And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:3)
My youngest brother, Eli (there are three of us of which I am the oldest), enjoys Bible study as much as, if not more than, I do. He has a gift of looking deeper into Scripture than your average Bible reader, and he is always eager to share his insights with me. It makes for wonderful and enlightening conversations.
Recently Eli shared his thoughts on Pentecost and the “coming” of the Holy Spirit. Conventional thought maintains that the Holy Spirit did not descend upon the disciples until the Day of Pentecost when 120 of them were gathered in the Upper Room as instructed by the Lord Jesus. “And, being assembled together with them, [Jesus] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:4-5, emphasis mine).
This “promise of the Father,” most agree, is the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost in the KJV) which Jesus promised would come after He was gone. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7, emphasis mine). Luke, who also authored the Book of Acts, wrote more about the Holy Spirit in his Gospel (and Acts) than the other Gospel writers, including John. He records these words of Jesus before His ascension. “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, emphasis mine). Both Luke and John indicate that the coming of the Holy Spirit would come at a later time, and Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 seems to confirm Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit coming at a later time – ten days after His ascension.
However, John seems to throw a wrench into conventional thinking, as Eli points out. After His resurrection, Jesus met with His disciples, not just “the twelve,” on several occasions. In fact, Paul records that He was seen by as many as 500 at one time. On the evening of His resurrection (it was Sunday evening), John records that, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week [Sunday], when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you” (John 20:19, emphasis mine). They were startled as one might imagine, and Jesus proved His identity by showing His wounds. Then at this point, His ascension is still 39 days away, Jesus gives His Great Commission for the first time. “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:21-22, emphasis mine).
Well, that raises the question. When did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, on the Resurrection Sunday, or at Pentecost? Something so dramatic definitely happened at Pentecost that Luke records that 3000 souls were saved! Contrary to Luke, John records the giving of the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost in spite of his own record that the “Comforter” would not come until after Jesus was gone. It is very difficult to build a case on just one verse (John 20:22) when so many other verses seem to contradict, and Scripture never contradicts itself, even when we do not understand it clearly. “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). So what is the answer?
Eli suggests that the miraculous event at Pentecost was a “manifestation” of the “power” of the Holy Spirit. Take our own experience for example. We come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit on our spirit to convince us of the truth of God’s Word, convict us of our sin, and convey our need for the Savior. When that takes place and we trust in Jesus for our salvation, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives and instantly the “light comes on,” and we know that the transaction took place. For most of us, that moment comes quietly and without a lot of fanfare – certainly nothing like what happened at Pentecost. We do not immediately start speaking foreign languages previously unknown to us or performing miracles. We do not suddenly possess a deeper understanding of Scripture. That comes along through study and prayer, but it is the Holy Spirit within us that guides us into greater understanding. That comes with time and with the degree to which we submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
My point is that receiving the Holy Spirit is generally not some kind of dramatic experience. That often disappoints some who are expecting some sort of “rush” from the experience. That expectation often causes them to doubt that their salvation experience really “took.” Trust me. If you “believe,” it took.
So, when Jesus breathed on the disciples that evening in the Upper Room, nothing out of the ordinary took place, yet John records that they received the Holy Spirit. So what was it that took place at Pentecost?
Eli makes a distinction between receiving the Holy Spirit, which happens when we believe, and being “empowered” by the Holy Spirit to perform acts of which we were heretofore incapable, like speaking in languages we had not previously learned, or performing miracles of healing or raising of the dead – all of which the disciples did in the early church.
(At this point it is incumbent on me to stress that the “powers” granted by the Holy Spirit in the early church were for the purpose of giving evidence to the truth of the Gospel and for the purpose of edifying – building up – the church. It was not for the purpose of the personal aggrandizement of the individual.
All of these “gifts” still exist today, but they are always for the purpose of spreading the Gospel, and they are given only as the Holy Spirit determines, not the individual. There is not much need of that here in America because we all speak the same language, we have ready access to God’s Word – the Bible is freely available to everyone – and the Word of God is clearly preached on radio, TV, and the internet. If anything, we have such a glut of the Gospel that many just turn a deaf ear to it.
There is no excuse for anyone here in America not to respond to the Gospel. That was not the case at Pentecost. Jesus had just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Most people were unaware of that fact and the Gospel was brand new. In addition, at Pentecost, visitors came to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire. The Gospel message needed a special “kick-start” from the Holy Spirit!
By the way, all born-again believers are endowed with certain gifts of the Holy Spirit that are not as sensational as performing miracles or speaking in previously unknown languages. The ability to understand Spiritual truths being, I think, the most useful. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14, emphasis)).
So, as Eli points out, the disciples were already indwelt by the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them (John 20:22), but what they received at Pentecost was “power from on high.” This was a special “unction” – an “anointing” by the Holy Spirit. Luke records Jesus saying, “For John [the Baptist] truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:5, emphasis mine). That word “baptized” is the Greek word βαπτίζω (baptizō) which means “to make whelmed;” “to submerge; engulf; overcome utterly;” “to immerse, to overwhelm.”
Again, this event was yet future which goes back to Jesus saying that “the comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7). Could it be that Jesus referred to His departure at the cross when He died? Jesus also said, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:16-17, emphasis mine). So, according to Jesus, the disciples (the twelve at this instance) were already indwelt with the Holy Spirit. This was before the crucifixion, before His resurrection, before His ascension, and before Pentecost. This further indicates that the event at Pentecost was a special manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power for the purpose of “kick-starting” the Church, and not necessarily the first time the Holy Spirit came to reside in believers.
The Old Testament records many examples of the Holy Spirit empowering individuals to do God’s work. David experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and prays, “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11, emphasis mine). David’s request further emphasizes the temporary nature of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling individuals in the Old Testament. That changed with Jesus’ advent.
Eli then draws a parallel to the creation account in Genesis when God created Adam – Man. In Genesis 2:7 we read that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (emphasis mine). That “breath” was God’s Spirit distinct from the nephesh of the other creatures God created from the dust of the ground. That “breath,” to a certain extent, was lost at the Fall so that man died spiritually. Jesus restores that life once more when He once again breathes out the breath of life into His disciples, “and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22, emphasis mine).
Another interesting insight Eli has concerns the appearance of the “cloven tongues like as of fire” that appeared over the heads of the disciples at Pentecost. The description, first of all, is a simile – “like as of fire,” not actually fire. That they were “tongues” denotes the shape, and “cloven” indicates that they were divided either as a flame sometimes splits, or as candle-like flames distributed among the 120 present. Eli harkens back to the Tabernacle in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. God manifested His presence with the Children of Israel by way of a column/pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night over the Tabernacle. Today, God dwells within His children, born-again believers, by way of the Holy Spirit. “Know ye not that ye are the temple [i.e. “tabernacle”] of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, emphasis mine). So, like the pillar of fire over the tabernacle in the wilderness, the “tongues of fire” over the heads of the disciples signified the new dwelling place of God within the lives of believers. I found that to be pretty insightful! I really enjoy plunging the wonderful depths of God’s Word with my little brother, Eli!
If you are reading this, and it makes little or no sense, it could be that the Spirit of God does not reside in you, so that it is all foolishness to you. That will change when you trust in Jesus and receive His Spirit who will help your understanding. Read my page on “Securing Eternal Life.”
 I say the “first time” because Matthew 28:18-20, and Acts 1:8 record the Great Commission given immediately before Jesus’ ascension which was 40 days following His resurrection. John has Jesus giving His Great Commission on the same day (at evening) of His resurrection. Is this a contradiction? I do not think so. During His 40 days, I feel certain He reminded them often of what He expected of them and the final reminder was at His ascension.