The Tongues of Fire Return
You’re standing in the open air in front of a massive stone Temple surrounded by thousands of other worshipers.
What you’re about to see happens only once a year: the priest waves two massive loaves of leavened bread, each made with five pounds of fine flour, before the altar.
The service continues. Songs of praise are sung. Prayers are recited. The people beseech God to return, restore their nation, restore their rulers, make his name known among the nations, and fulfill the promises he made through the prophets of old.
Suddenly, you hear the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Your clothes don’t rustle, and you don’t feel anything on your skin, but the sound is deafening. After a moment, a massive fire appears above you. It divides into myriads of smaller flames, each landing on a different worshiper. These select few begin speaking—but each speaks in a different language. In the great noise you hear someone speaking the language you grew up with as a Jew living in Parthia—a language that was an ancestor to what today would be recognized as Farsi.
He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Yeshua, whom you crucified, has been raised from the dead; God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”
You’ve traveled to Jerusalem before, but you’ve never seen anything like this. It reminds you of Pentecost legends you have heard — legends of tongues of fire that were able to make anyone, regardless of the language they spoke, understand the words of God. They appeared around fifteen hundred years ago, and now, for only the second time, they seem to have appeared again.
Reading about this event—the outpouring of the Spirit recorded in Acts chapter 2—as a passive observer nearly two thousand years after the fact simply can’t compare to experiencing it firsthand. I don’t mean that we might find it harder to believe. I also don’t mean that we would have found it more impressive or emotionally impactful if we had been there. I mean to say that we don’t know what it means when tongues of fire descend from heaven and people speak in languages they did not previously know. Everyone who had gathered in the Temple that day, however, would have known exactly what these things meant.
In a sense, when we read Acts 2, we are watching a foreign film with no subtitles. We can sort of make out when something important has happened, but it’s not clear exactly what we’re meant to understand. Something is lost in, well, the lack of translation.
However, the Jewish people of the first century had the subtitles, the commentary, and the director’s cut. Fortunately, we can learn from the guidance they left to later generations and use it to unlock the mystery of the tongues of fire and the many languages.
The first part of the key to understanding this mystery lies in the Exodus account of God’s descent upon Mount Sinai. Moses had this to say about what the children of Israel experienced on that day:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off. (Exodus 20:18)
In Hebrew this verse is slightly more evocative. In part, it can be more literally translated, “All the people saw the voices and the torches.”
First Fruits of Zion