Tongues of Fire and the Fulness of God

by John Piper
Pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church
Desiring God Ministries

Sermon given October 14th, 1990


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par'thians and Medes and E'lamites and residents of Mesopota'mia, Judea and Cappado'cia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrg'ia and Pamphyl'ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre'ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine."

In recent weeks the argument I have developed goes like this:

PREMISE 1. The power promised by Jesus in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:49 is an extraordinary power. The experience promised is beyond the power of the Spirit in new birth and gradual sanctification. This is plain, I think, from the terms ("clothing with power" or "the Spirit's coming upon"), and from the effects of the power seen when it comes in the book of Acts (as here in Acts 2), and from the fact that the disciples were already born again before Pentecost (Luke 10:20; John 15:3).

PREMISE 2. This promise that the disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8) and that they would be clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49) was a promise given to sustain the completion of world evangelization, and all the ministry that supports it. The context of both texts makes that plain. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth."

PREMISE 3. The task of world evangelization is not yet complete.

CONCLUSION:. Therefore the promise of this extraordinary power to sustain and carry forth the work is still valid.

The lessons of history give a strong support for this -- namely, that crucial breakthroughs for the gospel have come because of periodic extraordinary outpourings of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards, the leader of the Great Awakening 200 years ago in this country put it like this:

From the fall of man to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable (i.e. extraordinary) communications of the Spirit of God. Though there [is] a more constant influence of God's Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions (i.e. outpourings), at special seasons of mercy. (A History of Redemption, Works, Vol 1, p 539)

In other words, from time to time, God has moved in extraordinary ways in the history of the Christian movement. He has poured out his Spirit in fresh, new, uncustomary, dramatic ways. These times have been called times of revival or awakening or reformation.

Pentecost was the first of these great outpourings on the Christian church, and until the task of world evangelization is completed, I believe it is our duty to pray for fresh seasons of the extraordinary outpouring of God's Spirit -- to awaken and empower the church and to penetrate the final frontiers of world evangelization.

So I come to our text this morning with no mere academic interest in some distant, unrepeatable event. I come with the persuasion that we have much to gain for our day of widespread deadness and powerlessness from the Spirit's work at Pentecost.

Let's begin in verse 1 of Acts 2 with the word "Pentecost": "When the day of Pentecost had come..." Why did Jesus choose Pentecost as the day when he would pour out the Spirit on the disciples? There are two possible reasons, which are really one when you stop to think about it. 1) On this Jewish holiday there would be a lot of pilgrims in Jerusalem from across the known world. It was one of the three Jewish feasts that called for a pilgrimage to the Holy City. It got its name, Pentecost (fiftieth), from the fact that it took place 50 days after Passover. 2) It was a feast of harvest. That's what it is called in Exodus 23:16 (cf. Deut. 16:10). In other words there was a beautiful symbolic significance: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in extraordinary power was meant for witness and world evangelization. And what is this but a great harvest in the field of the world. And that is exactly what happened -- 3,000 people were harvested for God and given eternal life on the day of Pentecost, the feast of harvest.

It's a shame that the term "Pentecostal power" has for many people become more associated with speaking in tongues than with the harvest of world evangelization. I'll come back to the miracle of tongues in a few minutes, but just be sure at this point that you see the main focus: it is a feast of harvest in Jerusalem, and on this very day, Jesus pours out the Spirit in extraordinary power and 3,000 people are harvested from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God.

Move now with me to verse 2 and notice the word "suddenly": "And suddenly a sound came from heaven." I focus on this word to drive home the point that the Holy Spirit is free and sovereign and not bound to anyone's timing or technique for how to get his power. We are to bank on his daily, indwelling presence and grace, walk in the obedience of this faith, and pray day and night for the outpouring of power from on high. But we cannot make the Spirit come. When he comes, he comes suddenly. He will never become anyone's bellhop. He loves and he serves. But he keeps his own hours. He knows what is best for us.

In the summer of 1871 two women of Dwight L. Moody's congregation felt an unusual burden to pray for Moody "that the Lord would give him the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire." Moody would see them praying in the front row of his church and he was irritated. But soon he gave in and in September began to pray with them every Friday afternoon. He felt like his ministry was becoming a sounding brass with little power. On November 24th, 1871 Moody's church building was destroyed in the great Chicago fire. He went to New York to seek financial help. Day and night he would walk the streets desperate for the touch of God's power in his life. Then suddenly

One day, in the city of New York -- oh, what a day! -- I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name . . . I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world -- it would be small dust in the balance. (W. R. Moody, The Life of D. L. Moody, New York: 1900, p. 149).

He prayed and he obeyed and he waited. But he did not make the Spirit come. He came suddenly. And when he came, notice that the effect was Pentecostal -- not this time in the experience of tongues, but in the harvest. When the Spirit comes in power he comes suddenly -- on his own terms and in his own time -- and he comes for harvesting.

Next, notice the wind and the fire in verses 2 and 3: "And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them." At times the Holy Spirit makes himself known with visible, audible, touchable manifestations. In the Old Testament there was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. At Jesus' baptism there was the dove. In Acts 4 the building shakes. In chapter six Stephen's face was like the face of an angel. In chapter 16 there is an earthquake. At times the Spirit stoops to give us visible, audible, touchable demonstrations of his presence and power.

