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What is Pentecost?

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NRSVWhen the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
πεντηκοστή pentēkostḗ; gen. pentēkostḗs, fem. of pentēkostós (n.f.), fiftieth, which is from pénte (4002), five. A fiftieth part. In the NT, Pentecost, the day of Pentecost (; ; ), one of the three great Jewish festivals in which all the males were required to appear before God; so–called because it was celebrated on the fiftieth day, counting from the second day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread or Passover, i.e., seven weeks after the sixteenth day of Nisan (cf. .; .). In the Sept. it is called the Feast of Weeks or the Festival of Weeks (). It was a festival of thanks for the harvest, which began directly after the Passover (.) and was hence also called Day of the Firstfruits (). Josephus tells us that in his day great numbers of Jews came from every quarter to Jerusalem to keep this festival.
Acts 2:1 NRSV
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

Also, during that ten-day wait between the Ascension and Pentecost they became increasingly aware of their need to be filled. During Christ’s life they had known his exhilarating presence. Even during the forty days between the Resurrection and Ascension they had repeatedly been blessed by his visits. But during these ten days the disciples undoubtedly felt empty. They were more aware than ever of the importance of their Savior’s presence—and now he was gone. The Master’s words recorded in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” were forever embedded in their consciousness. But their profound emptiness, as trying as it was, made them ready for Pentecost.

What happened to the apostolic band when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, what happens when the Holy Spirit personally fills us, and how can we prepare for it?


Verse 1 tells us that “the day of Pentecost” had arrived. This was fifty days after Passover, and that is what Pentecost means—“the fiftieth.” (It came literally as a week of weeks after Passover and was also called “The Feast of Weeks.”) Passover occurred in mid-April, so Pentecost was at the beginning of June. It was the best-attended of the great feasts because traveling conditions were at their best. There was never a more cosmopolitan gathering in Jerusalem than this one. It was the perfect time for the descent of the Holy Spirit of God.

A divinely arranged appropriateness in the feast of Pentecost provides the background for the giving of the Holy Spirit. Originally regarded as the “feast of the firstfruits,” it was emphasized by a special offering of two baked loaves made from freshly gathered wheat, designated in Leviticus 23:17 as “firstfruits to the Lord.” As the day of the firstfruits, Pentecost was eminently appropriate for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of 3,000 souls—firstfruits of an even greater harvest.

It was also fitting because by the time of Christ Pentecost was considered the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and thus it provided a perfect opportunity to contrast the giving of the Law with the giving of the Spirit. “The Spirit’s coming is in continuity of God’s purpose in giving the law and yet… the Spirit’s coming signals the essential difference between the Jewish faith and commitment to Jesus… the former is Torah-centered and Torah-directed, the latter is Christ-centered and Spirit-directed.” 1 Pentecost occurred by divine arrangement.

What happened on that special day?

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (vv. 1–4)

As the apostles’ heads were bowed in prayer, a breeze began to move across them, and then it was more than a breeze. Literally, “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently” 2 roared through the house like the whirr of a tornado, so that their robes flapped wildly. The Spirit of God was coming upon them! A fiery presence was in their midst, and (as the Greek indicates) it suddenly divided into separate flame-like tongues that individually danced over the heads of those present. Fire had always meant the presence of God. Through John the Baptist, God had promised a baptism with fire (Matthew 3:11), and now it was here. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and in an electrifying instant began to speak in other languages—literally, “as the Spirit continued giving them to speak out in a clear, loud voice.” 3 They spoke as clearly and powerfully as the Old Testament prophets.

This event may seem esoteric and mysterious, with its “wind,” “fire,” and supernatural utterance. It has a primal ring like the Greeks’ earth, fire, wind, and water. But in the Jewish context the phenomenon was perfectly understandable. The Hebrew word for “wind,” ruah, and the Greek word pneuma are both used for the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel used ruah to describe the Spirit of God moving over a valley of dry bones (representing a spiritually dead Jewish nation), so that suddenly there was thunder4 and the clattering of bones as they came together “bone to bone.” Then came the wonderfully macabre spectacle of growing sinews and flesh, and finally skin, and then Ezekiel’s words at God’s command:

Come from the fothey came to life and stood up on their feetur winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live… —a vast army. (37:9–10)

At Pentecost, the reviving winds of the Spirit came upon the apostles with incredible spiritual life and power. In a future day this will achieve final fulfillment in the Messianic Age. The apostles now had God’s life-giving Spirit in a more intimate and powerful way than they had ever known—than anyone had ever known.

