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THE MESSENGER—PART 14: What Were Those Mysterious Tongues of Fire in the New Testament Church?

If these Jewish scholars whose commentary paved the way for Old Testament understanding for the last several thousand years are correct, and we can see that God’s voice manifested all over the globe, then we humbly seek a deeper understanding if we’re to believe there is a fulfillment of the Feast of Weeks.

See, it wasn’t just a spectacle of voice, lights, and fire. Rabbi Yochanan, a first-century sage, in his Midrash commentary on this moment in Exodus, notes: “The voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages, so that all the nations would hear [and understand].”[i] Maybe when Yochanan wrote this, he was inspired by Psalm 29:7: “The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire”!

You caught that, right? It’s about being multilingual.

If the Midrash is correct: God’s voice came from the heavens over Mt. Sinai, manifesting into bright flashes of fiery light, divided into all known languages of the world at that time, and then traveled all over the globe so that all might hear His words and understand them…all on 6 Sivan—the first Day of Pentecost, exactly fifty days from the first Passover in Egypt.

Remember, these rabbis are Jewish. Their consideration of what is occurring here in Exodus is naturally no respecter of any story in Acts 2 of the New Testament…that is a “Testament” of the Messiah that they don’t believe. Far be it for any rabbi contributing to the Midrash commentary to attempt to show through Jewish theology that the Old Testament Mt. Sinai tongues/languages event foreshadowed the New Testament Mt. Sinai tongues/languages event. A Jewish rabbi would likely be more interested in wanting to present the dissimilarities between Jehovah on the mountain and the Comforter Jesus promised to send!

Yet, as most Christians know, the book of Acts, chapter 2, tells us that, on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus sat at the Last Supper and instituted Communion instead of Passover, forty-seven days after He became the Great Sheaf on the Feast of Firstfruits, on the same day all the Jews were wrapping up the Counting of the Omer, on the Hebrews’ 6 Sivan, the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s followers. When He did, bright, flickering “tongues of flame” descended from heaven and hovered over the men and women there, who proceeded to file out into the streets, speaking in all the known languages of that day…so that all might hear and understand God’s words.

This time, unlike the last time, the message wasn’t about the Law, but about Jesus Christ, the Messiah who came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17–20).

…And this time, unlike the last time, God’s words would be directed and received by both Jew and Gentile.

Before we get into that too far, let’s read what happened in Acts 2 directly from the Bible. There is, tragically but not surprisingly, some potency lost in translation:

And when the day [Feast] of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

To begin, the “sound” mentioned in the words “there came a sound from heaven” wasn’t just a noise. This is the Greek word ēchos, which appears in only a few places in the Word. One, in Luke 21:25, is translated to “roar”! In Hebrews 12:19, it’s used in conjunction with salpigx to refer to the very trumpet blast “which signals the Second Coming”![ii] Then, oddly, over in Luke 4:37, after Jesus cast a demon out of the man in Capernaum, ēchos is translated as “fame”: “And the fame [ēchos] of him went out into every place of the country round about.”

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So far, from only within the Bible, it looks like this word could mean a roar, a blast signal of God’s appearance, or the spreading recognition of God’s power. See what we mean? It’s so much more than just “a sound.”

And you know…that’s quite interesting, considering the context of Acts 2:2 in comparison to the Sinai account. Could it be that the “sound from heaven” that fell upon the great city of Jerusalem on that Feast of Pentecost day was a terrifically loud roar from the mouth of God, His own blast signaling the arrival of God in the Person of the Holy Spirit, the power of His voice going out from Him and ahead of Him, spreading the word of His imminent, soon-arriving, fame and glory?!

Man, that’s beautiful!

Wouldn’t it be almost too good to be true if we could find a solid link showing that the Greek ēchos was used in literature of this time directly and irrefutably to mean “voice”? Seriously…wouldn’t that nail down the first parallel between God’s qowl on Mt. Sinai and the sound described here in Acts?

Actually, that is a definition of this word, and proof isn’t difficult to find. Not only is this Greek term and its variants used to mean “voice” by other writers at the time of Christ—such in as the medical textbook de Materia Medica (“On Medical Material”) by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides[iii]—thanks to the scholarly authors and editors behind the Greek-English Lexicon by Oxford, we now know that it referred specifically to the voice of God in the LXX (Septuagint) Bible translation![iv] (In case that’s a new translation to some readers, the LXX was the Greek Bible studied at the time of Christ.)

