When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language (Acts 2:1–6).
It’s the fiftieth day – the Pentecost – after the Passover Sabbath. It’s also the Festival of Weeks in the Jewish calendar – a time when Jews remember both the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai and the gathering of the wheat harvest in Israel. God’s timing is perfect. He sends the Spirit at just the right moment in time. Pentecost is the day when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement under the Law of God, and also a time when we remember the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit to save sinners of lost mankind from the curse of a broken Law and bring into the Kingdom of God a full harvest of souls. The Law of God prepares us by humbling us and reminding us of the seriousness of our sin; then the Gospel comes, to console us, to bind up our wounds, and stir up faith in our hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who puts such thoughts in our hearts. He convicts us of our sin and then He shows us the grace, the mercy, and majesty of Christ. He pierces our conscience with the needle of the Law and the pulls through silken thread of the Gospel of peace.
The disciples of Jesus, one hundred and twenty of them, were together with one accord in one place on the day of Pentecost (v.1). They had gathered together to wait upon the Lord and to inquire in his temple. They would have been using one of the many spaces in the temple to worship – to remember the Passover, the death of Christ, and His resurrection. His promise to send the Holy Spirit would have been burning within their hearts and minds. The Lord Christ had said to them before He ascended into heaven, ‘Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). The Lord Christ sends the Holy Spirit on this great mission to clothe the Church of God with power for the task of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. There is a Trinitarian dynamic here: the Spirit of God is promised by the Father and commissioned by the Son to be our Helper and our Comforter. He is the gift of the Father’s love and the purchase of the blood of Christ. God doesn’t send an angel or a saint, but His own beloved Holy Spirit to empower the Church of Jesus Christ. The Lord Christ, having fulfilled the Law of God, having made atonement for sin, and having sat down at the right hand of God, sends His own Spirit to sanctify the elect, to convert them to God, and restore their communion and fellowship with the Father. The work of the Spirit is of utmost importance within the economy of salvation. The Spirit of God comes to regenerate, to indwell, to sanctify, and to save. He comes to apply the work of redemption. He unstops deaf ears and opens blind eyes, He softens hard hearts, and makes known to us the love, and the mercy, and the glory of Christ. There is a sweetness about the work of the Holy Spirit. He comes not only to conquer our unbelieving hearts, but to console us with tender mercies and to assure believers that they are indeed the children of God.
It’s a great crime for the Church to neglect the work of the Spirit of God. ‘There is a general omission in the saints of God, in their not giving the Holy Spirit the glory that is due to His person … The work He does for us in its kinds is as great as those of the Father and the Son’ (Thomas Goodwin). The Holy Spirit is divine and His work of regeneration is as important as the Father’s work of election and the Son’s work of redemption. Without the Holy Spirit, there would be no Church – no conversions, no holiness, no sanctification, no salvation. ‘As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead’ (John Stott). Without an outpouring of the personal and empowering presence of the Spirit of God, there is no true Christianity. ‘Without the Spirit of God we can do nothing. We are as ships without wind or chariots without steeds. Like branches without sap, we are withered. Like coals without fire, we are useless. And as an offering without the sacrificial flame, we are unaccepted’ (Charles Spurgeon). From the fall of man to this very day, the application of redemption has been the special work of the Holy Spirit. He alone breathes new life and salvation into sinners of lost mankind.
