The Holy Ghost and Fire
A sound . . . came from heaven . . . they saw . . . The gift had to be visible, so that the disciples might be roused through their physical senses. We are so slow to think about the gifts of God that unless he wakes up all our senses, his power passes away without our noticing. These physical signs prepared the disciples to understand more clearly that the Spirit Christ had promised had now come.
John Calvin commenting on Acts 2:2–3
During my years as a Pentecostal, praying for the “Holy Ghost and fire” to come was common. Typically the prayer would be for the uninitiated to receive the “gift of tongues,” or for the already blessed to have the spigot of “Holy Ghost” power turned to full. One of the main proof-texts for such requests was Acts 2:2–3:
And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them
In these passages we read of three signs accompanying the Spirit’s arrival: 1) the sound of a violent rushing wind; 2) visible “tongues” of fire; 3) and each person hearing the “mighty deeds of God” declared in his own language (vrs. 11).
For the purposes of this post we’ll focus on the second sign and see if it really refers to an ecstatic gift or buster-shot of power.
First, the sign is visible: It appeared to them. Or, as the New King James puts it, “and one sat upon each of them.” This differentiates it from the other two signs which were audible.
Luke uses the word “tongue” (i.e., that muscular piece of tissue in your mouth) to describe what the sign looked like: a flame, like that dancing atop a candle, resting upon each person. (This is similar to describing the decent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus as being “like a dove.”) Luke is simply being a good narrator by using a common element to paint a word picture.
Throughout the Scriptures fire is used to show both God’s glorious presence among His people (Gen. 15:17; Ex. 19:18, 40:34–38) and His all-consuming fire of judgment (Due. 4:24; Mal 3:2–5, 4:1; Heb. 12:29). Consider Luke 3:15–17:
Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ,
John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
"His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Here John the Baptist reveals that Christ will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Vrs. 17 makes it clear that the “fire” is the fire of judgment. This is significant because we see the church at Pentecost not being consumed by the fire. Reason being, Christ, as God’s sacrificial lamb (John. 1:29), bore God’s judgment in our place (Isa. 53:6; 2 Cor. 5:21).
"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!”
Jesus bears the baptism of God’s fiery wrath so that when He casts the fire of judgment upon the earth, His people won’t be consumed. That’s what’s taking place in Acts 2—the tongues-like-fire representing both God’s judgment (and our delivery from it) and His glorious presence among His people.
Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear
Peter reveals that on that Pentecost God fulfilled His promise and sent His Spirit. This makes the events of Acts 2 a unique part of Redemptive History. Pentecostals misapply these texts by reducing Pentecost to some personal, post-conversion experience. But it’s not about me and my experience—it’s about Christ and His glorious work of redemption.