Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” —Acts 2:13
If we would search throughout all of history we would not find anywhere people more sane, more responsible than these disciples. And yet, on the day of Pentecost, these people broke out of their somber state into one of delirious happiness. It is little wonder that the spectators of their own time had only one obvious and succinct explanation for what they saw—these people are drunk, they said.
What was it like for those in that upper room to realize for the first time that there is such a person, such a power like the Holy Spirit? If we could think ourselves back to that situation and recapture the emotions of that day, we might not remain relaxed as we read about the events of the first Pentecost. And so, this article focuses upon the judgment that was passed upon the disciples by an observer in the crowd.
This critic, standing on the edge of the crowd, saw everything that had taken place. He had noticed the fierce, extravagant excitement. He had, no doubt, heard the mighty rushing wind and came running to see what was going on. He could probably see the little tongues of fire resting on the disciples of Jesus. He listened to what he considered to be wild, confusing babbling within the crowd that was gathered all around them. And then with a shrug of his shoulders, he made his remark: “They have had too much wine. They are drunk.”
This criticism may not have been made out of malice. It was probably launched with a touch of mockery or perhaps made in polite pity. But the critic thought himself to be honest in his appraisal of the situation. What was taking place in front of his eyes could be explained to him in only one way. In his view the only thing possible was that these disciples had dipped into the communion wine a bit too much, had passed the bounds of decency and reason, and were now drunk.
On the face of it, it was probably a reasonable and common sense explanation. In any other similar situation it most likely would have been a true explanation. Let us imagine for a moment that we were present with these observers on the fringe of the crowd.
We would stand on tiptoe to watch what was going on. We scan the scene and watch people gesturing like windmills. Everybody talks out loud. We can’t hear the main speaker because we are too far away and there are too many others speaking for us to hear him. But we hear all the others speaking in their own language, languages that we cannot understand, so it all sounds like gibberish. And there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to the conduct of the people who are behaving in a most unusual way. Wouldn’t you feel inclined to elbow your friend next to you and say, “Let’s get out of here. What a pity to see people behaving like that . . . why, these men are full of sweet wine.”
While that may seem to be a reasonable and common sense criticism, it is undoubtedly a criticism from an outsider. It came from a bystander who had no firsthand knowledge of any of the experiences which lie behind the event that was taking place. It was purely a surface judgment from the edge of the crowd, not biased, not wicked, but formed without any knowledge of what was really going on.
It suggests a larger question: a question as to whether the criticism of an outsider was worth any serious attention. In science, for example, we would never let an outsider make any kind of value judgment. Someone outside of the field of astronomy might look out at the stars and say, “You don’t really think that those little twinkling things in the sky at night are actually a million times bigger than the earth, do you?” Would you shrink back and say, “You’re right, that does sound kind of silly. They can’t really be, can they?”
Or in the field of medicine. You have been to the doctor because of chest pains and after some tests your doctor says you need surgery. Then someone with no medical background says, “Oh no, you don’t really think that cutting you open and doing surgery is going to make you feel better. Why, what you need to do is wear garlic around your neck, and when that garlic hangs close to your heart, it will make you feel better.” Would you believe him?
It is the person who has experience whose testimony counts. And yet, somehow we think that in religion we should listen to everybody. We need to consult constantly the man on the street to see what he thinks. Then we think we need to prune our messages according to his tastes. Well, Jesus never did that. The apostles never did that. They believed that spiritual things can be discerned only by those who are spiritual. Religion can be judged only by those who enter into the experience. And the man on the street, the outsider, so long as he stays an outsider, has little or no right to pass judgment on religious facts any more than he does on scientific facts that he knows nothing about.
We know that the person who said this in Acts 2:13 never asked about any of the facts. He didn’t weigh the evidence. He knew nothing about what he was talking about. He didn’t know anything about the character and the work of the disciples. He just saw some things happening, things that he couldn’t understand. Things that didn’t fit into his limited experience, so he brushed them off. He put the incident aside with the lowest materialistic explanation that he could find, and that was that these men had too much wine. That is the outsider’s condemnation that seemed like the only explanation possible for him.
Have you ever noticed that the person on the edge of the crowd, the outsider, is the person who is constantly judging Jesus and His people in these same easy, foolish ways? He finds, for example, that you, as a Christian, are deeply interested in things that have no appeal to him whatsoever. He discovers that you are sometimes passionately enthusiastic over things that he has never noticed. He sees you fiercely indignant at some wrong which he has never thought about. He notices that you will subject yourself to certain pain or persecution for the sake of your conscience or because you want to do the right thing even if it means personal loss. And in all of this the outsider shakes his head and says, “Yeah, good people, no doubt. But somewhat unbalanced. They are full of wine. Man, they’re high on something.”
With Some Truth
And you know what? He’s absolutely right. Although his judgment is foolishly wrong, it is yet one of the finest criticisms that has ever been passed upon religion. Sometimes an outsider blunders unwittingly into the heart of a great truth. I don’t know of any finer indirect testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit than this mocking criticism of the outsider.
Do you know what this outsider here on Pentecost Sunday noticed? He noticed the real essence of any life that is truly touched by the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit had descended upon the young church like a flash of light, throwing the church into amazement and filling it with outrageous joy. And our observer here, with calm eyes, noticed what it all meant. He expressed it rather foolishly, but he saw an amazing truth.
In the first place, he saw something that we often forget. Christianity is a kind of divine intoxication. When it is real, Christianity is a ferment in the human heart. Jesus comes into a person’s heart with a rush, shaking him from his sin, changing all of his values, and swinging him around to look into the very eyes of God.
