“For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”(1 Corinthians 12:8–10, ESV)
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.””(Acts 2:1–13, ESV)
One of the more divisive issues within the evangelical Christian church today is the issue of speaking in tongues. The growth of Pentecostal denominations and charismatic churches over the last 100 years has been phenomenal. For some, this is enough evidence that the modern gift of tongues is biblical. Add to this the experiential element and those who are convinced of the legitimacy of modern charismatic practices would be hard-pressed to deny their existence. Although the continuationist view is the newer position on the use of the miraculous gifts today, it has become the majority view within evangelicalism.
In this post I’d like to look at three characteristics on the Day of Pentecost to consider the question of what is the gift of tongues? After I answer them, I’d like to compare that special day and see if Pentecost is still happening today.
The account in Acts 2 follows Jesus’ ascension after he told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit came. This small band of believers gathered together in an upper room and prayed together. The following is an examination of what happened in that room when the Spirit came:
- Sound (vv. 2, 6)
- This was a sign to both the believers gathered as well as the unbelievers that were drawn to the loud commotion.
- This sound is described as being like “a mighty rushing wind.” The Greek word for “wind” is pneuma and it is also the word used for Spirit. The wind was described as sounding like rushing or violent wind. This sound was meant to communicate the power of the Holy Spirit.
- This surprising sound was not wind but was “like” wind in its mighty power–reminding the disciples of the promise given by Jesus in Acts 1:8 that he would give them power to accomplish his commission.
- Sight (v. 3)
- The “tongues of fire” appeared to those in the upper room and thus were a sign to the believers gathered.
- The tongues were distributed among them all, and everyone in the room received this sign as it rested upon each of them. This was followed by speaking in tongues. In 1Cor 12:11, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit gives his spiritual gifts to those whom he wills.
- Why a sign of fire? Throughout the Bible fire represents two major ideas-judgment and purity. In this setting and context, it is appropriate to understand the symbol as a reference to the purifying work of the Spirit (Isaiah 6; Rev. 1:14, 15).
- Speech (vv. 4-11)
- The speech was a sign to the unbelievers (vv. 6-12). Those gathered Jews in the city of Jerusalem did not hear God speaking in Hebrew, as he had done in the Old Testament through his prophets. He spoke to them through the foreign languages of the nations. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul said, “In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” (1 Corinthians 14:21–22, ESV)
- What did these Christians say when they spoke in tongues? What was the content of their speech? We don’t have to wonder. Verse 11 says they were speaking of the mighty deeds of God. It is important to also note that their words were understandable to the people–not Christians, but unbelieving Jews.
- Additionally, it is important to point out that the miracle was in speech, not hearing. Verses 9-11 tells us that the people gathered heard the praise of these Christians in their own tongues. That was because the languages were genuine human languages from the places these Jewish pilgrims had come from.
- Conclusion: What happened after this event? What were the conclusions the crowd came to?
- Confusion (v. 12). They didn’t have a clue about what was happening.
- Contempt (v. 13). They mocked and said the people were drunk.
- Conversions (2:41). Three thousand souls were saved.
Some Parallels to Today’s Tongues Movement?
Before I get to my questions, I need to ask, is Acts 2 descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, is Acts supposed to be a handbook for how we should conduct the Church today or is it a history of how the early church functioned at one time and in many ways is unique?
Some within the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement call the church to a new Pentecost. They lament that the church is powerless today because we need that same power, and so we need the same Pentecostal experience. If Acts 2 is prescriptive and gives instructions for the Church to follow today:
- Where is the rushing wind sound today?
- Where are the fiery tongues today?
- Why are tongues not identifiable languages today?
- Why are tongues not used to testify to the unbelievers today?
- Why are there not mass conversions on the scale of those in Acts 2 today?
- Why is it that all those who are believers are not given this gift today? Even the 3,000 that were saved that day are never said to have been given the gift of tongues. Why not if it is supposed to be normal for every Christian?
It is my conviction that the gift of tongues and its accompanying gift of interpretation ceased after the completion of the Bible and is no longer necessary for the church to function. This is not just my opinion, but is in fact the confirmed historical stand of the Church from the end of the Apostolic age all the way up until the early 19th Century.
We do not need to practice tongues to become close to our Savior, God, and King. If you do not read God’s Word, tongues will not help you know Him better. If you do not pray, muttering in a supposed “angelic language” will not edify anyone. If you do not practice love, you can have no part with the Father. Such a large portion of so many churches are taken up with this practice that whole churches are known for their concentration on the Holy Spirit. Let us not forget what Jesus said concerning the Holy Spirit in John 16:13-14, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13–14, ESV). The Spirit never points to himself, but to Jesus. May we do the same.