When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Pentecost was the name of an ancient Jewish feast associated with the Exodus. Fifty days after the first Passover Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Torah (the Jewish law). This occurred just as the grain was being harvested; so the Hebrew people took the first sheaf of grain, known as the “first fruits,” and offered it to God.
From the beginning Pentecost was about the law and the harvest. The law was associated with fruitfulness because of what it produced in the lives of the righteous. Yet it was also compared to fire because of its tendency to burn away unrighteousness.
After the Ascension 120 disciples gathered together for prayer on the Day of Pentecost, during which time the Holy Spirit descended upon them in a new way. Everyone would have been aware of the connection between the law and the harvest. They would have known - independent of fire and wind and tongues - that a new law and a new kind of harvest were breaking into their reality.
When Moses ascended Sinai he received the law, which he then brought down to the people. Christ also Ascended, but into heaven rather than a mountaintop, and he has sent his Spirit to replace the law of Moses.
The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was like a new Sinai.
But Sinai wasn’t the only episode from the First Testament to rhyme with Pentecost. In Genesis 11, for example, all of the world’s population gathered together and attempted to build a tower leading straight to heaven. It’s not that they wanted to invade heaven, so much as they want to prove their equality with God. In judgment, God dissembled their language from one common tongue to many disparate ones. As a result, the people could no longer understand each other.
In Genesis 11 God supernaturally diversified language, but in Acts 2 God supernaturally unified language. Not wholly, but representatively. Now, instead of human beings reaching up to identify with God, God has come down personally to identify with us. He has sent His Spirit to provide us a comforter, an interpreter, a guide, a healer, and a counselor.
We also see the Holy Spirit in the First Testament coming on particular people at specific times for unique tasks. For example, the Spirit filled Bezelel with skill, ability, and knowledge to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship (see Exodus 31). Likewise, the Spirit empowered cowardly Gideon – the least among all men in his tribe –to become a mighty leader and judge (see Judges 6-8). Samson, too, is a baffling tale in which an ordinary man is given superhuman strength when the Spirit comes upon him (see Judges 13-16). Isaiah proclaimed good news to the poor in the Spirit’s power, and prophesied Christ’s coming (see Isaiah 61, 40, 53).
The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was also the fulfillment of an ancient promise. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that God would one day replace the law ‘written on tablets of stone’ with a new law ‘written on the hearts of men.’
I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
The Spirit was seen as the means to experience abundant life now more than ever before. This is the fulfillment of another ancient promise, made through Joel:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
The Day of Pentecost was a special event, but not entirely unique. Both prior to and following Pentecost people were filled with the Spirit and empowered as witnesses for Christ and his kingdom. In fact, Luke describes nine different instances of people being filled with the Spirit in his writing (Luke 1.15; 1.41; 1.67; Acts 2.4; 4.8; 4.31; 9.17; 13.9; 13.52). This demonstrates that Pentecost was a continuation of God’s long-term mission to heal the world. The only difference was the distribution method.
Pentecost is about the transfer of the Spirit from Christ to the disciples. During his earthly ministry Jesus was the sole-possessor of God’s Spirit, but at Pentecost he re-distributed God’s power to his followers. When Christ told his disciples he must leave but they should not be afraid, he was referring to the fact that he would Ascend to the Father and send the Spirit in his place. Christ told them they would be clothed with power from on high. This promise is consistent with his commissioning of the Twelve earlier, when Christ gave them authority to heal diseases, cast our demons, and exercise power (see Luke 9.1-6). They became partners with Christ colonizing the Kingdom of God on earth. Through this transfer the disciples become the heirs and successors to the ministry of Jesus. Because Christ poured out the Spirit on them, the disciples can continue God’s mission to heal the world with the same resources as Christ himself.
I like how Brian McLaren, in his book The Secret Message of Jesus, has conceptualized this:
If you get a glimpse of soldiers in camouflage sneaking through the forest, if you notice planes from an enemy country flying high above us, if key political leaders in your country disappear or are mysteriously assassinated, then you might suspect that an invasion is coming. If bullets start flying and bomb sirens start going off, your suspicions will be fulfilled. Another nation, let’s call it a kingdom, is preparing to invade and conquer your kingdom.
