On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 4

Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. – Acts 2:3

As a primal symbol fire possesses a superabundance of symbolic associations, rendering it difficult for us to discern the particular aspects of this symbolism that come to the foreground in a given text. In determining the significance of the tongues of fire that appear in this verse, we must pay close attention to the context in which the symbol occurs and also to the non-mundane character of the fire with which we are dealing.

The divine fire occurs a number of different sorts of contexts in Scripture, behaving in a variety of ways. In certain places the divine fire is an agent of judgment and destruction (Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 16:35; Job 1:16; 2 Kings 1:9-12; Luke 17:29; Revelation 20:9). In others it is a sign of divine favour and approval of a sacrifice (Leviticus 9:24; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1; 1 Kings 18:38).

The presence of divine fire is a common feature of many theophany narratives (Exodus 19:18; Numbers 9:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:36; Isaiah 66:15). In the book of Exodus, for instance, we encounter divine fire in the scene at the burning bush, in the cloud of fire (a ‘permanent epiphany’[1]) that led the people and in God’s theophanic descent upon Mt Sinai. As Frank Polak observes, in these cases the fire symbolizes the presence of God less by substitution than by synecdoche.[2] Much the same appears to be the case in Acts 2, where the appearance of the fire is a visible manifestation of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. The reference to the appearance[3] of a non-consuming fire resting on the disciples is reminiscent of the fire in the burning bush.

The advent of God’s miraculous fire served the purpose of inaugurating the worship of the tabernacle, the Davidic altar and the temple (Leviticus 9:24; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1). This inaugurating purpose of the divine fire is significant. The coming of the divine fire[4] was the sign of God’s acceptance of the people’s act of worship and a definitive seal of God’s approval upon the house that had been constructed for him. Some have suggested that the fire represented God’s presence in his house and as such was not permitted to go out (Leviticus 6:12-13).[5] In the initial descent of fire from heaven, God lights the fire that will consume all future sacrifices and offerings.

A connection between the Holy Spirit and fire is drawn elsewhere in the NT, for instance, when Paul warns the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Romans 12:11 speaks of maintaining the spiritual glow and 2 Timothy 1:6 of ‘rekindling’ the gift of God. There is also the puzzling reference to baptism with the Spirit and fire in Luke 3:16, which some have taken to refer to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

The concept of the Spirit’s kindling of the church may also be present in the book of Revelation, where the seven churches are figuratively described as seven lampstands (Revelation 1:20). John speaks of ‘seven lamps of fire’ burning before the throne, identifying these as the ‘seven Spirits of God’ (Revelation 4:5). G.K. Beale conjectures that these lamps should be understood to be burning on the seven golden lampstands of the churches (1:12ff), empowering them for prophetic witness.[6]

At Pentecost we witness the descent of the Spirit upon the disciples. Evoking a network of biblical symbolism, Luke depicts the initial kindling of the life of the Spirit that the disciples would thereafter be called to stir up and avoid quenching. Once again we see that Pentecost is an inaugurating event.

The Burning Ones
Fire is a prominent feature in biblical visions of the divine throne chariot or glory cloud (Exodus 19:18; Numbers 9:15-16; Ezekiel 1:4; 10:2; Daniel 7:9-10). As the realm of YHWH’s special presence is characterized by fire, the angels that serve in the heavenly council have a particular affinity to this element (e.g. Ezekiel 1:13-14).[7] In Hebrews 1:7, God is said to make his angels a ‘flame of fire’ (cf. Psalm 103:4 lxx), and 2 Baruch 21:6 suggests that angels are formed of fire.[8]

OT prophets were those who were summoned into the heavenly council and made participants in its proceedings (e.g. Isaiah 6; 1 Kings 22:19ff).[9] In being made members of the heavenly council, prophets were elevated to share the status of the angels. Such an elevation occasionally resulted in a physical transformation of the prophet, in a manner that made him comparable to the angels.[10] The prophet’s humanity was reconditioned by the Spirit that had taken hold of him.

In a lengthy exploration of this matter, Meredith Kline notes:

By virtue of his Spirit-rapture into heaven the prophet took on the glory that diffused the heavenly court.…
In becoming a participant of the divine council and a reflector of the Glory of the council’s King, the prophet also became like the myriad angel members of the council, those “sons of God” who bore the image of their Creator-Lord.[11]

Luke gives us an example of such a transformation in his description of Stephen in Acts 6:15—‘his face as the face of an angel.’ A similar transformation can be found in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration in Luke 9:29, which, like Acts 6:15, picks up the imagery of Exodus 34:29-35. Both Jesus’ appearance and his clothing are transfigured, appearing like those of angels (Luke 9:29; cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12; Luke 24:4).