Our iron is hot. Let’s strike again, shall we?

Next on the list is “rushing,” which is the Greek, pherō.

Just as “thunder” wasn’t necessarily the worst word that could have been chosen from the Hebrew for qowl, “rushing” isn’t necessarily the worst choice for pherō, as the immediate context does describe something happening rapidly (“And suddenly there came…”). Nevertheless, just as “thunder” wasn’t accurate there, “rushing” isn’t accurate here. As just about any lexicon or study tool will tell you, pherō means “bring,” “carry,” or “bear.”[v]

As just a few of countless examples from the Word, here are four uses of pherō, each from one of the four Gospels:

  • “He said, ‘Bring [pherō] them hither to me’” (Matthew 14:18).
  • “‘Shall we give, or shall we not give?’ But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, ‘Why tempt ye me? bring [pherō] me a penny, that I may see it’” (Mark 12:15).
  • “And bring [pherō] hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry” (Luke 15:23).
  • “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring [pherō] forth more fruit” (John 15:2).

It’s quite a leap, from “bring” to “rushing.” Right? The latter term is detached from any identifiable driving force and almost sounds random, chaotic, even accidental. There’s nobody involved in it. The former, to “bring” or “carry” something, is personal, intentional…it almost rings from the page like a gift. Though either can be interpreted to acknowledge the wind as God’s handiwork, considering the colossal significance of what was taking place in both the physical and the spiritual realms in that moment, saying God “brought” or “carried” the wind allows for intention and specificity directly from the Divine.

It probably goes without saying by this point, but we’ll say it anyway: You have to try, hard, to see the distant, detached, impersonal word “rushing” in this place instead of what is more apparently meant here, which is the act of the Holy Spirit carrying something.

What, exactly, is He carrying, though?

Remember how the “thunder and lightning” at Mt. Sinai wasn’t really thunder and lightning, and how it wasn’t two phenomena but rather one and its corresponding description? Recall that, in English, there likely wouldn’t have been any way of knowing that based on how our language bleeds off the page? Well, this moment in Scripture is similar in that it will require readers to be open-minded in challenging some age-old concepts and imagery. It’s surprisingly dissimilar, however, in that even the English—when read carefully—by itself dispels the most common misinterpretation of this verse in all of Christendom.

Here it is again, Acts 2:2a, in English. Pay attention to every single word:

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind…

If, in that reading, you came up with the Holy Spirit “bringing” or “carrying” anything other than a sound, you might want to go back and read it again. Let us explain.

The time-honored, and frankly gorgeous, visual of powerful winds is all over the place in our churches’ curricula and charts, religious media, historical paintings, books, and even various Christian retail products. We hear about the “rushing mighty wind” from the pulpit with such excitement—how it came bursting through the windows and doors into the Upper Room, swirling around the followers of Christ, whipping about their robes and hair, alerting everyone that something big is coming. Sometimes the retelling even involves the apostles being lifted up from the floor!

As inspiring as it is, however, the “wind” idea we all have isn’t what the Greek originally described. If it were, then a few issues would have to be addressed. To name only one: The adjective translated into English as “mighty” here is the Greek word biaios, which surprisingly means “violent.”[vi] In other words, if this wind was a literal, physical, and purely natural element, then we are told here that the gentle Comforter sent a “violent” wind to tear through the city on the day He arrived. But imagining the Holy Spirit sending danger to the disciples He’s about to bless is odd. For as many words in the Greek language as there are that would have conveyed both might (or power) and safety in the presence of the Lord, biaios sticks out like a “sore thumb” here.

Why not just “mighty” by itself? Why “violent”? If Luke was only attempting to tell the readers that the wind was “strong” or “mighty,” he could have used a number of more appropriate terms …and they were part of a vocabulary he already knew and used! Why wouldn’t Luke have chosen to use dynatos—the Greek word for “mighty” or “powerful”—here, like he did elsewhere (Luke 1:49, 14:31, 18:27, 24:19; Acts 2:24, 7:22, 11:17, 18:24, 20:16, 25:5)? Why did he break character in Acts 2:2 and depict God as the sender of perilous weather conditions?

