BIBLE BACKGROUND and RESOURCES for teaching about Pentecost

This thread is for posting insights, Bible Backgrounds, books, and other misc resources for teaching about Pentecost (which don't fit into the other workshop categories here).

Please include references, full titles, and publishers where appropriate.

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Bible Background

Scripture References:

Acts 2: 1-8, 12-18, 36-47

Key Bible Verse:
“And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38b (NIV)

Rotation Objectives -

After completing this Rotation, participants will be able to:

  • Name that the story is found in the New Testament, that it is a story of the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • For 3rd grade and up: Locate the story in Acts. Identify Acts as a book of History.
  • Retell the story in his/her own words of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
  • Describe the roles of the Holy Spirit; explore other names for the Holy Spirit including: Counselor, Special Helper, and Comforter.
  • Discuss what it means to have the Holy Spirit working in our lives.


Story Background:
The New Testament book of Acts tells the story of the formation and growth of the church after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It includes the stories of Peter, Paul and other apostles. Written by Luke, Acts is considered a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It is the only book of history in the New Testament. Our story will focus on portions of the second chapter of Acts and on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ followers in a startling way.

Background history - Pentecost: An ancient Jewish festival
What we now know as Pentecost originally had a different focus. In Old Testament times, Pentecost was a celebration of the wheat harvest. The simple definition of “Pentecost” in Greek is “fiftieth.” Pentecost took place 50 days after Passover. Pentecost was also called “The Feast of Weeks” because it occurred seven weeks after Passover. This Jewish festival was a harvest festival much like our Thanksgiving. It gets lots of Biblical mention. Consider Deuteronomy 16:9-10,

Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you.

Some time after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, around 70 A.D. (so after the death and resurrection of Jesus) the agricultural nature of this festival changed. Today Jewish people celebrate it as “Shavuot,” a commemorating of the giving of the Torah (including the Ten Commandments) to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Waiting for a Promised Gift
As with other important festivals, during Pentecost male Jews were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So the city of Jerusalem would have been filled with Jewish people gathered from many lands to celebrate. The disciples of Jesus were in Jerusalem. They had been waiting there since Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus had instructed them, saying: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:4). Jesus had also said:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:26).

Jesus had promised they would receive power to do great things. We can imagine that the disciples were probably wondering—what would this power be, and when would it come and what would it feel like?

First off, what is the Holy Spirit?
According to the Holman Bible Dictionary it is: “The mysterious third Person of the Trinity through whom God acts, reveals his will, empowers individuals, and discloses his personal presence in the Old and New Testament.” The best way to understand the Holy Spirit is to know what work the Holy Spirit accomplishes:

  • Helps us realize that we need God in our lives.
  • Shows us God’s love.
  • Conveys to us a sense of Christ; that Christ is near.
  • Is our friend; helps us to become friends with God and Jesus.
  • Is a counselor, a coach and a teacher, giving direction, inspiration and understanding.
  • Helps people do God’s work; gives people the power needed to accomplish God’s will.
  • Lives in the hearts of believers to change our hearts, to make us more like Jesus.
  • Comforts us and is always with us.

The historical Holy Spirit (in the Old Testament)
The Holy Spirit has been present in the world way before the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was active during the creation of the earth (Genesis 1:2). Is the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Old Testament? A search in the OT for the words “Spirit,” “Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of God,” or “Spirit of the Lord” produces copious results. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit worked in much the same ways as was later seen in the New Testament. Just a couple of examples:

  • As a teacher: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” (Nehemiah 9:20a).
  • Coming upon groups of people as well as individuals: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power” (1 Samuel 16:13).
  • A helper: “The LORD said to Moses… I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).

The Holy Spirit and the New Testament
In the New Testament we read of the Holy Spirit’s activity in numerous lives: John the Baptist (Luke 1:80), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), Zechariah (Luke 1:67), Mary (Matthew 1:18), and Simeon (Luke 2:25-27). Of course the Holy Spirit also empowered Jesus’ ministry. “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14) and just a few verses later when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me” (Luke 4:18a). Jesus also taught about the Holy Spirit:

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive (John 7:37b – 39a).

One can also find New Testament references (in Acts 1:16) to the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament, leading us to conclude that the same Spirit exists in both the Old and the New Testaments (Deffinbaugh, part 1). A major difference between the Holy Spirit in the two Testaments is that in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came sparingly, to only Jewish people, to only a few individuals, and for generally not long periods of time. The occasion of Pentecost meant the coming of the Holy Spirit to all believers.

The Holy Spirit at Pentecost – wind and flames
“The coming of the Holy Spirit was strange and miraculous. Nothing like this had ever happened before” (Crane).

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 (Acts 2:1-3).

“The sound from heaven is the sound of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the disciples” (Guzik). Wind is a good analogy for the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit, we can’t see wind though we can feel the effects of wind. Likewise, wind is found everywhere, and in a never-ending supply (iLumina). There is also an interesting connection between wind and the Spirit – in Hebrew and in Greek the word for spirit is the same as the word for breath or wind. (In Hebrew the word is ruach; the Greek is pneuma).

What are these “tongues of fire” that appeared on their heads? This sounds equally mysterious. Some thoughts on the connection between fire and the Holy Spirit:

  • “The Spirit is also like the flame: cleansing and consuming, awesome and dangerous” (Winn, 29).
  • Fire has a purifying quality. John the Baptist said: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11d).
  • Fire symbolized God’s presence in the burning bush for Moses (Exodus 3:2).
  • The Lord sent fire down on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-18) to strengthen the authority of his Ten Commandments. “At Pentecost, God confirmed the validity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry by sending fire” (iLumina).

