3, No. 1
“What Meaneth This?”:
A Question for Twenty-first Century Pentecostalism
"Doug" Beacham, Jr., D.Min.
Church Education Ministries,
A paper first presented at the annual meeting
of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Regent University,
Virginia Beach, Virginia, March 10, 2005.
Acts 2:1-6, 12-24, 36,37
5, 2005, Neil Conan interviewed Simon Winchester on National
Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation . Titled “After
Tsunami, Religion Plays Role in Coping,” the interview
explored the religious response to the devastation that occurred
at Christmas 2004, leaving over 297,000 people dead or missing.
Winchester, noted for his book, Krakatoa: The Day the
World Exploded , a study of the impact of the 1883 volcanic
eruption and tsunami that devastated Indonesia, described
how Indonesia’s two dominant religious groups tried
to assess the meaning of the event. While Hindus viewed it
as part of the cycle of life, Moslems viewed it as a sign
of Allah’s judgment upon those who had compromised
with rising Western and Christian influence. As a result,
Moslem clerics called for violent resistance to Christianity
and the West. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
then described a new book he is writing on the 1906 San Francisco
earthquake. As this group well knows, just days before the
earthquake a small band of seekers led by William Seymour
met in Los Angeles. Winchester said it was “a very
small meeting of an extremely flamboyant Christian movement
known as the Pentecostalist movement that had pastors waving
their arms and speaking in tongues. The leader said that
God was going to give a sign.” On Wednesday, April
18, San Francisco was devastated by the earthquake and in
Los Angeles, as Winchester describes it, “thousands
began attending the meeting and the Pentecostalist movement,
which is still extremely important in the United States,
was born as a result of this earthquake.”1
we may question Winchester’s conclusion regarding the
birth of Pentecostalism, we do know that the earthquake was
significant to the Azusa Street leaders and attendees. Frank
Bartleman, a first-person chronicler of the Azusa Street
revival, observed, “A tremendous burden of prayer came
upon me that the people might not be indifferent to His (God’s)
voice.” The day after the earthquake, Bartleman was
in a prayer meeting when he and others felt the room shake
in an aftershock felt in Los Angeles. By May 1, in reply
to the question, “Did God do that?” Bartleman
released 75,000 copies of his tract, Earthquake.2
observation about the Azusa Street revival, the San Francisco
earthquake and the contemporary quest for meaning in light
of the 2004 tsunami intrigues me. While there are numerous
secular and religious views concerning the meaning–or
lack thereof–of cataclysmic events in the natural world,
it seems timely that we examine Pentecostalism at the beginning
of this century with much the same framework as one hundred
years ago and two thousand years ago.
us not forget that two thousand years ago the first followers
of Jesus responded to a series of events that affected the
natural world. First, Matthew 28:51 records an earthquake
occurred when Jesus died. Second, the disciples hardly had
time to sort this out before Jesus, in N.T. Wright’s
memorable phrase, “went through death and came out
on the other side”3 in
the resurrection, again accompanied by what St. Matthew termed “a
great earthquake” (28:2).4 Jesus
became the first fruits of a radical change in the molecular
structure of human existence! Their graves already broken
open by the Good Friday earthquake, “the saints who
had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs
after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared
to many” (Matthew 27:51-53). Third, fifty days later
the natural world again accompanied a divine purpose as the
Holy Spirit arrived with “the sound of a mighty rushing
wind” and “tongues of fire” visible upon
one hundred and twenty heads (Acts 2:2,3).
When asked, “What meaneth this?”5 the
apostle Peter turned to a text bearing witness to both the
Holy Spirit and a natural calamity: the prophecy in Joel
2:28-32. It seems to me we need to return to Peter’s
use of Joel’s prophecy to seek afresh an answer to
the “meaning” question of Pentecostalism for
First, Peter knew the context of Joel’s prophecy:
a ninth century agricultural crisis brought on by a massive
invasion of locusts. In our technology driven world, we struggle
to comprehend the calamity of this invasion. Joel understood
it as “the day of the Lord;” Yahweh’s judgment
upon a covenant-breaking people. It meant a future without
grain and wine, essential to everyday life and to Israel’s
Second, the intention of this calamity was to restore covenant
faithfulness on the part of the covenant breakers. This restoration
began with repentance that led to the promise Peter cites
in his Pentecost sermon.