Actually, scholarly responses to this section of Scripture are fairly unanimous: Luke wrote “violent,” and “violent” is precisely what he meant—but he wasn’t describing a “wind”; he was describing a “sound.” Technically, the wind didn’t exist in any way save for a basis of comparison. For many readers, this is a huge surprise. So long has the literal wind on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament been ingrained in our thoughts that it’s hard to let go of the whooshing, sweeping, dust-in-the-air ideas. But Thayer’s Greek Lexicon is the first of many sources we can point to fairly quickly that will dispel this. According to Thayer’s, the comparative Greek adverb hōsper, translated “as” here in the cluster “a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind,” is a word meaning something that simply “stands in close relation to what precedes,” therefore representing a direct comparison in Acts 2:2, “i.e., just as a sound is made when a mighty wind blows.”[vii] Scotland’s finest New Testament scholar and former chairman of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research, Ian Howard Marshall, acknowledges this in Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, pointing out that the grammatical relationship between the Greek pnoē (“wind”) next to the aggressive biaios is “that of analogy—a sound like that of wind.”[viii] Leading academic and Fellowship of the British Academy award-winning professor of divinity at England’s University of Durham, Charles Kingsley Barrett, states in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles that “Luke is confining himself to a vivid natural analogy.… There was a noise like that made by a powerful wind.”[ix]

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To recap: 1) The disciples of Christ are all together “in one accord”; 2) God personally ushers, carries, and delivers to them the sound of His voice—with a roar so powerful and commanding that it sounds to those assembled like a howling, violent wind.

Next: Not only do the followers of Jesus hear the voice of God like a wind, they see it as it manifests as “cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” But note that “cloven” here is a bit misleading in English, because of our familiarity with phrases like “cloven hoof,” where it refers to one object with a “split” shape in it. The “cloven” reference is from the Greek diamerizō (“divided”), which describes when God’s voice descended, then split apart into many “tongues” before “each person present was touched with flame.”[x] Again, this is the wonder referred to in Psalm 29:7: “The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire.”

Then, of course, comes the question that scholars have sometimes taken an unexpected turn on. Do the “tongues” here describe the shape of the flames in comparison to the bodily organ, or more simply, do they describe languages? Technically, the Greek word glōssa is used for both the tongue, the body part, as well as the speech it makes, so it could be either. However, despite the somewhat convincing argument for the former by some astute language experts (that Luke was saying the flames were “tongue-shaped”), it seems the more complicated conclusion to make. The context of the next verse—“and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”—clearly refers to spoken languages, and, generally speaking, no respectable person in academia argues with that. Since the context and application are therefore the same, it’s safe to agree with the vast majority of scholars on this one and stick to the following deduction: “Tongues,” both in verse 3 and in verse 4, refers to “languages,” which renders what readers may have, before our reflection on Sinai, thought was awkward: “And there appeared unto them [divided languages] like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other [languages].”

A couple more brief thoughts on this area of Scripture before we wrap this up: First, the words “all with one accord” have caused varied speculation. What, exactly, are the disciples in harmony about? Most scholars and commentators link this to the mention of “one accord” in Acts 1:14, which provides a direct description of what they are doing together: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” These authors particularly like the way Benson Commentary explains it:

The word [Greek homothymadon], rendered with one accord, implies that they were united in their views, intentions, and affections, and that there was no discord or strife among them, as there sometimes had been while their Master was with them. Doubtless, they were also united in their desire and expectation of the baptism of the Holy Ghost, the power from on high, which Christ had promised them; and in praying earnestly and importunately for it whenever they met together, which it appears they were in the habit of doing daily.[xi] (Emphasis in original)

They were all praying together, but it’s likely they were praying specifically for the power from God to assist them in the Great Commission, since that’s what the Holy Spirit does. Take note of this, because it is a crucial point in the Church Age, which is what the Feast of Pentecost represents. And don’t misunderstand this to be an argument for speaking in tongues, as these authors believe that matter should be between each believer and God. We want to stress that, just as the Holy Spirit came to the disciples on 6 Sivan in what was likely the year AD 33 with languages of fire, He can come upon any all believers with the “gifts of the Spirit” they’re supposed to have for Great Commission work today, as long as every believer is praying in expectation of that.