One other phenomenon: Speaking in tongues
Though loud winds and wisps of fire alighting on people are unusual, there was one other strange thing that happened that day: “All of them… began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). In this case the word “tongues” means languages; the followers of Jesus were speaking languages that they could have never learned; after all, they were just Galileans, who were looked down upon as being rather unsophisticated (Guzik).

A crowd gathered, attracted by “the sound” though it is not clear whether this was the sound of the wind or the sound of various voices being spoken. They heard people “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11c) Those hearing these different languages were bewildered. They asked: “How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8) “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12) Deffinbaugh (part 3) proposes a meaning: “The gospel was going to be proclaimed to and received by (people) of every nation.”
Though these outward appearances of the Holy Spirit are interesting, it is important to note that Luke does not overly emphasize them (Deffinbaugh, part 3), instead Luke’s emphasis is on the meaning of what was happening. Also, the focus is not on the individuals who had the Holy Spirit come upon them, but on those who witnessed it. It is important to note that Jews believed that spoken prophecy had ended with the last of the prophets, Malachi. “They believed that from that point on, God spoke through the Torah (or the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament) as interpreted by scholars and teachers” (iLumina). For God to “speak” in this new way was unusual and perplexing. It was Peter who gave the crowd some answers.

Peter preaches
Peter, who would not speak up for Jesus the night of his trial (Mark 14:66-72), becomes the spokesperson for the crowd that day. Through the Spirit, this once cowardly disciple is made a new man with bold speech (Crane). “Peter's sermon, no less than the tongues, is the Spirit's work” (Winn, 32). Though the tongues had come in many languages, Peter spoke his explanation and invitation to believe in one language (iLumina).

Peter starts off by explaining to those who have laughed, claiming, “They have had too much wine” (Acts 2:12-13). “These men are not drunk,” Peter expounds, “it’s only nine in the morning” (Acts 2:15)! “Jews engaged in worship on feast days and customarily abstained from eating or drinking until 10:00 A.M.” (iLumina).

The key points of Peter's address to the crowd in Acts 2:17-36 are:

  • This occurrence is the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy (Joel 2:28-32).
  • All which has happened with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was part of God's plan.
  • Quotes from David’s Psalms (16:8-11 and 110:1) remind listeners that God made Jesus both Lord and Christ. Jesus is the Messiah.

Peter's sermon is Good News that requires action. The listeners respond, “What shall we do” (Acts 2:37b)? This is a question that we should all ask ourselves. Peter replies with two actions (Crane) to undertake to change lives:

  • Repent; turn from your sins. (Change is necessary in each individual.)
  • Be baptized. This is something new: John the Baptist baptized Jesus, but it had not been a requirement for discipleship prior to this time. Beginning with this event, baptism becomes the rite by which people enter Christian fellowship.

Pentecost: Birthday of the church
Pentecost marks the start of the early church, in fact it is known as the “Birthday of the Church.” “Three thousand were baptized after hearing Peter's speech that day. Some probably had heard Jesus teach and had seen him heal the sick. Many of the listeners had literally been responsible for his death (as it was likely many had been in Jerusalem 50 days before, for the Passover feast)” (Crane). Many of the Jews who responded to Peter’s message returned to their homelands and spread the Good News. As you read further in Acts, you see how people who became believers at Pentecost often prepared the way for Paul and other messengers. The church at Rome for example, was probably begun by such Jewish believers (iLumina).

How kids understand the Holy Spirit
A word about kids of various ages, and what they can understand of the Holy Spirit:

  • Our youngest students (preschoolers and Kindergarteners) are not ready for abstract concepts. Kids of this age need concrete examples. Describe the Holy Spirit as a special helper. Relate that God is always with us. Use wind as an example—we can’t see wind but we see the wind at work (such as when the leaves rustle on a tree). The Holy Spirit is like the wind—we can’t see it, but we can see people doing good works because the Holy Spirit is in their lives. For this age, your example as someone led by the Spirit, is very powerful. (Doing ordinary things, like modeling God’s loving care.)
  • 1st – 3rd graders are still not totally ready for symbolism such as the Holy Spirit appearing as tongues of fire on Pentecost. They will be confused by the concept that the Holy Spirit is invisible, yet there it is in a picture as a flame over someone’s head! Children of this age can understand doing what’s right, such as being kind and helpful. Emphasize that the Holy Spirit can help us do what’s right.
  • Older students are ready for abstract concepts and symbolism. Tell them your faith story—experiences of the Holy Spirit working in your life. (Maybe you’re amazed that you’re leading Sunday’s Cool? Who me?) When have you been encouraged, guided or challenged by the Spirit?

For all ages: please don’t refer to the Holy Spirit as the old-fashioned “Holy Ghost”. We don’t want the students to get confused about the term “ghost”!

The Holy Spirit working through us
Luckily we can have the Holy Spirit in us, even if we are incapable of speaking foreign languages! We can’t expect a rush of wind or tongues of flames, but God offers us the Holy Spirit as a gift (along with forgiveness of sins) to all who believe and accept him. Receiving the Holy Spirit is not a one-time event; rather it is a constant refilling. We need to ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us every day.

Pentecost reminds us of the power of God to transform lives. God finds a way for his message to be heard. As you guide children towards an understanding about Pentecost, remember that it was with the Holy Spirit that Peter spoke. The Spirit worked through Peter, and 3000 people believed and were baptized! As you prepare for this lesson and as you lead the children, call upon the Holy Spirit to use you and to guide your words as you share the Good News. What the Spirit can do is amazing!


A Workshop Rotation Resource originally created by Carol Hulbert for First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI

Copyright 2009 First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI.
Permission to copy materials granted for non-commercial use provided credit is given and all cited references remain with this material

If you use this material, even in a modified form, please include the following reference:
Hulbert, Carol. "Pentecost: Bible Background." May 2009. Place URL where lesson found inside angle brackets<>.

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