On the first Pentecost (or Shavuot [שׁבעות], the Feast of Weeks) after Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit visits the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem: “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound of a mighty rushing wind… and divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each of them” (Acts 2:1-3). Of all the ways that God could have shown divine power on Pentecost, why “tongues” of fire? The most obvious reason is that these tongues lead to the disciples speaking in “other tongues” (Acts 2:4), but the imagery has precedent prior to this Pentecost. The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s consuming fire as “tongues,” and other Jewish literature before the New Testament describes tongues of fire in the heavenly realm. Therefore, it is fitting for these fiery tongues to appear on Pentecost as a manifestation of God’s holiness on earth.

The notion of heavenly tongues of fire appears first in Israel’s Scriptures. In response to the peoples’ waywardness, the prophet Isaiah declares, “As a tongue of fire (לשׁון אשׁ; lishon eish) devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so [Israel’s] root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the Law of the Lord of hosts” (Isa 5:24). This prophetic poetry suggests that just as a tongue of fire would lick at the dry ground to start a conflagration, so will God visit the people of Israel as a purging fire.

Isaiah’s reference to a single tongue of fire reappears as multiplied fiery entities in the Second Temple text of 1 Enoch (c. 300-200 BCE). Insofar as Genesis notes that Enoch “was no more for God took him” (Gen 5:24), later Jewish readers assumed that the Lord had taken Enoch to heaven, and they compiled various narratives about the biblical figure’s apocalyptic visions. Speaking of his heavenly tour, Enoch explains, “I approached a wall which was built of white marble and surrounded by tongues of fire… and I came into the tongues of fire and drew near to a great house…. And behold there was an opening before me: a second house which is greater than the firmer and everything was built with tongues of fire” (1 En 14:9-10, 15). This apocalyptic passage describes God’s heavenly Temples consisting of tongues of fire. Equipped with this background, the reader of Acts can see that the “tongues as of fire” (γλῶσσαι ὡσεὶ πυρός; glossai hosei puros) that arrive on Pentecost are the building blocks of God’s Temple in heaven—the divine structure on which the earthly Temples in Jerusalem were patterned. These tongues of fire are pieces of God’s dwelling place. God dwells in the Temple (both on earth and in heaven) and the fiery arrival of the Holy Spirit underscores the Lord’s continued dwelling among the followers of Jesus.

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61 COMMENTS

  1. Thank Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser, for sharing your insight. Over the years a number of insights like this have changed in meaning during the transition from the teacher to the student. Now the world we live in follows pieces of fragmented perceptions. What I would like to ask is, then, were the disciples able to speak in “other tongues”? What does this phrase by itself mean? I find the apocalyptic text more interesting. Personally I have developed the skill of writing in a imagery or figurative out of the fear of fully disclosing my emotions and feelings. As I would like to learn more about the Jewish apocalyptic literature, I would be glad if you can provide me with some resources. Thanks.
    • Thanks for your question, Teklehaimanot. In Acts, speaking in other tongues means speaking in other peoples' languages (see Acts 2:6-8). To start your study of apocalyptic literature, you might look at a book by John J. Collins called "The Apocalyptic Imagination," or take one of our courses on Revelation: https://israelbiblecenter.com/courses/revelation-jewish-context-i-orientation/

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    • "...spoke in other tongues as the Holy Ghost gave them utterance". The spoke languages they didn't know...however, it also was that the Holy Ghost made it such that the people " hear them speaking in our native languages". This is underscored by the subsequent descents of the Holy Ghost.
  2. AT Sinai I understand the Israelites "saw" the words of God as they were spoken. Would this not have been tongues of fire reaching out over the people as God spoke his Word?
    • Exodus 20:18 [20:15 in Hebrew verse numbering] says that the Israelites "saw the sounds" (רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת) of the lightning coming from Sinai. The Hebrew could also be translated "saw the voices" of the lightning. Later rabbinic tradition associates these "sounds" or "voices" with God's words; Rashi, for instance, says that they were the "sounds that issued from the mouth the Almighty." However, this is only one of several possible interpretations, and there's no reference to "tongues" or "fire" in Exodus 20 (cf. 19:18 for "fire"), so it's probably better not to extrapolate to the point that we're reading "tongues of fire" into the Sinai event. But you're right to note similarities to Sinai in Luke's record of Pentecost and important theological points to be drawn from those similarities; see https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/restoring-three-thousand/
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
    • The tongue that was delivered to apostle through the holy spirit and the one we speak today is the same? Does it deliver the same content?
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
  3. Why do some people get the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues? I have been asking for this gift but still not speaking with tongues? Do I still get to heaven without this gift??
    • Many debate on the place of the Gift of Tongues, which is clearly the gift of people able to speak to people groups not of their own and be understood. I will not debate either point.
    • Gifts are distributed as the Lord sees fit, no one gets all the gifts; and no one gift is listed as a test for salvation. 1st John gives a test you can give yourself to see if you are saved.
    • The "tongues" spoken in Acts are real languages (Acts 2:6-8), as opposed to the "language" that tongue-speakers employ in pentecostal circles today. There's no biblical basis for excluding anyone from following Jesus or from the world to come because they don't "speak in tongues."

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    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
    • SPEAKING IN TONGUES is gift to all who who believe in Jesus Acts 2:38, Mark 16:17, just as salvation is to whosoever will John 3:16. One needs to take a step of faith after asking Luke 11:13 and by faith utter the words the Holy Spirit gives Act 2:4
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  4. I saw the flames of fire in the whirling of the wind in a funnel before as I was kneeling in prayer. this happened years ago. all happened in the whirling sound of a wind and vortex. then came a clothed figure he put his hands on my head
    • wow that is beautiful tongue of fire what you saw (susan firth).
      please keep on faith without doubt seek God's Holy Spirit lead you and God bless you
  5. What did the ancients write, in this connection, about Psalms 104:4 "He makes the winds His messengers, Flaming fire His ministers"?
  6. I found this commentary very insightful. Thanks for pointing out the history of the use of this phrase in the Jewish Bible. I had never connected the dots before.
  7. Shavuot is the feast that commemorates the covenant of the Law God made with Israel at Sinai when HE descended in Fire on the Mountain and spoke audibly with the whole nation. The Fire at Pentecost was a sign that God was doing it again. The fulfillment of the Law.
  8. I'm from Canada. I as well would appreciate this same question answered. Over the years theres been different interpretations. Your insight would be appreciated.
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