Someone asked me yesterday whether “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) points to the fact that the disciples were to proclaim that the kingdom of God was coming, meaning judgment on unbelieving Israel and the nations. I was at the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Sunday, and since proceedings were mostly in Greek, I missed any reference to the church calendar. In the afternoon Father Melchizedek gave an elegant homily in English looking at the events of Acts 2, but I’ve been slow to register the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost. No wonder people are asking if the UK is still a Christian country.
Luke’s account of events in Acts 2 is a good example of how the biblical narrative often constrains our modern theologies. We think that this is all about the church as we know it. It’s not. The pneumatology of Pentecost has to work within narrow historical boundaries. As is noted in the question, it has to do with Israel and judgment. I’m not so sure about the nations.
And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (2:2)
Father Melchizedek compared the “sound like a mighty rushing wind” to the effect of a jet aircraft flying fifteen yards above the building. But the word translated “wind” is pnoē, which in the Greek Old Testament almost always means “breath”, often explicitly the breath which God gives to living creatures (cf. Gen. 2:7; 7:22). It has this meaning also in Acts 17:25: “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything”. If something more violent is intended, the thought is of the strong wind of God’s anger (e.g., 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13 LXX).
Old Testament theophanies are often windy occasions (1 Kgs. 19:11; Job 38:1; Is. 66:15; Ezek. 1:4), but that doesn’t really seem to be what’s going on here. Ezekiel’s vision of the resuscitation of Israel is more pertinent: “And he said to me, Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, This is what the Lord says: Come from the four winds, and blow into these corpses, and they shall live” (Ezek. 37:9 LXX). But breath in this instance is pneuma, and I am inclined to think that Luke’s description of the phenomenon is unprecedented as far as the scriptures are concerned.
And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (2:3)
There is some reason to associate the word diamerizomenai with the division of the nations. For example: “When the Most High was apportioning (diemerizen) nations, as he scattered Adam’s sons, he fixed boundaries of nations according to the number of divine sons” (Deut. 32:8 LXX).
A Jewish exorcism text, which I can’t give a date for, adjures the demon “by him who revealed the one hundred-forty tongues (glōssas) and divided (diamerisanta) them at his command” (Exorcism 56–58). This has no direct relevance, but it reinforces the point that the disciples are enabled to speak to diaspora Jews in the languages of the nations from which they came.
But what about the association with fire?
The phrase “tongues of fire” is found elsewhere in Jewish writings. Enoch describes a great house of God “wholly built in tongues of fire” (1 En. 14:15). Light flashes from the high priest’s breastplate like “tongues of fire” (1Q29 f1:3; f2:3; 4Q376 f1ii:1). At most this suggests the “tongue” as a natural metaphor for flames of fire.
It seems most likely, therefore, that Luke meant his readers to recall John the Baptist’s statement that the Christ would baptise “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:15). Here “fire” has clear connotations of an impending judgment: Israel will be winnowed; the wheat will be gathered into the barn; the chaff “will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17). Given the context, Malachi 3:1-3 is also evoked:
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Mal. 3:1–3)
John is thus the messenger who proclaims the coming of one who will execute judgment against a corrupt priesthood in order to reform Israel’s worship of YHWH.
So yes, it appears that the Spirit of prophecy comes upon the disciples in the form of “tongues as of fire” because their primary mission is to reiterate Jesus’ warning about the coming judgment of Israel. A word about judgment is being distributed to all Jews, whatever language they speak. This is certainly more likely than the view that Luke meant to present the Pentecost event as the fulfilment of “new covenant” expectations (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:26-27).
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (2:4)
“Utterance” translates apophthengesthai. The word is often used for ecstatic or inspired speech. David set aside men who “make pronouncements” (apophthengomenous) with musical instruments (1 Chron. 25:1 LXX); “speakers of apophthegms” (apophthengomenoi) will be removed from Israel, along with sorcerers (Mic. 5:12 LXX); false prophets “utter” (apophthengomenous) vanities (Ezek. 13:9; cf. 13:19 LXX). When Peter stands up to explain what has been going on, he apephthegzato to them—he “prophesied to them”—inasmuch as he spoke by the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:14). In Acts 26:25 Paul is probably having a joke with Festus when he says that he is not out of his mind (ou mainomai) but uttering (apophthengomai) “true and rational words”.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. …both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. (2:5, 11)
The Spirit is given in order to proclaim to Jews and converts to Judaism, who have come to Jerusalem from the diaspora to celebrate the festival, the “mighty works” (megaleia) that God has been doing in Israel. This no doubt refers in the first place to the “mighty works (dynamesin) and wonders and signs” that God did through Jesus (Acts 2:22), but may also include the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:8).
But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (2:16–18)
Peter addresses the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”. What they are witnessing is the fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. In the “last days” before the great and terrible day of the Lord, the Spirit of God will be poured out not on Israel’s prophets only but on “all flesh”—that is, indiscriminately on all sorts of people in Israel, with no regard to social or religious status. Sons and daughters, young and old, male servants and female servants will all see what Jesus saw and prophesy as Jesus prophesied—that Israel faces a dreadful day of reckoning, comparable to Old Testament catastrophes such as the Babylonian invasion. Only those Jews who call on the name of the Lord at this time will be saved.
So what was going on Pentecost? It was the moment when the disciples were empowered to proclaim not only to the people of Jerusalem but to Jews and proselytes from the diaspora—to “all the house of Israel”—what God was doing, at that time, in Israel. God had done mighty works through Jesus while he was alive; he had raised him from the dead after he was unjustly killed by the authorities in Jerusalem; he had made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32, 36); and he would soon bring a dreadful judgment upon the current “crooked generation” of Jews (Acts 2:41).
The pagan nations are not directly in view, but the later account of the apostolic mission will show that when the “mighty works” of Israel’s God were proclaimed in the synagogues of the Greek-Roman world, Gentiles were more inclined to believe the story—and appreciate its long-term implications—than Jews were.