First “wind,” then “fire.” Fire is a symbol of God’s presence throughout the Bible, beginning with Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:2–4) and continuing with the consuming fire on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:17). The fire at Pentecost indicated God’s presence, just as its resting on Israel demonstrated a corporate unity. However, a new significance came when the fire divided into flames dancing over the individual apostles. The Spirit now rests upon each believer individually. The emphasis from Pentecost onwards is on the personal relationship of God to the believer through the Holy Spirit. The inner pillar of fire burns away our dross, flames forth from our inner being, and brings to us a sense of God’s presence and power. The fire of God!

First “wind,” then “fire,” then divinely empowered utterance. In the Old Testament, inspired speech was regularly associated with the Spirit’s coming upon God’s servants, as in the case of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:26–29) and of Saul (1 Samuel 10:6–12). Pentecost was the day par excellence of such speech. To the observant Jew, it was easy to see that the Holy Spirit had come. When he comes to God’s people, he brings wind, fire, and utterance.

How did the apostles feel when the heavens began to roar so loudly that the sound attracted a vast multitude from all corners of Jerusalem? Surely there were some involuntary gasps or cries of surprise in the Upper Room. What was it like when the flames began flashing over their heads and they began speaking languages they did not know? Some began to speak in perfect Latin, others in an authentic Phrygian dialect. The burning expectancy of the last fifty days, the persistent emptiness, was suddenly fulfilled. What did they feel in relation to God and to one another? We get some idea from Ephesians 5:18–21, where Paul carefully explains the experience by first counseling the Ephesians to be filled and then explains what this means in four subordinate participles.


Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

There was communication! They were to “… speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” On Pentecost and the following days, through the work of the Holy Spirit, believers were united in the core of their beings, they shared the same secret, and they discovered a depth and joy of communication they had not previously known. This spiritual exchange was best expressed by reading and teaching the Scriptures and by worshiping God with music.

My own experience has borne this out in my relationship with my wife. If we are both filled with the Holy Spirit and are open to God, there is wonderfully fulfilling communication. I have also found this dramatically true in my ministry experiences at camps and weekend retreats. Often when a retreat begins everyone is at arm’s length. Some know Christ, some do not. Some are walking with the Lord, and others are not. But as the Spirit’s ministry takes effect, some confess Christ and allow themselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to appropriate the fullness of God. Everyone revels in the joy of the Lord at such times. Where there is the fullness of the Holy Spirit, there is communication.

There was also joy ! They were to “sing and make music in [their] heart to the Lord.” The inner music of their souls went right up to God. One of the memorable figures of the great Welsh revival was Bill Bray, the Cornish coal miner. Billy was so alive that when he would descend the shaft in the morning he would pray, “Lord, if any of us must be killed today, let it be me; let not one of these men die, for they are not happy and I am.” 5He was preeminently a man of joy. Once, in a somber meeting when the people were commiserating over their difficulties,

Acts 2:1–4 NRSV
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Ver. 1.—Was now come for was fully come, A.V; all together for with one accord. A. V and T.R. When the day of Pentecost was now come; literally, when the day of Pentecost—i.e. of the fiftieth day—was in the course of being completed. The fiftieth day (reckoned from the end of the 16th of Nisan, on which Jesus was crucified) was actually come, but was not ended (comp, Luke 9:11). All together; ὁμοῦ for ὁμοθυμαδόν: but ὁμοθυμαδόν—a favourite word in the Acts (ch. 4:24, note)—seems preferable to ὁμοῦ, which occurs only in St. John. In one place (see ch. 1:15, note). The purpose, doubtless, of their coming together was for prayer, as in ch. 1:14; and the third hour (9 a.m., ver. 15), the hour of offering the morning sacrifice, was close at hand (comp. ch. 3:1 and Luke 1:10).

Ver. 2.—From heaven a sound for a sound from heaven. A. V; as of the rushing of a for as of a rushing, A.V. All the house; showing that it was in a private dwelling, not in the temple (as in ch. 3:1, that they were assembled (see ch. 2:46). Perhaps the word “church” (ὁ κυριακὸς οἶκος) derives its use from these early meetings of the disciples in a house, as distinguished from the temple (τὸ ἱερὸν).