As the Spirit takes hold of him, the prophet is transformed. He can be removed from one location and deposited in another (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 3:14-15; Acts 8:39-40). His movement is directed by the Spirit (Luke 4:1; Acts 8:29), much as the movement of the living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:12). In the cases of Elijah and Jesus, their earthly ministries were concluded by rapture from the world in the glory chariot.[12] While they did not cease to be human, their lives were now lived in a new environment shared with angels, elevated above the realm of men.

In the sound as of a mighty rushing wind in Acts 2:2 we hear the advent of God’s glory cloud. The tongues of fire upon the disciples are a sign of their inclusion in the heavenly council, along with the angelic host. Like the angels they can bear proximity to the divine fire, having themselves been set aflame. In witnessing the glory of God and his throne chariot the disciples are transformed, becoming like the living creatures in the vision of Ezekiel (1:13). The image of the prophet as one who burns with fire can be found in such places as John 5:35, Sirach 48:1 and Revelation 11:4.

Flaming Tongues
Luke’s use of the term ‘tongues’ in describing the fire that alights on the heads of the disciples is surely not coincidental. As it is used in the immediate context of the gift of ‘other tongues’ in the following verse, Luke would appear to be playing on the connotations of the word.

While this particular play on the word γλωσσα may be Luke’s own, the connection between speech and fire is certainly not original to him. Frequently cited to support the claim of allusions to the Sinai theophany in Luke’s account of Pentecost, the relationship that Philo draws between the divine speech and the divine flame at Sinai is significant here.[13] Divine speech is related to fire elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Psalm 28:7). The word of YHWH is spoken of as akin to fire in Jeremiah 23:29. In 2 Samuel 22:9, devouring fire is said to come from YHWH’s mouth, while in Isaiah 30:27 YHWH’s tongue is compared to a consuming fire.

That the descent of fire upon the disciples is a visible manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s power is commonly held.[14] The particular power of the prophet resides in his bearing of the divine word (Jeremiah 1:9-10), in his becoming an organ of YHWH’s speech.[15] The power which the Spirit gives to the church is that which is necessary for its task of witness-bearing (Acts 1:8). Consequently, the effect of the gift of the Spirit is chiefly to be seen in the empowering of the speech of the disciples. That an allusion to the organ of speech should occur in connection with the empowering fire that rests on the heads of the disciples should not be a cause of surprise.

The incendiary character of the words of the prophet is a recurring theme in Scripture.[16] The word of YHWH is as fire and fire proceeds from YHWH’s mouth when he speaks. As organs of YHWH’s speech, the prophets also have their mouths empowered and purified by divine fire. YHWH tells the prophet Jeremiah that he has made his words on Jeremiah’s mouth fire (Jeremiah 5:14). In Revelation 11:5, fire proceeds from the mouths of the prophetic witnesses.

Sirach 48:1 declares that the word of Elijah ‘burnt like a torch’. Perhaps it is not without significance, given our earlier discussion of the relationship between the prophets and the angels, that the angels of 2 Enoch 1:5 are also spoken of as having fire coming out of their mouths.

The employment of the image of fire in order to describe the relationship between the prophet and the word and Spirit of God is quite appropriate. The prophet is animated by a power that originates outside him, exceeds his own strength (Jeremiah 20:9) and is driven by a will to which his own will must be conformed. The prophet must also faithfully fulfil his duty, lest his Spirit-given power be extinguished.[17]

In Isaiah 6:6-7, in the context of an account with a number of similarities to that of Acts 2:1-4, one of the seraphim touched the lips of the prophet with a live coal, purifying his lips for future witness. What we witness in Acts 2:3 is closely related to the account of Isaiah 6: in Acts 2 the tongues of the disciples are kindled, equipping them as bearers of the divine word.

The Resting of the Spirit on the Disciples
‘…and it sat (εκαθισεν) upon each of them’. Against some commentators, Luke’s, admittedly slightly awkward, use of the singular form of the verb καθιζω at this point most likely has the distributed tongues of fire, rather than the Spirit, as its subject. Nevertheless, irrespective of the grammatical subject of the verb, as the tongues of fire are a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence, the tongues of fire and the Spirit are practically interchangeable as subjects of the action of resting on the disciples.

The account of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples at Pentecost has certain similarities to the account of the annunciation and of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The event of the annunciation, as described by Luke, has been described as a ‘Marian Pentecost’.[18] In both cases persons are given ‘power’ from on high.

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come (επελευσεται) upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow (επισκιασει[19]) you…” [ESV] — Luke 1:35

“And 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

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come (επελθοντος) upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” —Acts 1:8

The parallels between the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the disciples’ reception of the Spirit at Pentecost are even more significant, and have been commented on by a number of writers.[20] In Tractates on the Gospel of John, VI.3, Augustine remarks

Therefore, when He sent the Holy Spirit He manifested Him visibly in two ways—by a dove and by fire: by a dove upon the Lord when He was baptized, by fire upon the disciples when they were gathered together.

