Perry Rihl

Tongues on Fire

The second chapter of Acts presents us with one of the most striking pictures in all of Sacred Scripture:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?… But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.” – Acts 2: 1-8,12

Pentecost. The birth of the Church. The descent of the Holy Spirit. The preaching in many tongues. This scene marks for us a turning point in history in which the practitioners of this fledgling Catholic faith were empowered in the Spirit to proclaim the Gospel to all that would hear them. And, fittingly enough, the occasion is marked by this beautiful image of the Holy Spirit descending, dividing, and resting on all gathered there.

But what is this fire? Aside from a visual representation of the gift that they were receiving, what is the point? Why does the author of Acts use the imagery of tongues and why, if this amazing vision of the Spirit rested on them, was it not mentioned as seen by the crowds outside? What we find, as the mystery of Scripture unfolds, is that the truth is so much greater than our simple language and the greatest pieces of art are able to depict.


It’s easy to look at the tongues of fire in all their glory and divine showmanship and think that the descent in flame is the central point of Pentecost. However, if we dive into the language presented to us (no pun intended) we can see that “tongues of fire” has a double meaning in light of the rest of the passage and the rest of the New Testament.

Sure, we can look at Fire as the noun described as it parts and rests on each in the form of Tongues, the descriptor. But we can see it the other way, in which Tongues is the noun, described as being On Fire or Of Fire.

You see in both Greek and Latin, the word for tongue(s) (Glossa and Lingua respectively) is also the word or language and speech. In light of etymology we can see that the Apostles certainly received more than physical fire resting above their heads. Their very speech was ignited, and was given the power to reach the hearts of the people outside.

We see that, like the tongues of fire that divided and fell on all in the upper room, the tongues, the speech and language of the apostles, divided and fell on the ears and hearts of all present in the crowd.

Nobody there from Asia, Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, Libya, etc., was amazed at the flame that rested on the head of those preaching. There were amazed and ignited by the words that came from their mouths.

Furthermore, we see that those who received the Holy Spirit were not just given power but they were changed. Peter, from that moment on, speaks and carries himself totally differently than in the Gospels. Paul, after receiving the Spirit, is given the fire to preach all around the Mediterranean. These men and women underwent a deep change that not only allowed them to go out and preach, but gave them a clarity and zeal that kept them from doing anything else.


So what bearing does this have on us? Simply put, we need to make the Holy Spirit central to the evangelical and catechetical missions of our ministries. We need to be calling upon Him to shake things up, to give us words of wisdom and encouragement, and to keep us zealous for souls. We need the Holy Spirit to change us, to give us hearts that seek out the lost in love. We need to ask Him to wipe out all that keeps us from marching on, and to give us the fire as well as the language to speak out and effect change.

Our Church does not have sidelines.

If we call ourselves Confirmed Catholics, it means that we need to take our ranks among the Church militant and boldly ask our Lord for our marching orders. As ministers especially, we need to take the next and larger step in our mission of faith. Either the things we do are building up the kingdom, or they are not. We simply need to lean on our Lord to set us on the right path, to give us the courage and the zeal, and to let Him pull us through to His Heart and His Victory.

Categories: Blog


Perry Rihl

About the Author

I love Thai food, old books, and stupid puns. I'm married to a beautiful, patient, and holy woman and I live and work as a youth minister in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. God allows me to lead worship and retreats all over the place and you can follow me on Twitter @dprihl.