At Pentecost God poured out his Spirit in a totally strange, inexplicable, indeed miraculous manner. Luke’s account of the coming of the Spirit is peppered with words expressing ‘astonishment’ and ‘amazement’ (2.6,7,12). The coming of the Spirit was marked by three most unusual phenomena:
In the first instance, “there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire 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. He was conscious that he was dealing with something that was beyond description, and 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), 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. In the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus, the Spirit’s mysterious life-giving role is likened to the wind which “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).
Secondly, God was at work too in the tongues of fire. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (2.3). Again, notice the expression “as of”. This too was beyond description. 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 one hundred and twenty. It is probable that Luke sees the “tongues as of fire” as a fulfilment of John the Baptist’s words that the Messiah would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3.17), although the reference to “fire” is omitted in Acts 1.5
The third unusual phenomenon was that “All of them…..began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (2.4). Here Luke describes an inner experience of the heart, which expressed itself in an objective, audible way. The languages in which they spoke were all the languages of the then known world. For at this festival “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (2.5). The implication is that the vast majority were actually residents of Jerusalem – they were Jews from the Diaspora who like others on their retirement had made their home there, establishing even synagogues for themselves (see Acts 6.9). But some too were “visitors from Rome” (2.11) who presumably had come to Jerusalem as pilgrims
What exactly happened when the 120 “began to speak in other languages” (2.4) we do not know. Galileans were not naturally linguists – they had as much ability as the average Texan trying to speak French. Yet “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” heard and understood them.
Not surprisingly the crowd “was bewildered” (2.6). They could not understand how “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2.11)
Whatever exactly what happened, it is clear that we are dealing with extra-ordinary phenomena which defy description. Ultimately, however, these supernatural phenomena are not important. The key question to be asked is not so much ‘What happened?’ as ‘What does it mean?’
In this blog written in the week leading up to when churches will be celebrating that occasion when God poured out his Spirit on his church, I wish to emphasise that in the first place we learn that a Spirit-filled church is a multi-cultural church.
Strictly speaking, ‘tongues’ were not necessary at Pentecost. There would have been little difficulty for Peter to have made himself understood in Greek; most if not all early Christian preaching was conducted it. True, Peter’s Greek would have been heavily marked by a strong Galilean accent (akin to a ‘Northern’ accent in present-day Britain), but that that would have been no barrier to communication.
The key to this unusual event is that everybody heard the Gospel in their own language (Acts 2.11). Instead of the Gospel being bound up with one particular language and culture, it became identified with every culture and language. People did not listen as foreigners to “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2.11), but rather they were addressed directly and personally in their own mother-tongue.
Far from homogenising the peoples of the world into one uniform culture, God through his Spirit affirmed the multi-cultural nature of the church. There was nothing monochrome about the new community which the Spirit created. Instead there was rich diversity within the new fellowship of the Spirit. Paul expressed something of that diverse unity, when he wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28).
What was true then is true now. The Spirit creates a new community, which is gloriously technicolour in its diversity. The church comprises people of different races, different educational backgrounds, different ages, different politics. The glory of the church is its diversity. Unfortunately, all too often our churches are anything but diverse. There are churches for the young, and churches for the old; churches for blacks and churches for whites; churches for conservatives and churches for liberals; churches for ‘Yuppies’ and churches for people on benefits; churches for people who want ‘dignified’ worship, and churches for people who want to swing from the chandeliers. All such mono-cultural churches are a denial of the Spirit’s diversity and an affront to the Gospel. We need to develop multi-cultural churches, recognising that culture is much larger than mere ethnicity. What’s more, instead of expecting people to conform to our particular pattern of following Christ, we need to ensure that people are free to follow whatever pattern is appropriate to them. There is no one pattern or template. Where the Spirit is, there is freedom to be the kind of people God has made us be.