Tongues of Fire

Although most of us have read Acts 2, where the Holy Spirit descends on Christ’s followers, it remains a mystery. This essay on the tongues of fire at Pentecost is a review of the meaning and yes, even controversy, in the literature on this Pentecost event.

At the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit manifested supernaturally. The disciples heard a sound that was like the rush of wind, but there was no wind. Yet, a sound filled the house. It was an invisible phenomenon that produced audible effects. Next, the disciples saw tongues like fire over the head of everyone in the gathered company. The tongues of fire weren’t brought in by a wind because despite the sound of wind, there was no actual blowing wind. The tongues of fire simply appeared.

The King James Bible Version describes the tongues of fire as "cloven tongues" (Acts 2:3 KJV), which causes us to think of the split foot of an animal. This description isn’t likely the meaning Luke tried to convey in Acts 2. Rather, the fire parted (separated, clove) and settled on each person in the room. Each person in the room shared equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Luke in Acts wrote that the phenomenon “looked like flames or tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3 NLT). This description is just that, a description. The description “tongues of fire” is a short hand, or Luke’s best description, of what was seen. Luke wasn’t in the house when the Holy Spirit manifested, likely, he got his information from Peter.

A minority of scholars proposed that the flame-like tongues appeared over the heads only of the Apostles; that is the original eleven apostles plus Matthias who was Judas’ replacement. Other disciples in the room, including women and Jesus’ brothers, didn’t receive the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account in Acts 2 doesn’t support this minority position.

Most paintings of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the 120 individuals in the house showed a flame, like a candle flame, over the head of each occupant. Often the flame was painted red. Reality, is that Luke didn’t record the color of the flame. It could have been red, white, orange, or blue. All colors would fit with Luke’s description of “tongue of fire.” The hottest fire burns blue; these tongues of fire represented the Holy Spirit. They could have been very hot, thus, a blue color. Likewise, Luke didn’t record the size of the tongue of fire. Were they 2, 5, or even 10 inches from top to bottom? I have the notion they were about five-inches tall; but that is just my perception.

Perhaps, how the Holy Spirit manifested isn’t as important as his effect. The Holy Spirit’s effect was to turn fearful, uneducated, inarticulate apostles and disciples into men and women of courage, who spoke and wrote with clarity. Any doubts in these individuals’ abilities were gone after the Holy Spirit came on them.