1. The Descent of the Spirit (2:1–4)
1 When 1 the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in the same place.
2 Suddenly from heaven came a sound of a strong, rushing wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
3 Then there appeared tongues as of fire, distributed among them so that one settled on each of them,
4 and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit granted them utterance.
1 The day of Pentecost was so called because it fell on the fiftieth day 2 after the presentation of the first sheaf to be reaped of the barley harvest, that is, the fiftieth day from the first Sunday after Passover (pentēkostos being the Greek word for “fiftieth”). 3 Among Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking Jews it was known as “the feast of weeks” 4 (Ex. 34:22a; Deut. 16:10) and also as “the day of the firstfruits” (Num. 28:26; cf. Ex. 23:16a) because on that day “the firstfruits of wheat harvest” (Ex. 34:22a) were presented to God. At a later date it was reckoned to be the anniversary of the giving of the law on Sinai 5 —a not unreasonable deduction from Ex. 19:1, according to which the Israelites arrived in “the wilderness of Sinai” on the third new moon after their departure from Egypt (i.e., at the beginning of Siwan, about forty-four days after the first Passover).
2 On the morning of the day of Pentecost, then, the place where the disciples were sitting together was suddenly filled with what seemed like a great gale of wind from heaven. 6 It is perhaps pointless to ask explicit questions about this wind, for there is no likelihood of their being satisfactorily answered. Was it only the disciples who heard it, or was it audible to others? There is no way of knowing. What is certain is that the wind was held to symbolize the Spirit of God. When Ezekiel, by divine command, prophesied to the wind and called it to blow on the dead bodies in the valley of his vision, it was the breath of God that breathed into them and filled them with new life (Ezek. 37:9–14). And, probably with an allusion to Ezekiel’s vision, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Whatever else may be said about the disciples’ experience, this at least is clear: the Spirit of God came on them in power.
3 John the Baptist had foretold how the Coming One would carry out a baptism with wind and fire (Luke 3:16–17). In the disciples’ Pentecostal experience, then, fire had a part to play as well as wind: the manifestation of the Spirit’s advent was visible as well as audible. What appeared to be tongues of fire were seen, one of which lighted on each of them. Again, it is difficult to translate this experience into terms which will convey its true significance. As in the burning bush, fire denotes the divine presence (Ex. 3:2–5). Perhaps no one has expressed the spiritual meaning of the “pure celestial fire” which came down at Pentecost so well as Charles Wesley in his hymn “O Thou Who Camest from Above.” 7
It is uncertain how far the “tongues as of fire” are intended to symbolize the “other tongues” in which the disciples proceeded to speak. F. H. Chase suggests that, “at the moment when the illuminating Spirit was poured upon the Church, the sunlight of a new day smote upon the Apostles,” and he goes on to ask, “was it unnatural that Christians should see a deeper meaning in the sun’s rays streaming through the colonnades and the arches of the Temple and resting upon the Apostles, and connecting the sight with the wonders of Apostolic utterance which ensued, should play upon a not uncommon use of the word ‘tongue’ and speak of ‘tongues like as of fire’ resting on the Apostles?” 8
This implies that the “house where they were sitting” was the temple, but the fact of their “sitting” there seems to rule this out. Certainly the temple courts would be suitable for the gathering of the large crowds who heard Peter’s words (vv. 14–41), and if the disciples were in a private house when the Spirit first took possession of them (which is more probable), 9 they must have left it for the streets, or else their outburst of inspired utterance would not have made the impression it did. If they came into the streets still speaking with tongues, the crowds would certainly have gathered at the sound, and it may be supposed that they followed the disciples to the temple area, where Peter turned and addressed them. This involves reading more into the narrative than Luke actually records, but any attempt to envisage what actually happened involves that. 10
4 However the sensible phenomena are to be understood, the disciples’ inward experience is plainly stated: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” The spiritual baptism foretold by John and promised afresh by the Lord was now an accomplished fact. Being filled with the Spirit was an experience to be repeated on several occasions (cf. 4:8, 31), but the baptism in the Spirit which the believing community now experienced was an event which took place once for all. 11
In Old Testament times when men or women were possessed by the Spirit of God, they prophesied. So it was with Eldad and Medad when the Spirit rested on them in the camp of Israel (Num. 11:26), and so it was with many another. So now the descent of the Spirit on the disciples was attended by prophetic speech, but prophetic speech of a peculiar kind—utterance in “other tongues.”
Speaking with tongues, or glossolalia (as it is commonly called), is not an unparalleled phenomenon. Not only are the speakers’ words partially or completely beyond their conscious control, but they are uttered in languages of which they have no command in normal circumstances. Within the New Testament there is ample attestation of another form of glossolalia—it was a “spiritual gift” highly valued in the Corinthian church. Paul acknowledges that the Corinthian glossolalia is a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit, but deprecates the undue importance which some members of the church of Corinth attach to it (1 Cor. 12:10, 28–30; 14:2–19). As cultivated in the church of Corinth, glossolalia was uttered in a speech which no hearer could understand until someone present received the correlative spiritual gift of interpretation. But in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost the words spoken by the disciples in their divine ecstasy were immediately recognized by the visitors from many lands who heard them. Possibly “what happened on that occasion was that the multitude of pilgrims heard the Christians praising God in ecstatic utterances; and were amazed to observe that many of the words which they uttered were not Jewish or Greek words at all, but belonged to the local languages of Egypt, Asia Minor and Italy.” 12
The mere fact of glossolalia or any other ecstatic utterance is no evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In apostolic times it was necessary to provide criteria for deciding whether such utterances were of God or not, just as it had been necessary in Old Testament times. 13 Paul laid down, as a simple but infallible test, the witness which such an utterance bears to Jesus: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). A few decades later John takes account of a tendency in his own environment by insisting on a more explicit test: “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). The matter is more important than the manner; the medium is not the message. On the present occasion the content of the ecstatic utterances was “the mighty deeds of God” (v. 11), and the range of the languages in which these were proclaimed suggests that Luke thought of the coming of the Spirit more particularly as a preparation for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. The church of Christ still speaks in many tongues, and if her speech is not now normally of the supernatural order that marked the day of Pentecost, the message is the same—the mighty deeds of God. 14
2 The feminine form of the ordinal, ἡ πεντηκοστή (sc. ἡμέρα or ἑορτή), is first found as a name for this festival in Tob. 2:1 and 2 Macc. 12:32. On the significance of Pentecost in Acts see G. Kretschmar, “Himmelfahrt und Pfingsten,” ZKG 66 (1954–55), pp. 209–53; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London, 1975), pp. 135–56; I. H. Marshall, “The Significance of Pentecost,” SJT 30 (1977), pp. 347–69; A. T. Lincoln, “Theology and History in the Interpretation of Luke’s Pentecost,” ExT 96 (1984–85), pp. 204–9.
