Formations 05.08.2016: Tongues of Fire

Acts 2:1-6, 12-21

Picture: Emmanuel Douzery

Picture: Emmanuel Douzery

In today’s text, the Spirit comes attended by astounding supernatural phenomena that capture the attention of the pilgrims in Jerusalem. These phenomena do not automatically inspire faith, however; some onlookers wrote the whole thing off as the disciples simply being drunk.

I don’t think an outside observer has ever looked at my religious behavior and decided I must be drunk. Naïve, perhaps. Or possibly sentimental or illogical. Could I be mentally impaired? I won’t dismiss the possibility.

But here’s the heart of the matter. Every day, followers of Jesus do things that defy logical explanation. They move outside their comfort zones compelled by something—no, Someone—greater than themselves.

They give up their evenings and weekends to gather together, read ancient texts, and try to live by them. They save up their vacation time so they can go on mission trips to the developing world, or volunteer at Vacation Bible School back home.

They write checks for maybe more than they should to support causes they believe in. They are frequently found in food pantries, nursing homes, and AIDS hospices.

They refuse to return evil for evil.

They hope even when things are hopeless.

They love the unlovable.

They hold on to faith, no matter what.

Are they drunk? No, they’ve just brushed up against the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives have been changed.

Some people look at these things and see crazy.

Others see tongues of fire.


• How can we know when the Holy Spirit is at work?
• What is the greatest risk you ever took as a response to the Spirit’s leading?
• What should be our attitude toward the sort of unusual manifestations of the Spirit described in Acts 2?
• What other evidence might there be that the Holy Spirit is present with power?

Reference Shelf

The Presence of God

In the NT, the Holy Spirit represents the presence of God, active and powerful in revealing, convicting of sin, judging, guiding, empowering, comforting, enlightening, teaching, restraining, and otherwise. Every step in the Christian life may be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit, from conversion (John 3:6) to such maturity as reflects “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22).

The Holy Spirit is person in the NT, but not a person separate from God. The oneness of God is as firm in the NT as in the OT. Jesus himself affirmed the oneness of God, building the love commandment upon Deut 6:4 (Mark 12:29f.). The oneness of God is explicit in Paul and other NT writers (Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 3:20; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 1:17; Jas 2:19; Jude 25; John 17:3). The Holy Spirit is not a third God, nor one-third of God. The Holy Spirit is God himself, present and active within this world. Significantly, “Spirit of God,” “Spirit of Christ,” and “Christ” are interchanged in Rom 8:9-11.

The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost is pivotal in Acts, and this is to be given its full significance for the intention of Acts: the disciples spoke in tongues, in such a way that each person understood in that one’s native language; about 3,000 persons were saved; the church was united in fellowship; they were moved to generosity in giving to the poor; and they were fearless in the face of opposition (Acts 2–4). Breaking through the language barrier on the day of Pentecost foreshadowed the crossing of greater barriers separating Jews from non-Jews. Luke shows the overcoming of such barriers to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Tongues at Corinth later were the opposite: unintelligible to all but the initiated, divisive within the church, and repelling outsiders (1 Cor 12–14).

Frank Stagg, “Holy Spirit,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 385.

The Coming of the Spirit

Luke describes the coming of the Spirit in something of an objective manner (cf. Luke 3:22). There is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind. “Wind” was a useful image for Luke, for the Greek word (pnoe) is formed from the same stem as the Greek word for spirit (pneuma). There appeared tongues as of fire. What is happening is something heard and seen, even if the narrator is compelled to use similes to offer a picture. What is happening has its origins in God, for it all came from “out of heaven” (v. 2). The heavenly origin and the precise similes place readers in the world of the biblical language of theophany (“appearance of the deity”). Wind or God’s “breath” could be used in the Bible to represent the divine presence (e.g., 2 Sam 22:16; Job 37:10; Isa 66:15). Compare also the storm language of God’s appearance at Sinai (Exod 19:16-19). Fire was a more common phenomenon to denote the divine presence (e.g., Exod 3:2 [the burning bush]; 13:21-22 [the pillar of fire in the wilderness]; 19:16-19 [Sinai]).

Luke’s use of the word “tongues” to describe the fire foreshadows the “speaking in tongues” that comes in vv. 4-12. Philo, the first-century AD Jewish philosopher, combines in his discussion of Sinai the image of fire and the phenomenon of language. Assuming such connections to be valid, Luke may be encouraging readers to compare Christian Pentecost with Israel’s being given the law at Sinai. Just as the law was central to Jewish identity as God’s people, the Spirit is central to Christians’ identity as God’s people of the new covenant (cf. Luke 22:20).

The narrator shifts attention away from a description of what was happening around those gathered in the room to what happened to the people themselves. First, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Endowments with the Spirit empower God’s people for the tasks to which they have been called (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Second, they spoke in other tongues. Only rarely are endowments by the Spirit accompanied by the phenomenon of “tongues” (10:46; 19:6). In this context, “tongues” likely means other human languages, representing the universal character of the gospel message.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 48–49.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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