Second, though we risk once again disturbing some beautiful imagery for believers everywhere by writing this, the words “in one place” don’t necessarily have to mean “the Upper Room.” Note that the “house” mentioned in verse 2 is the Greek oikos, which just means “dwelling place” in many ancient contexts. Actually, though the “Upper Room” is where the apostles tended to meet together, as Acts 1:13 shows, we can’t make a solid conclusion that this was the meeting place of Acts 2:1. It’s a possibility, certainly, but not a guarantee, as Barnes’ Notes clarifies:

In one place—Where this was cannot be known. Commentators have been much divided in their conjectures about it. Some have supposed that it was in the upper room mentioned in Acts 1:13; others that it was a room in the temple; others that it was in a synagogue; others that it was among the promiscuous multitude that assembled for devotion in the courts of the temple.[xii]

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Consider again Acts 2:1–4 in light of all we’ve covered. Based on the original languages and contexts, and the consistency of God’s nature from the Old Testament, we suggest a contemplative, dynamic wording of this passage as follows:

And on 6 Sivan, during the Feast of Pentecost, the disciples of Christ were all gathered together in one place, supporting one another and agreeing with one another in prayer [probably for the “power from on high”]. And suddenly there came a voice, roaring from heaven like a violent wind, and the sound filled the dwelling place where they were sitting. And the disciples saw the voice from heaven divide into many languages, looking like fire, and the fire sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

Remember that time on Mt. Sinai when God’s voice physically manifested as a bright fire, then split up and went out to all the world so that everyone would know and understand His Law?

Yeah. He did that again.

The “fiftieth day” (Pentecost) from the deliverance of Egypt, when the Law (the Old Covenant!) united the nation of Israel under the will of God while on Mt. Sinai, was a literal, moment-for-moment parallel of the “fiftieth day” (Pentecost) from the death of Christ and deliverance from the confines of sin, when Jesus fulfilled the Law down to the letter and united Jew and Gentile (the New Covenant!) as a new people under the grace of God while on Mt. Zion.

Most Christians with little to no familiarity with the feasts will not be aware of this connection, but once you see it, you can’t “unsee” it without extreme effort. The resemblance between the two events is no coincidence.

Barrett recognizes this comparison without hesitation: “Luke is accumulating features characteristic of theophanies…[like the] descriptions of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai: Exod[us] 19:18.”[xiii] Marshall is likewise convinced: “A flame divided itself into several tongues, so that each rested upon one of the persons present.… And again we are reminded of Old Testament theophanies, especially of that at Sinai (Exod[us] 19:18).”[xiv] Dr. Richard Booker of Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts notes this wonderful Old Testament/New Testament connection as well:

The English translation [of the Sinai event] says all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightnings. Jewish scholars believe that the people actually “saw the voice of God” coming out of the mountain in tongues of fire.…

The first Pentecost was at Mount Sinai when God wrote His words on tablets of stone. Yet, the Lord promised there would be a time in the distant future when He would write His laws on the fleshly tablets of their hearts. (See Jeremiah 31:31–34.)…

In His own appointed time, God would come down on the people. Not on Mount Sinai in the desert, but on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.[xv]

Let’s not leave out a very important rabbi, Southern Evangelical Seminary’s pride and Word of Messiah Ministries’ president, Dr. Sam Nadler, who also acknowledged in his book, Messiah in the Feasts of Israel:

Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, was trained by his mentor Paul to understand the work of God in Messiah from a Biblically Jewish frame of reference. Luke depicts the events of Acts 2 as a second “Mount Sinai experience.” When the Law was given, there was fire and noise as God descended on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18–20). When the Spirit was given there was fire and noise as well (Acts 2:2–3). The rabbis comment in the Talmud that when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, “Every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages for the nations of the world.” When the Holy Spirit was given, men from every nation spoke in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.[xvi]

A number of the classic commentators, at the time of their writings (circa 1820–1850 for many), wrote as if God’s manifestation in both the Old Testament and New Testament Pentecost was a foreshadowing followed by fulfillment. As one example from Benson:

