Summary: The Holy Spirit shows himself in power. He purifies them to enable them to speak. He enables them to speak in a way that their hearers will understand. He enables God’s people to understand and interpret the Scriptures. He empowers them to speak the words
We worked out last week that the Acts of the Apostles is really the Continuing Acts of Jesus. Well, if Jesus has risen, has returned to his Father in heaven, how can he continue his work on earth? He needs to be present in and with his apostles doesn’t he? And that’s why he instructs them to wait in Jerusalem until the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out on them is fulfilled.
Well, the day comes at last. They’re still together; possibly in the upper room, but certainly in one place. And suddenly they hear the sound of a violent wind, filling the entire house where they’re sitting. Then tongues like flames of fire appear among them and settle on each of them. Imagine how they were feeling at this moment. If you were them, waiting for God to pour out his Spirit on you, I wonder what you’d be expecting. You might have thought back to the Old Testament examples of people to whom God’s spirit was given. People like Samson with his superhuman strength perhaps; or David with his great charisma that made him such a popular leader; or one of the prophets with their bold words of judgement on the nation or its king. But I’m not sure you would have been expecting all that happens here. Let’s think about what happens when the Spirit is poured out on Jesus’ followers here.
Well the first thing that happens is that there are these obviously supernatural signs of his presence - wind and fire. Notice Luke says the sound like the rush of a violent wind comes from heaven. There’s no mention of an actual wind. Rather this is a supernatural sign, a symbol of something that’s about to happen. Perhaps it signifies the power that’s about to be released in the apostles.
Where I live we’re surrounded by tall trees and when a strong wind blows you can hear it whistling through the branches. The first time I heard it I was really worried about how strong the wind must have been. I could just imagine it knocking the branches off one of the trees onto my roof. Just before we went to Germany there were news reports of a storm in southern Germany where people were being knocked over by the force of the wind. You can probably remember that Sydney to Hobart Yacht race a few years ago when all those boats were damaged by the gale force winds and a number of people drowned.
There’s no doubt that the wind is a symbol of great power, particularly something like this, the sound of a gale whistling through the rafters.
And then there’s the tongues of fire. Fire is a common symbol of purity in the Old Testament. Moses encountered God in a burning bush, the fire symbolising holy ground. When Isaiah was called you may remember that God sent an angel to him with a burning coal to cleanse his lips, so he could speak the words of God with confidence. The seraphim who surround the throne of God in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 1:13) are creatures of fire. So these things that seem to be tongues of fire perhaps symbolise God’s purifying of his followers. Certainly they symbolise their preparation for speaking forth the word of God. And notice that the tongues of fire separate and settle on each one of them. Here’s where this outpouring of the Spirit is different to those other Old Testament examples. Now the Spirit is given to every believer. We each receive, first his cleansing power, then we receive the words he wants us to say.
Look at v4. "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." This doesn’t appear to be the same sort of speaking in tongues that we read about in other places, like 1 Corinthians 12, because immediately we read that there are people from every nation under heaven visiting Jerusalem and they all hear Jesus’ followers speaking in their own language. So it would seem that the languages that are being spoken here are earthly languages, not the heavenly utterances that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.
You realise the significance of this phenomenon as you read on. This isn’t just some freak show act from the circus. No this is an event with great significance for the preaching of the gospel. Look at v11: "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power." If you wondered how these few disciples could preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, here we have the answer in microcosm. They can preach the gospel to the ends of the earth because the Holy Spirit will enable them to. Already on the first day that the Holy Spirit has been given, people from all over the known world are hearing the gospel. No doubt some of these will return to their homelands and tell others and so the gospel will spread. In other cases the Apostles and their successors will travel to tell them about Jesus. And so the gospel begins its spread to all nations.