But what if the kingdom that is invading is a kingdom of a very different sort? What if the invasion is one of kindness and compassion rather than force or aggression? What if sick people start getting well suddenly and inexplicably? What if rumors spread of storms being calmed and insane people becoming sane again, hungry people being fed and dead people rising alive from the grave? Couldn’t this be the sign of a very different kind of invasion … the coming of a different kind of kingdom?
This is how I’ve come to understand the signs and wonders of Jesus Christ. They are dramatic enactments of his message – the message of the kingdom spread in a media beyond words that combine to signify that the impossible is about to become possible, the kingdom of God with its peace, healing, sanity, empowerment and freedom is available to all here and now. Signs and wonders unbolt the mechanisms that tell us what is mathematically and practically possible and impossible. They make way for faith that is something new, unprecedented and previously impossible is now on the move. They tell us that we are being invaded by a force of hope, of group of undercover agents clouding goodness.
Being filled with the Spirit always had a prophetic dimension to it. That’s not to say that everyone is supposed to be a prophet, simply that Luke makes a connection between the ministries of the First Testament prophets with that of the church.
Prophetic ministry is eschatological, concerned with how things end up; supernatural, concerned with things that cannot be seen or measured; and universal, meaning it is no longer available to only particular people at particular times for particular tasks. It is for everybody. Our job is to keep our focus on the future (eschatology), while mindful of people’s hidden motivations and machinations (supernatural), telling everyone (universal) the good news of the gospel of God.
Many of us try to so this on our own, but that is always doomed to fail. We don’t have sufficient strength or will to change. We need God’s help to become godly. That’s why God sent His Spirit. The Spirit empowers us, providing us with a pervading sense of God’s presence. The Spirit works by changing the way we think. This doesn’t happen overnight.
In N. T. Wright’s book Simply Christian, he writes:
Once we glimpse this vision of the Holy Spirit coming to live within human beings, making them temples of the living God which ought to make us shiver in our shoes, we are able to grasp the point of the Spirit’s work in several other ways as well. To begin with, building on the startling call to holiness that we just noticed, we see right across the early Christian writings the notion that those who follow Jesus are called to fulfill the Law.
The word used to describe the Holy Spirit in Biblical Greek is the word paraclete, which means advocate - one who pleads a client’s case before a court. The Spirit is our supernatural Counselor. When we become Christians the Spirit of God comes to live in us. When he does, he begins to communicate with us so we learn to understand the “voice” of God. Typically that voice is understood as a sense of direction or a strong conviction that we ought to act in this way or not this way. It’s not so much a question of the Spirit saying: do this, or do that. It’s much more a recognition that our whole lives need to change in such-and-such a way. We test those feelings, those impulses, and those compulsions against wise counsel and against Scripture.
When we know his will and act accordingly, the Spirit’s action in our lives produces positive results known as the Fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5.22-23). The Bible defines the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. Because Jesus said “you will know a tree by its fruit” then we can test ourselves, based on our behaviors, to determine whether or not we’re growing in godliness. We must learn to adjudicate our behavior based, striving for lives of virtue and good character in response to God’s movement within us.
Most of the time God speaks to me through nudges, or promptings. They’re little ideas that pop into my head about something I might say or do, a gentle push to step outside my comfort zone. I have learned to understand the prompting of the Spirit, typically, as a sense of direction or a strong conviction that I ought to act in this way or not that way.
In our backyard we have an electric fence dug into the ground for our Bernese Mountain Dog. It’s attached to a device on the collar he wears, and if he ever crosses the threshold of the fence, the device vibrates on his neck. The closer the dog gets to the boundaries of the fence, the more the device begins to beep a warning. When the dog is warned, he backs away from the boundary marker because he doesn’t like what happens when he crosses that line.
In many ways the conviction of the Holy Spirit is like the warning beep on that device – the Spirit speaks to us, reminding us of who we are and what we’re supposed to do in this world to shadow God. If we disregard the Spirit, we inevitably end up with results we don’t like. He doesn’t zap us or shock us or hurt us, but the consequences of crossing God’s boundary lines are always unpleasant and include things like broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken hearts.
In reality, the Spirit is working in us to change who we are completely. That usually begins with small changes that grow into larger ones. You will discover all kinds of nuances, too, the more attentive you are to the Spirit. You will make discoveries and observations about the world that are God’s unique gift to only you. Pay attention to them. They are God’s gift to you and you’re meant to share them as your gift to others.
