Pentecost (meaning “fifty”) was one of the three great festivals of Judaism. Fifty days after the completion of the barley harvest, it was a time to give thanks to God for the completion of the harvest. Later, it came to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai. The festival was all about fulfilment, completion, and finality. It is most fitting, then, that the Holy Spirit should be poured out on the church at this festival. His coming is the evidence that Christ is risen and has ascended to God’s right hand; His work is now complete.
The coming of the Spirit is associated with the sound of wind (v. 2; cf. John 3:8) and the sight of fire (v. 3; cf. Exod. 3:2). The effect is that the 120 were filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 4; cf. Jer. 31:33, which anticipates this day) and they speak in tongues, so that the different language groups of verses 9 to 11 hear them disclosing the wonders of God in their own language. Luke records the range of responses—”bewilderment” (v. 6), “Utterly amazed” (v. 7), “Amazed and perplexed” (v. 12), and mockery (v. 13).
We may argue about tongues here, but note that the recipients did not speak in inarticulate sounds. The word “tongue” in verse 6 translates the original word “dialect” and is in parallel with verse 11, where the word used is “glossa” or tongue. The ideas are parallel—the “tongue” here is a dialect; here are people speaking in dialects without having attended language school.
The focus of these verses is that God has come to live within His people, and the immediate effect of this is the reversal of the scrambling of languages that occurred with the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). The Holy Spirit has come upon the church, and He enables effective witness. He is the Spirit, after all, who Jesus said would empower for witness (Acts 1:8).
Matthew Henry says the significance of this event “is to dignify and so to distinguish these men as messengers from heaven and therefore like Moses at the bush, the crowd will turn aside and see this great sight.”*
How do you think the Holy Spirit helps you in your witness? What do you think wind, fire, and tongues might symbolize about the Holy Spirit’s ministry?
*Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: Acts to Revelation, vol. 6 (Mclean, VA: MacDonald Publishing, 1985). F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004).