Not long after Jesus ascended into heaven, his bewildered friends huddled in a room together and wondered what would come next. Then it happened: “[S]uddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues of something like fire, branching out and landing upon each of them, and they were all filled with the holy spirit and began to speak in different tongues” (Acts 2:1-4). All at once, the disciples started preaching fluently in foreign languages that none of them had ever learned. Bystanders from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East heard these native Israelites telling the story of their savior in Latin, Greek, Egyptian, Phrygian. The Gospel was multilingual—miraculously so—from the very first time it was preached.

I believe this really did happen. But the enormous significance of the tale does not entirely depend on its being true. Even if you think miracles are humbug, you can recognize what this story meant as an emblem of the upstart religion that would soon “make disciples of all nations,” just as its founder commanded. The tongues of flame were said to have appeared during Shavuot, a Jewish festival commemorating the moment when God dictated his “teaching,” or Tōrah, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is held 50 days after Passover.

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