The final instruction of Jesus to his followers was to wait in Jerusalem and expect to be made powerful. His closest followers (all Jewish) and maybe one hundred others did so. They met to pray regularly. A large, international crowd of Jews descended on Jerusalem for the harvest festival, Pentecost. For the followers of Jesus the festival took a dramatic turn and their prayers turned to an ecstatic fervour. A crowd gathered and Peter, who was emerging as a spokesman for Jesus’ followers, made a speech. He declared that God’s Spirit had engulfed them.
The Holy Spirit of God was not a new concept for the Jews. Their Scriptures (which Christians know as the Old Testament) refer many times to God being spiritually present in the world. But Peter said that what was happening was something new. He announced that Jesus was the Messiah, the leader for whom they had been longing and waiting. He added that those listening were implicated in his death, but that he had been raised again to life. He urged the crowd to believe this about Jesus and seek God’s forgiveness.
About three thousand people did so, which dramatically increased the number of followers of Jesus. It began in an idyllic way, with joyful gatherings in homes to pray, eat together and learn about Jesus. They shared their resources in order to address people’s needs, and took news of what had happened back to the countries from which they came.
Threats to this began to arise from both outside and inside the community. The Jewish leaders had assumed that the death of Jesus would bring an end to what they saw as a heretical sect. So they watched its growth with alarm. They issued threats and Jesus’ followers had spells in jail.
Meanwhile the burden of leading the ever-growing church was increasing and additional leaders had to be appointed to address practical tasks. One of them was Stephen, who got caught up in a row with the Jewish governing council. He had a vision of Jesus standing side by side with God which they found so blasphemous that their fury erupted into violence, and he was murdered.
A wave of persecution followed this and the followers of Jesus scattered. However, they took with them their belief that the Messiah had come, resulting in little groups of believers meeting in towns around the Mediterranean to worship Jesus as God.
Alarmed by the spread of the sect, the Jewish leaders appointed one of their finest intellectuals to stamp it out. This was a man called Saul. He set out with vehemence, imprisoning believers as he went. However, on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, carrying arrest warrants, he had a frightening vision which stopped him in his tracks. He believed that he had come face to face with the living Jesus.
Temporarily blinded he was helped to his destination where he announced to the astonished followers of Jesus that he was now a believer. They spirited him away to his home, Tarsus (in present-day Turkey), for his own protection.
At some point Saul changed his name to Paul. He was a citizen of Rome, capital of the empire, and this was the Roman equivalent. He tirelessly studied the Old Testament, which increased his belief that the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus were foreseen there. His time in Tarsus prepared him for his future career as a missionary and theologian. This role was to have a world-changing impact. And because his vendetta had collapsed, the followers of Jesus had a peaceful interlude, and their churches grew. In a city called Antioch (in present-day Turkey) and then elsewhere they began to be known as ‘Christians’.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Pentecost was the occasion when it became evident to the followers of Jesus that God was still actively with them in spirit form.
And they said…
Clement, bishop of Rome, about 30 – 99:
Through Jesus we see as in a mirror the spotless and excellent face of God.
Aristides of Athens, writer, about 70 – about 133:
If there is a man among [the Christians] who is poor and in need, and they have not an abundance of what is needed, they fast for two or three days so that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.