The gift of Tongues has been becoming more and more popular over the past 10 years. Christians appear to have differing views on the matter. Some think it is a sign of the HOLY SPIRIT, other think it is a manifestation of demonic forces. There are Bible verses to support both of these opinions, so the issues can become rather confusing. This paper is meant to show exactly everything that the Book of Acts mentions on the subject of tongues. This paper doesn’t refer to any other parts in the Bible regarding tongues. There are three different incidences in the Book of Acts that refers to speaking in tongues. First in Acts 2:4, 6-11 at the day of Pentecost, then in Acts 10:46 at the conversion of Cornelius, and finally in Acts 19:6 at the baptism of the 12 men in Ephesus. I am going to look solely at these events in order to study exactly what the Book of Acts says about tongues. Pentecost
The experience of the Spirit on Pentecost is a fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist concerning the one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:6; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). This promise is also stated by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:5. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is thus tightly tied to a redemptive-historical motif. The day of Pentecost is a Jewish holiday that happens during Passover. It was also known as the “Feast of Weeks” or “Day of First Fruits”. It was a celebration of the harvest. It came after the seven weeks of harvesting that started with the waving of the first barley sheaf during Passover celebrations. By the first century A. D. Pentecost was also considered the anniversary of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, and was one of the pilgrim festivals of Judaism. When you look at the background of this festival it brings more meaning to the event in Acts chapter 2.
When Israel celebrated Pentecost, they would relive the event of Moses giving them the law in Exodus chapter 19. This makes it especially noteworthy because it was on the day of Pentecost that God introduced the gift of tongues as a means of communicating the gospel in languages they could understand. Ellen white states, From every nation under heaven”4 who were gathered in Jerusalem. “Every known tongue was represented by those assembled. This diversity of languages would have been a great hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel; God therefore in a miraculous manner supplied the deficiency of the apostles. The Holy Spirit did for them what they could not have accomplished for themselves in a lifetime. They could now proclaim the truths of the gospel abroad, speaking with accuracy the languages of those for whom they were laboring.
It is evident that the gift given at Pentecost was known human languages that were immediately understood by members of the audience without need for interpreters. The word apophtheggomai (“gave them utterance”), while used in other Greek literature to refer to ecstatic utterance, is used by Luke three times in contexts that underscore clarity of speech and understanding. On the day of Pentecost the gift of tongues was given in order to provide the disciples with the proper tool for evangelizing the world. The apostles did not know all the languages that were represented in the multitude that day in Jerusalem, so by giving them tongues God supplied them with what they needed. From that time forward, wherever the apostles went, they had the ability to speak in foreign languages. Languages they could not have learned in a lifetime of study were immediately available to them as a result of this gift. The gift of tongues was extremely valuable in that situation and cannot be over looked. Jesus had commissioned His followers to take the gospel to the whole world. If these Apostles were supposed to go all over the world they would need to know multiple languages, something that these Apostles did not know beforehand.
There was also the practical advantage of communicating the gospel to the pilgrims in Jerusalem in their own languages so that they might take it back to their own regions. If you look at Jerusalem as the center for Judaism, then you realize the need for such a miraculous sign. If God hadn’t bestowed the gift of tongues and had everyone hear their own langue there wouldn’t have been enough force to start the Christian movement. Quite apart from practical considerations, the gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost was a divinely provided demonstration that the movement being inaugurated that day was not of human origin. The miracle God used on Pentecost for the believers is the same kind of thing He would do for the Jews. It served as a self-authenticating advertisement for the gospel. Thus the people must have felt that if God had used tongues at Sinai on the first Pentecost to communicate a very special message to them, He was now communicating again in many tongues another special message on another day of Pentecost.
The conversion of Cornelius
The unique experience of the Jerusalem church at Pentecost in Acts 2 occurred in similarly public and significant ways for non-Jews in Acts 10. After the events at Pentecost, the Spirit needed to find a way to pour out on to the Gentiles. The problem was that the Gentiles didn’t know they could receive it. The Jews, even if they were truly converted Christians, were still highly prejudice toward the Gentiles. The Jewish believers with Peter were shocked that the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles in Acts 10:45. They probably thought that Gentiles should become Jewish proselyte’s first. This was the view that God was going to shatter with Cornelius. In the conversion of Cornelius God took the initiative by first sending an angel to him in a vision, and then by giving a vision to Peter in Acts 10:9-16. Peter’s initial response, “Surely not, Lord”, clearly expresses his shock and dismay. Even when the Gentile guests were at the gate, the Spirit had to urge him to go and meet them: “Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them”.
The Spirit does not need to reiterate what is puzzling Peter. The most important point the Spirit tells him is to go without trying to discern or discriminate. His anxiety is further indicated by the first question he asked the Gentile guests, “For what reason have you come?” Peter then asked six fellow Jews to go with him on this unusual mission. And when they arrived at Cornelius’ home he began by explaining that his visit to a Gentile home was contrary to the law. When Peter was preaching at Cornelius’ house the Spirit came on them just as It had during Pentecost and they started to speak in tongues. God used the same sign He used in Jerusalem to authenticate these Gentile believers. This was an extremely important event for the gentiles and for all of us Christians who were not born Jews. Yarnell says, This wondrous event had a significant impact upon Peter. The sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the Jews was now evident in His coming upon the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians heard these foreign Gentiles magnify God as they communicated intelligibly in languages. Peter therefore commanded that his Jewish Christian companions baptize the Gentile Christians, thus bringing Gentile believers into fellowship with the Jerusalem church (Acts 10:47-48).
