TONGUES OF FIRE:

 

The Miracle of Pentecost

 

by Doug Ward



Each year during the Pentecost season, Christians recall the awesome miracle that marked the beginning of the New Testament Church, as recorded by the evangelist Luke in the second chapter of the book of Acts:

 

``And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.'' (Acts 2:1-4, KJV)

 

When we read this passage today, it is interesting to contemplate the significance that the appearance of the ``cloven tongues like as of fire'' might have had for those 120 disciples of Jesus who assembled at the Temple in Jerusalem just seven weeks after their Teacher's astonishing resurrection from the dead. Was there a reason for God to send that particular miracle on that precise day? What message did it convey to the first Christians, and what does it teach us today? The aim of this article is to show that when we view the events of Acts 2 in light of the Jewish beliefs and traditions of that era, we can gain valuable insight into the answers to these questions.

 

Pentecost and Sinai



The Feast of Pentecost is described in the Pentateuch as a harvest festival, a celebration of the firstfruits of the spring harvest (Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:15-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Along with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, it was one of the three great festival seasons of Israel (Ex. 23:14-17; Deut. 16:16).

Over the course of the history of Israel, Pentecost also took on a special theological significance as a commemoration of the Sinai covenant and God's gift of Torah. (One of the Hebrew names for Pentecost is zeman mattan Torathenu, which means ``the time for the giving of our Torah.''[3, p. 134]) A combination of factors made this a logical and natural development. First, since Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles were connected, respectively, with Israel's deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 13:3-10) and God's provision for His people on their subsequent journey to the Promised Land (Lev. 23:42-43), it was natural that Pentecost should also come to be associated with an aspect of the Exodus. Second, God's appearance at Mount Sinai occurred early in the third month of the Hebrew calendar, on or shortly before the day of Pentecost (Ex. 19:1-20). Finally, the events at Sinai were of utmost importance to Israel. The covenant and Torah defined the special calling and mission of the Israelites. Before Sinai, they were a group of tribes that had been rescued from slavery. At Sinai, they became a people set apart, called to be a light to the nations (Ex. 19:4-6). These were things worth celebrating! (See [3, Chapter 9].)

Scholars have debated the question of when Pentecost first became a celebration of the covenant and the giving of Torah. In particular, had this tradition developed by the time of Christ? Today many scholars believe that the association of Pentecost and Sinai dates back to at least 150 years before Christ. One key source of information on this question is the Book of Jubilees, a retelling of the narrative of Gen. 1-Ex. 16 (with a number of details added!) which was written in Hebrew by a Jewish writer in about 165-150 B.C. [4] Although Jubilees is not a canonical book, it does give us a fascinating look at what some Jews believed and practiced in the second century B.C. Fragments of fifteen copies of this book are among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating its importance to the ancient Essene community at Qumran.

In the Book of Jubilees, Pentecost signifies covenant renewal and is the most important of the annual festivals. Jubilees 6:18-19 states that Pentecost was observed in heaven from creation until the time of God's covenant with Noah, then was kept by Noah and the patriarchs (see [4, p. 36]). According to Jubilees 6:17 [1],

 

``... it is ordained and written on the heavenly tablets, that they should celebrate the feast of weeks in this month once a year, to renew the covenant every year.''

 

Jubilees also dates both Pentecost and the giving of Torah in the middle of the third month (Jubilees 1:1; 15:1-2), indicating that the connection between the two was recognized in the second century B.C.

There is ample reason, then, to believe that when the disciples of Jesus experienced the great Pentecost miracle in Jerusalem, they would have viewed it in the context of their understanding of God's glorious appearance at Sinai over 1400 years before. In order to see the full meaning and implications of Acts 2, let's compare these two events.

 

Parallels between Sinai and Zion



There are a number of instructive parallels between the two pivotal Pentecost miracles. Observe first that both were preceded by a period of spiritual preparation and purification. The ancient Israelites at Sinai were instructed to wash their clothes and abstain from sexual relations for three days in preparation for God's descent to the top of the mountain (Ex. 19:10-11, 14-15). Similarly, Jesus told His disciples to be ready for the Comforter that He had promised to send after His ascension:

 

``And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.'' (Luke 24:49)

 

According to Jewish tradition, an important factor in Israel's readiness to receive God's revelation was its unity as a people. The sages observed that in Numbers 33:5, which records that ``the children of Israel removed from Rameses, and pitched in Succoth,'' the word for ``pitched'' is in plural form. From this they inferred that the Israelites were not acting as one during that part of their journey. On the other hand, the verb is in singular form in Exodus 19:2, implying that when Israel camped at Sinai, the nation was in unity and prepared to hear Torah from God (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9, quoted in [5, p. 27]). We do not know whether this tradition was already extant in the first century, but it is very possible that the first Christians thought back on Israel's experience as they prepared to receive the promised ``power from on high.'' Acts 1:14 notes that they ``all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication''; and as we have seen, Acts 2:1 mentions that ``they were all with one accord in one place'' on the day of Pentecost.

