“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
What is a prophet? We usually think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future. However, the Biblical meaning of a prophet and of prophecy is broader than this. A prophet is someone who speaks forth the Word of the Lord; this is what it means to prophesy.
In the Old Testament, the Lord sent many prophets to speak His Word to His people. Moses is the prophet through whom the Lord gave His people His Law, which reveals His will for our lives. God’s Law is meant to show us how to live as full, complete humans; it also shows us our inability to do so, thereby driving us to God’s grace in Christ.
God had Moses lead the Israelites up out of their bondage in Egypt and into the desert of Sinai on their way to the promised land. Moses spoke the Word of the Lord to the people as the Lord’s prophet. And Moses was overwhelmed by this heavy burden, especially since the people continually disobeyed. Moses was the only prophet among the people, the sole voice of the Lord to them. Finally, Moses complains to the Lord about the burden he has been made to carry. In chapter 11 of Numbers, he tells the Lord that if he has found favor in his sight to kill him now.
Moses begs for death to be liberated from his burden, but the Lord had another plan. He told Moses to take 70 elders of Israel and bring them before the “tent of meeting” which was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept; it was where the Lord promised to dwell in the midst of His people Israel, the Church. And as the elders stood at the tent of meeting, the Lord promised to take some of the Spirit that He had given Moses and put the Spirit on the elders so that they could share the burden of the people with Moses. The Lord then anoints the 70 elders of Israel with His Spirit so that they prophesied (Numbers 11:24-30).
But, there were two men who remained in the camp and who did not come to the tent of meeting; Eldad and Medad. The Spirit rested on them as well, and they prophesied; they spoke the Word of the Lord in the camp. Joshua the son of Nun, who would later succeed Moses as leader of the Israelites and finally lead them into the promised land, urged Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying. These two men seemed to be taking some of the prestige away from Moses. But, Moses tells Joshua not to worry about this and instead exclaimed, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”
Moses looked forward to the day when this would happen, when the Lord would pour out His Spirit on all flesh; but, it would be many more generations before that would occur. For hundreds of years the Lord continued to select prophets from among the Israelites, bestowing the Holy Spirit upon them to enable them to proclaim His Word to the people and to bear the people’s burdens. The Lord led His people through these prophets, bringing them to repentance through the preaching of His Law and restoring them to faith through the proclamation of His Gospel, His free gift of grace fulfilled through the promised Christ who was still yet to come.
And as you may recall, after the Israelites entered into the promised land in Canaan they eventually formed a united kingdom ruled by David, the son of Jesse, and then David’s son Solomon. But after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, with a Northern Kingdom ruled from the city of Samaria and a Southern Kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by descendants of King David. The Northern Kingdom was defeated by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th Century BC and the people were dispersed among the lands of the Assyrians. The Lord’s people who lived in the North seemed to have been lost to history among the Gentiles, or pagan nations, but the Lord still had plans for them.
Later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians. But, even in their exile the Lord was with them, and He continued to send prophets to them to promise their restoration. The Lord did not abandon His people. Throughout all of this pain and sorrow of the exile, the Lord continued to focus the hopes of His people on the coming Christ and the in-gathering that the Christ would perform.
The prophet Isaiah had earlier spoken this Word of the Lord in Isaiah chapter 11, when he said:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
This shoot and branch from the stump of Jesse is Jesus, the long promised Christ who comes from the lineage of Jesse’s son King David. Jesus came as both true God and true man, descended from David and yet also the Son of God. He stands as a signal for the people, like a military standard, raised high up on the cross as the sign and hope of our salvation through His sacrifice. And his resting place truly is glorious, for although he died and was buried, on the third day he rose again. And then after teaching his disciples for forty days, he ascended into heaven and took his place at the right hand of the Father, the position of power and glory from which he bestows his blessings upon his people.
And ten days after his ascension into heaven, on the day of Pentecost the Lord gathered together his people and began to recover the remnant who had been scattered among the nations. In chapter 2 of Acts, we read that many Jews from the surrounding nations were in Jerusalem for the Jewish Pentecost, or Feast of Weeks. They had come from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egpyt, Libya, Cyrene, and Rome. They had come from the lands into which they had been dispersed centuries earlier. During all those years of warfare, when the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria and when the Southern Kingdom fell to Babylon, and later when the Persians, Greeks, and Romans invaded their lands, many of the Israelites had been dispersed throughout the surrounding nations. But, now on this day, they were beginning to be drawn back together under the banner of Christ in his Church.
