When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2: 1-4
Why the “tongues of fire over the heads of the 120?” What’s that about? Put ourselves in the sandals of any First Century Jewish pilgrim in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, however, and the meaning of those “tongues of fire” would be stunningly, shockingly, breath-takingly clear. And we would barely be able to contain ourselves with wonder and with joy. For that Hebrew Pentecost pilgrim would draw upon the history of God’s work with his or her people to understand this event, much of it having to do with fire.
First of all, that pilgrim might remember the burning bush that Moses saw while he was out shepherding his flock, a bush that was not consumed by the fire that engulfed it. Out of that flame God spoke and said to Moses, “Take off your shoes; you’re standing on holy ground.” Then God revealed himself as “I Am,” and promised to liberate his people, enslaved in Egypt., with Moses as his spokesperson. Now, on this holy Pentecost day, in a holy place, are people aflame with a message from God, not a bush. The flame does not consume nor destroy them either, but fills them with courage and conviction for the message they carry.
Secondly, our First Century Jewish witness might think of the pillar of fire standing between the Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian army during Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. This flaming pillar of God’s presence would also guide and watch over the Israelites by night during their desert sojourn. It looked more like a pillar of cloud by day. In these Pentecost “tongues of fire” is evidence anew of God’s guiding, protecting presence for a people on a new Exodus toward freedom.
Thirdly, our First Century Jewish witness would surely think of the fiery sign of God’s presence that dwelt within the most sacred place inside Israel’s portable Tabernacle, and again in Israel’s First Temple. That fiery sign was called “The Shekinot,” Hebrew for “Glory.” Maybe we have heard it called “the Shekinah.” Only the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, would see that fiery glow of God’s Shekinot, or glory. But here in that upper room is again the fiery glow of God’s glory, visible for all to see.
But then our First Century Jewish witness to today’s Pentecost event would grow sad for a moment, remembering a terrifying event six hundred years before, just before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The prophet Ezekiel recorded this devastating, terrifying event in Chapter 10 of his prophecy:
“Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord. 5 The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks….18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. 19 While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. Each one went straight ahead.”
Ezekiel saw God’s fiery, glowing presence leaving the temple, leaving the Holy of Holies dark and empty. That was because the people had filled the temple with other idols, and were engaging in the worship of other gods and goddesses. And they were presuming upon God to protect them even while they exploited the poor, profaned the Sabbaths, ignored the Sabbath and Jubilee laws to release slaves and forgive debts, and engaged in many forms of immorality and injustice. Into the void of God’s guiding, protecting glory, came the Babylonians, to destroy the city and the temple, and to take Israel into Exile.
Yet our First Century Jewish pilgrim would know that even in that devastating, terrifying departure of God’s glory was a note of comfort and promise. There in the East, in the land of the Chaldeans, later called, “Babylonians,” Israel’s God had first contacted and called Abraham and Sarah to go west, to a land he would give them and their descendants. Even among the gods and goddesses of Babylon, Israel’s God had blessed and called their ancestors.
Where God had spoken to them before, where God went before them into Exile, God would be with them again. God had abandoned his temple in Zion, but not his people in Babylon. Ezekiel also promised that there would one day be a new temple in Jerusalem, and that to it, the fiery Shekinot glory would return from the same direction, through the same doors through which it left. In his vision of a new temple, Ezekiel included this promise:
“I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory…. 4 The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east. 5 Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” from chapter 43:
When the people did return from Exile and began to rebuild the temple, another prophet, Haggai, promised, “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty.” Such prophecies had generations of Hebrews like our First Century Pentecost pilgrim longing, waiting and praying for the return of the fiery cloud of God’s glory and presence to the second temple.
Except that the returnees from Exile did build a new, second temple, and the fiery Shekina glory never returned to it. Like most of his or her fellow Jews throughout history, our First Century witness would wonder about and grieve this prolonged and continued absence of the promised fire of divine glory, in spite of the promises of the prophets. He or she would believe that as long as God’s fiery cloud of glory remained absent from the inner sanctum of the temple, God and the Hebrew people remain yet in exile—that the exile is still not quite over–no matter how many of them had physical addresses in Jerusalem and Judea. Until that fiery Shekinot glory of God returns to his temple, God and his people together remain exiles in this fallen, alien world.