Pentecost represents the first great revival of the New Covenant, and the Church ever since that day has spread all around the world by remarkable outpourings of the Spirit of God at special seasons of mercy. As we look upon the valley of dry bones today, do we not see the great need for an outpouring of the Spirit of God in our land? Do we not very much need a second Pentecost? My friends, revival is a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. It’s His work. It’s His special prerogative. Pentecost reminds us of this. Those in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were confronted with an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account in the passage before us draws our attention to three supernatural signs: the sound of a mighty rushing wind, the sight of tongues of fire, and the speech of the disciples in many languages to publish the Gospel abroad. While wind, fire, and languages are natural phenomena, their origin at Pentecost was wholly divine – they signify the presence and activity of the Spirit of God. We are dealing with the supernatural. There is something uncanny and strange about the events of Pentecost. This is no ordinary work. There is a power here – a mighty wind, flames of fire, and many languages. I would like us to think about the meaning of each of these signs respectively and to reflect upon what they teach us about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
1] Firstly, I would like us to consider the sound of a mighty rushing wind. The text says that ‘suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting’ (v.2). This is a public announcement that the Spirit of God is present. It’s likely that the house to which Luke refers is the temple in Jerusalem – everyone in and around the temple would have heard this majestic sound of rushing wind. It comes suddenly upon the temple and arrests the attention of all present. This is no ordinary sound. This is no ordinary wind. This is the breath of God – powerful, majestic, divine. The sound of a mighty rushing wind comes from above this world of time – it comes from heaven, from the presence of the living God. The significance of a mighty rushing wind is often missed by modern readers. To the Hebrew mind, the wind signified the Spirit of God. The Hebrew word for Spirit (ruach) is very same word used for breath or wind in Scripture. In Greek the word is pneuma and that’s the same word used by Paul in his letter to Timothy where he says, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God’. Both those words in Hebrew and in Greek are breathed out words. They are aspirate words – they are exhaled. You must say them with the exhalation of breath. We often miss the significance of this as we read the passage before us. This mighty rushing wind from heaven is not a natural phenomenon – it is the very breath of the Spirit of God. It is as if God breathes from heaven upon His Church. The hymn writer captures the significance of this:
O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
Revive Thy church with life and power,
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit Thy Church to meet this hour.
The breath of God is the Holy Spirit. He is the bringer of life, and energy, and creativity. In the beginning, the Holy Spirit according to the Book of Genesis was hovering above the surface of the deep. ‘The Holy Spirit is here portrayed as God’s breath – as the creative, moving, dynamic breath of God. This breath – this divine life-giving wind – is what is blowing across the waters at the beginning’ (James Montgomery Boice). We begin to capture a picture of the infinite power of the Spirit of God – it is by His omnipotence, by His breath, by His mighty rushing wind that this vast universe came into being. God speaks – he exhales and the universe is formed by the power of His voice. This vast cosmos, every star, ever galaxy, every atom, every quark came to be by the Breath of God. Does this give us some indication of grandeur, magnificence, and power of the Spirit of God?
Not only was the universe brought into being by the breath of God, but conscious human life. Genesis tells us that God formed man out of the dust of the earth. For all our self-confidence and feelings of superiority in this world, we are but dust and to dust we shall return. God formed the human body out of pre-existing material – some carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, a dash of calcium, a touch of sulphur, some very ordinary elements, a small amount of iron. That’s what we are made of! If you take all the atoms our body apart one at a time, you would have a pile of atomic dust. Atoms are lifeless. They have no mind, no awareness. Your atoms don’t care about you, they don’t even know that you are there – and yet you have life, you have breath, you have awareness. Genesis tells us that God took the lifeless form of Adam’s body and ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature’. The breath of God is life giving. It didn’t simply give Adam the ability to inhale and exhale, but to become a conscious mind, a soul, a living, thinking, rational being. Such is the power and the creativity of the Holy Spirit that He is able to create consciousness. Are we getting a sense of the power of the Spirit of God?
Consider the time when the hand of the Lord came upon Ezekiel and led him to the valley of dry bones. The Lord says to Ezekiel, ‘Can these dry bones live?’ And Ezekiel gives a shrewd answer, ‘Lord, you know’. And God commands Ezekiel to prophesy over the dry dead bones and by the power of the Lord the bones begin to fit together and flesh appears upon the bones, yet they have no life, no breath. Then the Lord says through the prophet, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’ (Ezekiel 37:9). And the Spirit of God comes upon dead, the power of the breath of God gives life and vitality to the valley, and before the prophet Ezekiel stands a great living army. ‘Can these dry bones live?’ The Spirit who comes to the valley of dry bones is very same Spirit at Pentecost – the same power, the same majesty, the same authority. The Scriptures say that humanity, by nature, is dead in sin. The whole earth is like a valley of dry bones. The problem of society is not apathy, it’s not impotence, it’s not weakness – it’s death. Sinners of lost mankind are dead in trespasses and sins. ‘Can these dry bones live?’ No, they can’t. There is no natural means for bringing the dead to life. If I may speak crudely, when you are dead, you’re dead. The idea that man-made religion, or good works, or free will, or self-help can remedy the human situation is nonsense. The only solution to the deadness of man in sin is the supernatural power of the Spirit of God. Do we not very much need the breath of God to breathe upon lost mankind? My friends, this is the very breath that came at Pentecost and swept thousands into the Kingdom of heaven. It is Spirit of God who alone may speak with the voice that wakes the dead.
