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TONGUES OF FIRE

Recently it was Pentecost Sunday, and at church we read the Acts account where “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2.3). Those present began to speak in tongues, each in their native language. This is a dramatic scene! Some denominations believe that speaking in tongues is evidence of a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. Often this conviction has led to division among Christians, and when this happens, it is the opposite of what the fruit (or outcome) the Holy Spirit promises: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” By the “fruit” of the Spirit, a word which almost all English translations use, it refers to the expected and natural outcome of the Spirit’s presence. The Holy Spirit does not suggest fighting about doctrine. What about “tongues of fire” above the heads of the recipients of the Spirit? Were they burned or did they have their hair singed? No, because “tongues” in that context is a figure of speech, and fire does not have a literal tongue any more than your shoes do. Tongues of fire” is what it looked like when the Holy Spirit came “upon” those believers. Jesus also compared the mystery of the Holy Spirit with the blowing of the wind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). He also said that Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7.38). When we received the Holy Spirit, there was no visible flame above our heads, and we probably did not hear the rushing of the wind or feel water flowing within us. But these analogies are powerful and inform us about the function and presence of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized by John, he “saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him” (John 1.32). The Spirit remaining on Jesus highlights the fact that it never departed. However, the location and presence of the dove are spiritual and metaphorical because John did not see Jesus walking around with a dove on his shoulder, and, of course, the Holy Spirit is not a dove. Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit were always one, but those present at Pentecost and at the baptism of Jesus were privileged to see both in a powerful way. Their unity was always present, just as it is with any believer. I often think and pray about and to the Holy Spirit. There have been times when I have felt his presence in an unusual way. Once, when I was a teenager and a new Christian, I was overcome by guilt and was praying. Something happened to the extent that I felt the power of God’s forgiveness in a different and refreshing way. Another time I was in the village in Papua New Guinea where Joice and I and our two children were living. We were about to have government guests, and I was concerned about my witness to them. As I was praying alone in my office, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit assuring me of his presence and help. That empowerment allowed me to witness, I believe, in a practical and powerful way and carried me through other important engagements. I don’t feel that kind of encounter and power as often as I would like. I did when I was with my wife Joice as she died. I was grief-stricken, but I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in a very personal way. I still sometimes get a hint of that power when I pray. But why only sometimes? Do I need a spiritual formula of some sort to assure his presence? I don’t think so. I am inherently a sinful man--born that way and sometimes live and think that way. Throughout my life as a Christian, I need the power of the Holy Spirit, but I don’t always express that need. Of course, I pray, but my prayers are hurried and vague. Contemplative prayer is difficult. There are many examples in the Bible of how the Spirit of the Lord (or God) gave people unusual power. Moses, for example, had “the Spirit of the Lord” and passed some of it on to seventy elders--at least for a time: “When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.” The power of God’s Spirit is evident again and again in the Old Testament. At certain times, the Spirit of the Lord gave special power to Elijah (1 Kings 18.46), Elisha (2 Kings 2.15), Saul (1 Samuel 10.11), Solomon (1 Kings 4.29), David (1 Samuel 16.13), Samson (Judges 16.28), Daniel, and many others. Returning to the word “tongue,” which sometimes stands for “language,” we read in Job 12:11 that the “ear tests words as the tongue tastes food” and that words can be deceitful (Job 20.12). We get a harsh lesson on the use of the tongue in the book of James, chapter 3:

  • Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (1.26)

  • Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark (3.5)

  • but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (3.8)

  • With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness (3.9)


The lesson for me is that the “tongue” or flame of the Holy Spirit can tame our human tongue so that we can help ourselves and other people, rather than hurt them (or ourselves). Karl Franklin

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