On the day of Pentecost, the long-anticipated time of fulfillment arrived when Jesus bestowed the Spirit on his church – Acts 2:1-4.
The second chapter of Acts stresses fulfillment, the things foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures were actualized when the disciples were “filled with the Spirit,” beginning with the Feast of Pentecost. The arrival of the Spirit was the key event that marked the inauguration of the Church and the age of the Spirit and set the stage for the proclamation of the gospel.
With the outpouring of the Spirit, what Jesus had commanded his disciples to do came to fruition, to “tarry in Jerusalem until you receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
- (Acts 2:1-4) – “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues parting asunder, like fire; and it was sitting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
In Acts, the proclamation of the gospel began in Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish nation. The book concludes with Paul proclaiming the “kingdom of God” in Rome, the center of the empire. The Messiah of Israel had become the Lord of the nations who now exercises his sovereignty by propagating his “good news” through his followers – (Psalm 2:6-9, Matthew 28:18-20,Revelation 1:4-6).
The feast of Pentecost celebrated the completion of the barley harvest and occurred fifty days after Passover, hence the Greek name, ‘pentekosté.’ It was known as the “feast of weeks,” also, the “feast of harvest, the first-fruits of your labors” – (Leviticus 23:11-16, Deuteronomy 16:9-10).
The Greek noun rendered “Pentecost” means “fiftieth.” The highlight of the feast was the offering of the first sheaf, the “first-fruits” of the grain harvest. Every male who was able was required to appear in the Temple during the feast – (Exodus 34:22-23).
Thus, on this occasion, the entire congregation of 120 disciples was assembled in Jerusalem, “in one accord.” ‘120’ is a multiple of twelve (12 x 10), the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. Just as the apostles elected the twelfth member to complete their number, Matthias, so the whole of the new covenant community was assembled in anticipation of the Spirit’s arrival – (Acts 1:15-26).
The outpouring of the Spirit on that feast day was not coincidental. Its theological significance is indicated by the Greek term sumpléroō, to “fully come,” which has the sense of being “filled up completely” – to fill something to the very brim. The verb is a present tense infinitive, signifying action in progress, that is, the feast was in the process of being fulfilled completely as the Spirit filled the disciples.
What the Levitical feast symbolized had come to fruition as the age of the Spirit dawned. God was giving the actual “first-fruits” of the end-time harvest that was foreshadowed by the old ritual – (Romans 8:23, Luke 24:49).
All male Israelites able to do so were required to attend the feast. Likewise, all the disciples were “assembled in one place.” The “all” is repeated in verse 4 to emphasize the point: “ALL were filled with the Holy Spirit.” The gift of the Spirit was the sign that the age of fulfillment had arrived.
“A sound like the rushing of a mighty wind.” The event is described with two analogies – “like a wind,” and “tongues like fire.” Later, at the end of his sermon, Peter described how the newly exalted Jesus had “poured this forth, which you see and hear – (Acts 2:33).
“Parting asunder.” This rendering represents the Greek verb diamerizô, “to cleave asunder; cut in pieces.” The idea is that of “tongues of fire” being separated from a single flame and distributed to each of the disciples; parts of the same single flame rested on each of the assembled men and women.
The significance of the “tongues of fire” is not readily apparent, and Peter made no reference to the sight in his subsequent sermon. Likewise, the crowd reacted to hearing the disciples “speaking in tongues,” but said nothing about the “tongues of fire” or the wind-like sound – (“They were confounded because every man heard them speaking in his own language”).
Most likely, the “tongues of fire” is related to the words of John the Baptist when he warned that the Messiah would “baptize in the Spirit.” His statement is quoted at the start of Acts when Jesus commanded the disciples to “tarry in Jerusalem.” In Luke, as John was baptizing at the Jordan, he summoned all men to repent in preparation for the Messiah:
- (Luke 3:16-17) – “John answered, ‘I indeed baptize you with water; but there comes he that is mightier than I…he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire; whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
In the Greek text, “Holy Spirit” and “fire” are both modified by a single preposition en or “in.” The sense is NOT “in Spirit or in fire,” as if there were two distinct baptisms administered by Jesus, but “in-spirit-and-fire.” The clause presents two sides of the same coin. Precisely what is meant by “fire” is not spelled out; however, in this context, it must include an element of judgment – (i.e., “The chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire”).
“They began to speak in other tongues.” Unfortunately, Luke provides only a few details about the phenomenon. Clearly, the disciples did not speak languages they knew already; this was a supernatural occurrence. And they did not speak gibberish. The crowd was composed of pilgrims from many nations, yet they understood their words – (“Because that every man heard them speaking in his own language… And how hear we every man in our own language wherein we were born?”).
This is the only instance in the New Testament where an exercise of the gift of tongues is identified as a known language. Elsewhere, “tongues” are described as unknown languages, even the “tongues of angels” – (1 Corinthians 13:1, 14:1-9).
Considering the stress in the context on proclaiming the gospel to the “uttermost parts of the earth,” and the description of Jewish pilgrims being present from many nations, Luke may intend for us to hear echoes of two prophecies from the Hebrew Bible:
- (Isaiah 66:15-20) – “Yahweh will come with fire, and his chariots shall be like the whirlwind; to render his anger with fierceness, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will Yahweh execute judgment, and by his sword upon all flesh…I will gather all nations and tongues; and they will come and see my glory. And I will set a sign among them… And they will bring all your brethren out of all the nations for can oblation unto Yahweh…to my holy mountain Jerusalem, declares Yahweh.”
- (Ezekiel 37:9-10) – “Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord Yahweh: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So, I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.”
This possibility that the “tongues of fire” symbolize judgment is strengthened by the subsequent quotation from the book of Joel with its note of judgment:
- (Acts 2:17-21) – “And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of my Spirit upon all flesh… And I will show wonders in the heaven above, And signs on the earth beneath; Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the day of the Lord come, That great and notable day.”
It is important to note the experiential aspect of the event. Luke is not just presenting a theological proposition about the gift of the Spirit. He is describing what the 120 disciples experienced, and what the larger crowd of pilgrims observed. The event included visual and audible phenomena that were unusual enough to cause the crowd great confusion and anxiety.
The outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a life-changing and epochal event: The arrival of the long-promised gift of the Spirit of Yahweh.