The Lord Jesus Christ takes up this great teaching and says to Nicodemus, the most religious man on earth, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again”. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:5–8). None but the Spirit of God can impart newness of life into dead and unbelieving hearts. We call this the doctrine of regeneration, but we might very well call it the doctrine of revival. What is revival? Revival is nothing less that the Spirit of God descending in power, as a mighty rushing wind, to impart new life into dead souls and to fill the people of God anew with heavenly power to carry out the great work of making Christ known through the preaching of the Gospel. Notice, however, that the Spirit is completely sovereign in the work of salvation. You cannot say to the wind, ‘Blow here or blow there’. You can’t do that. And so it is with the Spirit of God. There is no special formula or programme for creating a move of the Spirit. You cannot manufacture revivals. You cannot force conversions. The wind blows, the Lord Christ says, wherever it pleases and so it is with everyone born of the Spirit of God. You are not a Christian because at one time you prayed a prayer or put your hand up in a meeting, you are a Christian only if the Spirit of God has chosen of His own sovereign freedom to come and dwell within you, to regenerate your dead and lifeless heart, and to conform you to the image of Christ. Of course, this is not an excuse for apathy on our part. We know that the Spirit of God uses the means of Gospel preaching and witnessing to bring men and women to Christ, even as He used Ezekiel to prophesy over the dead bones. Be that as it may, we cannot save the lost. We can show them the way of salvation, but we cannot change their hearts. We cannot do God’s work. Ezekiel could prophesy over the bones, but only the breath of God could change them. Regeneration is a secret and supernatural work of the Spirit of God, whereby He awakens the sinner to the reality of divine justice and then draws him with chords of everlasting love and irresistible grace to Jesus Christ – to find in Him full salvation, pardon, peace, and life eternal.
We are told that this mighty rushing wind, the Holy Spirit in all His power and glory, came and filled the temple at Pentecost. Oh for such a move of God’s Spirit today! Oh that He would fill the wide earth with full salvation! Oh that He would breathe new life into sleeping Christians and regenerate and save lost sinners! This is the greatest need of the Church in our generation. We need to the Spirit of God to breathe upon us – to sanctify His people and to convert the lost through the preaching of the Gospel. The Psalmist cries out to God, ‘Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?’ (Psalm 85:6). Is this our desire? Will we not cry out with Habakkuk, ‘O Lord, revive Thy work in the midst of the years … in wrath remember mercy’. Duncan Campbell once said, ‘Show me a people on their faces before God – gripped in the unction of prayer and I show you a people ready for revival’.
2] Secondly, I would like to consider the tongues of fire. Luke says that ‘divided tongues of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them’ (v.3). The second sign of the presence of the Spirit of God is fire. It is a powerful image for the Holy Spirit. Fire is dangerous. It can consume and destroy. When God appeared on Mount Sinai, there was fire, and thunder, and lightning. Fire is a reminder of God’s purity and holiness. When David had been delivered from the hand of Saul and his enemies he sang of God’s terrible presence:
Smoke rose from His nostrils,
Consuming fire came from His mouth,
Burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down
(2 Samuel 22:9).
