“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” (Acts 2:1-3).
The Day of Pentecost is a very significant day for the Church because on that day the Holy Spirit was poured out in an unprecedented way. This had not happened before in the life of Israel, nor could it have happened before this because it was necessary for Jesus to first be glorified (John 3:37-39). The outpouring of the Spirit was the fulfilment of many Old Testament prophecies. This is why the Holy Spirit is called “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). (For some of these prophecies see part 2 of this series). I cannot even attempt to comment on the Day of Pentecost in one document. There is too much to address. For this reason, in this part of the series, I will simply speak about the tongues of fire that rested on the people.
First, it must be said that the tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost should not be confused with the baptism of fire that John the Baptist spoke about. The context John’s saying about fire makes it plain that he is referring to judgement (see part 1). It is interesting to note that when Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit, he did not mention the fire that John mentioned. “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). This is because Jesus has taken the fire of God’s judgement upon himself at the cross. This has changed the whole nature of the baptism with fire into a purifying, cleansing fire instead of a fire of God’s wrath against sin. If Jesus had not undergone a baptism with fire then the Church would not be able to receive the Holy Spirit. We would still be the objects of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3) and subject to his fiery judgement, not the blessing of the Spirit.
Second, we have no biblical precedent for saying that the fire of Pentecost is “passion” or “zeal” for God. There is no indication of this. It is true that the Holy Spirit makes witnesses of people when he comes upon them (Acts 1:8). This fact, however, does not mean that the tongues of fire must be understood as something which “fired up” the disciples to go out and witness for Jesus. This kind of exegesis is actually eisegesis (adding to the text rather than drawing out of it) that projects 21st century ideas and terminology onto the biblical text. The Bible uses “fire” in a number of different metaphorical ways. But none of them involve being “fired up” the way that 21st century people understand that expression. So what do the tongues of fire mean?
In the Old Testament there are three major ways in which fire is representative of affirmation of God rather than his wrath: God’s presence; God’s acceptance of sacrifices; and God validating his temple. These three overlap to a large extent.
The first example is the familiar story of Moses and the burning bush. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up” (Exod 3:1-2). The presence of God was evident to Moses because of the flames in the bush. The flames were not there to destroy the bush but only to indicate that the God who is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24) was present.
The presence of God was again indicated by fire when Israel had been delivered out of Egypt. “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night” (Exod 13:21). Later, after the tabernacle had been built, the fire was over the tabernacle. “So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels” (Exod 40:38). God’s presence in cloud and fire directed Israel to stay or to leave where they were camped. “On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire. That is how it continued to be; the cloud covered it, and at night it looked like fire. Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped” (Num 9:15-17). This is reiterated in Deut 1:33.
The second theme to do with affirming fire is sacrifice. Fire comes out from the presence of the LORD or from heaven for two possible reasons: to consume an acceptable sacrifice or to consume the wicked. This might be illustrated by two incidents found in Leviticus. When the Tabernacle had first been built, the first priests were consecrated and offered sacrifices on the altar. “Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev 9:23-24). Here the fire clearly indicates that God was pleased with the sacrifice on the altar. However, a few verses later two sons of Aaron offered unauthorised fire before the LORD. “So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev 10:2). (See also Luke 17:29 and 2 Kings 1:10, 12). Fire of judgement and fire which shows approval are made clear by the context.
We find this same theme of fire from the LORD as a means of indicating acceptable sacrifices within the sanctuary in 2 Chron when Solomon dedicated the temple. “When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying, ‘He is good; his love endures forever’” (2 Chron 7:1-3). The fire which came down from heaven here was not a fire of judgement, but a fire which consumed the sacrifices because they were acceptable to God. The fire was indication of the blessing of God and his presence at the temple. God was pleased with the temple built by Solomon and showed that he would accept the worship offered there.
The final example is that of Elijah on Mount Carmel. In 1 Kings 18 we find the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah challenged the 400 prophets of Baal to a contest. They prepared two bulls and two altars. Elijah and the prophets of Baal were to call upon their respective G/gods and “The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). The prophets of Baal went first and called on Baal for hours but he did not respond. Elijah repaired the altar of the LORD using twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. He put the bull on the altar as well as wood and then poured water on it, enough water to fill the trench around the altar.
“At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’ Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:36-39).
It was quite plain that the LORD is God because he was the one who answered with fire. The sacrifice on Elijah’s altar was the one which the true God found acceptable. The fire showed the presence of God and the true man of God. This miracle turned many in Israel back to the true God.
Now that we have some biblical background to the meaning of fire from heaven, it is possible to explore what the tongues of fire on Pentecost signify. They signify the presence of God and his acceptance of the followers of Jesus as both acceptable sacrifice and the temple in which he chooses to dwell. Let me expand on this a little.
As we noted previously, in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was present for the nation, but rarely came upon individuals. However, on the day of Pentecost “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” The fire from heaven here was given, not merely to the nation in general, but to each one individually. The Holy Spirit coming down like this fulfilled what Jesus promised about the Spirit, “he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). The Spirit did not simply come to the Church en masse, although that is true, but he came on each one, on each member of the Church. He dwells in every person who belongs to Christ (Rom 8:9). Just as the fire from God made clear to all that God was present in the midst of Israel, so too did this fire make clear to all that God, in the person of his Spirit, is present to each person who calls Jesus Lord.
Second, the Church is now the temple in which God dwells by his Spirit. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor 3:16). “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:22). The temple in which God dwells is made ready for him by its washing with water and the word. Jesus has cleansed the Church so that it can be acceptable as a dwelling for God himself (Eph 5:26). The tongues of fire indicate God’s acceptance of the Church as his temple, his dwelling place.
The presence of God, the acceptable sacrifice and the temple are only possible because we have been made acceptable by the blood of Jesus. Each person who belongs to Christ is a living sacrifice, a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Christ. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom 12:1). “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).
The tongues of fire that came down from heaven on Pentecost represent the amazing truth that the Holy Spirit now dwells in each person who has “set apart Christ as lord” (1 Pet 3:15). This is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. His presence is profoundly in each one. Each person is a living sacrifice to God and each is acceptable to God. He has endorsed the sacrifices of the new covenant by sending fire from heaven upon them. Together the Church is the temple of God. The fire from heaven demonstrates that God is pleased with the temple and he will be worshipped there.