3 The Sadducean party in the first century A.D. interpreted the sabbath in the phrase “the morrow after the sabbath” (Lev. 23:15) as the weekly sabbath. While the temple stood, the Sadducean interpretation would be normative for the public celebration of the festival. Christian tradition accordingly has fixed the anniversary of the descent of the Spirit on a Sunday (the “fifty days” of Lev. 23:15 being reckoned inclusively). The Pharisees, however, took the “sabbath” of Lev. 23:15 to be the festival day of unleavened bread (on which, according to Lev. 23:7, no servile work was to be done); in this case Pentecost would always fall on the same day of the month (Siwan 6), but not on the same day of the week. The Pharisees could appeal to Josh. 5:11 (“the morrow after the Passover”), read in the light of Lev. 23:10–14. Cf. Mishnah Mənāḥôṯ 10.3; Tos. MənAḥôṯ 10.23.528; TB Mənāḥôṯ 65a; see also L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees (Philadelphia, 1946), pp. 115–18.
5 This reckoning perhaps originated in sectarian Judaism; cf. Jub. 1:1 with 6:17. It is first attested in rabbinical Judaism by Jose ben Halafta, c. A.D. 150 (Seder ʿÔlām R. 5), and then by Eleazar ben Pedath, c. A.D. 270 (TB Pəsāḥîm 68b). See B. Noack, “The Day of Pentecost in Jubilees, Qumran, and Acts,” ASTI 1 (1962), pp. 73–95.
6 Ephrem the Syrian (4th cent. A.D.) says that the house was filled with fragrance; this may be a reminiscence of Isa. 6:4.
7 This hymn (Methodist Hymn Book 386) is in origin a meditation on Lev. 6:13 (“The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out”), but the invocation of one who came from heaven to earth “the pure celestial fire to impart” is reminiscent also of the Prometheus theme.
9 The word “house” (οἶκος) is used of the temple as well as of a private house (cf. 7:47; Mark 11:17; John 2:16; Isa. 6:4 and LXX passim). According to Luke 24:53 the disciples, after Jesus’ departure, “were continually in the temple”; but the wording in Acts 2:2 suggests an ordinary house rather than the temple.
10 An argument for a setting in the temple is adduced by R. A. Cole (The New Temple [London, 1950], p. 38, n. 18); he points out that if the coming of the Spirit was manifested in the temple precincts there is a link with Ezek. 47:1–2, where the life-giving stream issues from beneath the threshold of the temple (a passage perhaps underlying John 7:38).
11 See comment on v. 38 below (p. 69).
12 P. Loyd, The Holy Spirit in the Acts (London, 1952), p. 32. Cf. also R. B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles (London, 1901), pp. 15–16: “Every new beginning in thought or life is inevitably accompanied by disturbance. There is the struggle with the old, and the re-adjustment to the new, environment. So the coming of the Spirit is followed by irregular and abnormal phenomena. Like Jordan, the full and plenteous flood of the Spirit ‘overflows all its banks’ (Josh. 3:15). At first the old worn-out vessels of humanity cannot contain it; and there is a flood of strange and novel spiritual experiences. But when it has worn for itself a deep channel in the church, when the laws of the new spiritual life are learnt and understood, then some of the irregular phenomena disappear, others become normal, and what was thought to be miraculous is found to be a natural endowment of the Christian life.”
13 Cf. Deut. 18:22 (if a man’s predictions fail to come true, he is a false prophet); 13:1–5 (even if his predictions do come true, but he seduces his hearers from their allegiance to the true God, he is a false prophet). See also the more pedestrian tests applied to prophets in the Didachē (11:1–12:5).
14 On glossolalia see K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of Paul (London, 1911), pp. 241–52; A. L. Drummond, Edward Irving and his Circle (London, 1937), pp. 236–70, 278–97, and bibliography, p. 300; J. G. Davies, “Pentecost and Glossolalia,” JTS n.s. 3 (1952), pp. 228–31; J. P. M. Sweet, “A Sign for Unbelievers: Paul’s Attitude to Glossolalia,” NTS 13 (1966–67), pp. 240–57; K. Haacker, “Das Pfingstwunder als exegetisches Problem,” in Verborum Veritas, ed. O. Böcher and K. Haacker (Wuppertal, 1970), pp. 125–31; W. J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels (New York, 1972); A. J. M. Wedderburn, “Romans 8:2—Towards a Theology of Glossolalia,” SJT 28 (1975), pp. 369–77; W. E. Mills, Speaking in Tongues (Grand Rapids, 1986).