Of course, the primary purpose for the Spirit’s coming was to empower us to witness. The Spirit hasn’t only been given so we have power to change, but was also given so we have power to change the world. We’re meant to testify to those around us that God has something better in store for them than the life they’re already living. And, just as the ministry of Jesus had been inaugurated in the power of the Spirit, so was the ministry of the church.
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The Spirit of God gives us both the desire and the ability to tell other people about Christ. This doesn’t mean you have to force feed them your religious beliefs. On the contrary, the most compelling thing you could ever do is tell someone about your own spiritual experiences. Tell them how you felt, tell them the parts you still don’t entirely understand, and be honest about how strongly you feel now. This is called witnessing – when you tell other people what God had done for you. Evangelism, on the other hand, is when you tell other people what God can do for them. The Bible tells us there are people with the gift of evangelism (see Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12), but all believers are required to witness (see Matthew 28; Acts 1). So you aren’t required to tell people what God can do for them, only about your personal experiences. In fact, if you don’t have the gift of evangelism and you feel like you’re supposed to “evangelize,” you probably run the danger of coming off as confrontational. However, if we are obedient to the Second Testament text and share our story with words like – “this is what Jesus Christ has done for me,” or “this is how I experience the power of the Holy Spirit,” or “this is how I know God,” then we can be sure of two things: first, nobody can argue with you or doubt the validity of your experiences; second, no one feels threatened or boxed in by your religious rhetoric.
In all our discussion about Pentecost we’ve skated around one of the most significant facets of this story. It concerns glossolalia, or “speaking in other tongues.” Luke tells us the disciples were supernaturally gifted with the ability to communicate in languages they had never learned. Tom Wright makes a fantastic point concerning the gift of tongues in his commentary on Acts.
It is precisely part of being a genuine human being, made and renewed in God’s image, that people should do that most characteristic thing, using words and language, in quite a new way. We are called to be people of God’s word, and God’s word can never be controlled by rationalistic schemes, or contained within the tight little frameworks that we invent to keep everything tidy and under control.
Because this issue has often been divisive within Christianity, I want to take a few moments and address its contemporary use.
What exactly is speaking in tongues?
Speaking in tongues is a kind of prayer, one of many different forms listed in the Second Testament. Sometimes these tongues turn out to be actual human languages (see Acts 2), like a Russian who spontaneously begins to speak Chinese without ever learning it. Sometimes these tongues sound inhuman, almost like gibberish (see 1 Corinthians 13). Sometimes the person who speaks in tongues knows what they are saying and can interpret it, but not always.
This kind of prayer was, and is, powerful. It evokes the presence of Jesus, celebrates the energy of the Spirit, edifies individuals, and guides Christians concerning how they should pray.
If you think of face to face being the highest form of interpersonal conversation, and of friends who are joined at the hop, and lovers whose hearts are joined together, than I think it’s entirely appropriate to conceptualize tongues as a Spirit-to-spirit connection between God and us. It’s that moment when, instead of getting tripped up by words I think might be inadequate or fear that I might say something inappropriate, tongues allows me to simply open my heart to God and pour everything out before Him.
Tongues is a sign that God’s Spirit has been poured out on humanity, and particularly on those who were least expected to be included in God’s kingdom. Gentiles, for instance, were baptized in the Spirit before the Council of Jerusalem even officially welcomed them into the church (see Acts 10.44-48).
How does tongues help?
We are all limited by language. The average American knows about 4500 English words. Some people, of course, know considerably more. Englishmen are famous for boasting about Winston Churchill’s 15000-word vocabulary, but whether you know 4500 or 45000 there’s still a limitation to what you’re able to articulate. We all know this. We know what it’s like to be at a loss for words, to have nothing to say, or to find ourselves speechless.
It’s precisely those instances for which praying in tongues is most useful.
In worship we often find ourselves calling out to God, extolling His many virtues. But there comes a point in which I, for one, begin to feel a bit silly. Once I’ve told God He’s awesome about a hundred times I find myself reaching for other words. Somehow, Lord You’re the Grooviest doesn’t quite seem to convey what I truly feel. Tongues is a very useful tool for expressing my feelings to God in these moments.
Other scenarios for which I find tongues useful include those times when I’m afraid, or stressed out, or feeling confused, or even apathetic. In moments when I don’t know what to say or what’s wrong, I pray in tongues. I pray in tongues everyday, usually in my jeep or sometimes while walking up and down the halls at work. I’m careful to do this privately because of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14, but also out of respect for others whose experience with God differs from my own.
