When the second symbol for the Holy Spirit is introduced, as it is in verse 3, it is as “tongues of fire,” and not “fire” alone.
This is not just a way of saying that these were little flames. Tongues are that by which we speak. And when we speak, what do we do? We breathe out, don’t we? That is how we make our larynxes work. It is how we produce sounds. So the main point is reinforced again. When the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, enters a person to enable him or her to give out some of what God has first given that individual talks about Jesus Christ.
I wonder if you have experienced this phenomenon. Most preachers who are at all faithful in trying to explain the Scriptures know of it. They find that when they are studying a passage of Scripture to try to communicate it to other people, sometimes the Holy Spirit seems to take over and bless the work in such a way that people observe afterward, “When I heard you speak yesterday (or today), I felt that I wasn’t just hearing you. I was hearing God speak.” This is what we should be seeking.
The second image for the Holy Spirit in the account of Pentecost is “fire.” I have indicated how this symbol links up with the first in that it is introduced as “tongues of fire.” “Wind” and “fire” both involve speech. Yet there is more to this image than that.
What does fire chiefly symbolize? Well, we go back to the Old Testament again, and when we do that we see that quite often fire is a symbol of God’s presence. The earliest instance I can think of is in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, where God made His covenant with Abraham. Abraham had a vision. The vision was of God, suggested by symbols. Abraham had performed an ancient rite of covenant making. He had cut animals apart and put them in two rows on the ground. It was customary in his day, when somebody did that, for the two parties to the covenant to walk in the space between the separated parts of the animals and take their vows there. (The vow was understood to be particularly sacred because of the shed blood of the divided animals.) However, in this particular vision, Abraham slept; he did not participate. And while he slept he saw “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch,” which symbolized God’s presence, pass back and forth between the slain animals (Gen. 15:17).
The symbolism taught that this was a unilateral covenant. It meant that God was establishing it on His own authority entirely apart from Abraham’s participation. Sometimes there are bilateral covenants. Human beings enter into those. God does something and they do something. But this time God did not ask Abraham’s participation. Abraham did not have to do anything. God acted unilaterally, and the blazing torch and the smoking firepot symbolized His presence.
A bit farther on in the Old Testament we come to where God appeared on Mount Sinai. There the presence of God was symbolized by fire and thunder. It was a holy presence. No one was allowed to climb up the mountain to see what God was like, except for Moses who was invited. If a person did that, he or she would die. This is what the author of Hebrews was thinking of when he wrote at the end of chapter 12, “For our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (v. 29).
What does fire do? It does a number of things.
1. Fire brings light. We tend to forget this function of fire, because we live in an age of electricity. When we think of light, we think of turning a wall switch and having a bulb light up. In the ancient world, there was no electricity. So light came either by the sun or by fire. This is significant in terms of the symbolism of Pentecost, because it is a way of saying that when the Holy Spirit came upon these men, the first experience they had was what we would call “spiritual illumination.” That is why Peter could preach such a persuasive sermon. He understood the Old Testament as he had not understood it before. He was given ability to preach it to enlighten those who heard him.
Whenever the Gospel of Jesus Christ has gone into the world it has always brought enlightenment.
We live in a fairly bright age and forget how dark the world was before Jesus’ coming. We glorify the days of the Roman Empire, for instance, probably because of movies starring actors like James Mason. How could the Romans possibly be depraved if they were like James Mason! Or we look to the time of the Greeks. We think of the Greek philosophers and reflect on how enlightened the Greeks must have been. They were not enlightened. Oh, there were sparks of brilliance. Plato was brilliant. But you must know Plato’s own description of philosophy: the image of the cave and the symbols. He said, “We philosophers are like men in a dark cave. We look towards the opening, and there we see certain shapes illuminated from behind. They are silhouettes, and we cannot really tell what they are. The forms only suggest the reality that lies behind.” That was Plato’s description of philosophy. It shows that he knew that he was himself very dark in understanding. That he knew that is an indication of how wise he really was.
Apart from God’s self-revelation men and women have no more than a faint idea of who God is. But when the Gospel comes there is light. People can see as they could not see before. They can see who God is and what the Gospel is. Perhaps as significant as anything, they can see what they are apart from Jesus Christ and what they can be in Him.