The Fires of Sinai and Pentecost

A Twilight Musing

Over the past several years my wife and I have been studying and discussing the relationship between the images of fire and light in the Bible.  In a recent conversation, she asked the question, “Why was the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost accompanied by tongues of fire on the heads of those receiving it?”  As I thought about how to answer that question, I began to see that there is an associational relationship between the appearance of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire to inaugurate the New Covenant and the fire of Mt. Sinai to establish the Old Covenant.  In both cases, fire accompanies and ushers in the establishment of a radical new stage in God’s identifying and dealing with His people.   This comparison also brings out some interesting differences between the symbolic uses of fire in the Old and New Testaments.  Concomitantly, the difference between the terrible fires of Mt. Sinai and the more subtle tongues of fire at Pentecost is reflected in the spiritual significance of marriage in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

In Deut. 4 22-27, Moses recounts God’s speaking to Israel out of the fire on Mt. Sinai, and reminds the  people of their terror at seeing the fire and hearing the Lord’s voice.  Moses refers again to their being “afraid because of the fire” in Deut. 5:5, in his prelude to a reiteration of the Decalogue.   In connection with the first commandment, the prohibition against worshiping any other gods, God explains by saying, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  The most common association of jealousy, especially in the Old Testament, is with a husband’s proprietary response to any indication that his wife prefers another man.  Later, in prophetic rebukes for apostasy by the people of Israel, their infidelity to God is often pictured as an act of adultery, or a violation of marriage vows. The jealousy of God for His people thus reflects the patriarchal quality of marriages in the Old Testament, wherein, unlike the man, the woman was not given the option of divorce, nor did she have the opportunity to have more than one husband.  From customarily being given to the man by her father or some other male in her family, to being ruled by her husband, a woman needed a man as protector. There were, no doubt, loving, intimate relationships between husbands and wives in the Old Testament and under the Law, but the purpose of marriage was for procreation and social stability, not primarily to provide intimacy.  Therefore, for God to liken Himself to a husband who jealously guards his wife reflects a certain degree of formality in their relationship.

In contrast, the coming of the era of the New Covenant on the Day of Pentecost was accompanied by a gentler, though equally powerful manifestation of fire in the tongues of flame resting on the heads of the gathered disciples.  There was no terror in these flames, although the result of the power conferred by the Holy Spirit—speaking in tongues that were understood by all who were gathered in Jerusalem—caused wonder in those who heard the disciples.  This more subtle form of the fire ushering in the New Covenant mirrors a more refined concept of marriage than that connected with the beginning of the Old Covenant.  Whereas the coming of the Old Covenant was marked by the distancing of the people from God (who was pictured as a forbidding but jealous husband), under the New Covenant God, through His Son, is pictured (Eph. 5:25-33) as a husband who is willing to give His life for His bride, the church (the New Israel), and who wants to present her spotless to His Father. Under the Old Covenant, God’s holiness was a barrier to human intimacy with God, but under the New Covenant, God’s Spirit was an avenue to sanctification and intimacy with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit, a person of the Trinity.  This is not a holiness achieved by human effort, but a holiness bestowed by God’s loving grace.  The contrast between the distancing from God in the Old Covenant and the intimacy with God through the New Covenant is seen in Heb. 8:8-12, which is a quotation from Jer. 31:

8"The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
     declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more."

Heb 8:8-12 NIV

Thus, the Law ushered in by the terrifying fire of God’s unapproachable holiness has become, in the New Covenant, an intimate law written on our hearts, symbolized by the individual flames on the head of each believer at Pentecost.

To end with a different metaphor, those indwelt by the intimate Holy Spirit become “living stones . . . being built up as a spiritual house” (I Pet. 2:5), a temple in which the Holy Spirit also dwells (see I Cor. 6:16).  Moreover, we as a spirit-filled church are being prepared for presentation to the Father as the bride of Christ.   How beautiful and intricate are the Covenants of God with His people!

Image:By Jean II Restout - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)