The Book of Acts is full of exciting stories! Coming on the heels of Luke’s epic narrative about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Acts provides keen insight into the early stages of the Church. The Gospels present the disciples as ordinary people, but here they are full of power and courage to spread the good news of Jesus. And the opening of Acts shows us just where that power comes from.
The first sentences of Acts remind us that the Spirit of God had not yet been given. Jesus said the Holy Spirit was going to baptize the disciples, and all they had to do was wait:
“And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
Then, at the start of chapter 2, something crazy happens. The promised Holy Spirit fills the room where the disciples were gathered. This story is pretty familiar to many people: a sound of a rushing wind broke through and filled the house, tongues of fire rested on each head, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit!
If you’ve been following BibleProject for any amount of time, you’ll know we firmly believe that the biblical writers are intentional about each detail they give, Luke being no exception. When the presence of God rushed in with a powerful wind and appeared as fire above the apostles’ heads, it would have ignited all sorts of imagery familiar to ancient readers. Their imaginations were filled with repeated patterns of wind and fire used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. However, as modern readers, we are not steeped in the scriptural images and concepts like the apostles were. We have to investigate the past to appreciate the rich details that filled this story.
Let’s dive in!
One of the first times that God’s presence appeared to all of the Israelites in a tangible way was at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. The people had just left Egypt and planned to camp at Sinai. It’s here that the Lord tells Moses that if they keep His covenant, they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). This is what He wants for the people. Moses proceeds to consecrate them, preparing the nation for this specific role of being a priestly kingdom.
Great! It’s time to make some formal introductions.
“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.”
God is powerful, so this sort of introduction makes sense, right? He comes in a powerful storm (“rushing wind”) and is accompanied by trumpet blasts, smoke, and fire (“tongues of fire”). This intimidating experience was apparently more than the Israelites were expecting because the people trembled in the fear (Exodus 19:18) and told Moses they did not want to speak to the Lord directly. So they appointed Moses on their behalf:
"You speak to us...but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."
Moses told the people not to be afraid, but even still, they did not go up to the mountain like they were supposed to (remember Exodus 19:13?). Instead, the Israelites stood far off (Exodus 20:21) while Moses spoke with God. At this point, I'm sure you're saying, “Hey, did you hear about the lightning and fire parts? Who would want to get close to a trembling mountain and a thundering voice?!”
Fair question, but this is the God that just delivered them out of the hands of Egypt with plagues, raging waters, and pillars of fire. Nonetheless, the people stood far off, and we read that only Moses drew “near to the thick darkness where God was." Moses was mediating for the people as their priest, which seems great, but this wasn’t the ideal. The entire people was to become a “kingdom of priests,” not just a “kingdom with priests.”
Since the people would not come to God, He would have to come to them. God gave Moses the specifications of the tabernacle, what it was to be made of, what was supposed to be in it, the structure of its contents, all of that fun stuff. This elaborate architecture and language was a prolonged drumroll which led to the big reveal in Exodus 40.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle… .”
Immediately after this, in verse 38, we are told that the Lord will lead the people during the night with a pillar of fire.
The presence of the Lord now had a resting place among the people in a tangible way, and sure enough, it was accompanied by wind and fire! But the theme doesn’t end there. Let's look at that same presence in Leviticus 9. Here, we see the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. The Lord accepted Aaron's offering, and Aaron blessed the people. As this happens, the glory of the Lord appeared before all of the people, and fire came from before the Lord and consumed the offering (Leviticus 9:23-24), similar to the scene in Exodus 19 and 40.
Back in Exodus 20, we saw the entire people of Israel turn down the opportunity to draw near and hear the Lord, so only Moses drew near to where God was (Exodus 20:21). Now here in Leviticus 9, we see that the presence of God was more fully experienced by a larger group of people, Aaron’s family, the Levites.
This is a huge step. The number of people who are able to experience the presence of God was growing, but this is still not what God wanted according to Exodus 19. Remember His desire was for an entire kingdom of priests. This event began to expand the reach of those who interacted with God, but the entire nation had not yet been touched, let alone the “nations” who were supposed to be blessed by Israel (Genesis 12:2). Even Moses alludes to this in Numbers.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
But at this point, only the priests had access to the direct presence of God. The selection of a group of priests that represented all of Israel is great, but it was not the divine ideal. God wanted to be personally present with all of the people, but now the people had to settle with God’s presence among a select few leaders. Instead of being a kingdom of priests, those who could experience the presence of God were only a tribe of priests yet again mediating to the people.
So we’re still not quite there yet.
The final passage we’ll explore is in 1 Kings 8. Solomon had just finished the temple, and the priests brought the Ark of the Covenant (where the Lord’s presence dwelled) into the Most Holy Place. Verse 10 tells us that when the priests came out, a cloud filled the temple. There is that “wind” again. And while the version of this story in 1 Kings 8 doesn’t have the divine fire appear from the sky as it did in Leviticus 9, if you turn to the parallel version of Solomon’s temple dedication in 2 Chronicles 7, guess what you find?
“Now when Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices and the glory of the LORD filled the house” (2 Chronicles 7:1).