Ver. 3.—Tongues parting asunder for cloven tongues, A.V.; each one for each, A.V. There appeared. They had heard the sound now they see the tongues of fire, and then they feel the Spirit working in them (see ver. 34). Tongues parting asunder. The idea of the cloven tongue, i.e. a tongue parted into two, which is thought to have been the origin of the mitre, is not suggested either by the Greek or by the circumstances, and is clearly a mistaken one. Διαμεριζόμεναι means distributing themselves or being distributed. From the central apparition, or rather place of sound, they saw issuing forth many several tongues, looking like small flames of fire, and one such tongue sat upon each one of the brethren or disciples present. Each one. That Chrysostom is right (‘Hom.’ iv.) in interpreting the each one of this verse of the hundred and twenty, and not of the twelve, and the all in ver. 4 of all present besides the apostles, may be demonstrated. For not only must the all of ver. 1 refer to the same company as was described in the preceding chapter (vers. 15–26), but it is quite clear in ver. 15 of this chapter that Peter and the eleven (ver. 14), standing up separate from the body of the disciples, say of them, “These are not drunken, as ye suppose;” which is a demonstration that those of whom they thus spoke had been speaking with tongues (see also ch. 10:44). St. Augustine, too, says that the hundred and twenty all received the Holy Spirit. To the same effect Meyer, Wordsworth, Alford (who adds, “Not the hundred and twenty only, but all the believers in Christ then congregated at Jerusalem;” so also Lange). Farrar well remarks. “It was the consecration of a whole Church, … to be all of them a chosen generation, a royal priest-hood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (‘Life of St. Paul,’ ch. v.). Lange says, “Not only the apostles, but all the disciples, were filled with the Holy Ghost, … There is a universal priesthood of all believers, and the Holy Ghost is the anointing which consecrates and qualifies for this priesthood” (‘On the Acts,’ Clark’s edit., p. 67).