Besides the visible nature of the Spirit’s descent, there are some further relationships between the accounts. In both instances, the reception of the Spirit occurs in the context of prayer (Luke 3:21; Acts 1:14), involves a theophany, and marks the beginning of public ministry. Shepherd observes that, in Acts 2 as in Luke 3, the Spirit is presented as a ‘direct actor in the narrative’.[21]

Dunn helpfully relates these three events together as three phases of a salvation-historical movement:

Luke sees history as falling into three phases—the period of Israel, the period of Jesus, and the period between the coming of Jesus and his parousia. Jesus is the one who effects these transitions, and in his own life each phase is inaugurated by his entering into a new relationship with the Spirit…[22]

Dunn claims that Jesus—the ‘first-fruits of the future harvest’—preceded anyone else in entering into the new age of the Spirit at the point of his baptism.[23] A similar transition can be seen in the case of Moses, in whose experience the later experience of the whole nation is pre-capitulated.[24] Moses is drawn out of the water (Exodus 2:10), spends a number of years in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 2:11; 7:7) and receives a theophany at Mt Horeb (Exodus 3:1-10). In the Exodus Moses is the agent by whom YHWH delivers his people (Isaiah 63:11-13), bringing them to share in the experience which Moses has already undergone.[25]

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is a gift given by the ascended Jesus (Acts 2:33), who was the first to be baptized by the Spirit and who is qualified as Baptizer in the Spirit by virtue of his exaltation. At Pentecost Jesus brings his disciples to share in his own experience. That the baptism of the Holy Spirit was ministered by the ascended Jesus highlights the fact that, despite the analogies between the prophetic ministry of Jesus and the subsequent prophetic ministry of the church, the church does not possess the Spirit in the same way as Jesus does, as the Lord of, and Baptizer in, the Spirit. The prophetic ministry of the church is a participation in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, which is both its template and its constant source.
[1] Frank Polak in Marc Vervenne (ed.), Studies in the Book of Exodus: Redaction – Reception – Interpretation (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996), 129
[2] Ibid. 118n14.
[3] As with the other manifestations in the Pentecostal theophany, we are here dealing with the appearance of ‘tongues as of fire,’ rather than with something clearly identified as tongues of fires.
[4] Closely associated with the advent of the divine glory cloud in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3.
[5] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1979), 120. The significance of the ‘strange fire’ of Nadab and Abihu is this connection is explored by John C.H. Laughlin, ‘The “Strange Fire” of Nadab and Abihu.’ Journal of Biblical Literature, 95:561-562.
[6] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC series: Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 189.
[7] Though some dispute the etymological identification of the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2) as the ‘burning ones’.
[8] For a more detailed study of the relationship between the angels and fire, see Matthias Reinhard Hoffmann, The Destroyer and the Lamb: The Relationship between Angelomorphic and Lamb Christology in the Book of Revelation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 58.
[9] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 319.
[10] Hoffmann, The Destroyer and the Lamb, 58; Rick Strelan, Strange Acts: Studies in the Cultural World of the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 126ff. Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997) explores some of the texts that suggest ‘angelization’ in some depth, focusing on Luke-Acts.
[11] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 58.
[12] Kline, Images of the Spirit, 62-63. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1965), 40-41 argues that the cloud of Acts 1:9 probably should be understood as the cloud of the Shekinah.
[13] Philo, On the Decalogue 33, 46.
[14] E.g. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, 54.
[15] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2003), 22.
[16] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 580-581. A broader metaphorical relationship between the tongue and fire can be seen in such places as Proverbs 16:27 and James 3:5-6.
[17] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 231-232, commenting on the prophetic character of the lampstand imagery in Revelation 2:5, observes that the removal of the lampstand is to be understood as a consequence of the suppression of the Spirit’s flame in the church.
[18] John Breck, The Power of the Word: In the Worshipping Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1987), 152.
[19] Note the use of this verb in connection with the glory cloud in Exodus 40:35 lxx and Luke 9:34 (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit [Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996], 38-39).
[20] E.g. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 17; Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 64-65.
[21] William H. Shepherd Jr. The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts (SBL Dissertation Series #147: Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1994), 161-162.
[22] James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970), 40-41.
[23] Ibid, 41.
[24] On the relationship between the infancy narrative of Moses and the infancy narrative of Jesus, see Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 20ff.
[25] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 314: ‘Perhaps the active form of the verb used for the name mosheh, “he who draws out,” is meant to align the naming with Moses’s future destiny of rescuing his people from the water of the Sea of Reeds.’

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Acts, Bible, NT, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 4

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