Pentecost is a long-standing Jewish harvest party, a Christian celebration as old as Jesus’ Church, and a Greek word that means “fiftieth.” And the Pentecost moment described in the New Testament is a 1st-century event in Jerusalem where people’s heads caught fire (sort of). At this event, an indoor windstorm swirled through a packed house party, and everyone was baffled—some panicked. And then the guys with fiery heads became spontaneously multilingual.
By itself, the Pentecost story in Acts 2 looks kind of bizarre. But seeing what happened on the day of Pentecost within Scripture’s larger narrative makes the story more clear. Luke, the author of Acts, is a historian, not a news reporter. He’s telling us what happened by drafting a story that intentionally maps onto repeated Old Testament patterns and themes. And this is not the first time that a divine, brilliant fire shows up out of nowhere and doesn’t burn anything up.
When we see the first Pentecost (in Acts 2) in context, it’s not just about God giving people instantaneous multilingual skills or the fiery sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. This story also marks the beginning of a new world.
The Ancient Yet New Fire That Pentecost Ignites
In the Hebrew Bible, mysterious windstorms with fire or lightning are consistently associated with two things: God’s presence and the formation of a temple.
Yahweh becomes present to Moses through the fire of a burning shrub called the seneh tree (which sounds a lot like “Sinai” and foreshadows what happens there later). In that famous scene, God speaks in Moses’ own language and tells him he’s standing on holy ground, implying this place is like a temple. And then God promises to empower Moses to help him set Israel free from oppression (Exod. 3).
Moses delivers his people from slavery, and they travel to Mount Sinai, where a bigger fire blazes on the mountain as a wind and fire (lightning) storm kicks up (Exod. 19:18-20). Like before, this fire signals God’s presence, marking this mountain as God’s dwelling place and a symbolic temple. The people are confused, amazed, and even panicking in fear (Exod. 20:18). But God assures them that he is partnering with them for their good, not to harm them. And he gives ten commandments for life that everyone agrees to follow.
Later, when the tabernacle is built on that same mountain, God shows up in a huge column of fire, hovering above it. The fire signals God’s presence and marks this space as his dwelling place. When Israel builds a permanent temple, the same fire shows up as God’s “dwelling glory.” This is a tangible sign that God’s presence has settled in his temple, in the midst of his people’s community life.
The stories of Moses and the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the tabernacle, and the temple all include fire that shows up when God’s presence arrives and marks his dwelling space or temple. In Acts 2, Luke is hyperlinking to these previous divine-fire scenes to give a background to the Pentecost story. The divine fire has previously rested on Yahweh’s temple spaces, so where does it rest in this scene?
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.”
It’s a temple made out of “each one of them.” It’s made of people. People will meet with God not in a geographic place or constructed space but in connection with those who choose to trust and follow Jesus. God’s fire shines with power and harms nobody, and it ignites a cosmic revolution, the Church. The story tells us that God now dwells within the community of Jesus followers. This living temple is made of people who operate like Jesus, ending fear and oppression with love and peacefully teaching humanity how to love and bless one another. In this sense, Pentecost marks the beginning of a new world.
When Is Pentecost? And How Does It Relate to God’s Kingdom?
For many liturgical and other church traditions, Pentecost Sunday happens 50 days after Easter, and it celebrates the beginning of the Church. Remember that at this point in the story, Jesus has already resurrected after his brutal crucifixion, and he’s been reconnecting with his messengers (the apostles) to give instructions for their upcoming mission.
Luke says that, after resurrecting, Jesus was appearing to the apostles and “speaking of things concerning the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). That would surely light them up with hopeful excitement. For centuries, God had been promising to one day end harmful human empires by establishing his own empire with us—by fully integrating his way of life in Heaven with our way of life on Earth.
With Heaven and Earth completely united, evil has nowhere left to linger. Establishing the Kingdom of God means ending evil, which happens not through violent force or coercive threats but through loving-kindness and patient forgiveness. It's a world compelled by love instead of fear.
Thrilled at this good news, these apostles are ready to roll! But Jesus echoes the prophet Isaiah and tells them to stay in Jerusalem. He wants them to wait for the time when they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” echoing the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isa. 32:15) and adding that this will happen soon (Acts 1:4-6). But they’ve got questions.
The apostles ask, “Is this the time you are restoring the Kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus tells them that the timeline details are “not for you to know” (Acts 1:7). They are bummed and confused, but Jesus assures them that this Holy Spirit baptism will empower them to be his witnesses throughout the world—everywhere and eventually to everyone (Acts 1:8).
This is the beginning of a new world. The old world creates enemies and divides people, falsely claiming that some are loveable and others are throwaways, but not so in the Kingdom of God! In God’s empire, all people mutually love one another without partiality (cf. Acts 10:34-43; Rom. 2:11).
The Significance of Pentecost
Pentecost sparked an international effort to include everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish, into God’s family, which is one reason we see the “speaking in tongues” miracle happening. In Greek, “tongues” can refer to real human languages, and that seems to be Luke’s point in Acts 2:8. He captures the question everyone was asking: “How is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?”
Jesus’ apostles are all Jewish and from a small world, the northern Galilean part of Israel (Acts 2:7). They speak the same language. So getting the good news of Jesus to the whole world with them alone would be tricky. Unless—what if the whole world came to them, and they quickly became multilingual?
In Acts 2:5, Luke says that Jews “from every nation under heaven” were gathering in Jerusalem at the time for the Pentecost feast. What is the Feast of Pentecost? This is a major Jewish harvest party—also called Shavu’ot, or the Feast of Weeks—that happened 50 days after Passover. It is one of three main festivals that brought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem for a big celebration.
The “whole world” had come to them. And when the wind and fire showed up, everyone was “bewildered because each one of them was hearing [each of the apostles] speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6).
It’s almost like Isaiah was foreshadowing this Acts 2 Pentecost in the Old Testament. Back when Isaiah was promising the eventual restoration of Israel, he spoke for Yahweh, saying, “You are my witnesses … and I am God. Even from eternity, I am he” (Isa. 43:12-13). Now, the people hear Jesus saying, “You shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That’s a whole-world statement—nobody gets left behind.
The apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and God’s deep, unbreakable love for all people. And to help them tell everyone from everywhere in the world, God empowers them to become multilingual right then and there, in the middle of a massive crowd of international travelers. Again, Isaiah spoke for Yahweh when he wrote about this kind of mission beforehand. “I will also make you a light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
This is the moment when God’s divine fire identified the new temple, the new place where Heaven and Earth overlap, which is the Church community made of Jesus’ people. Not a mountain, not a beautiful building or a sacred place or space—God’s temple is made with unexpected men and women. God’s dwelling place is in people who bear witness to the risen Jesus by choosing to live in his way of love. And the whole world is eventually going to meet God through this community of people who love God and others like Jesus does.
So what is Pentecost Sunday all about? It’s about this unexpected (yet expected) moment in 1st-century Jerusalem when the apostles’ heads caught fire, when a strange indoor windstorm swirled through a packed party filled with international travelers. It is the day foreshadowed by every wind-and-fire episode in the Old Testament and the day Jesus promised would happen as he quoted the prophet Isaiah.
It’s the moment his loving Church began, and it’s the beginning of a new, peaceful world. Happy Pentecost!