Finally, I often employ tongues when I’m praying on behalf of someone else. Sometimes I’m driven to pray for someone whom I know barely at all. Sometimes I pray a long time for people who need healing. Sometimes I pray for someone I know very well but that God brings into my mind for no readily identifiable reason. Rather than guessing what they might need prayer for, or even repeating my desires over and over again to God, I pray in tongues. That way, I can pray for a long time and experience a sense of God’s presence and awareness concerning both the people in question and my own heart in submission to Him.
What about Paul’s teaching on tongues? Doesn’t he limit that gift?
Paul is very clear about the silliness of excessive tongues in church services (see 1 Corinthians 14). He makes it very clear that a bunch of people all speaking in tongues in a public meeting will be of little benefit to one another unless there’s someone to interpret (vs. 27). However, Paul also makes it clear that tongues shouldn’t be prohibited (vs. 39), since he himself speaks in tongues more than all his peers (vs. 18) and strongly desires everyone to exercise and utilize this gift as well (vs. 5).
How do we receive the gift of tongues?
Tongues isn’t for everybody. Those who are gifted with the ability to pray in other tongues shouldn’t feel special, or more holy, or more privileged that other Christians. However, I have noticed that certain people greatly desire the gift of tongues. They have an inborn sense that tongues is for them, as if it’s the perfect tool for their spirituality.
If that’s you, here’s how I suggest you pray to receive the gift of tongues.
First, ask God to give it to you. Tell Him why you want to pray in tongues, and spend time each day asking for God to fill you with His Spirit in this new way.
Second, get around other people who pray in tongues and ask them to pray for you. This might be a little scary at first, and they might even give you strange-sounding advice, but that’s okay. Keep your focus on Christ while they pray for you and continue asking God for the gift.
Finally, take opportunities during worship services to begin verbally thanking and praising God in your own words, rather than just the words from the music. In my experience this is often where people first begin to pray in tongues, almost as an afterthought. They get so caught up in the presence of God that they forget their desire for the gift. That’s entirely appropriate. Remember that the gift is meant to help us know God.
God is the point, not tongues; so keep your focus on Him, not on it.
One last thing...
Luke uses exciting imagery to describe this supernatural encounter - gale force winds, moaning noises, flickering dashes of flame - but we shouldn’t get too caught up in the details. His point isn’t pyrotechnics, but spiritual transformation. They’re not the event, just the effect. The real event is the coming of the Spirit in this new way. The wind and the fire are unpredictable, wild forces; but based on other accounts in Scripture we know that God equally appears in serene, gentle manifestations as well (see 1 Kings 19 for the story of God coming in a whisper, not a whirlwind).
I do find one of these details of some consequence, however, and that is the nature of tongues of flame. The image that Luke has in mind is something like fiery teardrops placed over the head of every person present. The purpose for the image is to show that one single fire has sparked many different flames. The flames rest on individuals, but they all come from the same place.
It occurs to me that many different denominations, tribes, and church cultures have different views on the Day of Pentecost. Some give it greater weight than others, some provisionally ignore it, and some elevate its importance to that of the cross. Some emulate it as precisely as possible in their worship gatherings, and some disregard it altogether for fear of excess, while still others try and continue ministry in that same spirit without worrying too much about all the particulars.
These differing practices are like the tongues of fire falling in the upper room. Provided no one quenches the Spirit (see 1 Thessalonians 5.19), or fails to test the Spirit (see 1 John 4.1), or refuses to control themselves while experiencing the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 14), we’re best to understand that our differences of opinion and theology concerning the precise nature and practice of Pentecost should be considered second or third-tier Christianity.
I pray in tongues. You may not. So what?
You pray in tongues and find it to be the single most important part of your prayer life. My friend John does not. So what?
Be humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
God is at work. He is filling up the empty space inside of us and transforming us into faithful emissaries and dignitaries of His kingdom and His mission to heal the world. We need the Spirit to equip us and guide us and change us so we can better cooperate with the Father.
We must always be asking the Spirit for insights as to the behaviors, judgments, and postures that cause us to eclipse Christ instead of shadow him. When we do clear away the stuff, however, we uncover our “new humanity,” as Paul calls it. That new humanity speaks to the very heart of this issue of spiritual transformation, because, as the saying goes, once out with the old, back in with the new.
That’s the purpose of Pentecost: power to change, and power to change the world.