Search the Site


Pentecost in the Book of Acts

He Qi

Acts 2:1-4 tells the story of a “big bang” event that energizes the earliest followers of Jesus soon after his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). According to the text, on the day of Pentecost, a popular annual Jewish festival in Jerusalem, a group of about 120 of Jesus’ followers from the region of Galilee (Acts 1:15, Acts 2:7) are suddenly “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Strange sights and sounds—wind, fire, and speaking in tongues—accompany this experience, as the Spirit enters them and these uneducated Galileans begin praising “God’s deeds of power” in the native languages of the crowds from around the Mediterranean world who had come to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11).

What do the signs of wind and fire mean?

The special effects include the “sound like the rush of a violent wind” and the sight of a tongue-shaped flame of fire resting upon the heads of each person in the group. These are powerful symbols of spiritual experience, though they are not to be taken literally. The people are not physically blown around the room, and their hair is not burnt. However they might “feel” or sense the loud wind and bright flame, they no doubt interpret these effects as evidence of God’s awe-inspiring, dynamic presence among them. Their sacred writings, the Hebrew Bible, provide the prime examples.

In the story of creation, a mighty “wind from God” sweeps over the unformed dark, deep space that God is about to transform (Gen 1:2). Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) closely link the word “wind” with the words “breath” or “spirit.” So “wind from God” could mean “spirit of God,” similar to the divine spirit that “breathed the breath of life” into the first human being (Gen 2:7). God’s spirit-wind also plays a powerful role in the exodus, the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. With Egypt’s army in hot pursuit, the fleeing Israelites come to the Reed Sea, where “the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” so that the people could safely cross over (Exod 14:21-25). God had earlier appeared to the Israelites’ leader, Moses, in a mysterious “flame of fire out of a bush” at Mount Sinai (Exod 3:1-6) and guided the Israelites out of Egypt in a guiding “pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exod 13:21-22). After crossing the Reed Sea, Moses returns with his people to Mount Sinai, where God makes another dramatic appearance, engulfing the mountain in smoke and fire and giving instructions (Exod 19:18), including the Ten Commandments. Evoking these well-known precedents, the Pentecost account in Acts 2 is meant to mark God’s formation of a renewed community imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is the purpose of spirit-filling in the story of Acts?

Apart from providing assurance of God’s dynamic presence and guidance, the infilling with the Holy Spirit has a more specific purpose related to the spreading of the Christian message. In his final instructions after his resurrection, Jesus tells his followers “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). Soon Jesus identifies this “promise” as the Holy Spirit and explains why God’s Spirit will be given: “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” (Acts 1:8). In other words, the Spirit will spur the early Christians to spread the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection throughout the Jewish homeland and into Greek, Roman, and other non-Jewish areas.

The Pentecost event offers a preview of this expanding “witness,” as the Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to communicate in languages from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). In this case, Jews from the Diaspora (regions outside the Jewish homeland) come to Jerusalem and hear about Jesus in their own local dialects. But this sets the stage for the early Christians’ movement from Jerusalem out to Judea, Samaria, and more distant territories inhabited by people who do not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, as the rest of Acts recounts (see Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 13:1-3, Acts 19:1-7).

  • F. Scott Spencer

    F. Scott Spencer is professor of New Testament and biblical interpretation at the Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012); The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles (Abingdon, 2008); and Journey through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading (Baker Academic, 2004).