Peter’s use of Joel 2 is sandwiched between two questions.
The sermon begins in reply to the query, “What meaneth
this?’ It concludes with the hearers cut to the heart
and asking, “What shall we do?” These two questions
frame our need as Christians, particularly as Pentecostals,
to live in such a demonstrable way that people ask, “What
does this mean?” It means living in such a fashion
that people recognize the legitimacy of our claims and, with
Holy Spirit conviction, cry out, “What shall we do?” It
means our answer to the original question must have meaningful
content. Peter defined Pentecost by appealing to the four
major theological themes expressed in the Joel passage.
First, Peter introduced the “last days” (Acts
2:17. He understood an eschatological urgency rooted in Joel’s “day
of the Lord” and further refers to “the coming
of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Acts 2:20).
Second, Peter emphasized the freshly heard languages and
experienced power of the Holy Spirit by recognizing the “pouring
out” of the Spirit “on all flesh.” The
Hebrew word shaphak (pour out) is used also in
the sense of God’s wrath being poured out (e.g., Psalm
79:6; Ezekiel 7:8). While it took Peter time to process the
implications of “upon all flesh” (and
two thousand years later we are still processing the implications),
he recognized that something had occurred that morning that
meant significant paradigm shifts. The wind-swept river of
God took them into a world larger than they had ever dreamed:
- A kingdom greater than historical Israel and the rise
and fall of nations
- Young and old equal recipients of revelation
- Men and women as mouthpieces of God
- Servants, low on the economic and social ladder, swept
upward in this Holy Spirit tsunami
Third, with the “sound of a mighty rushing wind” still
ringing in his ears, Peter understood the impact of “wonders
in heaven above and signs on the earth beneath” (Acts
2:19). In Romans 8:21, the apostle Paul affirmed the creation,
still captive to the bondage of corruption, was awaiting
an eschatological manifestation of Spirit-filled generations
who truly comprehend their liberty as the children of God.
Fourth, this massive build-up of revelation from eschatology
to pneumatology to creation theology was like a giant wave
washing away all confusion so this one clear affirmation
could stand: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord,
shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). To make certain his hearers
knew who this Lord actually was, Peter drew their attention
to the historic fact of “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested
to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which
God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know….
God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus, whom you
crucified” (2:22, 36).
As we stand on the threshold of remembering one hundred
years and two thousand years ago, Pentecostalism must rediscover
the present power of the affirmations expressed and experienced
by our first century and twentieth century fathers and mothers
in the faith.
I find much in the Charismatic/Pentecostal world encouraging.
I am not a pessimist about what God is doing through Pentecostalism,
as well as through other streams in the desert of this world.
Here are five specific points of encouragement I see:
- There is great renewal with a passion for Christ among
many young people. I see a passion for intercession and
evangelism among this group.
- The great leaders of the past modeled extraordinary faith.
While their days are limited, I see a new set of faith-filled,
vision-inspired leaders arising.
- Pentecostalism has taken advantage of the media to present
- Pentecostalism has a growing awareness of the Holy Spirit’s
power to meet people’s social, economic and political
- There is great diversity within the various cultures
and sub-cultures of Pentecostalism. In preparing this message,
I sent a copy to Matt Green, a vibrant emerging young Pentecostal
leader who is editor of Ministries Today , for
his input. He wrote back, “Doug, plead for the academic
community to pursue engagement with the ‘popular’ charismatic/Pentecostal
community…to be willing to put up with a little
nonsense so that they can contribute; to be willing to
associate with the grassroots practitioners of Pentecostal
Nevertheless, I am concerned about some things:
- The loss of holiness (not in the Wesleyan/Reformed doctrinal
debate) as a lifestyle that truly beckons the lost to God’s
purposes and blesses godly living.
- The loss of humility as we pride ourselves on having
such large worldwide numbers and our share of mega-churches.
We are so pleased that we have again made Time magazine
again. Our loss of humility reminds me of the late Cardinal
Joseph Bernardin’s experience of waiting to have
the bishop’s miter placed upon his head. His mother
sensed his pride and rebuked him: “Joseph, don’t
look so pleased with yourself.”6
Please do not take me wrong. I am not in an “anti” frame
of mind. Just because something does not fit my style does
not mean it is not of God. It took a long time, but finally
I am old enough to know God does not need my approval on
how He chooses to work.
