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. Speaking in tongues (Part 1) Tongues in Acts



Any discussion on the issue of tongues, what it is and what the Bible has to say about it is susceptible to become an emotional topic, as so much normally has to do with experience or the lack thereof. On the one side of the coin, if you do not see the issue exactly the same way as viewed by those who believe that they have this gift you are attacking their gift and therefore grieving the Giver, namely the Holy Spirit. On the other side of the coin, if you do support their view exactly as they see it, you are telling those who do not have this gift that they are basically not as spiritual as those with the gift of tongues. Opinions and theological perspectives are as varied as the number of movements in Christianity which means that there is not a singular approach to an understanding of gifts, the Giver and tongues in particular.

So to avoid these emotions I believe the best place to start is a commitment to ‘Sola Scriptura’ – Scripture alone. We are not going to use the experience of some or the lack of experience of others to try and understand the teaching of Scripture on this matter. I have spent hours listening to people on You Tube talking about tongues, what it means, why they got it, what the Bible supposedly says about it or not, and it simply gets confusing as so much of what they say is opinions and not Scripture. Some will even teach you how to do it in You Tube clips. The safest way is to simply align ourselves with Scripture, go through it systematically and draw honest conclusions from Scripture for ourselves. In doing that we need to be honest with the text and interpret our experiences or the lack thereof on the basis of the text and the text only. We cannot interpret the text on the basis of anybody’s experience, otherwise we find ourselves turning to man instead of turning to God for understanding of a gift that comes from God in the first place.

The difficulty in building a major theological understanding on the issue is partly because it is only discussed in Mark 16, Acts and in 1 Corinthians. There is no other mention of the gift of tongues in any of the Gospels or the other Epistles. Peter does not talk about it, James does not talk about it, John does not talk about it and neither does Jude or the Hebrew writer. The reference to the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with groaning that we cannot express in Romans 8:26 has nothing, zippo, zilts, niks to do with tongues. Any such approach to the text is an absolute forcing of the text to say what the text never meant to say.

The meaning of the word ‘tongues’.

We need to understand at the outset that the Greek root word  glossa {gloce-sah'} can either mean ‘the physical tongue, a member of the body, an organ of speech’ or ‘the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations’.

I concur with Wayne Grudem in his book ‘Systematic Theology’ that in the New Testament where the word ‘tongues’ is used, the meaning of ‘languages’ is certainly in view. It is unfortunate that the Bible translators kept on translating the phrase ‘speaking in tongues’ the way they did as it is not in keeping with ordinary English and completely foreign to human life. Using the term ‘speaking in languages’ would give the reader a much closer understanding of how first century Greek speaking readers would understand the phrase. Now because the term ‘speaking in tongues’ is so widely established and fixed in the popular mind, I will continue to use this phrase rather than the more accurate ‘speaking in languages’.  We all know that you use your tongue in speech, you don’t speak in tongues. What is meant then by ‘languages’ or ‘tongues’ we will discover as we deal with the text.

The best way to now continue through this study is to tackle the verses dealing with the subject systematically from beginning to end with no personal agenda in mind. Surely we all want to stand before God and proclaim that we simply sought to be as honest with Scripture as we possibly can be, even if we arrived at the end of our study with some tensions regarding our understanding of the subject hanging in the air. None of us can afford to be dishonest with Scripture by putting forward a personal agenda.

Tongues-Speaking in Acts 2 at Jerusalem (Day of Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-12 (ESV) “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Scripture is quite clear here that on this day the disciples were filled with the Spirit and given the ability to speak a language that was not their own. The evidence that it was foreign languages is quite clear in verse 8 where the crowd confesses that they are all hearing these Galileans speaking in known languages that belonged to the crowd and not to the speakers. As a result according to verse 12 they were amazed, astonished (v7) and perplexed.

This experience on the Day of Pentecost is the most dramatic "tongues" incident described in the Bible. This is the most complete description and the understanding is clear. Let's note a few details about it:

  • There were three miracles: a miraculous sound, an appearance like fire and speaking in other tongues.
  • The "other tongues" were languages currently understandable by Jews from other nations. No interpreters were needed.
  • The crowd may have thought the miracle was in the hearing (verses 6, 8, 11), but the biblical writers call it a miracle of speaking (verses 4, 18).
  • Some people ridiculed the apostles and accused them of being drunk (verse 13).
  • There is no indication that Peter's sermon, beginning in verse 14, was given in a miraculous "tongue."
  • Peter proclaimed to those who accepted his message that they should repent and be baptized and thereby "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (verse 38). This promise applies to Christians of every century, but the verse does not make clear whether the "gift of the Holy Spirit" means that the Holy Spirit is the gift, or whether Peter meant that, in addition to receiving the Holy Spirit, they would receive speaking in tongues or some other manifestation of the Spirit as the gift. Further examples in Acts lean heavily to the Holy Spirit being the gift. Acts 19 is one example.
  • Peter spoke of repentance and baptism, but he did not describe any other action needed for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • Thousands were baptized, and many miracles were done (verses 41-43), but there is no further mention of miraculous tongues on that occasion. There is no indication in Acts 2 that any of the crowd received the “gift of tongues.”

In the way the story is told in Acts, the apostles' miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages was only one of many kinds of miracles experienced by the early church. Acts describes many other miracles as God guided the new church into growth through the Holy Spirit. None of those miracles is presented as a requirement for every Christian.

The book of Acts describes two other occurrences of speaking in tongues — one in Caesarea and one in Ephesus. We'll examine those passages next. (Some scholars say that Acts 8:14-18 reports a tongue-speaking incident in Samaria. The Holy Spirit came upon people in some noticeable way, but there is no mention of tongues, so we do not learn anything about tongues in that passage.)

