Today in the liturgy we hear the story of how the Spirit descended upon the disciples in the form of tongues of fire.
Why does the Spirit appear in this way?
John has written a great post on the readings for today. However, since he didn't touch upon this aspect of the story, I thought I'd deal with it in a separate post.
In short, I think the "tongues of fire" imagery is more consequential than many have realized.
I should note that the Letter & Spirit journal will soon publish an article of mine in which I explain the "tongues of fire" imagery with greater attention to the context of Luke-Acts. Consider this an "introduction" to the imagery.
The Restoration of Israel
In Jesus’ day, “messianic” hopes went hand-in-hand with the idea of a restoration of the tribes of Israel scattered to the nations. This is evident from numerous texts and has been observed by a plethora of scholars.
In fact, the idea that God would one day restore Israel from exile is even found on the lips of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. After first warning Israel that falling away from the covenant would mean judgment and exile, he goes on to say:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you this day, with all your heart and with all your soul; 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion upon you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you (Deut 30:1-3).E. P. Sanders has even gone so far as to say: “In general terms it may be said that ‘Jewish eschatology’ and ‘the restoration of Israel’ are almost synonymous” (Jesus and Judaism, 97). In addition, this eschatological ingathering would include not only the Israelites but the Gentiles as well.
But where would the tribes be gathered? The location was not in doubt; Israel and the Gentiles would united at the Temple. See, for example, Isaiah 2:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:2-3).Much more could be said. In fact, the book of Acts--and especially the account of Pentecost--is loaded with texts relating the fulfillment of these restoration expectations. See the post here.
Tongues of Fire
So how do the tongues of fire fit in here?
Notably, the imagery of tongues of fire seems to have been tied to Jewish beliefs regarding the heavenly temple.
This is clear in 1 Enoch, a book that was widely read in Jewish circles in Jesus' day. There tongues of fire are repeatedly linked to the heavenly temple. This is evident in 1 Enoch 14, which describes Enoch's entrance into the heavenly temple.
“…and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven. And I kept coming (into heaven) until I approached a wall which was built of white marble and surrounded by tongues of fire; and it began to frighten me. And I came into the tongues of fire and drew near to a great house which was built of white marble, and the inner wall(s) were like mosaics…And I entered into the house… And behold there was an opening before me (and) a second house which is greater than the former and everything was built with tongues of fire. And in every respect it excelled the other)―in glory and great honor―to the extent that it is impossible for me to recount to you concerning its glory and greatness… And I observed and saw inside a lofty throne―its appearance was like crystal and its wheels like the shining sun; and I heard the voice of the cheribum; and from beneath the throne were issuing streams of flaming fire. It was difficult to look at it. And the Great Glory was sitting upon it…” (1 Enoch 14:8ff).See also 1 Enoch 71 (as well as 4Q204 VI, 19–29).
Could it be that the author of Luke-Acts was aware of a Jewish tradition that linked tongues of fire to the heavenly temple?
A growing number of scholars seem to think so. See, e.g., G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (New Studies in Biblical Theology 17; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 206-8; Nicholas Perrin, Jesus the Temple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 63.
By linking the imagery of tongues of fire to the community of believers, the scene may be suggesting that the Church itself should be identified with the heavenly temple.
In fact, that the Church is the temple of God is attested elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, Paul explicitly calls the Church the temple in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The idea is also found in Ephesians 2:21, which describes the Church united to Christ growing into a “holy temple”.
Moreover, that Acts 2 appears to draw on the story of Babel from Genesis 10 may not be unrelated to such imagery. Beale shows that the "tower of Babel" was likely understood as a cultic structure, i.e., a temple complex.
Furthermore, we might also point out that the scene in Acts 2 shares many points of contact with Israel's encounter with the Lord at Sinai in Exodus 19-24. Notably, for ancient Jews Sinai was understood as a kind of "temple" experience.
Acts 2 may therefore have been read as describing how the ingathering to the heavenly Temple would be realized, i.e., not through warfare or an immediate heavenly ascent, but through the Church’s ministry.
By uniting oneself to the Church, one was gaining access to the heavenly temple. The Church therefore is not merely an earthly phenomenon―it is a heavenly reality.