It is deeper than that to me. I have a nagging sense
that all our popularity and success may have marginalized
us more than we were sixty years ago when our churches were
on the other side of the tracks. I struggle with what Os
Guinness says is, “the cultural captivity (of) fashionability ,
the power of the pull of corrupt timeliness or distorted
relevance. The recent Christian obsession with relevance
and the future leads all too often to moral and intellectual
cowardice. Afraid to challenge the power of progress and
the lure of the latest, or to delay the arrival of the brave,
new future, we bite our lips and cave in weakly to what we
know in our hearts is neither right, nor wise, nor lasting.”7
This is why I have felt compelled to return to Peter’s
sermon to answer the question, “What meaneth this?” In
my working answer to this question, which I think every generation
of Christians, not just Pentecostals, should prayerfully
ask, I offer the following to you.
1. We need an urgent sense of being in the “last days.” I
do not want to debate traditional Pentecostal eschatology
with you. I am not talking about a linear progression with
a new set of charts, especially now that President Bush may
be messing up our Middle East scenarios. I am talking about
a profound sense of the nearness of the Lord to
us, of an eschatology that is conscious of the closeness
of His kingdom “right here, right now.” To me,
this nearness is expressed in intimacy . I believe eschatology and intimacy are
related concepts. However, this is more than a modern version
of C.H. Dodd’s “realized eschatology” or “kingdom
now” theology. It is an invitation to take seriously
the only days for which we are directly responsible: the
days “right here, right now.” At best, by God’s
grace, we can “redeem the kairos ” moments
of the past and live presently so that the future does not
curse us.8 In
these last days of our generation, I am convinced God is
nearer to us than we usually dare imagine.
2. Regardless of what else Peter had in mind, have you noticed
his eschatology moved to the nearness of God through the
Holy Spirit’s coming “upon all flesh?” This
kind of eschatology means God is so near we can hear him.
He speaks to us and will speak through anyone who will be
available as his mouthpiece. Look at the communication emphasis:
men and women will prophesy, generations will share visions
and dreams and prophecy will overcome social stratification.
It is a picture of the Word of the Lord filling the earth.
It is not an eschaton of fear and escape; it is
filled with life and hope. Prophecy, visions and dreams all
point to one thing: God has a future for his creation! It’s
the language of hope! New Testament prophecy is about edification,
exhortation and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3).
3. That is why the impact upon creation is so important.
It is the power of words, yes, the Word, manifested in wonders
and signs in the natural realm. That is why I believe Pentecostalism
should be right at home in Postmodernity. The ordered, stale,
predictable boring world of Modernity is coming to its appropriate
end. Pentecostalism can say to this world that change need
not be feared but invited. Change is evidence of redemption.
Change means God is still speaking to us and shaping his
future in our present.
4. One hundred years ago, Pentecostalism had its opportunity
to transform the United States’ cultural landscape.
That opportunity is upon us again, but the landscape is international.
Of all Christian groups, Pentecostals should be able to navigate
in, among and through the various tribes that comprise Christendom
and the cultural matrix of our times. Of all tribes, Pentecostals
should be able to navigate through the Spirit’s crosswinds
or the ways the Holy Spirit operates in seeming paradoxes
and tension points.
With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, I offer you some of the
tensions and paradoxes that I think Spirit-filled Christians
in this century should accept:
- If you go to the World Council of Churches to listen
and then to Bob Jones University hoping they will listen
to you, you might be a Pentecostal.
- If you see value and hope in the United Nations and feel
at home in the Republican Party, you might be a Pentecostal.
- If you’re committed to conservative traditional
values but sense the Democratic Party better understands
the poor, you might be a Pentecostal.
- If you’re a Wall Street financier, but take the
R-Train back to a Brooklyn slum to be the presence of Christ
among hurting people, you might be a Pentecostal.
- If you love a down-home rural gospel church and teach
your born-again children to aspire to own MTV, you might
be a Pentecostal.
5. I recognize a tension in everything I’ve just mentioned. Nevertheless,
I believe it is possible to move between these worlds because
we have clarity about Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished.
He is the answer to any questions that arise about our “Pentecostalism.”
