What Are the Tongues of Fire? (Acts 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
—Acts 2:1–12

The Disciples Receive the Spirit

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.

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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.

What is 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.

ESV Expository Commentary

Two New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of John and Acts, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today.

While he was on earth, Jesus was directly present with his followers, who, even with their obvious shortcomings, did provide evidence of believing in him to whatever extent was possible (“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” “You are the Christ.” “I believe; help my unbelief.”). There is no clean and easy way to determine the exact point in which the disciples became believers in the sense we use the term. They did “believe” when Jesus was alive, but their faith was not complete until the resurrection, just as Christ’s work of redemption was not complete. The disciples were sanctified by the word of Jesus while he was with them (John 13:10; 15:3; 17:17), but they would not receive the Spirit as the power of the risen Christ until after the resurrection (as promised in John 14–17). By historical and experiential necessity, the disciples occupy a different place in salvation history than we do.

In Acts 2:33 Peter says that Jesus “received” the Spirit from the Father specifically for the pouring out received at Pentecost. On the other hand, at Acts 8:17 some Samaritans receive the Spirit when Peter and John lay hands on them. In Acts 10:47, Peter declares that because Cornelius and other Gentiles “received” the Spirit just as Jewish believers did, there is no way to deny them baptism. The Spirit “fell” upon all gathered as Peter spoke, and those with Peter were amazed that the Spirit was “poured out” on the Gentiles just as he was on Jewish believers (Acts 10:44–45). Thus it is clear that the language for receiving the Spirit, whether for particular empowerment or for regenerating power, does not consistently distinguish between the work of witness and that of belief. All of these works—apostolic witness, signs and wonders, and regeneration—are entirely the doing of the Spirit. How the Spirit is working and what he is bringing about depends on the context.

Outward Manifestation

The Spirit came and “rested on each one” at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). This is an outward manifestation of what is taking place among them, as all those gathered in the room are “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4)—what Jesus promised them at his ascension now takes place. It is impossible to quantify what it means to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” We should not think of the Spirit as some sort of heavenly gasoline that fills our spiritual tank. Luke seems to be speaking in the sense of capacity (“filling” language), but how do we think of capacity when the receptacles are people and the substance is the Holy Spirit? Can someone be filled a quarter of the way with the Spirit? At what point is one “full” of the Spirit in terms of quantity? Paul tells the Ephesian believers, who already have the Spirit, nevertheless to “be filled with the Spirit” rather than to be drunk on wine (Eph. 5:18).

In his Gospel, Luke uses the word “filled” in the sense of filling to capacity, as when the disciples’ boats are so full of fish that they begin to sink (Luke 5:7), or figuratively, as in “filled with great fear” (Luke 2:9) or “filled with fury” (Luke 6:11). He also uses the term to mean “fulfill” or “end,” as in to reach an appointed conclusion. Zechariah goes back home “when his time of service [as a priest] was ended” (Luke 1:23). The destruction of Jerusalem foretold in the Olivet Discourse is described as “days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (Luke 21:22). Importantly, the angel tells Zechariah that his son, John, “will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15); Elizabeth sees Mary and is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begins to praise (Luke 1:41); and Zechariah is, once again, “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begins to prophesy and to praise God for what he is about to do in Israel according to his promises (Luke 1:67).

We find similar texts in Acts as well. Peter is filled by the Spirit and speaks to a crowd (Acts 4:8), and soon after the believers are filled with the Spirit through prayer (Acts 4:31). When the seven are chosen to look after the widows among the Greek-speaking Jews, one of their criteria is that they are to be filled with the Spirit (Acts 6:3). Ananias tells Paul he will “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). These texts, along with those in Luke, determine what the phrase means in Acts 2:4 and in Acts generally. In most cases, to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” means to be empowered for service, usually that of proclamation or mission. This does not imply an initial lack but merely communicates a special experience of the Spirit in order to carry out the mission from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the ends of the earth. The Spirit’s work in salvation does not take second place in Acts—reception of the Spirit is the primary reason Gentiles must be baptized and recognized as full-fledged members of the new covenant (Acts 15:8–9)—but at Pentecost specifically the disciples are filled with power for the great work of that day.

Throughout Acts. . . the Spirit works in believers to empower them for service.

The Meaning of Tongues

As a result, those in the room “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4; cf. Acts 10:45–46; 19:6). The meaning of the word translated “tongues” (Gk. glōssai ) is disputed. Many Christians understand this verse to mean that the disciples begin to speak in a heavenly language transcending human linguistic structures—unlike any language on earth. In such an interpretation, those who hear the disciples speaking in different languages (Acts 2:6) do so because some kind of divine translation is taking place that causes the “tongues” to be heard as languages. Often in this interpretation the miracle of tongues is accompanied by a miracle of hearing. Texts such as 1 Corinthians 13:1, where Paul mentions speaking in the “tongues of men and of angels,” are cited in support (cf. 1 Cor. 14:2, 18–23, 27). Others, however, understand the disciples to be speaking in different languages, those represented in the room that day. In this interpretation there is no need for a miracle of hearing. Typically, this reading is accompanied by reading the term “tongues” in the NT as always referring to known human languages. First Corinthians 13:1 does, however, seem to distinguish human and heavenly speech. Pressing glōssai to mean “languages” in every instance in the NT seems strained. A third option is to understand the word “tongues” as being used in the NT both for human languages and for heavenly speech, with both manifestations being works of the Spirit.

At Pentecost the tongues seem to be languages, and thus the miracle is one of speaking, not likely one of hearing. Luke here uses the word apophthengomai (“utterance”; Acts 2:4), which recurs twice more in Acts in regard to speaking God’s word. It is clear that the Spirit empowers the disciples’ speaking, but, as seen in the upcoming verses, there is no similar indication of Spirit-empowered hearing. Throughout Acts (as demonstrated already), the Spirit works in believers to empower them for service. The Spirit does work in unbelievers, but this is part of God’s work of salvation, “having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). Such is why it is important first to establish what “filled” means in this verse before considering the miracle of speaking that follows: it provides the context for understanding this highly disputed text.

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: John–Acts (Volume 9).

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