Where the wind blows

I’ve never lived in Chicago, but I know people who have. Frankly, I don’t relish the idea of living in a place where you sometimes have to walk at a 45-degree angle to the ground to not be blown over.

But we do have wind here in Southern California. The so-called Santa Ana winds can come sweeping down through the whole Los Angeles basin, toppling signs and structures and uprooting drought-ravaged trees. When that happens, it’s best to stay indoors. There’s power in that wind.

The disciples of Jesus — now his apostles, those who were no longer just learners but being sent forth with the message of the resurrection — watched their Master ascend to heaven. They went back to Jerusalem as instructed, to wait for the heavenly power they would need to be his witnesses.

That power came in dramatic fashion. Here’s how Luke describes it:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  (Acts 2:1-4, NRSV)

“A sound like the rush of a violent wind.” The story reminds me of God’s appearance to an exhausted and depressed Elijah. As the prophet stood in the safety of a cave, a violent wind battered the mountain, breaking rocks; this was followed by an earthquake and a fire. The Lord, however, was in none of these; instead, he spoke to Elijah through the still, gentle whisper that came after (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Not this time. Not on Pentecost. With a deafening roar, the Holy Spirit was revealed in the sound of wind and a vision of fire.

There’s precedent for this, of course. In Scripture, the glory of God is often associated with fire; John the Baptist had predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16), and Jesus himself had associated the Spirit with wind (John 3:8). Moreover, both the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” can also mean “wind” or “breath” (the connection is there in English, too — think “aspirate”). Here, the underlying idea is probably not of something intangible, but of an invisible, living, creative force (cf. Gen 1:2, where translators differ as to whether it was God’s “Spirit” or “wind” involved in creation).

The house where the apostles are meeting was filled with a thunderous wind; something like flames of fire appeared, separated, and came to rest on each of them. This is how the Holy Spirit came. And the immediate consequence was that they began to speak in languages that were not their own.

We’ll look at the significance of this more closely in the next two posts. But for the moment, let me briefly address one question: were the apostles speaking in tongues?

The easy answer is yes, because that is a fair literal translation of what Luke actually says. He uses the verb for “speak” and a noun that can be translated as either “tongues” or “languages” (the verb and noun, put together, give us the term glossolalia, but that word is not used here).

The not-so-easy answer, though, is: it depends. It depends on what you mean by “speaking in tongues.”

For many Christians — particularly those suspicious of their more charismatic brethren — “speaking in tongues” means something like “losing control and spouting gibberish.” If we hail from more buttoned-down traditions in which merely raising your hands during worship would make people gossip about you for the rest of the week, then speaking in tongues sounds like going off some spiritual deep end.

But let’s be clear about what was happening in Acts. One: the apostles were speaking languages they didn’t know. Two: they were doing so under the power of the Holy Spirit. And three: the languages were not gibberish, but known to others.

The apostle Paul himself had the gift of tongues, and acknowledged that it is possible to speak in a mysterious language that only God understands (1 Cor 14:2). There is no solid biblical reason that I know of to believe that this cannot still happen. But he emphasized that what matters most is not our own individual spiritual experience, but the edification of the church — and for that, what is said in tongues needs to be interpreted and understood by others (vss. 9-19).

It’s not right to think of speaking in tongues as spouting nonsense. Nor do we need to say that what happened on Pentecost was not speaking in tongues. But we must also remember that what the Spirit does is for the purposes and glory of God, and that includes building up the church. More on that in coming posts.