A popular religious movement calls itself Pentecostal. But does this movement accurately reflect what occurred on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2?
The second chapter of Acts records the momentous events that occurred on the Feast of Pentecost when God gave His Holy Spirit to the disciples.
That Pentecost was an extremely important day. Not only was God’s Spirit given, but it marked the beginning of the Church Jesus had promised to build (Matthew 16:18).
But the word Pentecost has taken on a different meaning to millions of people because of a religious movement that often identifies itself as Pentecostal. This movement, one of the fastest growing in the world in the latter half of the 20th century, claims to be a modern continuation of the Acts 2 Pentecost.
But does modern Pentecostalism really reflect the spirit of the biblical Day of Pentecost?
What is Pentecostalism?
Pentecostalism is based on the belief that the miracles of Acts 2 are signs that all people with the Holy Spirit must experience. Pentecostals believe that “baptism of the Spirit” is evidenced by experiencing specific gifts. The movement is also called charismatic Christianity.
The primary gift Pentecostals seek is tongues-speaking, or glossolalia. Speaking in tongues is seen as being moved by the Holy Spirit to speak words or sounds that are claimed to be unlearned human languages or the language of angels and therefore unintelligible.
Pentecostals also try to seek other “gifts” of the Spirit, such as:
- Prophesying (seen as spontaneously speaking emotionally driven words believed to be inspired by God).
- Faith healing (spontaneous physical healings of bodily ailments).
- Ongoing revelation (God speaking or implanting thoughts into people’s minds).
- Spontaneous displays of emotion supposedly prompted by the Holy Spirit (including laughing, crying, shouting and uncontrolled outbursts of energy).
- Being “slain in the Spirit” (an experience where a believer is “seized” by the Holy Spirit and falls backward into a trancelike state). To learn more about the problems with this practice, read “Is Being ‘Slain in the Spirit’ Biblical?”
The key word in these experiences is spontaneous.
This approach has led many Pentecostal churches to reject structured and organized church services, instead offering unstructured and emotionally driven services where literally anything can occur at any given time.
This includes shouting from the audience, standing at one’s seat with arms raised in the air, uncontrolled gyrating and dancing, and participants being whipped up into various states of emotional euphoria and frenzy. Pentecostal meetings vary widely from church to church and even from service to service.
A significant trend in modern Christianity is what one commentator called “the Pentecostalization of Protestant Christianity.” Denominations that were formerly more structured and traditional are transforming themselves by integrating aspects of charismatic worship to appeal to the growing number of people who desire these kinds of experiences.
Does Pentecostalism replicate the Acts 2 Pentecost?
But is Pentecostalism an accurate reflection of what occurred in Acts 2? Let’s examine what miracles actually occurred:
Divine wind and fire. The giving of God’s Spirit was announced with the sound “as of a rushing mighty wind” and what Luke, the author, described as something like “tongues, as of fire,” resting upon them (verses 2-3).
God used these displays to dramatically emphasize the magnitude of His Spirit. Both wind and fire are forces that physically represent the power of the Holy Spirit.
The miracle of tongues. This miracle allowed men whose native tongue was Aramaic to communicate to people who spoke an assortment of languages without ever being trained in these languages, including Persian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Egyptian and Arabic (verses 5-11).
The apostles didn’t utter unintelligible languages. They were empowered to speak understandable languages so that “everyone heard them speak in his own language” (verse 6). The miracle was in the speaking and hearing.
The purpose of the tongues was simple: to miraculously get the attention of the diverse crowd and allow them to understand the apostles’ words.
The miracle of prophesying. The apostles, especially Peter, were given the miracle of prophesying, which means speaking under God’s inspiration.
Through God’s Spirit, he delivered an inspired message. It was so effective that many were “cut to the heart” (or convicted of their sins) and acted on its stirring call to repentance (verses 37-38).
To learn more about it, read “The Sermon That Launched the Church.”
The miracle of God’s calling. As a result of the inspired preaching, 3,000 people believed and were baptized (verses 38, 41). God specifically called these people (verse 39; John 6:44). Notice that these converts didn’t display any of the signs Pentecostals seek today. They didn’t start speaking in tongues themselves or have any other charismatic displays of emotion.
What did they do? We are told they learned doctrine, fellowshipped, shared meals, prayed, were unified, cared for each other and were joyful (Acts 2:42-47).
This may not seem as exciting as a Pentecostal experience. But it does represent the genuine experience of the people God truly calls.
God’s unique pattern
The significance of that day and these miracles cannot be overstated. But is Christianity about trying to duplicate the miracles of that Pentecost?
When we study the Bible, we see God has certain patterns of working. One pattern is that when He begins His direct involvement in something important, He often does so in a dramatic way to make His presence absolutely clear.
When He began working with Israel as a nation, He performed a number of unmistakable miracles to free them from Egypt and establish them in the land He had promised. He appeared to Moses in a flaming bush that never burned up. He brought 10 plagues on Egypt. He parted the Red Sea. He gave them nourishment in a desert. He stopped the flow of the Jordan River.