Ver. 4.—Spirit for Ghost, A.V. Other tongues (1 Cor. 14:21; Isa. 28:11); the same as the “new tongues” of Mark 16:17. St. Paul speaks of them as “the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1), and as “kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10). His habitual phrase is “speaking in [or with] a tongue [or tongues]” (1 Cor. 14:2, 4–6, etc.), and the verb is always λαλεῖν, as here. What these tongues were on this occasion we are explicitly informed in vers. 6, 8, and 11. They were the tongues of the various nationalities present at the feast—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Phrygians, Arabians, etc. This is so clearly and so distinctly stated that it is astonishing that any one should deny it who accepts St. Luke’s account as historical. The only room for doubt is whether the speakers spoke in these divers languages, or the hearers heard in them though the speakers spoke in only one tongue. But not to mention that this is far more difficult to imagine, and transfers the miracle from those who had the Holy Spirit to those who had it not, it is against the plain language of the text, which tells us that “they began to speak with other tongues,” and that “every man heard them speaking in his own language.” “Speaking,” said they, “in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” There may, indeed, have been something ecstatic besides in these utterances, but there is no reference to such made either by St. Luke or by the audience whose words he reports. The narrative before us does not hint at any after use of the gift of tongues for missionary purposes. In ch. 10:46; 11:15–17; 19:6, as well as in the passages above referred to in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the speaking with tongues is always spoken of—often in connection with prophecy—simply as all gift and a manifestation (1 Cor. 12:7) of the power of the Holy Spirit. In this case and in ch. 10:46 the subject-matter of the utterance is the greatness of God’s works; τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ Θεοῦ· μεγαλυνόντων τὸν Θεὸν. In 1 Cor. 14:2 it is “mysteries;” in ver. 15, “prayers and psalms;” in ver. 16 it is “blessing” and “thanksgiving” (εὐλογία and ευχαριστία). But nowhere, either in Holy Scripture or in the Fathers of the three first centuries, is the gift of tongues spoken of in connection with preaching to foreign nations (see Alford’s just remarks). Farrar (‘Life of St. Paul,’ vol. i. pp. 98–101) takes the same view, but is much less distinct in his conception of what is meant here by speaking with tongues. He adheres to the view of Schneckenburger, that “the tongue was, from its own force and significance, intelligible equally to all who heard it;” he agrees with the dictum of Neander that “any foreign languages which were spoken on this occasion were only something accidental, and not the essential element of the language of the Spirit.” He says, “The voice they uttered was awful in its range, in its tones, in its modulations, in its startling, penetrating, almost appalling power; the words they spoke were exalted, intense, passionate, full of mystic significance; the language they used was not their ordinary and familiar tongue, but was Hebrew, or Greek, or Latin, or Aramaic, or Persian, or Arabic, as some overpowering and unconscious impulse of the moment might direct, … and among these strange sounds … there were some which none could interpret, which rang on the air like the voice of barbarous languages, and which … conveyed no definite significance beyond the fact that they were reverberations of one and the same ecstasy.” The writer seems to suggest that when any real language was spoken it was one more or less known previously by the speaker, and that in other cases it was no language at all, only thrilling emotional sounds. Renan’s view of the day of Pentecost is a curious specimen of rationalistic interpretation. “One day when the brethren were come together there was a tempest. A violent wind burst open the windows, and the sky was one sheet of fire. In that climate tempests are often accompanied by an extraordinary amount of electric light. The atmosphere is on all sides furrowed with jets of flame. On this occasion, whether the electric fluid actually passed through the room, or whether the faces of all present were suddenly lit up by an extremely bright flash of lightning, all were convinced that the Holy Spirit had entered their assembly, and had sat upon the head of each in the shape of a tongue of fire.… In these moments of ecstasy, the disciple possessed by the Spirit uttered sounds inarticulate and incoherent, which the hearers fancied were the words of a strange language, and in their simplicity tried to interpret.… They listened eagerly to the medley of sounds, and explained them by their own extemporaneous thoughts. Each of them had recourse to his own native pat is to supply some meaning to the unintelligible accents, and generally succeeded in affixing to them the thoughts that were uppermost in his own mind” (‘Les Apôtres,’ pp. 66–68). Elsewhere (pp. 64, 65) he suggests that the whole conception of speaking with tongues arose from the anticipation on the part of the apostles that great difficulty would arise in propagating the gospel from the impossibility of learning to speak the necessary languages. The solution with some was that, under the ecstasy caused by the Holy Spirit, the hearers would be able to translate what they heard into their own tongue; others rather thought that by the same power the apostles would be able to speak any dialect they pleased at the moment. Hence the conception of the day of Pentecost as described by St. Luke! Meyer, again, fully admits, as “beyond all doubt,” that St. Luke intended to narrate that the persons possessed by the Spirit spoke in foreign languages previously unknown by them; but adds that “the sudden communication of a facility of speaking foreign languages is neither logically possible nor psychologically and morally conceivable” (a pretty bold assertion); and therefore he sets down St. Luke’s account of what occurred as “a later legendary formation,” based upon the existing γλωσσολαλία. Zeller, travelling a little further on the same road, comes to the conclusion that “the narrative before us is not based on any definite fact” (p. 205). Leaving, however, these fanciful varieties of incredulous criticism, and interpreting the statements of this chapter by the later spiritual gifts as seen in the Church of Corinth, we conclude that the “tongues” were sometimes “tongues of men,” foreign languages unknown to the speakers, and of course unintelligible to the hearers unless any were present, as was the case on the day of Pentecost, who knew the language; and sometimes languages not of earth but of heaven, “tongues of angels.” But there is no evidence whatever of their being mere gibberish as distinct from language, or being language coined at the moment by the Holy Ghost. All that St. Paul says to the Corinthians is fully applicable to any language spoken when there were none present who understood it. The significance of the miracle seems to be that it points to the time when all shall be one in Christ, and shall all speak and understand the same speech; and not only all men, but men and angels, “the whole family in heaven and earth,” “things in the heavens and things upon the earth” all gathered together in one in Christ. It may also not improbably have been used occasionally, as it was on the day of Pentecost, to convey doctrine, knowledge, or exhortation, to foreign people; but there is no distinct evidence that this was the case.

Ver. 5.—Now for and, A.V.; from for out of, A.V. Dwelling; either Jews come up for the feast, or perhaps rather domiciled at Jerusalem from motives of piety.

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