For many Christians and casual onlookers, Pentecost is a day associated with speaking in tongues and with a particular style of high-octane experiential charismatic Christianity.
Indeed, in Acts 2:4, when the Holy Spirit falls, the Scriptures report that “everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues (NRSV “languages”) just as the Spirit gave to them to speak.” Acts 2:5-13 unpacks the details of the scene a bit more, noting in verse 6 that the various people groups heard one another speaking in their own native languages. Peter then corrects some onlookers who presume that the pentecostal participants have become a bit inebriated after enjoying a breakfast batch of Grandma’s cough syrup. Finally, he refocuses their attention away from the sign (speaking in tongues by the Spirit) by pointing them to the thing signified, the new covenant in the Spirit prophesied by Joel (Acts 2:16-21), initiated by the definite plan and foreknowledge of the Father (Acts 2:23), and fulfilled by the faithfulness of the Son (Acts 2:22-36).
As we continue on our exploration of the biblical narrative of salvation in the epistle to the Galatians, we would do well to take Peter’s lead and follow his pattern for preaching about Pentecost. Too often we focus—and even obsess—about the signs of Pentecost, and we somehow forget that the spiritual gifts and signs exist to point us beyond themselves to the Son with whom we are united by the Spirit. We are quick to ask an assortment of questions like: Is the gift of tongues a necessary evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit? Why do some people and churches experience tongues regularly while others rarely do?
Instead of these things, Paul, like Peter, sets the reception and role of the Spirit within a biblical-theological framework. In Galatians 4:1-7, he situates the Spirit within the motif of the movement of believers from slavery under the stewardship of the Law to adoption as sons and daughters in the Son, crying out “Abba Father!” through the Spirit (Galatians 4:2, 6). Set within the larger Galatian theme of the Law awaiting its covenantal completion in Christ, the role of the Spirit in 4:1-7 becomes even clearer. Paul describes the function of Law as that of a guardian and manager (Galatians 4:2; see also the Law as “pedagogue” in Galatians 3:24-25) to watch over those who are not “sons” (those who received the familial inheritance) but mere “children” and “slaves” (Galatians 4:1, 7).
Furthermore, Paul says in Galatians 4:3 that “while we were minors [Greek nēpios, which can refer to a “young child” or “infant” or to a “minor”; someone not yet of legal age], we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (NRSV). While “elemental spirits” is certainly a plausible translation of the Greek phrase ta stoicheia tou kosmou within the context of the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of the day that envisioned the elements of the universe to be infused with and controlled by cosmic spiritual powers, it makes more sense to render this phrase as the “elementary principles” (ESV, NASB) or “basic principles/rudiments of the world.” This helps us to avoid erroneously conceiving of the old covenant and the Torah as somehow associated with nefarious “elemental spirits.”
Paul, however, never leaves us with mere theory but pushes on to practice in his well-known teaching contrasting the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:16-26. We must be careful, however, in labelling Paul’s teaching here as “ethics.” Many in the contemporary church place an unjustified conceptual divide between the ethical teachings and the doctrinal teachings of the New Testament. Some act as though the apostolic teaching of the New Testament (summed up in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds) constitutes the immovable doctrinal substance of the faith while the New Testament’s ethical teachings remain subject to change upon further information in accordance with a Spirit who is “still speaking” (and who apparently changes mind over the years). Yet, nowhere in the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, or in the consensual, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic reading of the church through the ages has such a divide been held up as a faithful, normative, or acceptable paradigm for understanding the relationship between doctrine and ethics. In Galatians, Paul offers a sobering warning following the works of the flesh: “those who practice things like these will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is especially important to keep in mind in an age as morally confused as our own, when it is often easier to baptize our own sinful desires, and even to erroneously attribute them to God, rather than to crucify them with all of the other ungodly passions of the flesh for which Christ died. Paul’s exhortation here is not to be missed: “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). We are, indeed, children of the living God. But transformation into the family resemblance of God and the Son by the Spirit doesn’t occur by accident. Holiness doesn’t happen on spiritual autopilot. No, we are sanctified by actively following in the footsteps of the faithful obedience of the Son. We do this not to earn our salvation, but to demonstrate it through our works, and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling by the power that God provides through the Holy Spirit.
PRAYER OF THE DAY Abba, Father, You have adopted us as heirs of your kingdom and we have inherited the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit. Through the fire of the Spirit make us generous givers of all that you have bestowed upon us, for the sake of the one whose fire brings light and life to all the world, Jesus Christ. Amen.
HYMNS Like the murmur of the dove’s song ELW 403, H82 513, UMH 544, NCH 270 O day of rest and gladness ELW 521, H82 48, NCH 66 O day full of grace ELW 627
CHORAL Listen, sweet dove, Grayston Ives