Or did the fiery glow of God’s presence make a return appearance? When three of Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus suddenly aglow atop a mountain at the ai event we call his “transfiguration,” when Christ’s “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Mt. 17:2),” might they have understood Christ’s bright and fiery glow as the beginning of the return of God’s glory to Israel?
Paul makes that connection to Jesus in these words to the Corinthians: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
The writer of Hebrews makes it all the more clear: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). That’s the point that John the Revelator is also making, when he describes his vision of Jesus in this way: “…his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace…his face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (Rev. 1: 14-16).”
From a Jewish Christian perspective, those passages are saying that the fiery sign of God’s presence and glory, to guide, to protect, to comfort and to purify us has returned from Exile, as promised, in the person of Jesus.
But that was the first installment on the fulfillment of the promised return. The second installment we celebrate today. Seeing the tongues of fire over the heads of those 120 followers of Jesus, our First Century Jewish witness to that Pentecost Day would ask, with bated breath, “Has the fiery Shekinot sign of God’s glory finally returned for good to dwell among us? His or her Jewish friends in the new church would answer, “Yes, the glory has returned, as promised, first, in the person of Jesus. And it continues burning among us and before us in the events you have witnessed today, in the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Then our Pentecost pilgrim would ask, “Does that mean that the Exile is now finally, really, truly, over?” To which one of the 120 might say, “Not quite. The Shekinot fire of God’s glory has returned as these tongues of flame, but not to lodge in a temple of stone made by human hands. The divine glory is dispersed within and among the people who are testifying to the mighty works of God. And since the Spirit moved these people to testify in the languages of the Gentile nations among whom they are dispersed, God intends for the glory of his power and presence to spread also among the Gentiles, as the prophets also promised. The glowing glory of God is back, as promised, but the temple in which that Shekinot glory of God glows is the growing, spreading church among the nations. So, no, the exile of God and of God’s people in this world is not quite over. But it is ending, and we are on the homeward journey, bringing people from among the nations with us. The Exile will not be completely over until heaven and earth are reunited as one temple, in which there is worship in the languages of all tribes, tongues and nations.
The promised, longed-for fire is back from Exile, as the prophets promised, first in the person and the passion of Jesus. Now it burns as the person, the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, but in a temple of flesh and blood, not wood and stone. The tongues of that flame flickering over the heads of the 120 tell us that we are each temples of the divine glory, and that together, as the church, we are the new temple housing the glow of divine glory.
I do not see any tongues of fire burning over our heads today. If I did, I would pull the fire alarm and we’d all walk, not run, toward the exits. But the divine fire seen on Pentecost still burns. It burns as the faith, the hope and the love of Christ’s people. It burns as the assurance of God’s love for us, and our hope for the future. The fire burns as “righteousness, peace and joy,” as well as in our longing for eternal union with God. It burns and glows as the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and the like. That fire of divine glory also burns and warms and gives light as the gifts of the Spirit listed in I Corinthians 12: prophecy, wisdom, healing, teaching, faith, mercy, encouragement and, sometimes, other tongues. The refining, enlightening fire of God’s Spirit melts fearful hearts, and make of us an interdependent community whose different gifts bless and build each other up.
Pentecost makes us, singly and together, that promised temple into which the fiery glow of God’s glory and presence returned, also as promised. Like in the Tabernacle in which God accompanied the Hebrews during the Exodus, this fire burns within and among a pilgrim people on our homeward journey from Exile among the nations, until we stand with fellow pilgrims from every tribe, tongue and nation in the temple that will unite heaven and earth, the New Jerusalem. Until then, let us trust the Holy Spirit within us and among us to guide us and protect us, to purify us of every false love, and to be the fire that gives power, warmth and light for Christ-like character, service and witness to the world, never again to leave his temple of flesh and blood, which we are by the gift of God’s Spirit.