Flaming Puns of Fire

How would you describe the indescribable, and please be descriptive? Doesn’t that sound like one of the modern tests our kids are facing these days? I don’t miss taking the college placement exams, not at all. I’m pretty sure, though, that first sentence was the challenge faced by the writers of Scripture. In whatever way they were influenced by the Holy Spirit, every writer’s challenge was to make what cannot be described in human language understandable to human creatures.

And so we have translations in English attempting to render in yet another language what had to be difficult to render in Greek when first written. Check this out:

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. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Acts 2:2-4 NASB

Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech. Acts 2:2-4 HCSB

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. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:2-4 ESV

Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:2-4 NET

They’re not that different, and each of these translations worked very hard at being as literal yet understandable as possible. Even so, you can discern word choices among them. Even though the same word is used in Greek for the “tongues of fire” and “other tongues” of speech, notice how some are “languages” and some are “tongues”. Was it a sound or a noise? What’s the difference? 

But notice the similarities. It wasn’t a rushing wind. It was a sound like a rushing wind. The tongues weren’t fire, they were as fire. Luke is struggling to describe the indescribable using simile. Does the description of what they saw suggest itself because of the similarity between “tongue of fire” and “tongue of mouth”? Why the sound like but not of a rushing wind? Was nothing blowing around? 

You can sort of get a sense of what happened, but not entirely. We’re still left grasping at tendrils of understanding, our imaginations struggling to fill in blanks. What would it have been like to experience the sound like that but see nothing blowing around except distributed “tongues of fire” that didn’t burn. Think of it. Where else did someone experience fire that didn’t burn? Perhaps a bush in the desert?

Wind that doesn’t blow, fire that doesn’t burn, and languages they couldn’t possibly know. Regardless of the differences in modern translations, the similarities are striking, and challenging.

Putting ourselves in that room, trying to imagine the sight and sound, and trying to wrap our heads around what was and wasn’t happening, that’s where our differences evaporate. This passage isn’t divisive, it’s inclusive. It wasn’t about excluding anyone of differing views, it was about unifying people from every language under heaven. 

The point was to bring everyone together to hear of Jesus’ redemption offer. The child we celebrate this season brings together all peoples and offers to reconnect us to our Creator. We are called to gather around a manger and worship our Creator. And while we may all be different, mostly by design, we are also all redeemed, also by design. As with any gift, we are free to accept it or reject it. 

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