What are the tongues of fire in Acts 2? (Part 1)
The underlying idea in the symbolism of Pentecost was that if God was able to redeem his people from Egypt, then he would be able to provide for their lives too, just as he had promised.
Right from the beginning, Acts 2 is concerned with new structures and dynamics that bring the old structures and dynamics to their appointed end. The chapter occurs at Pentecost, the second annual feast of the Jewish year, celebrating God’s provision for his people. Also known as the Feast of Weeks in the OT (see Lev. 23:15–21; Ex. 34:22; Num. 28:26–31; Deut. 16:9–12), Pentecost came fifty days after Passover.
Passover commemorated the coming of the angel of death, the last plague, to Egypt. On that night, the Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and spread its blood over their doorpost. The angel, seeing the blood, would pass over the Israelites but would inflict destruction on Egypt by taking its firstborn sons. This could have been avoided had Pharaoh and his court listened to Moses and freed Israel. But they refused and so paid an ultimate price for their sin against God. In the aftermath, the Israelites, having survived because of the lamb’s blood, left Egypt. God redeemed them, as promised.
Fifty days later, Israel was at Sinai, receiving God’s law through Moses. When they entered the land, they were to keep a feast, or festival, in which they were to bring their firstfruits (bread made from new grain) as an offering to God. The firstfruits offering stood both for hope in the coming of the full harvest and as a sign of thanksgiving for God’s provision.
Pentecost was inseparable from Passover and was marked specifically from the date of Passover (Lev. 23:16). It could come only as a result of God’s previous work. Thus it was not simply about agriculture but about redemption as well. Israel offered her firstfruits to God, who saved her from slavery in Egypt. The underlying idea in the symbolism of Pentecost was that if God was able to redeem his people from Egypt, then he would be able to provide for their lives too, just as he had promised.
A different Pentecost
In Acts 2, Jews in Jerusalem are still celebrating Pentecost, but this Pentecost is different. It is, in fact, the last Pentecost. It must be the last, because the final Passover took place fifty days earlier when Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, was crucified for the sins of God’s people. This was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (see Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 28; 10:10). Redemption from Egypt, and the Passovers that remembered it, was a shadow of something greater. Passover is fulfilled, and now it is time for the fulfillment of Pentecost. With Jesus now in heaven—a vital point for what follows—this fulfillment is precisely what happens next.
The disciples are together, and something happens that can be explained only by analogy, not from past experience: “Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind,” and “divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:2, 3). The words “like” and “as” are important for understanding Luke’s quintessentially biblical way of describing the scene. Commentators are divided as to whether there was an actual gust of wind accompanied by the sound, or whether there was just a sound. Whether the disciples felt a wind is unimportant. What took place is described not exactly as natural phenomena but “like” it.
This is common in Scripture, particularly in texts and passages that describe heavenly scenes or times when the heavenly and earthly realms come together: gates and walls are “like” precious stones, heavenly scenes generally are described as “like” earthly analogies, and visions include things “like” wheels, fiery messengers, or various animals that sometimes combine more than one species. These are attempts to convey supernatural visions and experiences—real, experienced events, but beyond what can be described fully.
In this case it sounded something like a great wind. I have an image in my mind of the apostles hearing something like the sound of wind from the inside, with walls and roofs creaking, windows rattling, and the sound of rushing air shaking everything in its path, straining to get past. Maybe to us it would have sounded like an oncoming train.
The presence of God
What’s important is what the wind-like sound and the appearance of tongues like fire indicate: both point to the presence of God (cf. 1 Kings 19:11–13). Thus the prophet Ezekiel is led by the Spirit to a vision of dry bones that take on human form and are brought to life when the Spirit commands: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezek. 37:9).
The image is of God’s bringing Israel back from exile, redeeming them as in a new exodus, with this great exception: this time he promises to give them his Spirit (Ezek. 37:14). Likewise, the image of fire in Acts 2 is unmistakable. It may be compared to the Lord’s appearing to Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:1–6) or to the people of Israel as a pillar of fire, leading them at night in their desert wanderings (Ex. 14:19–20; Num. 11:25; 12:5; 14:14; 16:42; Deut. 1:33). The fire could also be an echo of Isaiah 6:4–7, where the prophet’s tongue is cleansed with a burning coal.
The presence of God in Acts 2 is also accompanied by an act of God. His presence is confirmed by the direction from which the sound comes: from heaven, the place of God. This is the second time in short order that heaven and earth intersect. Jesus went into heaven; now the Spirit from heaven will invade the earthly realm, filling the apostles for witness.
When the apostles receive the Spirit here, this is not the moment they are “saved” or regenerated. In fact, it is not the first time they receive the Spirit. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to the Eleven and breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). They are also, as a result, given authority to forgive sins on his behalf (John 20:23). The reception of the Spirit in Acts 2:2 is for carrying out Jesus’ commission to witness. The apostles’ experience of the Spirit is, by necessity of their era, different than it is for every succeeding generation. This is not to say their experience is totally different or unconnected to the receiving of the Spirit seen after Peter’s sermon, only that this instance is a special equipping for a special group of people.