mission before Pentecost. We may think of Jesus in two distinct ways, which are actually identical. We may think of him from below — that is, from the perspective of history. Or we may think of him from above — that is, from the perspective of heaven. When we think of Jesus from below, we understand him to be the human being who came in history to fulfill the vocation of being the Messiah of Israel. By his life, death and resurrection Jesus renewed the people of Israel by teaching a new way of being the people of God, by dying as Israel’s representative for the people’s forgiveness and by being raised from the dead as the Messiah and Lord who calls all peoples to follow him. When we think of Jesus from above, we understand him as the incarnation of the eternal Son of God who descended into the world, into the history of Israel and into the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. His mission as the Son of God was to reconcile the world to God. When his work was over, the Son ascended into heaven to the right hand of the Father.
When the Son’s mission was completed, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s mission is to actualize in us and in the world what the Son has accomplished. That is why the Holy Spirit did not make his final, personal descent until Pentecost when the Son had completed his work.
When Jesus promised his disciples that he would ask the Father to send to them the Holy Spirit, Jesus described the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth.” Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life. Yet Jesus does not become for us the way, the truth and the life unless the Holy Spirit reveals him to our spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who works in our spirit to enable us to believe in Jesus, to repent, to experience the forgiveness of our sins Jesus accomplished on the cross, and to offer us the hope of eternal life through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. By our personal response of faith, the Spirit actualizes in us what Jesus Christ has done for us and gives us new life.
A bishop of the church in the second century, Irenaeus, said, “God has two hands — the Son and the Spirit.” The Son and the Spirit are distinct from each other, but they work together hand in hand. They work together so closely that the apostle Paul sometimes calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Christ.” They are so close because the Spirit is the one who makes the Son, and what he has done for us, real for us. Yet it was necessary for God to send us two helpers, both the Son and the Spirit. Now that the Son has completed his work for us, he dwells in heaven at the right hand of the Father; but the Spirit has descended to us to abide in us and in the world until his work is complete. And, whereas the Son once came to us in a particular place and time, the Spirit is with us everywhere and always.
The completion of the Spirit’s work

If Pentecost marks the final, personal descent of the Holy Spirit, then when will the Spirit complete his work? The Spirit will be in the world as long as this present world lasts.
In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter says the prophet Joel announced that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh “in the last days.” The descent of the Holy Spirit means that we are living in the last days. What Peter means is that we are living at the dawn of a new age, which is to come in the future.

The dove is often used as symbol of the Holy Spirit in depictions of Pentecost. Pentecost is Greek for “the fiftieth,” referring to the number of days after Easter.Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus promised that the Spirit will be with his disciples “forever.” Actually, the Greek word translated as “forever” literally means “until the age” or until this present age of the world ends and the new age of the world begins. In other words, Jesus and Peter were talking about the same thing. When Jesus says “forever” he doesn’t mean that the present world will go on indefinitely, but that it will be transformed in a new age and the Spirit will be present in the world until the new age comes.
The Spirit is active in the world as long as it lasts. The Spirit is everywhere calling persons to faith and bestowing on us spiritual gifts. The Spirit constitutes the life of the church. The church is always changing, but it is also always enduring by the work of the Spirit. The church may grow weak in one place or time, but then it will grow strong in another place and time wherever and whenever people are open to his presence.
The Spirit is not even limited to the church and the lives of Christians. Because the Spirit dwells in our world, the Spirit is at work in the whole of life, inspiring prophets of justice and peace, rulers, artists, and people of good will. Wherever goodness appears, justice is done and peace reigns, the Holy Spirit is present. The Holy Spirit is only known and recognized in the church and by Christians, but even those who do not know the Spirit because they do not know the Son may be influenced by his presence.
In the end, the final work of the Spirit will be accomplished in the appearing of Jesus Christ as Lord, the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the world as a new heaven and earth. This transformation of all creation by the Holy Spirit will be the end of this present age and the arrival of the new age. Then the fire of the Holy Spirit will purify and renew all of God’s creation.
I realize all of this is breathtaking. What I have done is to sketch the biblical vision of the whole work of the Holy Spirit. Until we see the height, depth and breadth of the work of the Spirit, we shall not understand why Pentecost is the great celebration of the church. It is the celebration of the final, personal descent of the Holy Spirit into our world where he shall abide and work until all of God’s purposes are fulfilled.
But, right now, each of us can become a part of the grand work of the Spirit in the world by praying for the Spirit to descend on us — in our life, in our home, in our congregation and in our community. The Spirit promises to come in us when we freely welcome him. Will you pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, come?”
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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