Tongues of Fire
(glossai hosei puros): The reference in this topic is to the marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Ac 2:1-13). After His resurrection the Lord bade His disciples to tarry in Jerusalem until He should fulfill to them the promise of the Father, and until they should be clothed with power from on high (Lu 24:49). Ac 1:8 repeats the same gracious promise with additional particulars: "But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." These were probably the last words our Lord spoke on earth before He ascended to the right hand of God.
1. Supernatural Manifestations:
When the Day of Pentecost was fully come and the disciples, no doubt by previous arrangement and with one accord, were gathered together in one place, the promise was gloriously fulfilled. On that day, the 50th after the Passover, and so the first day of the week, the Lord's day, the Spirit of God descended upon them in marvelous copiousness and power. The gift of the Spirit was accompanied by extraordinary manifestations or phenomena. These were three and were supernatural. His coming first appealed to the ear. The disciples heard a "sound from heaven," which rushed with mighty force into the house and filled it even as the storm rushes, but there was no wind. It was the sound that filled the house, not a wind. It was an invisible cause producing audible effects. Next, the eye was arrested by the appearance of tongues of fire which rested on each of the gathered company. Our the King James Version "cloven tongues" is somewhat misleading, for it is likely to suggest that each fire-like tongue was cloven or forked, as one sometimes sees in the pictures representing the scene. But this is not at all the meaning of Luke's expression; rather, tongues parting asunder, tongues distributed among them, each disciple sharing in the gift equally with the others. "Like as of fire," or, more exactly, "as if of fire," indicates the appearance of the tongues, not that they were actually aflame, but that they prefigured the marvelous gift with which the disciples were now endowed.
Finally, there was the impartation to them of a new strange power to speak in languages they had never learned. It was because they were filled with the Holy Spirit that this extraordinary gift was exhibited by them. Not only did the Spirit enable them thus to speak, but even the utterance of words depended on His divine influence--they spake "as the Spirit gave them utterance."
Many attempts have been made by writers on the Acts to explain the phenomenon of Pentecost so as to exclude in whole or in part the supernatural element which Luke unquestionably recognizes. Some try to account for the gift of tongues by saying that it was a new style of speaking, or new forms of expression, or new and elevated thoughts, but this is both unnatural and wholly inconsistent with the narrative where a real difference of language is implied. Others imagine that the miracle was wrought upon the ears of the hearers, each of whom supposed what he heard to be uttered in his mother-tongue. But this view contradicts the distinct statement in Ac 2:4: they "began to speak with other tongues," i.e. the disciples did. It contradicts what the multitude affirmed, namely, "How hear we, every man in our own language, wherein we were born?" (Ac 2:8). Furthermore, the view contains an element of falsehood, for in this case the miracle was wrought to make men believe what was not actually the fact. The only reasonable explanation of the phenomena is that which the record bears on its face, and which Luke obviously meant his readers to believe, namely, that the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in the various languages represented by the multitude gathered together at the time.
2. Sinai and Pentecost:
The scenes witnessed at Pentecost were somewhat analogous to the events which occurred at the giving of the Law at Sinai, but the contrast between them is much more pronounced. We are told in Heb 12:18-19 that "tempest," "fire," and "the voice of words" attended the inauguration of the Mosaic dispensation. Something similar was witnessed at Pentecost. But the differences between the two are very marked. At Sinai there were also the blackness and darkness, the quaking earth, the thunderings and lightnings, the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud, the terror of the people, and the fear of Moses (Ex 19:16-18; Heb 12:18-19). Nothing of this was seen at Pentecost.
The phenomena characterize the two dispensations. That of Sinai was legal. Its substance was: Do and live; disobey and die. Law knows no mercy, extends no grace. Exact justice is its rule, perfect righteousness its requirement, and death its penalty. No wonder terrible things accompanied its proclamation, and Moses trembled with fear. No wonder it was called "a fiery law" (De 33:2).
3. Qualities Imparted by the Spirit:
With the advent of the Spirit came perfect grace, divine power and complete pardon for the worst of men. At Sinai God spoke in one language. At Pentecost the Spirit through the disciples spoke in many tongues (15 in all are mentioned in Ac 2:1-47). The Law was for one people alone; the gospel is for the whole race. The sound that accompanied the outpouring of the Spirit filled all the house and all the disciples likewise--token and pledge of the copiousness, the fullness of the gift. The tongues of flame signified the power of speech, boldness of utterance, and persuasiveness which from henceforth were to mark the testimony of the disciples.
The marvelous capabilities which the witnesses display after Pentecost are most noteworthy. It is common to admire their courage and zeal, to contrast their fearlessness in the presence of enemies and danger with their former timidity and cowardice. It is perhaps not so common to recognize in them the qualities that lie at the foundation of all effective work, that which gives to witness-bearing for Christ its real energy and potency. These qualities are such as: knowledge and wisdom, zeal and prudence, confidence and devotion, boldness and love. skill and tact. These and the like gifts appear in their discourses, in their behavior when difficulties arise and dangers impend, and in their conduct before the angry rulers. It is altogether remarkable with what skill and tact they defend themselves before the Sanhedrin, and with what effectiveness they preach the gospel of the grace of God to the multitude, often a scoffing and hostile multitude. In Peter's address on the Day of Pentecost there are the marks of the highest art, the most skillful logic, and the most, persuasive argument. Professor Stifler well says of it: "It is without a peer among the products of uninspired men. And yet it is the work of a Galilean fisherman, without culture or training, and his maiden effort." The like distinguished traits are found in Peter's address recorded in Ac 3:1-26, in that to Cornelius and his friends, and in his defense when arraigned by the strict believers at Jerusalem for having gone into the company of men uncircumcised and having eaten with them. No less must be said of the equally wonderful reply of Stephen to the charge brought against him as recorded in Ac 7:1-60. It is quite true that Stephen did not share in the effusion of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, so far as we know, but he did share in the gift and power of the Spirit soon after, for we are told that he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, that he was also full of grace and power. Accordingly, it should be no surprise to read, as the effect of his discourse, that the high priest and all the rest who heard him "were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth" (Ac 7:54). Stephen spoke with a tongue of fire.
In the management of the serious complaint made by the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews as to the neglect of their widows in the daily ministration (Ac 6:1), and in their conduct and defense when brought before the council, as they were once and again (Ac 4:1-37; 5:1-42; 12:1-25), they exhibited a wisdom and prudence far enough removed from shrewdness and cunning. The qualities they possessed and displayed are uncommon, are more than human, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit with whom they were baptized on Pentecost. So the Lord Jesus had promised (Mr 13:11; Joh 16:13; Ac 1:8).
4. Distinguished from 1 Corinthians 12; 14:
The tongues of fire which we have been considering appear to have differed in one important aspect from the like gift bestowed on the Corinthians (1Co 12:1-31; 14:1-40). At Pentecost the disciples spoke in the languages of the various persons who heard them; there needed to be no interpreter, as was provided for at Corinth. Paul distinctly orders that if there be no one to explain or interpret the ecstatic utterance of a speaker, he shall keep silent (1Co 14:28). At Pentecost many spoke at the same time, for the Spirit had perfect control of the entire company and used each as it pleased Him. At Corinth Paul directed that not more than two or at most three should speak in a tongue, and that by course (one at a time). At Pentecost each one of the 15 nationalities there represented by the crowd heard in his own tongue wherein he was born the wonderful works of God. At Corinth no one understood the tongue, not even the speaker himself, for it seems to have been a rhapsody, an uncontrolled ecstatic outburst, and in case there was no one to interpret or explain it, the speaker was to hold his peace and speak to himself and to God, i.e. he must not disturb the worship by giving voice to his ecstasy unless the whole assembly should be edified thereby. Paul sets prophecy, or preaching the word of God, far above this gift of tongues.
It may not be out of place here to say that the so-called "gift of tongues," so loudly proclaimed by certain excitable persons in our day, has nothing in common with the mighty action of the Spirit of God on the day of Pentecost, and hardly anything with that which the Corinthian Christians enjoyed, and which Paul regulated with a master-hand.
See TONGUES, GIFT OF.
Stifler, Introduction to the Book of Acts; Alexander, Commentary on the Acts; Kuyper, Work of the Holy Spirit; Moorehead, Outline Studies in Acts--Ephesians.
William G. Moorehead