Tongues of Fire

Why did the Holy Spirit appear as “tongues of fire” descending to rest upon each of Yeshua’s disciples?

Illuminated dove ascends on a worshiper

The sound of a violent, rushing wind filled the portico, but the disciples felt no wind. The sound seemed to descend from the sky, but not a breeze stirred the air. Hebrew uses the same word (ruach, רוח) for both “wind” and “spirit.” Yeshua taught, “The ruach blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Ruach” (John 3:8). The sound lasted only a few moments, but the noise of the rushing wind drew attention throughout the Temple courts.

As the roar of a great tempest descended upon the disciples, a blaze of fire appeared above them, separating into individual flames which rained down upon them like a shower of sparks dropping from a firework. Each flame momentarily came to rest upon an individual disciple before vanishing from sight. The tongues of fire represented the endowment of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit that rushed upon Yeshua as a dove when He emerged from His immersion in the Jordan.

The disciples were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Torah uses the same terminology to describe the endowment of God’s Spirit on Joshua, Caleb, Bezalel, and Oholiab. In those examples, the Torah likens a human being to a vessel. God’s spirit can fill a human being like water can fill a jar.

The symbolic value of the “tongues” is evident. The Spirit appears as tongues of fire because the Spirit will enable the apostles to speak articulately and in languages they did not otherwise know.

The Galilean disciples began to immediately speak and prophesy in a multitude of languages that they did not know. The Hebrew word lashon (לשון) means both “tongue” and “language.” For example, Judaism refers to the Hebrew language as Leshon HaKodesh (לשון הקודש), i.e., the “Holy Tongue.”

When the book of Acts says that they “began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:4), it preserves the Semitic idiom. It should be translated to say, “They began to speak with other languages,” that is, foreign languages they did not know.

Again—in biblical Hebrew, “tongue” is idiomatic for “language.” Hebrew uses the word “lip” in a similar fashion. The Hebrew word “lip (safah, שפה)” can also mean a language. If Luke had chosen to use the word “lips” instead of “tongues” in Acts 2:4, Pentecostal Christians today would seek after the gift of speaking in lips.

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