There is a very real sense in which God is a consuming fire. The writer to the Hebrews says, 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God' (Hebrews 10:31). We live in a moral universe and we are responsible to a Holy God for our words and deeds. O sinner! consider the great danger you are in! ‘There is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of divine wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked against you … you hang by a slender thread as thin as a spider’s web, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to …. burn it asunder’ (Jonathan Edwards). Yet the flames which rest upon the 120 disciples at Pentecost do not consume them, they do not condemn, they do not bring down divine judgement. The fire of Pentecost is the fire of grace and mercy. I am reminded of the three young men in Babylon who were thrown into the flaming furnace – a furnace so bright it consumed those who stoked the flames – yet the three men were not consumed for the Lord Christ was with them. When the fire comes down at Pentecost, the Spirit of Christ is there. This is the fire of blessing. The fire of mercy.
The greatest dilemma facing mankind is the question of how sinful man can approach a holy God. How can a sinner, condemned, unclean, approach the One who is infinitely holy and righteousness in every way – the One who is of purer eyes than to look upon sin? How could Moses approach the burning bush? How could Isaiah stand in the presence of a holy God? How could John behold the vision of the Lord Christ upon a white horse clothed in majesty? They were hidden in Christ. Their faith was found in Him. Moses approached the holiness of God hidden in the cleft of the rock. These disciples are not consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit because they belong to Jesus Christ – they’ve been washed in His blood and clothed in His righteousness. The power from on high does not destroy the disciples, but gives them a spirit of clarity and of boldness to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The flames are said to be shaped like tongues of fire – the whole design behind this blessing is to make these disciples burning and shining lights for the Lord Jesus. These flaming tongues are saying, ‘Speak up for Jesus Christ. Tell out the greatness of the Lord’. Even though it is only the Spirit of God who can save sinners of lost mankind, yet we are called to be His witnesses in the world – to know Christ and to make Him known, to use our tongues and our lips to sing His praises and to proclaim His Gospel.
We know that fire has two main uses: it provides light and heat. The fire of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost brings illumination – it throws light upon the Scriptures to reveal the beauty and the glory of Christ. Wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes into this world, it brings enlightenment. Not the humanistic self-enlightenment of man, but the illumination of the Spirit of God. It opens up the mind to understand the things of God. You get this in John Newton’s great hymn. He says, ‘I once was blind, but now I see’. The fire of the Holy Spirit had opened His eyes to see the glory of God’s grace. He saw that salvation did not depend upon human merits, and human efforts, and human works, but upon Christ – upon His merits and His obedience. The Bible depicts fallen mankind as being lost in the darkness of sin. But this fire, this Pentecostal fire, brings light into the darkness of a fallen world.
If fire brings light, it also brings warmth. The Bible speaks of hell as a place of outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Lost humanity will be cast into that darkness – out into the cold and the dark for all eternity. There’s nothing worse than being cold. I remember going on a geography trip with the school to some sand dunes we were studying at the time. It was a freezing day and the wind was bitter and the rain was so cold that it was painful. It was a miserable day. That’s what it means to be without Christ in this world. The man without Christ is the most pitiful creature on the face of the planet. He’s miserable. He’s out in the cold without God and without hope in the world. The Spirit of Christ shows us a better way. He shows us the Saviour and the fire of His love. He draws us into the warmth of fellowship and communion with God. He takes out of the cold, out of the darkness, into God’s house and He sits us beside the fire of His heavenly love, He wipes away every tear from our eyes, and embraces with arms of love and mercy.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the children of Adam who come to Narnia must approach the Lion Aslan and they ask, ‘Is he safe?’ ‘Safe’, comes the reply, ‘No, he is not safe, but he is good’. Our God is a consuming fire, He is infinitely holy and righteousness in every way, He is not safe, but He is good. He is gentle. He is compassionate. He is kind. As the beloved disciple John says, ‘God is love’. He has such a heart of compassion for sinners of mankind lost. He so loved the world that gave His Son to make atonement for sin by His death, to justify by His righteousness, to bring life by His resurrection. And He sent His Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and to present us faultless before the throne of grace. The Lord Jesus faced the fires of divine wrath in our stead and He calls us now to receive the Holy Spirit and the fire of holiness, and to stand up as witness for His glory – as lights, as shining stars, as flaming tongues of fire in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation.