God was beginning to fulfill His promise to recover the remnant that had been dispersed. He brought them together in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost for something new; He gathered them together so that He could pour out His Spirit upon them. The Holy Spirit came and appeared as divided tongues of fire and rested on the apostles who were gathered there for the feast. The Holy Spirit made a sound as of a mighty rushing wind; this was God pouring out His Spirit upon the gathered Church. When God made man in the beginning, He formed him from the dust of the ground and then breathed His Spirit into him to make him a living being. Now, the Lord is again bestowing His Spirit upon His people in order to make them new creations in Christ, receiving the forgiveness of sins that Christ gained for us on the cross.
And on that Pentecost that we read about in Acts 2, the Spirit also enabled the apostles to speak in the native languages of those who had assembled for the feast in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church in order to enable it to go forth into the world to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, the Gentiles, in order to recover His people and call them to Himself.
Now, some of the Jews who were assembled there on that Pentecost day thought that the apostles were drunk when they began to speak in these other languages, but Peter stood up to tell them that they weren’t drunk, but rather that this was the sign that God was fulfilling His promise to pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel and proclaims that God’s promise that He gave through Joel was being fulfilled on that day (Joel 2:28ff).
Thus, the Church is composed of all those who have been called together by the Holy Spirit; He is the one who forms the Church of Christ through His working through Word and Sacrament. When we humans try to force unity apart from the Holy Spirit we end up with pale counterfeits to God’s plan. Humanity does not find the fulfillment of its hopes in its own efforts, but rather in God’s promise of restoring the communion of humanity with each other and with Him through Christ. And God is continuing to do this in the Church here today and will bring it to completion in the day of Christ’s return.
In the Old Testament, the prophets were those upon whom the Lord placed His Spirit; they were enabled to speak His Word and bear the burdens of God’s people. Now, God is pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh, making all those in the Church prophets, enabling all in the Church to speak His Word and to bear one another’s burdens in prayer. He is enabling His Church to call upon His name to be saved.
And all this is because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. He died on Good Friday, crucified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He rested in the tomb on Saturday, which was the day of the Sabbath rest; he fulfilled the Sabbath for us, even as he fulfilled the rest of the Law on our behalf. He rose again on Sunday, the 8th day of creation and the first day of the week, in order to usher in his new creation that he is reconciling to God. And this day was also the day of First Fruits, where the Jews celebrated the first fruits of the harvest. This feast was a celebration that since the first of the harvest was reaped, God was sure to fulfill the full harvest; that is, the firstfruits was the guarantee of the full harvest that would come later. And St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth refers to Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead, meaning that Christ as the firstfruits is the guarantee of our own resurrection from the dead. Since God has done it through our Savior Christ, He will surely do it for us as well.
And now, on Pentecost, God is gathering together His people in the Feast of Weeks, also known as the Feast of the Harvest. God is sowing faith through His Word and gathering together into the Church the crop that is sown. And He is doing all this through the Holy Spirit for the sake of Christ; we see our Triune God acting for our salvation.
And so on this Pentecost, today, you are part of God’s crop of believers. You have been sown into faith through the Holy Spirit who has been placed upon you in your Baptisms and nourished through Word and Sacrament. Just as seeds are placed into the earth and watered, so too have you been watered with living water through God’s Word and Sacraments to feed the seed of faith which He planted in you. God’s promises have been fulfilled through Christ and given to you. You are the heirs of His promise of gathering together His people and pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh. You have been gathered into the Church and given the Holy Spirit.
And so you too have the ability to proclaim the Gospel to others as you bear one another’s burdens. Moses’ cry, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” has been fulfilled in you. You all have received the Holy Spirit.
And so the day of Pentecost is not just a historic event that’s recorded in the book of Acts. It’s continuing every day; every day the Lord is bringing new people into the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Every day the Lord is with you, speaking through you as you comfort one another with His Word and witness to others. Every day the Lord is with you in prayer, enabling you to speak to Him and lay your cares and burdens before Him, for the Holy Spirit is crying out for you even when you do not know what to say to the Lord.
The Lord is always with you; in life, in pain, in sorrow, and even in death. For the Lord who created you, the Lord who called you as His own in Baptism, the Lord who feeds you with the body and blood of Christ at His altar – this Lord, this Yahweh – “He who is and who causes to be” – He will not abandon you to the grave. He will raise you up, as grain that is harvested from the field and brought into His storehouses, to dwell with Him for eternity. We live now in the world, in the period between the firstfruits and the final harvest. But, we know that the day is coming when the Lord will come to complete the harvest and we will dwell with Him for eternity.
(Image: Pentecôte, by Jean II Restout – Art Renewal Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6357981)