Tongues-Speaking in Acts 10:44-46 at Caesarea

Acts 10:44-46 (ESV) 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared,”

The second description of speaking in tongues comes when non-Israelites were first added to the church — perhaps 10 years after Christ's death and resurrection. Up until that time, the church had been primarily Jewish. The apostle Peter had been invited to the house of Cornelius, a gentile (non-Jewish) army officer in Caesarea who worshiped the true God (Acts 10:24-25). Many people were in the house, and Peter told them about Jesus Christ, faith and forgiveness (verses 27, 34-43).

"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message" (verse 44). The Jews with Peter "were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God" (verses 45-46).

It is difficult to discern from this brief mention what these "tongues" sounded like. It says nothing about interpreters, for example, or foreign languages. Nor does it say that the gentiles were seeking the gift of tongues; they simply listened to the gospel and believed. The "tongues" were regarded as miraculous, and Acts 11:15 indicates they were similar to the tongues mentioned in Acts 2. Listen to the report by Peter of what happened in Acts 10:44-46. Acts 11:15 (ESV) “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.”

The miraculous tongues of Acts 10, combined with the miracle of Acts 2, helped Jewish Christians realize that God was adding non-Jewish people to the church. Since religious Jews had traditionally separated themselves from gentiles, God used a special sign to demonstrate to the Jewish Christians that he had also accepted gentiles as his children (Acts 15:7-8). We will see more of this when we get to Corinthians.

Tongue-Speaking in Acts 19:1-6  at Ephesus.

Acts 19:1-6 (ESV) “And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.”

Christianity continued to expand to new geographic regions and include more people. The third and final example of tongues from the book of Acts occurred in the city of Ephesus. Paul found some disciples who followed the teachings of John the Baptist. They didn't know about the Holy Spirit, so Paul informed them more fully, and taught them that John told people to believe in Jesus (Acts 19:1-4). Remember that we do not have a full record of all that was said and done. We simply have a summary of the key events according to Luke’s style in Acts.

We do not have proof, but we could conclude that this again was similar or the same as what we read about in Acts 2. Remember that these believers did not even know that there was a Holy Spirit, so it is quite probable that in the forming of the early church they needed to know that they were as much part of the church and that they had the same Spirit as was received by the believers in Acts 2.

I believe that Scripture is clear on why tongues occurred in Caesarea and Ephesus just as it had taken place in Jerusalem. Let’s return to Peter’s words in Acts 11. We already saw his comments earlier in Acts 11:15, but let us now look a little further at verses 17-18 (ESV) 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

I believe that we will be wise to take note that the rejoicing here was not because they spoke in tongues, but that God had granted to them “repentance that leads to life”.

Some concluding thoughts on tongues in Acts:

  • In Acts 2 it is obvious that the tongues referred to are known languages.
  • Acts 10 & 19 are not as emphatic, but there seems to be enough evidence that what happened in Caesarea and Ephesus was similar to Acts 2.
  • The focus is not on the ‘tongue speaking’, but on salvation.
  • In Acts 2 tongues was a necessity for people to hear and understand, in the other chapters it was not necessary, but seems to have simply been a miraculous affirmation that what took place in their midst was the same as what took place in Jerusalem, therefore they were as much part of the body of Christ as those in Jerusalem were.
  • There is no evidence in the book of Acts that ‘tongues’ ever was an ecstatic babbling.
  • I think one can be honest in saying that there is no indication in the Book of Acts that ‘speaking in tongues’ is a sign of being baptised or being filled with the Spirit for all believers. Acts just does not introduce us to a theology on tongues.

There is a final question we need to ask which we will not find the answer to in our three chapters in Acts. Does every Christian in the gospel of Acts who receives the Holy Spirit speak in tongues? In Acts 2 there is no evidence that the thousands of converts on the day of Pentecost spoke in tongues, not then or ever. The book of Acts records many healings and other miracles, but only three incidents of tongues. This suggests that tongue-speaking was not a common occurrence, but rather a miraculous sign for special occasions as the apostles preached the gospel and established the church. On a personal note, I do not have evidence, I have read testimonies of it, and again it becomes experiential, but I do believe that God can again and again empower His saints to speak in a known language through his servants to a group of people where the language is unknown to the speaker. Based on Acts, the purpose will be “repentance that leads to life.”

So, it will seem that most New Testament Christians in Acts did not speak in tongues. Several verses tell us that people were "filled with the Holy Spirit," but without any mention of tongues. Let's notice the following verses: Not long after Pentecost, the apostles were praying for God's help. After they finished praying, "the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31). The apostles had already been filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Here they are filled again, but all they did was to speak the Word of God boldly.

There is no mention of tongues when the Holy Spirit came on converts in Samaria (Acts 8:14-17), when the Ethiopian eunuch was converted (Acts 8:38), when Saul, who became Paul, was converted (Acts 9:17-18), when he confronted a sorcerer (Acts 13:8-11) or when Paul first preached in Asia (verses 44-52). This doesn't prove that tongue-speaking did not occur, but it does indicate that it was not important to mention it if it did occur.

The evidence, so far, is limited. Acts is primarily a story of what happened; the book doesn't contain many commands or promises. Like many histories, it focuses on unusual or ground-breaking events. There is little attempt to describe ordinary practices. The book of Acts gives us only a limited picture of speaking in tongues. However, Paul wrote a great deal about tongues in a letter to the Corinthian Christians. His instructions help us to arrive at a deeper understanding of what tongues as seen in Corinth was, and what its purpose should have been, and whether it is a gift for all believers or not.