Tongues of FirePublished on: 25.5.2023
The Festival of Shavuot
By: Dr. Juergen Buehler, President.
For the Jewish people, Shavuot (Hebrew for “weeks”) marks the events described in Exodus 19, when God came down in flames of fire on Mount Sinai and gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites seven weeks after their Exodus from Egypt. This is considered the moment Israel was born as a nation, called to be a “light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)
For Christians, the same festival is known as Pentecost and also recalls the events of Acts chapter 2, when “tongues of fire” descended on 120 followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room, fulfilling his promise that “the Comforter” would soon come to them. The Church was born that day, and “endued with power” to fulfill its Great Commission.
A Universal Message
The Ten Commandments gave humanity an expression of God’s nature and character – His holiness and glory. God’s people were called to reflect that divine character in their daily lives.
The giving of the Law was a most awe-inspiring moment for the Israelites. The Bible indicates they heard the very voice of God speaking forth each commandment. Trembling, they pleaded with Moses that it was too much; that from now on God should just talk to and through him.
Rabbinical tradition holds that every word God spoke that day was like the stroke of a hammer on an anvil. With each stroke on the anvil, which was Mount Sinai, sparks (or tongues) of fire flew outward. A first century Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, maintained that it split up into seventy languages – matching the languages spoken among the seventy nations. In other words, Israel realized from the beginning that the Torah would be significant not only for Jews, but for all mankind.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that “tongues of fire” would later descend on human flesh on the Day of Pentecost, when praises to God were heard by “devout men, out of every nation under heaven,” and “that every man heard them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:5-6) Like Israel at Sinai, the Church received a universal commission to go forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth with a message of hope, salvation and love – based on God’s very character. It reached the entire known world at that time, and today people from literally every nation, tribe and tongue have been added to the divine movement sparked on the Day of Pentecost.
Tongues of Fire
One of the ancient Hebrew manuscripts found in the Qumran caves is called “The Tongues of Fire” scroll. The fragments that survived tell of how tongues of fire would descend on the High Priest and speak through the Urim and Thurim and the stones on the breastplate of the High Priest. Josephus Flavius gives a similar description of God speaking to the High Priest by illuminating letters engraved on the breastplate. In other words, to Jews of that day tongues of fire represented the unique privilege of the High Priest to communicate with God.
What a moment, then, for those who saw tongues of fire descending on the 120 on the Day of Pentecost. The fire did not come down on the High Priest, but on ordinary fishermen from Galilee, yes and even on the women. The message was clear: God wanted to communicate with everyone. Thus Peter stood up and cited the Prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)
Tablets of Stone
On the first Pentecost at Sinai, Moses descended with “tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18) When the Holy Spirit later descended on the early believers in Jesus, He came to write God’s laws on the human heart. That is a core essence of the New Covenant, according to Jeremiah 31:33 (see also Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). Even the most hopeless heathen can be transformed to display the very character of God. Paul says, “Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.” II Corinthians 3:3.
This was most powerfully seen in the disciples, who stopped fearing man and arguing about who was greatest among them, and united with “one heart and one soul” to boldly proclaim the Gospel.
Pentecost means God can transform our lives. May the Holy Spirit descend on us again with fire!