But Israel didn’t continue experiencing these miracles over and over throughout their history. These were miracles done for a specific purpose at a unique time.
Likewise, God began His Church through a series of dramatic miracles. A sound like wind blowing. Floating fire. Divine language translation. An inspired impromptu sermon.
Tongues were also given at another important “first” in the Church’s history—when God first gave gentiles the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:46). Following this pattern, God began His work with the gentiles by giving this group the miraculous ability to speak other languages to make it clear to the Jews that He was involved and this was His will.
Though the book of Acts records many other miracles, we don’t see anything exactly like that Pentecost being repeated. Tongues weren’t spoken every time an apostle spoke to a group. If the speaker and audience had a common language, there was no need for that miracle.
The miracles of Acts 2 weren’t to be repeated throughout time—nor should we try to force God to replicate them or think they must occur as proof of God’s Spirit in our lives.
Incorrect interpretations of the Acts 2 miracles
But we also need to understand that many of the “signs” Pentecostals seek are very foreign to Acts 2 and the Bible.
The genuine evidence of God’s Spirit in a person’s life is the development of God’s spiritual character.When they claim to speak in tongues, they are virtually always verbalizing meaningless jargon allegedly outside of their control. This is very different from the biblical use of tongues, which was specifically for breaking down language barriers between the apostles and a linguistically diverse group.
Nowhere does the Bible describe Christians experiencing chaotic displays of emotion such as dancing down church aisles, falling backward into a trancelike state, or being worked up into an emotional frenzy.
Let’s be absolutely clear: These displays of uncontrolled and chaotic emotionalism are not of God or gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In reality, these displays simply showcase people’s ability to manipulate the emotions of others. Sadly, people can mistakenly confuse emotional feelings with a religious experience. Pentecostal and other emotionally based churches often use a combination of music, lighting and vocal inflection to influence human emotions. Very similar methods are used to stir the emotions of people at rock concerts.
We caution our readers to be alert and careful of the allure of emotionally driven religious experiences. Understand that emotions are a powerful force that can be manipulated.
The real evidence of God’s Spirit
When studying the Acts 2 Pentecost, our focus should really be on applying the message of Acts 2:38—repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit.
True repentance isn’t a mere emotional experience, but a rational and intelligent commitment to changing our thinking and life direction. Baptism is the physical ceremony that represents burying our old sinful ways of life and beginning to live an entirely new way, by righteousness. The Holy Spirit is the power God gives us to live that converted life.
God’s Spirit is given to people who genuinely strive to obey God (Acts 5:32). Sadly, obedience to God is not a theme many religions emphasize today.The genuine evidence of God’s Spirit in a person’s life is the development of God’s spiritual character. God’s Spirit is given to people who genuinely strive to obey God (Acts 5:32). Sadly, obedience to God is not a theme many religions emphasize today.
The true evidence of God’s Spirit is a changed life—a life where sin and selfishness are being replaced by righteousness, truth, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Ephesians 5:9; Galatians 5:22-23).
Did you notice that last one? Self-control.
Losing control of oneself in an emotional experience that leads to unpredictable actions is the opposite of self-control. We should always maintain control of our thoughts, emotions, words and actions.
As Paul wrote, “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:32-33). True servants of God maintain control of their human spirit and avoid uncontrolled and chaotic behavior.
In addition to the fruit of the Spirit, the Bible also discusses gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are skills God gives to specific people to edify His Church (1 Corinthians 14:12). Reading through Paul’s listing of these gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 shows they are not emotionally driven or theatrical, but practical aptitudes essential for the Church to function.
The real lesson of Pentecost
The key takeaway of Pentecost is that Christians need God’s Holy Spirit. You cannot be a true Christian without it (Romans 8:14).
But we must have a proper understanding of what God’s Holy Spirit is and its genuine impact on a Christian’s life. It is not a spirit that leads to the chaos of Pentecostalism, but “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
What we need is the true spirit of Pentecost—not the empty counterfeit of Pentecostalism.
To learn more about the true significance of Pentecost, read “What Does Pentecost Mean?”
Sidebar: The Growth of the Pentecostal Movement
Pentecostalism is a relatively young religious movement. Though various forms of charismatic practices go back farther, modern Pentecostalism originated at the Azusa Street Revival that occurred in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, led by a Methodist minister named William Seymour.
Today it is one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the world. In 2020, 26 percent of mainstream Christianity identified as Pentecostal in some form. Though its historical roots are in the U.S., it has experienced its biggest growth in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Though there are some groups that identify as Pentecostal, the movement isn’t limited to a single denomination or church. Various elements of charismatic practices are found within, and on the fringe of, nearly every church and denomination of modern Christianity.
Elements of charismatic practices are especially found within the growing number of nondenominational churches springing up across the U.S. Since these churches (many considered “megachurches” because of their size) are free from denominational constraints, many have developed their own unique brands of worship featuring various elements of the charismatic movement.
Some of the most notable influences of the charismatic movement on these groups are the integration of contemporary praise music, hand-raising and more informal services that place a heavy emphasis on emotion and experience.