Acts is short for “The Acts of the Apostles.” Yet when we look at the book closely, as we are doing—thinking not just of the historical flow of events and those through whom the Gospel was preached, but also about what was happening theologically—it is evident that Acts is actually a record of the activity of the Holy Spirit in spreading the Gospel through men and women of His choice, so that it could more properly be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Church.”
Acts tells what the Holy Spirit did to glorify Jesus Christ in the church through the early preachers of the Gospel. Chapter 1 leads up to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 2:1-13 tells of His coming. Then, from that point on, Acts tells of the Holy Spirit’s work. John R. W. Stott writes correctly that “in the early chapters of Acts Luke refers to the promise, the gift, the baptism, the power and the fullness of the Spirit in the experience of God’s people.”1
We should have chapter 1 in mind as we come to chapter 2, because chapter 1 promised the Holy Spirit’s coming. It is a way of reminding us that everything that happens in Acts is an unfolding of what God had said was going to happen. Again, in Acts’ version of the Great Commission we have an emphasis upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were being sent into the world with the Gospel. But they were not to go in their own strength. If they had gone in their own strength, nothing would have happened. At Pentecost no one would have believed—if the Holy Spirit had not blessed Peter’s preaching. The people would have ridiculed Peter, if they did not do something worse.
When we come to chapter 2, we find that the event we have been waiting for happens. But what does it mean? The only way to understand what it means is by the symbols the Holy Spirit has given to help us understand it. There are two of them. One is “wind.” We read in verse 2: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” The other is “fire.” We read in verse 3: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”
I emphasize that we ought to look at Pentecost in terms of these symbols because, if we do not, we inevitably get off the track—as, for example, by our contemporary preoccupation with the gift of speaking in tongues. If we read Acts 2 with our current interests in mind, the word that will probably jump out at us is the word “tongues.” But that is not the emphasis of the passage itself. It is true that the disciples did speak in tongues. But the way the Holy Spirit was presented to the disciples was as “wind” and “fire.” So it follows that, if we want to understand what the coming of the Holy Spirit was intended to mean, these are the images by which we must understand it. When we start with these two images it is clear that the most important is “wind.”
This is evident linguistically, though we have to stretch ourselves to appreciate it today, because to us “spirit” usually means nothing more than spirit, either the Holy Spirit or the human spirit. In the major ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek (in which the Old and New Testaments were written) and even Latin (which was spoken widely at this time)—the word for “spirit” was also used for “wind” or “breath.” So when Acts 2:2 says that they heard “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind,” the word also meant “spirit.”
As a result, no one who normally thought in either Hebrew, Greek or Latin would have missed the symbolism.
This is so important that it is worth thinking about a bit further. Notice, for example, that you cannot even say the Hebrew, Greek or Latin words for “wind” or “spirit” without taking a breath. The Hebrew word is ruach. You can’t say that properly without a strong sound of breath. It is pronounced ru-aaah. So what is true linguistically—that the word means both “breath” and “spirit”—is also conveyed sensually. You cannot say ruach without a wind sound. It is the same with the Greek word, pneuma, and with the Latin word, spiritus. So there is not one of these three great ancient languages in which a person could even say the word for “spirit” without an audible breath sound.
1John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990), 60.