You’re standing in the open air in front of a massive stone Temple surrounded by thousands of other worshipers.
What you’re about to see happens only once a year: the priest waves two massive loaves of leavened bread, each made with five pounds of fine flour, before the altar.
The service continues. Songs of praise are sung. Prayers are recited. The people beseech God to return, restore their nation, restore their rulers, make his name known among the nations, and fulfill the promises he made through the prophets of old.
Suddenly, you hear the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Your clothes don’t rustle, and you don’t feel anything on your skin, but the sound is deafening. After a moment, a massive fire appears above you. It divides into myriads of smaller flames, each landing on a different worshiper. These select few begin speaking—but each speaks in a different language. In the great noise you hear someone speaking the language you grew up with as a Jew living in Parthia—a language that was an ancestor to what today would be recognized as Farsi.
He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Yeshua, whom you crucified, has been raised from the dead; God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”
You’ve traveled to Jerusalem before, but you’ve never seen anything like this. It reminds you of Pentecost legends you have heard — legends of tongues of fire that were able to make anyone, regardless of the language they spoke, understand the words of God. They appeared around fifteen hundred years ago, and now, for only the second time, they seem to have appeared again.
Reading about this event—the outpouring of the Spirit recorded in Acts chapter 2—as a passive observer nearly two thousand years after the fact simply can’t compare to experiencing it firsthand. I don’t mean that we might find it harder to believe. I also don’t mean that we would have found it more impressive or emotionally impactful if we had been there. I mean to say that we don’t know what it means when tongues of fire descend from heaven and people speak in languages they did not previously know. Everyone who had gathered in the Temple that day, however, would have known exactly what these things meant.
In a sense, when we read Acts 2, we are watching a foreign film with no subtitles. We can sort of make out when something important has happened, but it’s not clear exactly what we’re meant to understand. Something is lost in, well, the lack of translation.
However, the Jewish people of the first century had the subtitles, the commentary, and the director’s cut. Fortunately, we can learn from the guidance they left to later generations and use it to unlock the mystery of the tongues of fire and the many languages.
The first part of the key to understanding this mystery lies in the Exodus account of God’s descent upon Mount Sinai. Moses had this to say about what the children of Israel experienced on that day:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off. (Exodus 20:18)
In Hebrew this verse is slightly more evocative. In part, it can be more literally translated, “All the people saw the voices and the torches.”
How Can You See a Voice?
Jewish interpreters wrestled with this question and found their answer in another passage from the Old Testament: “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29).
An ancient collection of Jewish wisdom, the Talmud, explains the connection:
The verse “and like a hammer which shatters a rock” means that just as a hammer breaks a stone into many sparks, so too, every single word that went forth from the Holy One, blessed be he, [at Sinai] split up into seventy tongues.
When the children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, God personally spoke his commandments to them. According to the sages, if any of us had been there to witness this, we would have heard these commandments spoken in our own native languages. God’s voice split into seventy sparks, or tiny flames—a number equal to the traditional Jewish enumeration of the number of languages in the world. The myriads of tiny “tongues” of fire corresponded to the myriads of “languages” (Hebrew uses the same word for both).
I Hope This Is Starting to Sound Familiar
According to traditional Judaism, the events recorded in Exodus 19 and 20 occurred on the very date commemorated each year by the Festival of Shavu’ot, called “Pentecost” in most English translations of the New Testament. In other words, the “tongues” of fire in Acts 2, which enabled people to speak in the “tongues” of many different nations, manifested on the exact anniversary of their first appearance fifteen hundred years before at Mount Sinai.
When the same specific miraculous phenomenon occurs for only the second time in history on the same holy day, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. In fact, Acts 2:41 records that thousands of devout Jews did exactly that, and they were “baptized”—that is, they were immersed in the numerous pools for ritual purification that surrounded the Temple—and they declared their allegiance to Yeshua, the Messiah.
Were they convinced by a few words from the Apostle Peter? Perhaps. But it seems just as likely that they had seen the tongues of fire and knew exactly what had happened: God had shown up again, just as he had in the past, and had delivered his word with miraculous power, taking care to ensure that it could be understood by anyone with the ability to hear.
The Rushing Wind
The final piece of the Pentecost puzzle lies in the sound of the rushing wind. A wind that can only be heard and
not felt is not your everyday hurricane. It’s a supernatural phenomenon. Here the key is quite a bit simpler: the Hebrew word for “wind” is the same as the word translated in the Old Testament as “spirit.” The sound of a mighty wind—both in Biblical Hebrew and in the Greek of the New Testament—is rendered in the same words as the sound of a mighty spirit. The “wind,” or “Spirit,” on that particular Shavu’ot in Acts 2 was the Holy Spirit.
Every Jew in the Temple precinct that day would have known about the Holy Spirit. We don’t find this term too often in the Old Testament, but it was in common use during the time of the apostles. It’s a euphemism, a replacement, for a term that shows up over and over in the Old Testament: the “Spirit of the LORD.” The LORD here, in all capital letters, is a reference to the Hebrew name of God—a name that Judaism teaches is forbidden to pronounce. Because of this prohibition, people in Yeshua’s time just used the term “Holy Spirit.” The meaning, however, is precisely the same. The Spirit who filled Joshua, Caleb, Bezalel, and Oholiab is the same Spirit who descended on the apostolic community in Acts 2.
The Tongues of Fire
What does it mean when the Spirit of the LORD descends upon a multitude of people? Anyone who had been paying attention in the synagogue would have known of this prophecy: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
The tongues of fire help us to understand God’s Word. The Spirit causes us to obey it. This “word” encompasses the Torah—the Law of God, the Old Testament rule of life. This incredible Shavu’ot in Acts 2 was a faithful sequel of the original, not a remake. The tongues of fire bring understanding; the Spirit brings faithful obedience, but the Law, the Torah, remains unchanged.
This Is the Meaning of Pentecost
This is the meaning of Pentecost; this is the power of God to change our hearts. That day in Jerusalem, God began to fulfill his promises through the prophets to redeem his people and save the world from sin and death.
Now, what is left is our part. It’s our job to listen to the voice of his Spirit and heed the words spoken through Yeshua, the prophet like Moses. The outpouring of the Spirit indicates that a new age is dawning. In fact, this is the essence of Yeshua’s gospel message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).