Acts 2:1–13: The Coming of the Holy Spirit
In this passage the promised Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples. The disciples are all together on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish harvest festival, when there is “a sound like a mighty rushing wind” from heaven (verse 2). and “tongues as of fire” come down and rest on each of the disciples. They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and begin speaking in other languages—other “tongues.”
This is taking place in Jerusalem where there are Jews from “every nation under heaven” (verse 5), who, upon hearing the commotion, converge on the disciples to find out what’s going on. When they do they’re bewildered because everyone hears the disciples speaking in their own language. Did I say bewildered? Actually, across verses 5–12 a number of adjectives are used; the people are said to be bewildered, amazed, astonished, amazed (again), and perplexed. This is obviously an atypical event!
Then again, not everyone has these adjectives applied to them. Verse 13 tells us that some just assume the disciples are drunk.
This feels like kind of a before/after kind of event. In a sense—though I don’t want to push this too far; it feels like it could get into contentious areas, and I don’t have enough learning to know what they are—but in a sense there was a kind of relationship we had with God before we received the Holy Spirit, and another kind of relationship we have with Him now that we do have the Holy Spirit. Ever since this event, in 30 A.D., Christians have had the Holy Spirit dwelling directly in them. When we talk of the Church as being God’s dwelling place we’re being very literal: He is in us. He’s there helping us study the Word, He’s there helping us pray, He’s there helping us determine right from wrong.
To me, that’s the important part of this passage. The part about speaking in tongues is memorable, but to me it’s just an outward manifestation of what’s really happening: the coming of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think I’m saying anything outrageous when I state things that way.
Just two quick things jump at at me around “tongues” in this passage: the multiple ways Luke uses the word, and the different form of “speaking in tongues” here than what we might be used to.
Tongues of Fire
One is that the word “tongues” is being used in two ways here:
- It’s used to describe how the Spirit descends on the disciples: “tongues as of fire.” (Note the qualifier “as of” that Luke adds; it wasn’t fire from heaven, it was some manifestation of the Spirit, and Luke just used “as of fire” as a way of trying to describe it.)
- It’s used to describe the disciples speaking in other languages; in verse 8 the Jews say that “we hear, each of us in his own native language,” and then in verse 11 they say, “we hear them [speaking] in our own tongues.”
I’m guessing that this is a form of pun or adding some style to Luke’s language. I’m also guessing that the phrase “speaking in tongues” was common enough by the time Luke wrote this down that the readers would already know the phrase. So maybe he was having some fun with the language when he talked about the Spirit coming down as of tongues of fire to help the disciples speak in tongues.
Speaking in Tongues
The other thing to note about “tongues” in this passage, however, is that this is not how we think of as “speaking in tongues” today. In this passage the disciples are speaking intelligible languages that the listeners could hear and understand. Arabic-speaking Jews heard Arabic being spoken, Egyptian-speaking Jews heard Egyptian being spoken, etc. I don’t attend a church where people speak in tongues regularly (that I know of), but I get the impression that modern Christians are much more used to a form of speaking in tongues whereby the language being spoken isn’t necessarily decipherable by anyone hearing it. Paul speaks of that kind of “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 14 where he’s talking about how to have orderly worship services, including speaking in tongues (and interpretation).
They’re just drunk
It’s not overly surprising that some of the people hearing the disciples just assume they’re drunk. It was clearly not the case—the majority of people seem to have been bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed, plus they could clearly all hear their own languages being spoken—so claiming that the disciples were drunk is clearly wrong on the evidence, but it’s neither the first nor the last time in history that works of God would be dismissed by people who don’t want to believe.
As mentioned, this event happened on the day of Pentecost, which my study notes tell me occurred 50 days after Passover. We were also told in the last passage that Jesus was with his disciples for 40 days. So if Jesus was gone from his disciples for about 3 days, then with them for 40, and then the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, this event is probably taking place about a week after the ascension in the last passage.
I keep saying “about” because it’s hard to account for partial days; we’re not always told what time things happened.
Not that all of this is theologically important (that I know of), just trying to keep it straight in my head.