What else can happen but that the world is suddenly turned upside down for the new Christian? What would something like that look like to an outsider? Exactly what is said here in Acts 2:13: “They have had too much wine. They are drunk. Man, they gotta be high on something.”
If you continue reading in Acts, you will discover a man named Festus examining Paul and this thing called Christianity. And what is the judgment that Festus makes? He has only one judgment of Paul. He says in Acts 26:24, “You are out of your mind, Paul.”
When early Christians went into the arenas about to be devoured by lions, they sang hymns to God. What do you think the observers thought? One of the writers of that time saw it as a strange folly. He wrote, “Truly, these people are deranged.”
The Crusaders gave up home and love and life. And one modern historian is quick to write that they were drunk with a dream. And all these critics of Christianity are right. The real Christian, Paul writes, is a fool for Christ. Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . [but] the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:23, 25, NIV).
We have lost a lot of this today, haven’t we? And much to the church’s peril, I might add. Today we are far too calm, far too cold. We have become reasoned and sedate in our Christianity. It is to our condemnation if we do not find anything amazing in the love and the grace of God. It is to our condemnation if the ordered calm of our praise is never broken by a testimony from some stunned and amazed soul who has been snatched from the mouth of hell and is now brought by the Spirit of God into His church. It is to our condemnation if our casual conversations after church are never filled with praise to God for the great things He has done for us.
“What is all this?” we ask. “What is this noise?” It is only this: some poor soul, like these people at Pentecost, has been drenched by the Holy Spirit of God. He has seen the infinite mercy of God. He has witnessed the marvelous grace of God. And he now knows himself as a forgiven sinner, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. And he rejoices in ecstasy. Praise to God from whom all blessings flow!
Notice a second thing in this scene before us in Acts 2. The outsider observed not only this strong emotion among the disciples but also its nature. He noticed a strange gladness, a delirious joy that swept them beyond bounds. These disciples at Pentecost were crying out in an extravagant gladness which they could hardly understand themselves. We read that they were praising the wonderful works of God.
Is there anything that is less contained and crushed and crammed into a jar than joy? It runs over. Joy is like a bubbling wine. People do all sorts of foolish things, silly things, when they are happy. They seem almost to walk on air. They burst out into little snatches of song. They giggle at the most awkward times. There is so much excitement, so much joy within them that they can’t contain it.
Think, for example, of children on the last day of school. They are excited! Ask any teacher if he or she can teach a student anything on the last day of school. Of course not. That’s because the students have one thing on their minds: School’s out! It’s done!
That excitement that you feel on the last day of school is nothing compared with the dazzling excitement and joy of a sinner’s soul being redeemed by God. It isn’t a remarkable thing that a redeemed person should sing aloud to God. It is a remarkable thing when he doesn’t. It shouldn’t surprise us that when the Holy Spirit works Christ’s love in a person, that person loves to go to church. He loves to worship God. He will make every effort, morning and evening, to be there. No excuses. That shouldn’t surprise us. No, it should surprise us when a person who claims to have the Holy Spirit in him doesn’t like to go to church.
When we think about God’s great love for a people like us. When we reflect upon the fullness of His magnificent forgiveness. When we look at the sacrifice that brought it to be. When we understand how He has called us to be His children to share in eternal life. There is something desperately wrong with us if we can sit back and take that calmly.
In the early days of the church, when God’s love and the Holy Spirit were revealed to His people, the people were carried off their feet. They were filled with an amazed joy. I have no doubt that they did foolish things—or what we would have perceived as foolish things, had we been there to see it as an outsider and not taken the time to understand it. They sang, they laughed, and they spoke of things that made no sense to the non-believer. And to the outsider standing on tippy-toe on the edge of the crowd, a word of disgust: “How shocking, so early in the morning, and here they are filled with too much wine.”
Is this missing from your life today? The vision of laughing, rejoicing, and exciting Christianity? Do you have this picture of unbounded, uncontrollable joy because Christ has saved you from your sins?
I know too many Christians who are incredibly unhappy people. Doesn’t that strike you as odd as you think again on this passage concerning the first Pentecost? Here was a group of early Christians so unrestrained, so effervescent that those who saw them, the outsiders, thought they were full of new wine. How can we be filled with the same Spirit, receiving all the same promises, thinking the same thought as these people at Pentecost, and yet look like we are mourning the end of the world? And that’s the point, isn’t it? Are we thinking the same things as the people at Pentecost? Are we certain of the same hopes, the same promises, and do we share in the same dynamic faith that they had?
If we do, then we of all people should be the happiest in this world. For we were dead in our trespasses and sins, and we have been made alive in Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God has come to us and told us that Christ, God’s own Son, has died for our sins and we are right with God because of Jesus. We need to fill ourselves with these wonderful thoughts of the wondrous work of God.
Those on that first Pentecost declared the wondrous love of God. They thought of their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen victorious from the grave. They thought of their own poor pitiful sins and how those sins were forever forgiven and forgotten by God’s amazing love. They thought of the Holy Spirit who moved them to speak of the wondrous works of God and who would be with them and who would keep them and who would guide them until they were brought clean and purified into the presence of God. They thought of the infinite sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and the infinite gain that He gave to His people. And when they thought of all these things, they lifted up their hands and their voices and sang praise to God, rejoicing aloud in this newfound enthusiasm until their joy mingled with the joy of the angels.
And that poor fellow over on the edge of the crowd pulled his companion away and said, “Let’s get out of here. This is rather shocking. They have had too much wine.” He was gloriously right. It was the wine of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus makes the sinner’s heart glad with song. Oh, that He would touch our hearts as well.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.