When the topic of speaking in tongues is brought up in churches, a storm of questions are asked. Were these tongues at Pentecost known languages or unknown tongues? Is speaking in tongues the initial evidence and proof of Spirit baptism? Does one need to speak in tongues to be saved? Or one could ask whether these tongues belonged to the Apostolic Age and with miracles and prophecy are not for today. I will endeavor to answer these questions as best as I can from the scriptural text itself.
What we learned in the last lesson “When the Day of Pentecost was Fully Come,” we learned of the context of Pentecost. It was a regularly scheduled Jewish holiday celebrating the wheat harvest which was the cash crop for the Israelites. The other harvest festival for the barley harvest was celebrated several weeks earlier during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The wave offering for the barley was held on the first day of the week following Passover. This means that Jesus rose from the dead on the day of firstfruits, which Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 15. From a Christian perspective, then, Easter Sunday and Pentecost are related.
We also noticed the similarities between the Spirit Baptism of Jesus and the Holy Spirit Baptism of the church on Pentecost. There was a difference of sign though. For Jesus, the sign was the gentle descent of a dove. For the church, it was a violent wind. The first sign certified Jesus’ public ministry, the second the ministry of the church which was to continue to do what Jesus began to do and teach.
There is a question where this Pentecost miracle took place. Many think that they were in the same upper room that Jesus held the Last supper with the Apostles. However, there were few of these upper rooms which could accommodate 120 or more persons. Others think that this upper room was in the Temple facilities. There was a large upper room there in which Rabbi’s taught. As this was a public place, and a large crowd would be at the Temple at the time of the 9 AM morning prayer and sacrifice, it seems likely that the miracle of Pentecost took place there. This event would quickly catch the interest of the crowd more than some upper room on a side street in Jerusalem.
When we look at the Old Testament manifestations of the presence of God, something which is technically called a “theophany,” we are reminded particularly of two such events. The first is when the Tabernacle in the wilderness was dedicated in which the flaming presence of God came down upon it, and the glory was so great that the ministers could not minister. The same happened when Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. But instead of the presence of God coming down upon the Holy Place in the Temple, the presence came down upon the believers. As we will see as we go along in the Book of Acts, there is a transition which occurs in the concept of Temple from being a building in Jerusalem to the body of believers united in Jesus Christ. Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter 2, had already prepared the Apostles for this when He said “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” John comments that He was talking about the Temple of His body. Paul tells us that Jesus is the head of the body which is His church. The fact that the manifestation of the glory of God came down upon the believers, emphasizes that the Temple in Jerusalem was already obsolete.
Another difference in this manifestation is that instead of the priests being unable to minister, the movement of the Spirit enabled the believers to minister. As we have noted, the sign of the flames and tongues acted as the divine commission and approval of the church as well as the transition point from the private preparation of the Apostles to the public ministry.
We know from the text that there were people assembled from all over the Roman Empire as well as from the Parthian Empire. The Jewish people were scattered all over the inhabited world as it was known in their time. The two groups were native Jews and proselytes to the Jewish religion who had been circumcised and vowed to keep the Law of Moses. The vision of who was to be including will expand as Acts continues to Ethiopians, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Most of the Jews outside Jerusalem and Palestine had lost the ability to read Hebrew or to speak the local Aramaic dialect of the region which necessitated the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language. The fact that there were Greek speaking synagogues in Jerusalem itself shows the effect of three hundred years of Greek cultural influence, even in the Holy Land. We don’t know if the disciples poke Greek, and the fact that it seems that Aramaic was Jesus’ native language, but it would seem that knowing some Greek would be helpful to those engaged in building trades like Jesus or fishermen would be advantageous.