This is exactly what it would take to convince Peter’s Jewish delegation that God would accept Gentiles the same way He accepted Jews, which is by faith in Jesus. The use of tongues in this story is the miracle needed for the Gentiles to find expectance in the already established church. So far, tongues have played a very important role in helping the Jews and the Gentiles find their way into Christianity. Some people wonder if the gift of tongues displayed here is an ecstatic expression or a known language. Holcombe’s view is that if the intent of the gift of tongues here was to convince Peter’s delegation and later the Jerusalem church of God’s acceptance of Gentiles, it seems unlikely that God would replace the known languages they had experienced in Jerusalem with ecstatic utterances. How could ecstatic expressions be a divine sign to them? Their past experience would not have prepared them for this.
Without clear evidence to the contrary, we must conclude that the tongues at Cornelius’ conversion were known languages. After all, there were at least three languages represented in that gathering. The tongues of Acts 10-11 do not serve to communicate God’s glory to nonbelievers. They do, however, serve as authentication to Jewish believers that Gentiles are members of the messianic community apart from the institution of the law of Moses. Johnson, who is known for believe in ecstatic expressions of tongues, also agrees that it is a known language when he states, “In the occurrence of the phenomenon in Cornelius’ house, Luke’s terminology is similar to that in chapter two. He uses the word glòssa, and we have no reason to believe that he means anything other than that which he clearly means in Acts two, known languages. Furthermore, there were again Jews present, confirming again Paul’s statement regarding the intent of the gift.”
This tends to be the all-around view of this occurrence in Acts 10:46, which shows us that so far all the events of tongues in Acts have been known language incidences. The experience of tongues at Cornelius’ conversion has been called the Pentecost of the Gentiles. God used tongues as a means of overcoming human prejudice and opening the Gentile mission. Because of this clear evidence of divine initiative and approval, the Gentile converts would not be relegated by Jewish prejudice to the status of second-class Christians. At the conversion of Cornelius God used the gift of tongues as a bridge to overcome Jewish prejudice. Tongues at the Ephesian baptism
The third and final episode that Acts records of the giving of the gift of tongues is the experience of the baptism of 12 men by Paul at Ephesus. . This instance brings us to an encounter between twelve converts of John, taught by Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, and the apostle Paul at Ephesus. The great apostle was now preeminently “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He had promised to return to the city of Ephesus, and on doing so he found “certain disciples.” This is the most difficult to interpret because it lacks any contextual details. It seems that there was a sect at Ephesus that followed John the Baptist’s teachings. They believed and taught that John the Baptist was equal to or greater than Jesus Christ. If this assumption is correct, there was a need to show the supremacy of Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord. John the Baptist had taught that the Coming One would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, which makes this case a perfect spot to showcase the HOLY SPIRIT though tongues. After Paul had established the deficient condition of the 12 disciples, he instructed them more fully, and upon their confession of faith baptized them. It was at their baptism that they received the Holy Spirit, began to prophecy, and spoke in tongues. Bock says, “This special distribution confirms that the Spirit has come and shows how John’s disciples are completed in their faith, pointing to the fact the John did point to Jesus.” It appears that God used the gift of tongues as an authentication of these men’s new experience.
It was to serve a threefold purpose: as a sign for fellow sectarians who would see this as demonstration of divine acceptance; as a sign for the church, which might be hesitant to accept the new converts who had belonged to a questionable sect; and as a confirmation to the men themselves of the genuineness of their experience. The gift of tongues served to overcome human resistance and prejudice at Ephesus just as it had in Jerusalem and Caesarea. The 12 were to become the center for the Ephesian Church, which was becoming the second most important center for the Gentile mission. They spoke in known languages, or tongues. As in the other occurrences, Jews were present, and Paul’s words regarding the intent of the gift are confirmed a third time. Ellen G. White concludes, “Thus they were qualified to labor as missionaries in Ephesus and its vicinity, and also to go forth to proclaim the gospel in Asia Minor.” Once again the gift served a practical and strategic evangelistic purpose. Conclusion
The use of tongues in Acts appears to have been very important in spreading the Gospel in difficult situations, such as Jewish prejudice and religious epicenters. The purpose of the gift was not to glorify any man, but to provide for growth and expansion. The evidence also seems to suggest that the tongues were known human languages that were immediately recognizable to some who heard. In an evaluation of the present phenomenon of the tongues movement, the data presented in Acts needs to be carefully examined. I have come to the conclusion that that the gift of tongues comes by divine initiative and brings glory to God in order to help in the mission to bring the lost into the church. It has a practical function for the church, and is intended to bring about growth and unity in the body of Christ.
Bock, Darrel L. ACTS. Michigan: Baker Academics, 2007.
Holcomb, Justin. “Tongues in Acts.” IIIH Magazine, July 29, 2001.
Johnson, S. Lewis “The Gift of Tongues and the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca sacra 480 (1963), p 309-311. Lowe, Harry W. Speaking in Tongues: A Brief History of the Phenomenon Known as Glossolalia, or Speaking in Tongues. Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1965. White, Ellen G. The Acts of the Apostles. California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911. Yarnell, Malcolm B. Speaking of “Tongues,” What Does the Bible Teach? Texas: Center for Theological Research, 2006.