Fires attract people.
When I was a teen, a house in our neighborhood caught fire, and a crowd of people soon gathered on the street to watch while firetrucks came to put out the fire. No one was hurt in that fire, but people left dinners and TV sets to gawk at it. Just a couple of weeks ago, coming back from vacation, traffic stopped, and thick, black smoke billowed ahead. A car engine had caught fire on our side of the highway. But the traffic going the other way was backed up, as well. Why? They slowed down to take a gander.
In Acts 2, the disciples were waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had given the Great Commission but then told them to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit they would need to be his witnesses (Luke 24:19). So they waited. When the feast of Pentecost arrived, the Spirit descended, and “tongues of fire” were upon each disciple (Acts 2:3).
The disciples went out into the city and began speaking in other languages, declaring the mighty works of God. People took notice. Thousands heard the message from Peter that day and believed and received the Holy Spirit.
Fires attract people. This is commonly known as the birth of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples and the ministry Jesus had set out for them, further detailed in the rest of Acts through Peter and Paul. The Gospel of the Kingdom was preached. Fire also spreads.
What Are Tongues of Fire in the Bible?
Fire has a long history of symbolism in Scripture, associated with the presence and power of God.
We begin with Moses in Exodus 3, who had been wandering far as a shepherd and came across a bush that was on fire, but the flame didn’t consume the wood or leaves. It drew him, and there, God spoke with Moses and commissioned him to Egypt. The burning bush was on Mount Sinai.
God protected the nation of Israel from the Egyptian army with a pillar of fire while they walked across dry land in the middle of the parted Red Sea (Exodus 14). When Moses and Israel came back to Mount Sinai, fire and smoke completely enveloped the top of the mountain where God met with them (Exodus 19), the spot where Yahweh gave Moses the 10 Commandments. Throughout the wanderings of Israel, before coming into the Promised Land, God led them with a pillar of fire by night (and cloud by day; Exodus 13:21).
That’s just the beginning! The High Priest was supposed to light the fires before the Holy of Holies (the presence of God) in the Tabernacle (and later Temple), complete with lampstands that continually burned (Leviticus 16). The first time Aaron, the High Priest, set the sacrifice on the altar of the Tabernacle, God sent fire from the Ark of the Covenant to light and consume it, accepting it as holy.
Moving ahead a bit to the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophet Elijah called out Baal and the prophets of that false god to a big spiritual fight (1 Kings 18). They both had altars and a sacrifice upon them. They would each pray, and the true god would send fire from Heaven to light the sacrifice (like had happened with Solomon!). After hours passed and the prophets of Baal cut themselves to plead with their god, nothing happened.
Elijah doused his sacrifice and altar with water three times. Then prayed once. Fire came from the sky and consumed it all.
In the Old Testament, fire was also associated with judgment and punishment, whether from Babylon and three Hebrew slaves and friends of Daniel or other examples of fire being God’s judgment in Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
There is one fascinating scripture from Psalms 104:4, central to our discussion. The song describes God as the one “who makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire.” Or maybe a tongue of fire.
What Do We Know about the Tongues of Fire in Acts 2?
The first chapter of Acts begins with Jesus’ command for his disciples to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Once they had received that Spirit, power from Heaven, they would be a living witness of Christ to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:4-8).
While waiting, the disciples chose a new 12th apostle, Mathias, and Scripture makes a point that the disciples were all together and in one accord, in unity. God really loves unity, by the way.
Jesus’ resurrection was after Passover. The next major feast holiday was Pentecost, the harvest festival, 50 days after Passover. On this harvest celebration, a party of the first fruits, the Holy Spirit came. It began with a sound from Heaven, “like a mighty rushing wind,” and that deafening sound filled the whole room where they were staying.
After the sound and rushing wind, flames of fire “appeared” and either divided or were distributed, one to each disciple gathered. And then they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit gave each person the ability to talk in other languages known to the visitors from around the Roman Empire that week of Pentecost. In those other languages, the disciples declared the mighty works of God. The “tongues of fire” enabled them to speak in other “tongues” to preach about God, the work of ministry promised by Jesus.
Looking back at all the moments of fire from the Old Testament, the implications of what happened weren’t lost on the apostles. As they declared at Pentecost, something wholly new and revolutionary had happened.
Why Did the Holy Spirit Come in this Way?
In Acts 2, people thought the disciples were drunk; it was so strange. Peter began his sermon by quoting from Joel, a promise and prophecy that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on people. On old, young, rich, poor. On people.
In the Old Testament, the fire of God settled on inanimate objects or dead sacrifices. Not now. Something different had happened. God had filled human beings with his Spirit.
John the Baptist, when speaking of the Messiah, contrasted his ministry with that of Christ. John baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11), therefore fulfilling the idea from Psalms that God’s ministers would be flames of fire, also mentioned in Hebrews 1:7.
The New Covenant had come, and so now we are the temple of God, both individually and corporately (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are the living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). Jesus is the High Priest before the throne and presences of God (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The New Testament also connects the fire of God with judgment and purification, where God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:9) and when our deeds are brought before the throne in Heaven, the fire of God will reveal what is eternal. Hay and stubble will be destroyed. Only silver and gold, precious eternal things that last, will remain on that day (1 Corinthians 3:12).
The message of tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost is clear—God now dwells with people, not temples made with hands (Acts 7:48). Those who believe, all who call on him whether Jew or Gentile, become the house of God. Just as God’s supernatural fire was there to lead, to give covenants, to accept sacrifices, and to make temples holy, the witnesses of Jesus must also be made holy by a flame of fire. There was no other way it could have happened.
Why Does the Holy Spirit Come in Tongues of Fire Today?
A quick note on being a witness. The flame from God’s presence in every Old Testament circumstance was a public display. Whether on the top of a mountain or for the filling of the Temple, it was seen by a multitude of people. Those disciples on the Day of Pentecost were witnesses of the death and resurrection and teachings of Jesus, purified and empowered by Spirit-fire.
As are we. The purpose and the call for followers of Jesus hasn’t changed in 2000 years. Now that the Bible was written and time has passed, our call isn’t to live our lives our own way and pursue wealth or other worldly things. Those worldly things won’t satisfy us anyway, despite what we think. No, we are still filled with the Spirit to be the witnesses of the death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, to speak with all tongues to all nations, to continue to fulfill the instructions from King Jesus for the witness to go out to “all the Earth.” We are the witness. Not a building or a program or better Christian entertainment. We are. The followers of Jesus living out supernatural lives of faith for neighbors and family members to see, declaring the goodness of God with our words and actions.
We can’t do that in our own power. That can ONLY happen when empowered by something not of this world, something transcendent, eternal, not bound by the limitations of what we see and feel. We still desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit to do the holy, spiritual work of God, and each generation will need to be set afire from Heaven again to reach a lost and dying world.
That’s what the world needs to see. Fires attract people.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Joshua Newton
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.