Why he does this for some and not others, and at some times and not other times is part of his sovereign wisdom. He is not fire. He is not wind. He is not a dove. He is not a warm glow. So he will not use these manifestations in a way that allows us to confuse him with them. He is free. But when he pleases, there may be fire and there may be sound.

John White, the psychiatrist and missionary and author, tells us of his experience of the Spirit's manifestation:

On one occasion it was as I prayed with the elders and deacons in my home. I had tried to teach them what worship was . . . We then turned to prayer. Perhaps partly to be a model to them I began to express worship, conscious of the poverty of my words. Then suddenly (note the word!) I saw in front of me a column of flame of about two feet in width. It seemed to arise from beneath the floor and to pass through the ceiling of the room. I knew -- without being told -- knew by some infallible kind of knowing that transcended the use of my intellect, that I was in the presence of the God of holiness. In stunned amazement I watched a rising column of flames in our own living room, while my brothers remained with their heads quietly bowed and their eyes closed. . .

I felt that I was in the presence of reality and that my brothers were asleep. For years afterward I never spoke of the incident. The others who were present could not have perceived the blend of stark terror and joy that threatened to sweep me away. How could I live and see what I saw? Garbled words of love and of worship tumbled out of my mouth as I struggled to hang on to my self-control. I was no longer trying to worship; worship was undoing me, pulling me apart. And to be pulled apart was both terrifying and full of glory. (When the Spirit Comes with Power, p. 87-88)

This is what happened, it seems, to the disciples in Acts 2 when they saw tongues of fire and heard the violent wind. It filled them with an overwhelming sense of the presence of God. Until that moment we can imagine them praying (Acts 1:14) and reciting to each other the 23rd Psalm and saying, "Though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me," and rejoicing that God was with them -- he was right there in that very room. How did they know it? The Bible told them so. Just the way we know so many wonderful things: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Then suddenly something happens that utterly transforms their knowledge of God's presence into the experience of God's presence. They see fire on each other's heads and they hear a loud wind. And they are filled not merely with a deductive certainty of God's present reality based on Psalm 23, but with an experiential certainty based on the extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The fire begins to burn in their hearts (Luke 24:32) and in their mouths ("tongues of fire"), and the sound of the wind surrounds them and envelops them with the tokens of God's power. And they are simply overwhelmed with the greatness of God. And it begins to spill out in praise. Like John White, they are almost undone by worship -- so much so that some people say they are drunk (v. 13).

The reason I say they are overflowing with worship and praise is because of verse 11: "We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." Luke calls this the fullness of the Holy Spirit in verse 4: "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Being filled with the Holy Spirit here is being overwhelmed with the greatness of God. The literal translation of verse 11 is that they were speaking "the greatnesses of God". Since the Spirit was giving them utterance, and since the utterance was of God's greatness, I take the fullness of the Spirit to mean that the Spirit's experience of the greatness of God becomes our experience of the greatness of God.

The flames on their heads had set fire to the knowledge of God, and turned it into passion. And the violence and loudness of the wind had drowned out all the puny voices of doubt and uncertainty. And so every remnant of timidity and hesitancy and weakness is swallowed up in the experience of God's greatness. And a tremendous boldness and courage and zeal was unleashed as they gave witness to the greatness of God.

That's the essence of the fullness (or the baptism in 1:4-5) that they received -- an overwhelming experience of the greatness of God and a spilling over in courageous, passionate praise and witness. I don't say the miracle of speaking in other languages is at the heart of the experience because the Spirit fell on the church again in Acts 4:31 and the house was shaken and the fullness came and the passion and boldness was there, but there were no new tongues. Nor were there wind and fire. In other words, God seems to give whatever manifestations he pleases at different times. They are not the essence.

The speaking in tongues in Acts has a very definite roll to play. It's directly connected to the presence of people from all the nations who need to understand the great things the disciples were saying. In other words the miracle of tongues was a demonstration of God's sovereign power, and it showed that this power promised in Acts 1:8 really was intended to advance the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It was a token that God means for all peoples to understand his greatness and that he is willing to do miracles to make his glory known among the nations.

That leaves just one last observation from the text. And it turns out to be a caution to us. In verse 12 the demonstration of God's power in the miracle of tongues causes amazement and perplexity among everyone. "And all were amazed and perplexed." But the perplexity gave way to two very different responses. Some seriously asked, "What does this mean?" Others (in verse 13) mocked and leaped to a naturalistic explanation: "They are filled with new wine."

This is the caution: whenever revival comes -- whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in extraordinary power -- this division happens in the Christian community. Some genuinely inquire as to what this is, and test all things, and hold fast to what is good. Others stand outside and mock and write off the enthusiasm as merely human, "They are filled with new wine."

There are some signs today that we are in the first stages of a genuine, widespread awakening. Not the least of which is the undying desire and prayer in the hearts of so many of us at Bethlehem that God would rend the heavens and come down and revive his church and empower us for the final thrust of world evangelization. If this is true, what we need very much is discerning, expectant, open hearts that say, "What indeed is this?" and then listen for a Biblical answer.

Copyright 1990, 1998 John Piper