As I confessed last week, I was reared, converted, discipled, and called to preach in a Baptist “free church” tradition, which at best downplayed or ignored the Christian liturgical calendar other than Christmas and Easter. While I happily remain in that tradition, over the years I have come to a new and deeper appreciation of the evangelizing, discipling, and teaching role such observances can contribute to advancing people’s understanding of the manifold blessings and riches available to us as followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
This week I want to discuss the particularly rich liturgical season Christians are presently in right now and the manifold opportunities provided to teach immortal truths by engaging a plurality of the senses (including sight, hearing, touch, smell, and if you include observance of the Lord’s Supper, taste). We can heighten and deepen our understanding of the significance of these eternal truths as we celebrate the Ascension and Pentecost. Easter and the Resurrection are not the end. Easter (including Good Friday) victoriously concludes the supreme purpose of our Savior’s incarnation (the cross always casts a shadow over the manger and the joy of the birth of a Savior). Easter and the Resurrection symbolize Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave (1 Cor. 15:55-58) and the fact that He purchased salvation for all who accept Him as their personal Savior and Lord.
Ascension Thursday or “Holy Thursday” is celebrated 40 days after Easter and will be celebrated this year on May 21, as well as being observed by many churches on the following Sunday. The Ascension commemorates and celebrates the pivotal event recorded by Luke in the book of Acts:
And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:9-12 KJV).
The symbolism and the significance of the Ascension signifying Jesus’ triumphal return to heaven as the Lord of glory should be an encouragement and an inspiration to all Christians. As the Apostles Creed states so eloquently, “On the third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
And then, ten days later, as Jesus had promised, He sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who came in a new and mighty way upon believers, empowering them in unprecedented ways to preach the Gospel of Jesus crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father (Act. 2:1-41). The celebration of Pentecost also reminds Christians of the origin and linkage of their faith to biblical Judaism because the Feast of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt, an observance of which occasioned Jesus’ inauguration of the Lord’s Supper. Just so, Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks (sharuot) celebrates God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai forty-nine days after the Exodus from Egypt. Passover and Pentecost are two of the three “pilgrimage festivals” of ancient Judaism when the residents of Judah were expected to make the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.
For Christians, of course, the paramount significance of Pentecost is that fifty days after Easter, as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit descended on the Lord’s disciples and inaugurated a new era in Christendom, the “Age of the Spirit.” From this point onward, the Holy Spirit permanently indwells each believer, empowering them in unprecedented ways to serve our Savior and His purposes.
Also, though too often overlooked, at Pentecost we celebrate the first spirit-filled proclamation of the finished work of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, Peter’s incandescent sermon at the first Pentecost (Acts 2:14-42). No more vivid illustration can be furnished for the spiritual transformation accomplished by Pentecost than the Apostle Simon Peter himself. Peter has undergone a metamorphosis from a reticent, sometimes confused, almost befuddled disciple to a fearless, powerful, eloquent preacher of the Gospel of Jesus crucified, resurrected, and abiding in heaven today to intercede for the saints. It is as if Simon Peter went into a first century spiritual phone booth and put on a Holy Spirit Superman suit.
As I write these lines, I cannot help but recall God’s admonition to the Israelites when they were about to cross the River Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land God had given them. God’s admonition and instruction to His people then provide an invaluable insight concerning our responsibilities as Christian parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and disciples of younger Christian brothers and sisters.
God commands His people to keep His commandments and to always remember, “The LORD our God is one LORD. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:4-5).
He commands adults to “teach them [His commandments] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7).
This passage is a direct admonition to family worship and spiritual teaching in the home as well as the church. The word translated “teach” (shaman) literally means “to sharpen” as in repetition. Parents are to instruct their children just as one would sharpen a knife or razor by friction repeated again, and again, and again.
Why are we to do this? First, the Lord commanded it, and second, so that “when the Lord thy God shall . . . give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildest not, and houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyard and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full. Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Deut. 6:10-12).
I can think of no more appropriate admonition to America where we live in cities we did not build, reside in houses full of bounty that we did not fill, drink from wells we did not dig, and eat from vineyards and olive trees that we did not plant, then we are too often tempted to forget the God from whom our blessings have come.
My fervent prayer is that all of us who name the name of Christ as Savior and Lord will seize upon the opportunities provided by the extra time at home caused by the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the wonderful themes provided by this season in the Christian calendar between Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost to dwell upon the marvelous blessings of God in Christ and to disciple all those within our hearing and influence.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.