It is computed that the law was given just fifty days after their coming out of Egypt, in remembrance of which the feast of pentecost was observed the fiftieth day after the passover, and in compliance with which the Spirit was poured out upon the apostles, at the feast of pentecost, fifty days after the death of Christ.[xvii]

It’s really no wonder that scholars conclude that the Acts 2 episode was a direct fulfillment of what God started on Mt. Sinai. The parallels are seemingly endless, including many that we haven’t covered well enough to do great justice. Take a look at this list, which isn’t even close to exhaustive:

  • Both demonstrations of God’s power involve tongues of fire and multiple languages so that all mankind will hear and understand the message of God.
  • Both events took place on the Feast of Pentecost, and on 6 Sivan.
  • Both events involved a theophany—that is, a visible manifestation of the Lord.
  • Both events marked the delivery of a divine covenant: In Exodus, it was fifty days after the Israelites completed the threshold covenant with the lamb sacrifice; in Acts, it was fifty days after Jesus became the ultimate Lamb sacrifice.
  • In Exodus, Israel as a nation was established; in Acts, Christianity was established.
  • Exodus 24:13 calls Mt. Sinai the “mountain of God.” Isaiah 2:3 calls Mt. Zion the “mountain of God.” Both the Old Testament (Old Covenant) tongues-of-fire event at Sinai and the New Testament (New Covenant) tongues-of-fire event at Zion took place on “the mountain of God,” though they are over three hundred miles apart.
  • In Hebrew, the word towrah (“Torah,” the Law), as it derives from the root yarah, means “teach.” John 14:16 refers to the Holy Spirit as the “teacher.”
  • In Exodus, we read about the inauguration of the Old Testament Church, as the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary stated earlier; in Acts, we read about the inauguration of the New Testament—and current—Church.

Again, the list goes on. Studying these two occurrences side by side as we have done flags another hundred or so deeply theological parallels that blow the mind. If this book were just about the Jewish feasts, these authors would be tempted to devote another hundred pages to Pentecost alone. Alas, we don’t have space to accomplish that…but what do you say? One more for the road?

In the next entry we will look at one is the best examples of Pentecost fulfilled… as we march toward the latter demonstration, due to arrive in 2025, when “thunder and lightning” of the “voice” will be manifest a final time?

UP NEXT: The Mystery of two Leavened Loaves, The Church; The Body

 

[i] Ibid.

[ii] “Topic Guide” tool, found by searching “Blasting,” Logos Bible Software, accessed from personal commercial database on July 16, 2020.

[iii] Dioscorides, Pedanius, de Materia Medica, 5.17; As noted in: Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford; Clarendon Press: 1996), 780.

[iv] As in, “When he uttereth his voice,” from LXX Jeremiah 28:16 (which would be Jeremiah 51:16 in modern Bibles). As noted in: Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford; Clarendon Press: 1996), 780.

[v] “Bible Word Study” tool, found by searching “φέρω,” Logos Bible Software, accessed from personal commercial database on July 16, 2020. Please note that this source listed countless lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and other word-study sources that confirmed this most basic meaning.

[vi] Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor; Electronic Ed.: Logos Research Systems, Inc.: 1997), entry “1042 βίαιος.”

[vii] “ὥσπερ,” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, accessed online through Blue Letter Bible Online on July 16, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5618&t=KJV.

[viii] Marshall, Ian Howard, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 5; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 73.

[ix] Barrett, C. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Edinburgh: T&T Clark; 2004), 113; emphasis added.

[x] Ibid., 114.

[xi] “Acts 2 Benson Commentary,” BibleHub, last accessed July 22, 2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/benson/acts/2.htm.

[xii] “Acts 2:1,” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Biblehub, last accessed July 22, 2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/acts/2-1.htm.

[xiii] Barrett, C. K., Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 113.

[xiv] Marshall, Ian Howard, Acts, 73.

[xv] Booker, Dr. Richard, Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts, 94–95.

[xvi] Nadler, Sam, Messiah in the Feasts of Israel, 83–84.

[xvii] “Exodus 19:1,” Benson Commentary, Biblehub, last accessed July 27, 2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/exodus/19-1.htm.

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