The Heavenly Church in the New Testament
Of course, this kind of ecclesiology is evident elsewhere in the New Testament books. In addition to describing the Church as a temple, Ephesians also insists that believers now exist in heaven; they already "sit with [Christ] in the heavenly places" (Eph 2:6)
The heavenly dimension of the Church’s existence is even more clear in Hebrews 12.
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).
Note the language―not you will come to "innumerable angels . . . the assembly . . . spirits of just men made perfect . . . and to Jesus", but you have come. By the way, the word for "assembly" in Greek here is ekklēsia―"Church". The language here is also unmistakably cultic. The Church is therefore identified with the heavenly Mt. Zion, the heavenly temple gathering!
In the Apocalypse Jesus appears, surrounded by seven lampstands, each with seven “torches” burning. Of course, the vision of "lampstands" is rightly recognized by scholars as relating temple imagery. Yet we are told that “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). Christ warns the churches to obey him. If they will not, he will “remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent" (Rev 2:5). The idea seems to be clear: somehow the churches have a presence—a lampstand—in the heavenly temple. If they do not repent, they will be removed.
With scholars like Beale and Perrin, I would submit that Acts 2 envisions an ecclesiology similar to Ephesians, Hebrews and Revelation. The tongues of fire appears to evoke heavenly temple associations. Specifically, Luke describes how the long-awaited ingathering is taking place in the Church, which is identified with the heavenly sanctuary.
 Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 289-98; Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 299-338; Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 393-96. Especially of note is the recent treatment by Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission (Library of Historical Jesus Studies 331; New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 26-29, which offers an extensive examination of the presence of such hopes in ancient Judaism. Bird cites a number of texts where the restoration of Israel is linked with the idea of the salvation of the Gentiles either en masse (cf. Isa 11:6-10; 42:1-12; 49:6; 66:23; Zeph 2:11; Zech 2:15; Tob 14: 6-7; T. Jud 24:6; 25:5; T. Sim 7:2; T. Dan. 5:11; T. Ash. 7:3; T. Zeb. 9:8; T. Benj. 10:5; 2 Bar 68:5; Sib. Or. 5:493-500) or as merely a remnant (cf. Jub. 2:28; T. Naph. 8:2-3; Amidah 13; 4 Ezra 3:36; 2 Bar 42:5; 72:2-6; also cf. t. Sanh. 13:2; T. Naph. 8:3-4), acknowledging and praising the God of Israel (cf. Dan 3:28-29; 4:1-37; 6:26-28; Pss. 66:1-12; 22:27-28; 46:10; 96:7-10; 117:1-2; Ezek 39:7; 2 Macc 2:28; T. Jud 25:5; Bel. 41-42; Ep. Arist 177, 187-294; Jos. And As. 15:7-8) and accepting the Law of God (cf. Philo, Vit. Mos 2:36, 43-44; Sib Or 5:264-66; 2 En. 33:9; 48:6-9). A number of texts attest to the idea of Israel’s conquering of the Gentiles (cf. Num 24:7, 17 LXX; Pss 2:8-11; 10:15-16; 22:28; 46:6-11; 47:1-9; 48:1-8; Isa 49:23; 54:3; Dan 2:44; 7:14, 27; Obad 21; Zech 14:9; Amos 9:11-12; Zeph 2:1-3; 3:14-20; Mic 5:9; 7:16-17; 1 Macc 4:11; Bar 4:25, 31-35; 4 Ezra 6:26; Jub 26:23; Sib Or 3:49; T. Jud. 24:6; T. Zeb 9:8; 1 En. 48:7-10; T. Mos 10:1-7; Pss. Sol. 17:1-34; Philo, Praem. Poen. 79, 93-97; Vit. Mos. 1.290; Tg. Isa. 30:18-33; 1 QM 1:4-5; 6.5-6; 12:10-16; 19:3-8; Josephus, B. J. 6.312). However, Bird importantly also observes that in many texts the expectation of the destruction of the Gentile nations appears alongside hope for their (partial) salvation (cf. e.g., Isa 66:15-21; 2 Bar 72:2-6; t. Sanh. 13:2; Pss. Sol. 17:22-25, 30-31). Thus, Bird rightly concludes, “views of defeat and admission of the Gentiles were not necessarily mutually exclusive."