(Act 2:1-3 ESV) When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
By now, it should be obvious that everything has symbolic value. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t really happen — it did. But God communicates his messages not only in words but in symbols. Think of it as performance art, that is, actions that have symbolic meaning. We have to interpret not only the Greek but also the actions.
So, obviously, the wind happened (and is mentioned) for a reason. Here’s why I think it is —
(Eze 37:1-14 ESV) The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “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.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
Ezekiel prophesied from Babylon at the beginning of the Exile. In this famous, powerful passage, he describes how God will end the Exile: by pouring out his Spirit.
Now, it helps if you know that in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” (ruach or pneuma) also means wind and spirit.
A good Jew, who know this passage very well, would recognize the association of “Spirit” with the wind, and would also recall that God promised that his Spirit come from “the four winds.”
Tongues of fire
The fire surely would bring to mind such passages as —
(Exo 3:2 ESV) And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.
(Exo 24:17 ESV) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
(Exo 40:38 ESV) For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
(Lev 9:24 ESV) And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
And especially —
(Deu 4:12 ESV) Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.
(Deu 4:15 ESV) “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire,
(Deu 4:33 ESV) Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?
(Deu 4:36 ESV) Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire.
(Deu 5:4 ESV) 4 The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire,
(Deu 5:22-26 ESV) 22 “These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?
(Deu 9:3 ESV) 3 Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the LORD your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the LORD has promised you.
Deuteronomy is filled with references to fire as symbolizing the presence of God, especially on Mt. Sinai — when the Torah was given — but not only on Mt. Sinai. I could go on. I quote so many passages to make the point that this is no incidental symbol. God chose to communicate his presence, his voice, and his vengeance through fire.
Thus, the fire of God is both the consuming fire that destroys his enemies and the fire of God’s presence that speaks to his people and makes covenants with them.
(Isa 4:2-6 ESV) 2 In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. 3 And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, 4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 5 Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. 6 There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah follows the same symbolism to speak of the cleansing of Jerusalem and the coming of the presence of God.
Therefore, I think the “tongues of fire” communicate that God is present in his disciples and that God is speaking through them — words of covenant and of destruction.
Remember, this is Pentecost, the day the Torah was given. And God reappears, this time to the 12 apostles (at least), who serve in the place of Moses, that is, as spokesmen for God as he established his new covenant with both blessings and warnings.
It’s Mt. Sinai all over again.