1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven.
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language.
7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?
9 “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretans and Arabs – we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” [NASB ’77]
The Promised One arrives. What Jesus said would take place not many days from now happens. The apostles and followers of Jesus are baptized with the Holy Spirit and a new era of ministry begins. Jesus did not explain how the Holy Spirit would come or what it meant that they would be baptized with Him, but Luke explains how it takes place and the significant effect it has on everyone involved. The apostles and followers are changed immediately and dramatically and they and the world will never be the same.
In this passage we witness the beginning of the church age – the age of Jesus’ ministry that will last until He comes again. Jesus said that He would be with His followers until the end of the age and here we see how He will keep His promise. It is His Spirit who will enable the gospel to spread to the remotest part of the earth and it is His Spirit who will take 120 people gathered in a room in Jerusalem and use them to revolutionize everything that happens through the remainder of time.
Pentecost is the second of three main pilgrimage feasts on Israel’s calendar (Passover, Pentecost, Booths). It falls 50 days after Passover (Lev 23:15-21) and is a celebration of harvest (Pentecost also called the “Feast of Weeks” because it falls seven weeks after Passover). During the inter-testamental period it also began to be celebrated as the day Moses gave the Law to Israel at Sinai (based on timing listed in Ex 19:1). Thus as Jesus’ followers gather together, Jerusalem is full of pilgrims in town to celebrate the feast (probably not quite as many as for Passover, but the population of Jerusalem is still much larger than it normally is). Some of them – if they traveled far – likely arrived during Passover and have not left.
The timing of the Spirit’s coming is very interesting in light of what the feast commemorates. On the day Israel celebrates the coming of the Law the Holy Spirit comes to officially write the Law on the hearts of His people (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezek 36:27) and draw them to Christ. The New Covenant – based on Christ – announces itself on the day the nation celebrates the old – based on the Law.
If the apostles wondered how they would know when the Holy Spirit comes they need wonder no longer. As they are gathered together – possibly in the same upper room mentioned in 1:13 – they suddenly hear the sound of a rushing wind. The sound fills the whole house – it is impossible to be in the house and not hear it. It is not actually windy in the house but it sounds like a wind blows through it and the sound is loud (loud enough to attract people outside – vs 6).
When they hear the wind they also notice something else. Resting on each one of them (Luke does not specify, but it seems that these phenomena happen to all the people in the house – not just the apostles) is what appears to be a tongue of fire (as of fire). Luke actually says they notice the fire and then the fire distributes to each person. It is hard to picture what exactly this looks like but – just like the sound of the wind – the sight is obvious to everyone around. Each person there has something on him that looks like a tongue of fire.
The fire recalls the words of John the Baptist when he preached about Jesus coming after him. He said that he baptized with water for repentance but that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:16, Matt 3:11). Fire seems to denote both purity and judgment. The Holy Spirit comes to empower and purify His followers but also to clearly identify those who belong to Him. John preached of the judgment of the Spirit after he mentioned its baptism – And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Lk 3:17).
Along with the sound of the wind and the tongues like fire a third supernatural occurrence also announces the Spirit’s arrival. The people who have tongues of fire on them begin to speak in foreign languages. Luke says they speak in other tongues as the Spirit was giving them utterance. The tongues of fire seem to represent the ability that each member of the gathered has to speak the word of God in a language they do not otherwise know.
The Spirit has arrived. He has baptized the apostles and other followers just as Jesus said He would. The people in the house are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit announces Himself through these 120 people to begin the next phase of Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit has been active throughout history (1:16) but now comes to indwell the people of God and minister through them until Christ’s return. The church age has begun.
This text seems to be an intentional parallel with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as Luke relates it in his gospel. Jesus began His ministry by being baptized by John and then having the Holy Spirit descend upon Him in bodily form like a dove (Lk 3:22). In the same way the new phase of Jesus’ ministry begins with a baptism of the Spirit. In both cases the ministry could not begin without the presence of God empowering and leading it.
The three supernatural phenomena begin to affect the whole city of Jerusalem. Luke notes that the city is filled with people from all over the known world because of Pentecost. These are devout men – the kind of men who keep the religious feasts and are willing to travel to do it. Presumably they are committed to the Law and to adhering to its precepts. [Luke actually says the men are living in Jerusalem, so it is possible that these are not pilgrims but residents, and they have come back to Jerusalem from the many lands to make it their home.]
The multitudes apparently hear the sound of the rushing wind and come to investigate. As they come to where the followers are they are bewildered and amazed by what they see and hear. They hear people of Galilee proclaiming the wonders of God in languages that each of the listeners understands. People from all over the world hear God’s praises proclaimed in their native tongue. Those speaking would typically know Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek but are instead speaking in many languages such that everyone hears the message of God in the language of his home.
The people are incredulous and ask, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” The speakers are unlearned men from what most believe to be a backwater area (Jn 1:46, 7:52). They are not sophisticated leaders with degrees – they are from GALILEE! Galileans are known to have difficulty making certain sounds and have a unique way of talking (Matt 26:73). How can this many people from Galilee know this many languages and be proclaiming the wonders of God in them all at the same time?
It is worthwhile to insert an observation here. Remember that the people now boldly proclaiming the word of God in the middle of Jerusalem to thousands of foreign Jews were in hiding just a few weeks ago (Jn 20:19). Their immediate response to Jesus’ death was to save themselves by staying out of the way and unnoticed. The last thing they wanted was to proclaim their allegiance to Jesus or preach His message – they instead feared for their lives. And though nothing has changed in the city since the crucifixion – Pilate is still in control and the Jewish leaders are the same – the followers of Jesus are completely changed. They now fearlessly preach to the crowds and loudly proclaim the name of Jesus. They are changed people empowered by the Holy Spirit – EVERYTHING is now different.
