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At the World Cup opening ceremony next week in São Paulo, a paralyzed Brazilian will walk onto the field and kick the ceremonial first ball. The young man or woman will be aided by the newest iteration in a line of mind-controlled exoskeletons—if everything goes according to plan. The pilot will wear a 3D-printed helmet and a concealed cap of electrodes. All he or she needs to do is think about the necessary movements, and "the brain–machine interface will convert human intent into robotic motion," The Atlantic reported.
Duke University neuroscientist and Brazilian native Miguel Nicolelis is leading the initiative, and he and his team are working frantically to prepare for the exoskeleton's debut. Nicolelis told the BBC, "This is just the beginning. . . . Our proposal was always to demonstrate the technology in the World Cup as the first, symbolic step of a new approach in the care of patients with paralysis."
However, critics are dubious the exoskeleton will be capable of everything Nicolelis and his team are promising. So far, mind-controlled exoskeletons have only been able to send "start" and "stop" signals. Andrew Schwartz, a neuroprosthetics researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, told MIT Technology Review, "Everything you'll see in the demo will be fancy robotics, not brain control, and it will probably all be preprogrammed." And Tim Vogels, a computational and theoretical neuroscientist at Oxford University, told The Atlantic, "Do I see any hurdles? There are tons of them, right? There are only hurdles."
I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity God has given us humans. We use this gift not only to imitate his beautiful creativity, but also to overcome limitations, like Nicolelis and his team are attempting to do. When we see a problem, we work hard to solve it. It's what we do. Sure, other creatures have the ability to problem-solve. But humans are unrivaled in their dexterity. Even as we continue to make incredible progress in defying limitations, however, we will never be able to escape hurdles. And there are some things we just can't do as humans. There is always something beyond our reach, problems we can't solve, barriers we cannot break. The hard, cold facts of life reinforce that. And so does Pentecost.
In a 2007 edition of Newsweek magazine, author and radio personality Garrison Keillor was asked to choose the five most important books of all time. He surprised some readers by ranking the Book of Acts at the top of his list. "The flames lit on their little heads," he wrote, "and bravely and dangerously went they onward."
Keillor was right about the importance of Acts, for it spotlights the work of the Holy Spirit. It's not that the Holy Spirit was absent before Pentecost. Scripture shows the Spirit working at the beginning of creation (Gen. 1:2), elsewhere in Old Testament history, and in the Gospels. But Acts accents the work of the Spirit in an entirely new way.
Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together in one place. We don't know exactly what they were doing. They could have been eating, socializing, or praying. Then suddenly "a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting" (2:2). They were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (2:3).
If you've grown up in church or been a Christian for very long, chances are you know the rest of the story. It's a Christian hallmark, the tale of the "church's birth." The disciples spoke in unlearned tongues, and onlookers—God-fearing Jews who had come to Jerusalem from surrounding nations—heard their own languages being spoken. Everyone marveled. Some thought the disciples were crazy, even drunk. "Why are these goons babbling about so liberally and audaciously?" people must have wondered. Then Peter, the lead apostle, stood up and addressed the crowd. He preached about Christ, the resurrected and ascended Lord, and called his hearers to repent. Three thousand people were saved and baptized on the spot. The Spirit empowered a minority "sect" to carry out Christ's call: to make disciples and baptize them (Matt. 28:20).
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit ushered in a new era, one in which the promises of God have become a reality. In his sermon, Peter indicated that the words of the prophet Joel had been fulfilled: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people."
When most of us think about Pentecost, we think of charismata and mission. But Pentecost is about more than just spectacular signs and church growth. As important as these are, they emerge from and point to a more profound event: The Spirit's breaking down the major barriers of our lives and in human history.
Pentecost was essentially a harvest festival, and it fell on the 50th day after Passover. For Israel, it signified the end of the reaping season and completed the Passover offering. But Pentecost isn't just a Jewish holiday. The apostle Paul, even after he became a Christian, celebrated the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 20:16). So why is it significant for Christians? One key reason is it marks the completion and application of Christ's redemptive work.
Throughout history, Christians have recognized the connection between Passover and Christ's death. Passover, which commemorates Israel's liberation from Egypt, anticipates the freedom from sin and death we receive by Christ's sacrificial death on the cross. His resurrection gives us new life, and his ascension into heaven obtains for us eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11–12).
Just as Passover foreshadowed Christ's sacrificial death, so Pentecost foreshadowed the completion of Christ's saving work. In other words, Christ's "reaping"—the culmination of his labor—is carried out by the Spirit's descent at Pentecost. The Spirit applies all the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection to our lives. The Spirit raises us from the dead (Rom. 8:11), justifies us (1 Cor. 6:11), and sanctifies us (2 Thess. 2:13).
