When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Text & textual features

The literary form of the Acts of the Apostles is a theological narrative that shows the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Throughout Acts, the Spirit is the principal mover of mission to the gentiles just as the Spirit was for Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

The Pentecost story is the first dramatic episode, the witness of the believers in Jerusalem.

The Pentecost story has three main sections, followed by an epilogue.

  1. The description of the event (Acts 2:1-4)
  2. The reaction of those watching (Acts 2:5-13)
  3. The explanatory speech of Peter (Acts 2:14-41).

This story alludes to the dramatic and symbolic language of the book of Exodus with the outpouring of the Spirit on Mount Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.

Exodus 19:16-18

By using fire and noise the author is making a direct association with this passage.

An interesting note that adds to the drama of this event is that the crowd itself calls out the places from where people are gathered.

Characters & setting

This text refers to ‘all’. This ‘all’ most likely includes the disciples, Mary the Mother of Jesus and a range of believers totaling 120 persons as stated in Acts 1:14-15.

The text begins in a house – where they are gathered in a room. The text then moves outside where the impact of the coming of the Spirit is made evident.

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Bewildered
There are a variety of terms used expressing the emotional reactions: ‘bewildered’, ‘amazed’, ‘astonished’ and ‘perplexed’. The following concepts are at the heart of this sense of drama.

Tongues & Tongues of fire
The writer plays on the multiple understandings of tongue, both the physical organ of speech and its communicative action. Parallel to this understanding of language is the image of ‘tongues of flame”. What appears to be described here is a central mass of fire, from which sparks individually ‘divided tongues as of fire, which came to rest on each of them’. The fire reflects the presence of God in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-12) and in the pillar of fire in the desert (Exodus 13.21).

This encounter influenced everyone present. Each person is called without distinction or division. The overall sense is that the empowering Spirit present to Jesus in his lifetime has now been distributed to those charged with the mission in the future ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts1:8)

Many scripture scholars refer to the gift of the Spirit as not so much the ability to speak in other languages but rather the gift of intelligible communication or the reversing of the division at Babel (Gen 11:7-9). The Spirit of God transcends all the boundaries brought about by human language and brings unity to all people over all the earth.

Wind/thunder
The presence of the wind immediately points to the Holy Spirit.

In the Old Testament, the word “ruah” (Hebrew) is used for wind and spirit. If you remember the Genesis story, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The wind here is “ruah” the breath of God; the Spirit. In the New Testament the Greek word pneuma (breath or wind) is used for the Holy Spirit, as it is here in verse 4.

Questions for the teacher