Both miracles included striking visual and auditory manifestations of God's power. At Sinai, there were thunder and lightning, the sound of heavenly trumpet blasts, and displays of smoke and fire (Ex. 19:16-19). Moses makes mention of fire several times in his recounting of these events in Deut. 4-5 (4:36; 5:4, 5, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). In Jerusalem, there were the ``sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind,'' the appearance of the tongues of fire, and the speaking in many languages.

A study of the Jewish traditions surrounding God's appearance at Sinai reveals that there are actually more similarities between the two miracles than are initially apparent. One verse from the Sinai account that intrigued Jewish interpreters was Exodus 20:18, which in the KJV states that ``all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings....'' However, a literal translation of the Hebrew would say that ``all the people saw the voices and the flames....'' [3, p. 135] The wording of Ex. 20:18 raises two questions: (1) How could people ``see voices''? (2) How did more than one voice come from God?

In answer to the first question, a tradition arose that God's words at Sinai were visible in the form of flames. Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher, describes the scene as follows (quoted in [5, p. 29]):

 

``Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see them rather than hear them.''

 

A parallel rabbinic tradition, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 88b), answers the second question by saying that the flames of God's words divided into smaller sparks that traveled in all directions, proclaiming Torah in all the languages of the world [3, p. 135; 5, p. 28]. Two other scriptures were advanced in support of this scenario. One was Psalm 68:11: ``The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.'' (According to this interpretation, the ``great company'' of Ps. 68:11 were the sparks that spread the word in many languages.) The other was Jer. 23:29, which was seen as a reference to God's words splitting into smaller pieces: ``Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?'' A further tradition asserted that when God's word was announced in the languages of the world, Torah was being offered in some sense to all nations. However, only Israel was willing at that time to say, ``All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient'' (Ex. 24:7).

In light of these traditions, it is interesting to look again at Acts 2, where the disciples declared the wonderful works of God in the languages of the world (Acts 2:4-11). At Sinai, God spoke to Israel and (according to the tradition) to all nations. At the temple in Jerusalem, God spoke through the disciples of Jesus to all nations. He was now empowering His people to fully carry out the plan and promise he had originally announced to Abraham in Gen. 12:3: ``...in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.''

 

Conclusion



As we celebrate Pentecost today, rejoicing in the gift of Torah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is much for us to learn from the miracles at Sinai and Jerusalem. One lesson is the importance of spiritual preparation as a prerequisite for receiving God's revelation. We should be in unity with God and our brethren when we assemble ``with one accord in one place.''

We should also remember the great calling and commission we have been given to announce ``the wonderful works of God'' to all nations. Both ancient Israel and Jesus' disciples received Pentecost revelations from God, but their reactions to their callings were different. The Israelites were fearful, reluctant for further direct contact with God (Ex. 20:18-21). Shortly after Pentecost, they constructed the golden calf and fell into idolatry. Three thousand died as a result (Ex. 32:28).

In contrast, the first Christians embraced their calling and began to spread the gospel. On that Pentecost in Jerusalem three thousand were baptized (Acts 2:41), beginning a dynamic movement that ``turned the world upside down.'' (Acts 17:6) The contrast between the three thousand dead at Mount Sinai and the three thousand baptized at Mount Zion reminds us of the Apostle Paul's words that ``the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.'' (2 Cor. 3:6)

Following their example, let us resolve to follow the lead of God's Spirit and walk in a manner worthy of our calling. As Paul wrote in Gal. 5:25, ``If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.''




References:

 

1.  R.H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1913.



2. John D. Garr, “Fire on the Mountain:  A Fresh Summons to Pentecost,” Restore!, Spring 1999, pp. 6-9.

3. Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.



4. James C. Vanderkam, ``Jubilees: How it Rewrote the Bible,'' Bible Review, December 1992, pp. 33-39, 60, 62.



5. Brad H. Young, “Pentecost for the Jewish and Christian Faiths,” Restore!, Spring, 1999, pp. 26-29.

Issue 8


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