When people talk about the Holy Spirit in church, we sometimes get crazy images of people falling down, speaking in weird languages, shaking and other types of uncontrollable phenomena. What is the role and function of the Holy Spirit? When we look at the church at Pentecost, we see three images that represent three essential functions of the Holy Spirit.
First, when the Spirit comes, “a sound like a mighty rushing wind…filled the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Why a wind? Such wind/breath first blew when God breathed the breath of life into Adam and made him a living being (Gen 2:7). This wind/breath blew over the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, raising up what was dead to make a powerful army (Ezekiel 37). And when Jesus visited his fearful disciples hiding in a locked room after his crucifixion, he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (John 20:22). The Holy Spirit is the wind of God that breathes life into what is dead. It took this group of weak disciples and transformed them into powerful apostles who turned Greco-Roman world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Next, the Holy Spirit came and “divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:3). Fire is an image of God’s purifying holiness and presence (Exod 2:2–5; 19:18). In Luke 3:18, Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
The Holy Spirit purifies his people. That is why when people become Christians and are filled with the Holy Spirit, they often face hardship. Last year, an older brother came to know Christ and was baptized. His life was changed, and his heart was filled with unprecedented peace and joy. Nevertheless, within a few months, his auto shop got broken into and his tools were stolen and his oldest son was diagnosed with throat cancer. He complained to me, “Why has everything gone wrong after I became a Christian?” But the reality was that everything was going right. God was purifying him, upgrading him, so that he might release more of His power and presence in his life.
The apostle Peter understood this. He says about trials, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you…But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Pet 4:12–13). We rejoice at the fire of trials because they reveal the glory of Christ more and more. The difference between a rock and diamond is simply heat and pressure. Constant heat and pressure forms a rock into a diamond.
Notice also here that these tongues of fire “rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:2). The purifying fire of God’s Spirit is not generic, but it is tailor made for each person. The way that God purifies one person is different from the way that He purifies and works in the life of another. We cannot compare the hardships or relative comfort of our lives to another; God is working in each of our lives in a tailor-made way.
The third image here is that of tongues. When they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). People from every nation under heaven gather (2:5), and they hear in their own tongues “the mighty works of God” (2:11). This reminds us that the power of the Holy Spirit is for witness (cf. Acts 1:8). God has given His Holy Spirit and many amazing spiritual gifts, but the purpose is so that they might empower our witness of His glory to the ends of the earth.
My prayer for our church is that we would be filled with the power of this Holy Spirit. May the Holy Spirit blow His powerful presence and give life to our dry bones, strengthening us in our weariness. May the Holy Spirit burn away the dross and junk in our hearts so that we might experience and express the glory of Jesus more and more. May the Holy Spirit empower our witness to the ends of the earth, so that more people might hear about the greatness of our God.