3] Thirdly, I would like us to consider the speech of the disciples in many languages. The text says, ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (v.4). We are told that the disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. Even though the Spirit of God indwells true believers at all times, there are special seasons of mercy when the Spirit of God comes upon his people in an extraordinary way. He makes His presence known and felt in a remarkable manner. This is a part of the Spirit’s work in revival – to strengthen us inwardly, and to make known the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to fill us with all the fullness of God. Revival is not only about Spirit of God regenerating lost sinners, it’s also about the people of God receiving new life and power from on high. It must be wonderful to witness a move of the Spirit of God – to see how affections are raised with love for Jesus Christ and love for His people. A work of the Spirit of God is always distinguished by holy love and affection for the Lord Jesus Christ and His precious word. When the Spirit of God comes upon these disciples, they cannot but help to tell out the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ. Revival is not about great excitement, crowded churches, tears of repentance, and shouts of ‘glory hallelujah’ – though such things often happen in revivals. The external excitement can be thrilling, but what matters is the heart. True revival consists in the affections. Revival is a work of the Spirit of God in your heart – the Spirit creates within you a delight and an inward sense of the loveliness and the preciousness of Jesus Christ and His holy infallible word. That’s what it means to be filled with the Spirit of God.
The presence and outpouring of the Spirit of God causes the disciples to speak in other languages. This is a distinctive feature of Pentecost. We don’t expect to see such miracles today. They are not the norm, though God in His providence can still do remarkable things. It seems that this particular gift was a special gift for laying the foundation of the Church. The message of the Gospel needed to extend beyond Israel to other cultures and places where people spoke different languages. The text says that ‘there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven’. Jews from all over the known world had come to celebrate the grain harvest and to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. They were amazed that day to hear the sound of the mighty rushing wind in the temple and they ran to find out what had happened. To their amazement, they found the disciples of Jesus with tongues of fire above the heads speaking to them in their own languages and dialects. The text says, ‘And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language’. This gift of languages (glossolalia) was given on the Day of Pentecost as a supernatural ability to speak in recognisable languages in order to make know the mystery of the Gospel. These languages no doubt would have included Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, but also various dialects and languages from the many regions listed by Luke in our text: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabians. This great barrier of language was brought down at Pentecost. The Gospel would no longer be confined to Israel only. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for the whole world of lost mankind.
Christianity is truly multi-cultural and multi-lingual. It transcends the barriers of language and ethnicity. The great vision that John has of the Church in Revelation makes this clear: 'Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages … crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”' (Revelation 7:9 – 10). There is no place for racism in the Church of Jesus Christ. The way that our society treats people of colour and refugees is appalling. We mustn’t be like that. Even under the Old Covenant, the people of God were commanded by the Law to welcome the stranger and to show them love and hospitality:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:34).
Show your love for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).
The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked (Psalm 146:9).
I find it deeply troubling when I hear Christians saying unkind things about foreigners, refugees, immigrants, people who speak other languages, and people of colour. The people of God must be above such hatred. We were once strangers to grace and God, and yet the Lord God in His infinite mercy and kindness sent His Beloved Son to rescues us from eternal danger. The Lord God commands us to love our neighbours. We are to be a people of love. We are to be the most hospitable, the most generous, the most loving, the most gracious people in the world.
There were visitors at the temple from all over the known world – people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, from Rome and beyond. They were reached with the light of the Gospel for the first time at Pentecost, and from there the message of Christ and Him crucified spread all over the world. When you drop a stone into the centre of a still lake, the ripples spread from the centre outwards to every corner of the lake. So it is with the Gospel of Christ. ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:46–47). The Gospel of Jesus Christ beginning at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost has spiralled explosively even to the ends of the earth. We have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. They may speak different languages, they may have different ways and manners, but they united to us because we are united to Jesus Christ. ‘For in Christ Jesus’, Paul says, ‘you are all sons of God through faith ... [So] there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ (Galatians 3:26–29).
References & Recommended Reading
James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, 2006).
Jonathan Edwards, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). This work is available freely on-line at The Jonathan Edwards Centre at Yale University.
John Stott, The Message of Acts (Nottingham, 1990)
Geoffrey Thomas, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI, 2011).