And, being assembled together with them, [He] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem but wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” saith He, “ye have heard of me.” — Acts 1:4
On Ascension Day the risen Lord Jesus Christ commanded His apostles to remain in the city of Jerusalem to await the sure and certain promise, given by Him of the Father, which would shortly come to fulfillment. Every year the Christian Church commemorates that fulfillment fifty days after Easter on Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost.
The historic Gospel Lesson appointed for that day is the account of the promise given by Christ:
Jesus answered and said unto him, “If a man love Me, he will keep My words; and My Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him. He that loveth Me not keepeth not My sayings; and the word which ye hear is not Mine, but the Father’s which sent Me. These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye have heard how I said unto you, ‘I go away and come again unto you.’ If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice because I said, ‘I go unto the Father;’ for My Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe. Hereafter I will not talk much with you; for the prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in Me. But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment even so I do, arise; let us go hence” (John 14:23-31).
Here the Savior promises the gift of the Comforter (the Paraclete –from the Greek verb “to comfort”), the Holy Ghost, “whom the Father will send in My Name,” that is, for His sake.
The historic Epistle Lesson records the fulfillment of said promise:
When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, “Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” And they were all amazed and were in doubt, saying one to another, “What meaneth this?” Others mocking said, “These men are full of new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13).
Examining the promise in detail, what can we learn? First and foremost, we mark how the Lord Jesus designates it as “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), and the gift as He “whom the Father will send” (John 14:26). This gift from God the Father is also declared by the Savior to be in connection with His completed work, for the gift is sent “in My name,” the Lord says. This is the same as saying “for My sake,” as is especially obvious in the use of the phrases connected with the forgiveness of sins (the Gospel absolution) being declared in Christ’s Name (Acts 2:38; Luke 24:47; Acts 10:43).
The Savior tells us that this gracious gift is His legacy to His disciples as He withdraws the visible manifestation of His presence. The Holy Ghost will be manifested to them as their Comforter: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him. But ye know Him, for He dwelleth with you and shall be in you” (John 14:16-17).
Besides fulfilling this general promise of comfort, the Holy Ghost will also do a vital service for the future of the Church as He gives the Apostles, infallibly and inerrantly, word-for-blessed-word, God’s revealed will as His penmen in the production of the New Testament Scriptures and in recording perfectly the words of Christ Himself. Jesus says of this specific work of the Spirit: “He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26b). Because of this unique transmission, known as verbal inspiration, we have the assurance that, in the words of the apostles and evangelists, we have in the New Testament the very Word of God with the same degree of accuracy as we have it in the words of the prophets in the Old Testament: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2a). “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:16-17). This enables the Church to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission: “Go ye, therefore, and teach [literally, make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20). The gift of the Holy Ghost is the direct, efficient cause of the writing of the New Testament Scriptures, “for [as] the prophecy [of the Old Testament] came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21), so also St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 2:13 that “we [the apostles and evangelists] speak not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth.”
The work of the Holy Ghost is, first and foremost, to provide us with the Word of God and, through that very Word, to work contrition and saving faith in the hearts of men. The Holy Ghost testifies of Christ, applying His saving work to us. In order to do so, He works to convict man of sin, guilt and punishment by the Law, and righteousness (justification) and remission of sins (blood-bought absolution) by the Gospel, enabling the Church to fulfill, as it were, Christ’s “marching orders” in Luke 24:47: “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” The Lord Jesus described in detail this vital work of the Holy Ghost in John 16:
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you. And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit, when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth; for He shall not speak of Himself, but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak; and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify Me, for He shall receive of Mine and shall show it unto you” (vv. 7-14).
The promise of the Holy Ghost includes all His specific work in granting the apostles His Word, “the foundation” of the Church, (Ephesians 2:20) and the means whereby the Holy Ghost works in the hearts of men, granting to poor sinners, individually and collectively, all that they need for conversion and spiritual enlightenment, for renewal of life for the production of good works (sanctification in the narrower sense), and preservation in the true and saving faith unto salvation. The Father sent His Son to be the world’s Redeemer (John 3:16). The Son, by His vicarious active and passive obedience in satisfaction of divine justice, did the saving work (Romans 5:19). And the Spirit applies that work to mankind through the Word of God (Romans 3:28; 10:17; 5:1).
How was this promise fulfilled in history? Acts 2:1ff., the Standard Epistle for the Feast of Pentecost, cited above, gives us the historical record — the clear and infallible account of that event — as the Holy Ghost was poured out in extraordinary measure upon the disciples. Even as the incarnation of Christ was a once-in-time occurrence “when the fulness of the time was come” (Galatians 4:4), so the special outpouring of the Holy Ghost occurred “when the day of Pentecost was fully come” (Acts 2:1) and “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:4). The Apostle Peter declared that the ancient promise of God through the Prophet Joel was fulfilled that day (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32), and that the resurrected Christ had thus fulfilled His own special promise: “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). Yes, “this is that which was spoken” by the Prophet Joel and by Jesus, the Christ! On that day of fulfillment, Peter declared: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38-39). The gift of the Holy Ghost comes to all through God’s Word, as the Holy Ghost works to convict men of their sins (see Acts 2:37), to convert penitent sinners to saving faith (see Acts 2:41), and to preserve true believers in the saving faith and in its practice (Acts 2:42). Many ancient and modern errors extant in the outward, visible church (heresies, heterodoxy and attendant false practice) are the result of refusing to recognize the historical fulfillment of the promise of the Comforter and the direct, clear purpose of said fulfillment recorded for our learning in Holy Writ.
What does the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Ghost mean to believers today? Although an extensive examination of the work of the Holy Ghost as set forth in God’s Word is beyond the scope of this present article, a summary is certainly in order. We cite the following questions, answers and supporting proof texts from A Short Explanation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: CPH), 1943, as follows :
Q/A 163. What is the work of the Holy Ghost?
The Holy Ghost sanctifies me, that is, He makes me holy, by bringing me to faith in Christ and by imparting to me the blessings of redemption. (Sanctification in the wider sense includes everything that the Holy Ghost does in me.
419 But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:11.
Q/A 166. What did the Holy Ghost work in you when He called you by the Gospel?
By the Gospel the Holy Ghost enlightened me with His gifts, that is, He gave me the saving knowledge of Jesus, my Savior, so that I trust and believe, rejoice and take comfort, in Him.
431 The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. Romans 15:13.
Q/A 169. What else has the Holy Ghost wrought in you by the Gospel?
The Holy Ghost has sanctified me in the true faith, that is, He has by faith in Christ renewed my heart, so that I can now overcome sin and do good works. (Sanctification in the narrower sense.)
442 We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10.
Q/A 171. What has the Holy Ghost lastly wrought in you by the Gospel?
The Holy Ghost has, by the Gospel, kept me in the true faith.
450 He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the Day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6.
In summary “The Holy Ghost calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Luther). “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
We pray of this blessed work in thankful joy on the Feast of Pentecost:
Holy Spirit, hear us
on this sacred day.
Come to us with blessing;
come with us to stay.
Come, for once Thou camest
to the faithful few
Jesus’ promise true.
Up to heaven ascending
our dear Lord has gone;
yet His little children
leaves He not alone
To His blessed promise
now in faith we cling.
Comforter, most holy,
spread o’er us Thy wing.
(TLH, Hymn 229, vv. 1-4, adapted)
— E. J. W.