“What meaneth this?” will be answered in the
coming years by many streams. The answer(s) will come from
small-town congregations, mega-churches, denominational leaders,
parachurch ministries and emerging international Pentecostal/Charismatic
ministries. I believe the answer will also come, perhaps
most forcefully, from Pentecostal colleges, universities,
graduate schools and seminaries. This flies in the face of
critics like C. Peter Wagner, but I truly believe the “Pentecostal
academy” should take on the prophetic role of shaping
the twenty-first century answer to “What meaneth this?” It
should not occur isolated from the larger Pentecostal church
family. However, for the season the Holy Spirit gives you
to educate the emerging leaders of the future, he also asks
you to disciple, prepare and release them for the world they
will inherit and shape. The “Pentecostal Academy” must
have the Spirit of prophecy active in its core values and
practice in order for personal, ecclesiastical and cultural
transformation to incubate and come to maturity.
To wrap this up, I want to go back to the early years of
another century, a man and a university. Those of you with
a Lutheran bent know that Protestantism is only twelve years
from the five hundredth anniversary of the start of the Reformation.
In his monumental work, Luther and His Times, E.G.
Schwiebert described the impact of Luther and the University
In 1514, Paul Lange, a Benedictine monk, traveled through
central Germany looking for the leading university professors
to include in a Schriftstellerlexikon , sort of
a “Who’s Who” for that day. He also looked
for the vir inluster , the promising younger professors.
A young monk named Martin Luther was not even interviewed.9 Unnoticed
by the world, the thirty-one-year-old monk was well on his
journey to a life-changing encounter with the Scriptures.
Schwiebert describes how, from 1514 to 1517, Luther won
over the entire Wittenberg faculty to his views of Scripture,
the Church and justification by faith. The nailing of the
Ninety-Five Theses on October 31 was not the isolated act
of a renegade priest but the culmination of ideas birthed
in the give-and-take of teaching and preaching in a community
of faith seriously engaged in the gospel.
In the forty years from 1520 to 1560, approximately 16,000
students from across Europe matriculated at Wittenberg. It “became
the mirror in which the growth of the German Reformation
I read Schweibert’s book about two years ago, and
those insights about Luther and Wittenberg have challenged
me to consider what the Christian community at large and,
in my case, a Pentecostal must be about for Jesus’ sake.
I am convinced that century twenty-one is meant to have
Pentecostal schools with teachers and leaders who comprehend
what Luther and Wittenberg did five hundred years ago. I
believe Acts 13 and the Antioch church are instructive for
us in the “academy.” There were teachers. That
means there were learners. There were prophets. That means
there were listeners. From that setting, the Holy Spirit
sent forth leaders who penetrated a new world to them: the
Graeco-Roman Empire. I’m praying the Holy Spirit will
give teachers and leaders in the Pentecostal academy that
kind of dual edge ministry, passion of the Spirit and instruction
that moves beyond conveying knowledge to imparting a powerful
personal and corporate walk in the Spirit.
I started with a tsunami, a natural disaster that we in
the West barely consider now that the media has moved on.
Six years ago, Leonard Sweet challenged the institutional
church with his SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium
Culture. Near the close of the book, a small section
on “A Theology of Pentecost,” challenges us with
this observation, “The spiritual and social implications
of Pentecost, which defines the relationship of the human
spirit to the Holy Spirit, have yet to be explored for the
age in which we live.”11
Maybe together we can go exploring “for the age in
which we live” in such a way that once again they will
ask us, “What meaneth this?” and “What
must we do?” Amen.
1. The interview can
be heard at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4265383 .
Bartleman, Azusa Street (South
Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing Inc. 1980 with forward
by Vinson Synan), 46-50. This is a reprint of Bartleman’s
1925 original How “Pentecost” Came to Los
Angeles – How
It Was in the Beginning .
3. Wright used this phrase
in his lectures at the Sprunt Lectures, Union Theological
Seminary, Richmond, Virginia in February 2001.
4. All biblical citations
are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) unless otherwise
5. Acts 2:12, King James
6. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The
Gift of Peace (Chicago:
Loyola Press, 1997), quoted in Newsweek (May 22,
Guinness. Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to
the Idol of Relevance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,
2003), 75, 77.
8. Ephesians 5:15, 16.
Schwiebert. Luther and His Times (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 293.
11. Leonard Sweet. SoulTsunami (Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 378.
Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM