What happened at Pentecost

“All the believers were gathered together in one place” (2.1 GNB). Luke in Acts 1.15 speaks of there being “120” believers. It has often been supposed that the 120 were gathered together in the ‘Upper Room’ where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22.12), and where the apostles and the women gathered together for prayer following the ascension of their Lord (Acts 1.14). Yet, it is unlikely that such a room could have contained so many people.  Almost certainly we are to picture the disciples meeting in one “house” (2.2), spilling out from one room into another, as together they prayed for the Spirit.  While they were together for their early morning prayer meeting, God “suddenly” (2.2) poured out his Spirit in a totally strange, inexplicable, indeed miraculous manner.

First of all, the wind blew: “There was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting” (2.2).  Luke does not actually say that it was a wind – he says that it sounded “like” a wind.  Luke was conscious that he was dealing with something that was beyond description, something that belonged to the realm of the supernatural.   In the Bible the wind is a symbol of God’s life-giving activity.  Just as at the beginning of creation “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1.2 NRSV), so here the wind of God’s Spirit is active in the creation of a new people of God. Just as in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones the wind or breath of the Spirit caused a mighty army to rise to life (Ezek 37.1-14), so here the wind is active in creating a new army of the Spirit. Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus likened the Spirit’s mysterious life-giving role to the wind which “blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3.8).  When the wind blew on that memorable day, it was a sign that God was at work.   His all-encompassing presence filled the house.

Secondly, the fire fell: “Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there” (2.3). Again, notice the expression “like”.  This too was beyond description. The “tongues” were presumably shaped like a tongue, with a tongue-like flame resting on each one. In the Bible fire was a symbol of presence of God in our midst. Just as the burning bush in the desert was the place where Moses met with God (Ex 3), so now God was present in a special way with the 120.

Thirdly, tongues were loosened in a remarkable way: “They… all…began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak” (2.4). What exactly happened when the 120 “began to talk in other languages” (2.4)? We do not know.  Galileans were not exactly naturally linguists – they had as much ability as the average Texan trying to speak French.  And yet “people who had come from every country in the world” (2.5) heard them speaking in their own language. Some believe that this phenomenon was the same as experienced later by the church at Corinth (1 Cor 12 -14). However, what happened at Jerusalem was quite different from what happened at Corinth. Luke does not say that they began to speak ‘in tongues’, but in ‘other tongues’, i.e. “other languages”.  At Corinth the “tongues” were tongues of ecstasy, which were unintelligible to others and an interpretation as needed; whereas in Jerusalem the “tongues” were a means of communication, fully intelligible to those who listened. I.e. what is described at Corinth was ‘glossolalia’, while at Jerusalem it was ‘xenolalia’.

Not surprisingly, “When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered” (2.6).  Where did they gather? In the house where the 120 had initially been together?  No there would not have been room. Once the Spirit had come upon them, we are to picture the disciples leaving the house, moving through the streets, with the crowd following them, until they reached the temple precincts, where Peter eventually addressed the crowd, by this time numbering many 1000s. It must have been an amazing experience. People were excited (v6); they were filled with “amazement and wonder” (v7). They were also “confused” (v11) at what they heard, while some just poked fun at the whole experience: “These people are drunk” (2.12)

What exactly happened at the first Christian Pentecost? The honest answer is that we don’t know. The wind, the fire, and the tongues defy scientific explanation. We are dealing here with extraordinary phenomena which defy description. But ultimately these supernatural phenomena are not important.  For the key question we need to ask is not so much ‘What happened?’ as ‘What does it mean?’ This was the question asked by the crowd: “Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, ‘What does this mean?’” (2.12).   As Peter went on to, this was the day when God poured out his Spirit on young and old, men and women, people from every race and nation.  There was nothing monochrome about the new community which the Spirit created – instead there was rich diversity within the new fellowship of the Spirit.

One comment

  1. A very informative and uplifting comment on Pentecost- I shall use it to introduce our prayer session this week.

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