Christians have historically affirmed the inseparable link between the Spirit and the Word. Jesus, the Word of God, has accomplished our salvation, and the Spirit is the one who applies the benefits of Christ's work to us as individual believers. That means there is no barrier between us and the effects of Christ's work. Christ lived, died, and rose again two millennia ago, but the Spirit extends the effects of those events to us, even in the 21st century.
As a result of the Spirit's descent, we are no longer separated from God. Sure, in Christ, humanity and divinity are forever united. And to be clear, the Incarnation has made possible our re-union with God. But as individuals, we are isolated from God until his Spirit penetrates our lives and takes residence in our hearts. As New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn explains, "In one sense, therefore, Pentecost can never be repeated—the new age is here, and cannot be ushered in again. But in another sense . . . the experience of Pentecost can and must be repeated in the experience of all who would become Christians." Apart from the descent of the Spirit into our own lives, we are dead branches disconnected from the living vine.
On Pentecost, the church was born. A Spirit-filled community was established. A body of believers was inextricably fixed to Christ the head. And this happened at both the individual and corporate levels. Paul tells us that God "saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5–7). Through the mighty work of his Spirit, God has cleansed us from sin and given us new life. We are justified, considered holy in his sight. And because the Spirit lives in us, we belong to Christ—are made members of his body—and have become children of God (Rom. 8:9, 14–17).
And this is totally God's doing. As Bible scholar Frederick Dale Bruner explains, "Rather than pointing to the fulfillment of any or several spiritual requirements—for instance, 'when the disciples had fully met the price of Pentecost'—Luke points to history and to the sovereign timing of God." God is the sole initiator of salvation, and he pours out his Spirit unconditionally and without our solicitation. God is the subject and we are the direct object. He breaks down the barrier that sin erected between us and him, and he fills us with his life-giving Spirit, making us his people.
But that's not all. The Spirit's descent also breached the barrier that separated us from one another. Acts tells us that "Jews from every nation under heaven" were gathered in Jerusalem. "Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs" (2:9–11)—all these people heard the gospel, through tongues of fire and Peter's preaching. It was a sort of reversal of Babel. And 3,000 of them became Christians.
These weren't Jews only. Luke says the visitors from Rome we both "Jews and converts to Judaism"—meaning some were Gentiles. As minor as the detail might seem, it sets the trajectory for the rest of Luke's book. Later in Acts, we see the gospel moving from Jerusalem to other nations, and eventually Paul's ministry to the Gentiles becomes Luke's sole focus.
As an "apostle to the Gentiles," Paul knew well the reconciling power of God's Spirit. He told the Ephesians that Christ "has made [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (2:14). And this unity breaks into every type of human relationship. No matter what our skin color, nationality, economic status, gender, or theological tradition is—we all are one in Christ and we all drink of the same Spirit (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13).
Unfortunately, we don't always act like this is a reality. Spend 30 minutes reading Christian news sites or theology blogs, and you'll find the church can be a contentious bunch. News reports about a kerygmatic kerfuffle or the rift between two groups never seem to be in short supply. And then there's the continuous backbiting unleashed on comment sections. Authors are like water skiers, only the internet is like the Amazon River. You pull off a fun or sophisticated trick and make a wake with your words, and then piranhas start chomping at your feet. Day after day, Christian media show us how difficult it is for some of us to live in unity.
But Paul calls us to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). One way of doing this might be recalling the Day of Pentecost, how "all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:4, my italics). Luke doesn't say "some of them were filled" or "all of them received a portion." No, the Spirit of God came in fullness to everyone. No one of us has a monopoly on the Spirit. We all have the Word of God written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). This doesn't mean that everyone is always right or that teachers are obsolete. Rather, it means we should recognize we all have the endowment of the Spirit and should therefore treat one another with mutual love and respect.
Everyone who experienced the earth-shattering, barrier-breaking event at Pentecost devoted themselves to "fellowship, to the breaking of bread" (Acts 2:42). That is, they lived in communion with another and shared the Lord's Supper together—the sign of our unity in Christ. The Lord's Supper, therefore, is not just a commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection; it's a symbol of our unity, and it should challenge us to pursue unity all the more.
The Spirit's descent at Pentecost was so mind-blowing that Peter used apocalyptic language to describe what he and the other disciples experienced:
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. (Acts 2:19–20)
Yet scholars recognize that Peter's language also anticipates the eschatological nature of Pentecost. Even though the Spirit's descent at Pentecost has broken down major barriers in our lives here and now, there are still barriers yet to be broken. Thus, Pentecost is also a promise of redemption in all its fullness. While we have new life in Christ now, we await the resurrection of our bodies. And in the new creation, we will have uninterrupted fellowship with the Trinity and with one another. There will be no barriers between us and God or us and each other.
Pentecost, therefore, is far more than a past event describing an audacious group of Christians. It's the reason for their audacity—the day when redemption became a reality, heaven met earth, and Jews and Gentiles became one—and the promise of what's yet to come.
Kevin P. Emmert is CT assistant online editor. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.