Fire, wind, storm, and divine presence––it’s the whole package deal!
Imagine the beauty, the wonder, the majesty! It was a pretty powerful experience. But yet again, we see that the presence of God was confined to this one physical location: the temple in Jerusalem. This was a spectacular dwelling place, but it was still missing something: an entire kingdom of priests.
After looking at these four passages, we begin to notice two things. When God shows up in His holy space, there is a physical manifestation that says, “The Creator is in the house!” We also see that the scope of who has access to the divine presence decreases. It went from all of the Israelites in Exodus 19 to only the Levites and priests in Leviticus 9 and 1 Kings 8. Yet whenever the Lord is among His people, everyone knows it. It’s beautiful, glorious, and also terrifying.
At this point in the story, the hope was that the presence of God would remain in the temple Solomon built. But as the history of Israel progressed, the temple became defiled by Israel’s idolatry and injustice, and God eventually willed that it should be destroyed. (Check out the books of 1 and 2 Kings if you need a refresher!) Even when the exiles return, the purpose of the temple was never ultimately fulfilled (see the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. The purpose was to reunite God and His people, so that they could be the kingdom of priests.
When you turn to the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, they speak of the hope of a restored temple, a restored dwelling place for the Lord.
In Ezekiel, after he gets a message that the Jerusalem temple has been destroyed (Ezekiel 33), he has a series of visions about the future restored temple. He gets a virtual tour of the new temple in chapters 40-42, where he checks out the details, the rooms, and the furnishings. And it all ramps up to Ezekiel 43, where the glory of the Lord fills this new temple.
The prophet Joel also speaks to the future when the Spirit of the Lord will pour out on all people (Joel 2:28). This connects with chapter 3, where the Lord says He will dwell with His people. There will be a physical presence of the Lord among those who are His. So God dwelling with His people is connected with the Spirit being poured out.
So we walk away from the Old Testament thinking to ourselves, “When are God’s people going to experience the new temple, when God’s Spirit and glory comes to live among us, so that we all experience the divine presence and power that was only accessible to Moses and the priests?” This passage in Joel is the capstone of all the passages so far. God dwelling among His people by means of His Spirit is apparently the way that God would finally have His kingdom of priests!
One Greater Than the Temple
This brings us to the New Testament, where Jesus, who is called the “radiance of the glory of God,” dwells with His people (John 1:14). In fact, the word John uses here for “dwell” in the Greek means “to live in a tent,” referring to the tabernacle Moses set up in Exodus 40. Jesus set up a tabernacle among us! Jesus is the temple; He was the divine glorious presence of God in his physical person.
But Jesus did not stay in that mode forever. In John 16:7, Jesus said that it was better that He go (a reference to his coming death, resurrection, and ascension), so that the “advocate” would come, that is, “the Spirit.” When Jesus took on the likeness of humanity (Philippians 2:7, Hebrews 2:7-9), He limited Himself to being in one physical location at a time, just as the Tabernacle and the temple of the Hebrew Scriptures could only be in one place at one time. Here in John 16, Jesus is saying that when the Spirit comes, the presence of God will be available to all people. Then, in Acts 1:6-9, Jesus is enthroned over heaven and earth, but not before promising that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and give them power. With all of this background in mind, the disciples were expectant and ready for something new to happen.
“And suddenly, there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:2-3).
Looking at Acts 2 from this new angle, the descriptive images of wind and fire make a lot more sense. The Spirit of God came upon each one of the apostles in a magnificent display of wind and fire, just like it did in Exodus 19, Leviticus 9, 1 Kings 8, and Ezekiel 43! Now the presence of God is for all of God’s people, not simply a select few. Remember, Jesus called twelve disciples to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and the presence of God rested on each one of them! Every person in the room experienced God’s presence personally, not just priests from the tribe of Levi.
When Peter goes to speak to those who witnessed the event, he explains it all by quoting from––surprise, surprise––the passage in Joel that we looked at earlier. The Jewish people that were present in Acts 2 had come from “every nation under heaven.” This was the beginning of the fulfillment of all that God wanted for His people. What once only Moses could experience, then later only the priests could experience, is now available for all people to experience! The Lord finally dwells with His people and has made them a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9).
We Are The Temple
What does this mean for us? It goes without saying that this is all made possible because of Jesus! He said in John 14:16-17 that they will have the Spirit sent to them. Then in Acts 1, He promises that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Finally, in Acts 2, we see not only the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the presence of God coming to their fulfillment, we also see Jesus’ words find their fulfillment as well.
The presence of God inhabiting His people means that we are now part of the new temple, with Jesus being the center of it all, or as Paul puts it, the cornerstone:
“...You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Wow! Talk about a unified temple theology. Leave it to Paul to bring it all together for us. This concept of the people being the dwelling place of God, the very temple that His spirit would inhabit, just as Moses had longed for, is why Paul takes the manner in which believers live so seriously! (see 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).
The Hebrew Scriptures anticipated the day when the Spirit of God would be present among all of His people. The result is simply this: God’s holy space is now the people of God who have found their identity in Jesus and His finished work. The Lord wanted to dwell with His people, and He made a way for that to become a reality.