This is what the indwelling of the Holy Spirit does. The FIRST act of the new temples of God is to proclaim to others. Those who are filled proclaim. They hear the wind and see the fire and instantly begin to tell others about the One who fills them. They do not do it grudgingly or obligingly – they do it because they are compelled by the power of the Spirit. They cannot help but talk about God because it is God who fills them.
Luke lists the nations represented by the people present. He lists 15 different people groups hearing of the mighty deeds of God in their own tongues. While not every nation or people group in the world is listed, Luke takes pains to show that the whole world is represented. The nations and ethnicities he lists take into account descendants of all three sons of Noah – Shem, Ham, Japheth. By so doing he accounts for all people in all parts of the world – every nation under heaven.
This shows that the New Covenant is for all people. God’s good news is not for the Jews only (although only Jews hear the message on Pentecost) and not limited to Judea and Galilee. It is for every race and nation and will go out into all the world – even to the remotest part of the earth.
In this way Pentecost somewhat becomes the anti-Babel. At Babel (Gen 11:1-9) God caused the people building the tower to use different languages so they would not be able to unite and challenge God. He divided them by the confusion of many tongues and made them spread throughout the earth. Here He unites the listeners by enabling them to each hear the same message in their native language. Babel used language to punish and divide, Pentecost uses it to unite the world through the gospel.
Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly than this the multi-racial, multi-national, multi-lingual nature of the kingdom of Christ. Ever since the early church fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the curse of Babel. At Babel human languages were confused and nations were scattered; in Jerusalem the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ, prefiguring the great day when the redeemed company will be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language.’ Besides, at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth. John Stott, The Message of Acts.
Something to consider in regard to this scene in Jerusalem is that the people listening likely do not need to hear the mighty deeds of God spoken of in their native tongue. They are almost undoubtedly fluent in the local languages. Indeed, Peter is about to speak to the whole crowd and the text says nothing about him miraculously speaking in native dialects. The miracle of the different tongues is to both attract the people to the message and to show that the gospel is for everyone. The Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem could understand the message in Aramaic as well as the language of their homeland, but they may not have heard it at all if the native tongue was not used.
A few notes on the miracle of tongues described in this text:
- There is nothing here that says this is some kind of ecstatic speech that needs interpretation. The apostles and disciples speak in languages that those listening understand. The languages are actual languages – not supernatural utterances the Spirit interprets.
- While a case can be made from verses 6, 8, and 11 – we hear them in our own tongues – that the disciples speak in supernatural tongues and the Spirit causes the people to miraculously hear in their native languages, it is important to note that Luke says in verse 4 that they speak with other tongues. They actually speak the foreign languages – it is not simply a miracle of hearing.
- The Greek word translated utterance in verse 4 – apophthengomai – is used only three times in the New Testament (all in Acts) and in all cases appears in contexts that stress clarity of speech and understanding (2:14 – Peter asks the crowd to listen to his words, 26:25 – Paul contrasts his speech with the speech of a madman). [Richard N Longenecker, Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary)]
- This is not to say that other references to tongues in the New Testament do not refer to ecstatic speech. In I Cor 12-14 Paul discusses speaking in tongues and the need for an interpreter. This seems to imply a different type of speaking – although the same words for other tongues are used – than is described in this text.
The majority of those who hear the disciples are amazed and perplexed and say to one another, “What does this mean?” They are genuinely interested in the message they hear and want to know more so they can understand what they witness. How can this be happening?
Remember that Luke describes these listeners as devout men (5). They are here in Jerusalem to worship and celebrate as the Law commands. They now hear the wonders of God in their native tongue and are attracted to the 120. They are ready to hear more.
Some, however, are not impressed. Verse 13 says that some mock and say of the miraculous speaking of the disciples, “They are full of sweet wine.” They say the disciples are simply drunk and therefore speaking in wild ways that make no sense (the people who say this apparently do not understand the foreign languages). They specifically say the men are drunk on sweet wine (new wine) – the cheap stuff. The implication is that these men are just drunks and the “miracle” is nothing more than alcohol-inspired gibberish – nothing to be taken seriously.
This really shows the human condition. Peter has not even officially given the gospel yet while the disciples simply speak of God’s mighty deeds. Yet there are already skeptics. The minute the Holy Spirit begins to spread the good news it is met with resistance. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THE HOLY SPIRIT SPEAKS IN THE CHURCH AGE AND THE MESSAGE IS REJECTED BEFORE IT IS EVEN COMPLETELY HEARD. With this in mind, should we ever be surprised when our witness falls on deaf ears or elicits hostility and ridicule from those who hear it? We live in a dark world where the Enemy rules and blinds his followers. It is only by the grace of God that anyone accepts the message and believes. For those not illuminated by the Spirit, the gospel is simply a preposterous message spoken by people to be ridiculed, persecuted, or ignored.
The Holy Spirit comes and instantly causes His followers to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is His ministry – proclaim Christ, bring people to Him, and enable those who come to live as He commands. Note that the disciples do not go public until the Spirit comes upon them. There is no message apart from the Spirit and no sense giving the gospel without His power. If we have the Spirit we will proclaim the One whose Spirit we have.