When we examine the text, we know that all of the people who came to observe this spectacle heard the wonderful works of God in their own native tongue. This of course was miraculous. Something about the Apostles dress or manner of speech showed clearly that they were of the region of Galilee. This would seem to be a double impossibility as people of Galilee were seen as rustics. Maybe Peter could have struggled with Greek, but certainly he was no speaker of Persian or Latin. There were over a hundred spoken languages and dialects represented here in Jerusalem that day, and it seems that each of the 120 were granted the ability to speak one of them. Another aspect of the miracle is that unrehearsed, they all brought the same message of the wonderful works of God, which certainly was centered on the person of Jesus. There was no Google translate in that day.
What needs to be stressed here is the desire of God for the Gospel to be understood by the crowds, which leads me to conclude that these tongue which were spoken were the known languages of the day. This was not meant to be some personal experience to boast about. The speaking in tongues were a gift of doing ministry. One can perhaps reason the use of the unknown tongues in 1 Corinthians for this doctrine or even Romans 8 about the intercessory groans of the Spirit. But this is almost certainly not the case here. This is not a secret prayer language but the public declaration of the united believers of the gospel.
What needs to be drawn from this passage is not the miracle of tongues in itself, but what it represents. The church is called to follow the example God set in clearly proclaiming the mighty works of God. This means providing faithful translations of the Scripture in all of Earth’s spoken languages. Missionaries need to proclaim the gospel in native tongues. I am not one to say what God can and cannot do. God is free to grant a non-native speaker to speak in a tongue unknown to him or her even today. However, the tongue would be known to the listener. The New Testament never shows signs and miracles as ends in themselves. Rather, when they happened, it was always to point the way to Jesus. God is not interested in providing a spectacle for entertainment’s sake. In the same way, the church must not lust after signs and miracles, but instead faithfully preach and teach the Scripture in the native language of the hearers. If God desires to use signs and wonders, He is of course free to do so. It is God who gave utterance to these tongues here on the day of Pentecost. The same is true for miracles and signs today.
Even in biblical times, we must understand that miracles and wonders were very rare events. Hebrews reminds us of the sporadic breaking in of God in the Bible. We have to understand the distortion caused by the compression of thousands of years of history into a few hundred pages. This distortion makes it seem as though miracles happened all the time. Even in the time of Jesus in which these miracles were far more common, not everyone was healed. Did Jesus pass by the lame man at the Beautiful Gate at the Temple? He would get his healing, but not until the third chapter of Acts. So we should not expect miracles and signs today, even though they might happen from time to time and place to place.
Another thing we must continue to notice is that the believers were united, something we have previously noticed. The Holy Spirit is a uniter, not a divider. We can only look at the utter chaos caused in Corinth by all the speaking in tongues. It was a spirit of confusion which was causing divisions within the church, something which is the exact opposite of the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells them to remain silent unless there was an interpreted present. The emphasis Paul makes on the gift of the Spirit is to unify and build up the body of Christ. We have far too many division in our churches today. How many churches have split over charismatic manifestations? When the churches are being torn apart, is it a good reflection of the unity of the Holy Spirit? We are already vexed enough by false brethren sneaking into the church to be engaged in vexing one another.
Some have observes Pentecost as being a reversal of the curse of Babel. Because the people were united in an evil attempt to build a temple with the intent of worshiping the stars, moon, and sun, God caused the confusion of language to halt their evil intentions and to scatter them throughout all the earth. This is seen as a means of calling out God’s people from the four corners of the earth to come together again for a good purpose.
So we learn from the text of the Pentecost miracle that the will of God is evangelization of the world’s people. We need to work within the ordinary means of translation and study of the Scripture. We also need to wait on the Spirit to empower our ministry. As Paul puts it, it is the task of some to evangelize (plant) and others to nurture (water). It is God who gives the increase according to His purpose. Instead of trying to show the validity and relevance of the church by miraculous displays, we need instead to concentrate on being a church which shows its seal of approval from God in its loving obedience to the Word, in its joyous church services, in patient endurance, in intercession for one another, and especially in its unity which would be a miracle enough.