This is the moment everything changed. Have you experienced one of those in your life? A 9/11 moment where you say, “Before that day life was one way, and now after that day, everything seems different.” It could be a job loss, a death of a loved one, a serious illness, or very positive events, like marriage, the birth of a child, or the beginning of a new career. In our ongoing series through Acts, the disciples and followers of Jesus have just watched him ascend to heaven, and now they have been waiting together in prayer…for ten days! He told them to wait in Jerusalem because he was sending the Spirit to them.
And then it happens. Look at the description of verse 2. Imagine what you would have seen, heard and felt if you had been there?
Verse two says there was a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house.” Is this what the disciples expected would happen when Jesus said the Spirit would come? Would you have expected a violent wind from heaven to fill the house?
My house is situated with farmer’s fields to our east and west, so most days a breeze is blowing, and sometimes it is gale force wind. A few weeks ago in the middle of the night, the winds were particularly strong, lifting our glass-top picnic table off our deck, sending it sailing down the deck steps and crashing into the yard where the glass splintered into thousands of pieces. I literally had to vacuum the grass. Who knows what my neighbors were thinking if they were watching me. Weeks later I’m still finding glass, and probably will be for years. Laying in bed that night, the sound of that wind woke us, like a freight train going by. Maybe that was what the disciples heard.
In both the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, the word for Spirit means “wind” or “breath.” I love the Keith Green song, “Rushing Wind” which talks about how the Holy Spirit can enliven and revive us. In that day, the first indwelling of the Spirit, this was all new.
And then there is another surprise in verses 3. Tongues of fire? What is going on with that?
There are many times in the Bible when flames or fire is a symbol of the divine presence, like the burning bush Moses saw in Exodus 3:2. Or when God led the nation of Israel in the pillar of fire during the Exodus. Now the Holy Spirit shows up in what the writer tells us seemed to be tongues of fire.
The description of the flame as a tongue is both real and symbolic. It is real because flames do look like tongues flashing up, but it was also symbolic because of what would happen next. In verse four we read: “All were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues.”
The implication of the passage is that the Spirit filled them all through what appeared to be flaming tongues, and thus enabled them to speak real languages that they didn’t previously know. Read verses 5-13 to see what happened when they spoke in other tongues.
What is going on with this speaking in tongues? When we think of speaking in tongues in our day, we think of ecstatic speech. But notice that the people heard the preaching about Jesus in words from their real languages that they could understand. Some scholars wonder if that is actually the miracle here, that the people could understand what the disciples were saying.
They prayed, were filled, and it led to mission. We read that a crowd forms because they were hearing the followers of Jesus talking in their own languages, and this amazed the crowd because these disciples from the area in northern Israel called Galilee should not have known all those foreign languages. Verses 9-11 list all kinds of places in the known world that people in the crowd were from. They were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration, and now they are hearing the story of Jesus in their home languages. Some in the crowd were so confounded, they said, “These guys are just drunk.” It must have been quite a scene!
The important point is not what it sounded like. The important point is that when the Spirit came, he empowered the disciples for outreach! For mission!
Let me say that again, the Holy Spirit empowers the church for mission. Filled with the Spirit, the disciples were engaging in mission by witnessing. A witness is one who tells what they see. What had the disciples seen? They had seen Jesus, the Messiah, who lived, died and rose again. Thus they told the story of Jesus. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that the disciples would be his witnesses. Now the Spirit empowers them, and they start witnessing, telling the story of Jesus. How are you telling the story of Jesus in your community?