The gift of tongues in Acts

The function of the gift of tongues in the book of Acts

The stories in the book of Acts can help us understand both the purpose behind the gift of tongues and what the gift was.

Joel N. Musvosvi, Ph.D., is chairman of the Religion Departmerit of Solusi College, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

The phenomenon of the gift of tongues or "glossolalia" has taken Christianity by storm over the past few decades. It has even made its appearance in very conservative church bodies, sometimes with divisive tendencies. The tongues movement is hailed by some as the sure manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit among the people of God and denounced by others as a demonstration of demonic activity and control. Both sides appeal to the Bible as authority for their position. This article seeks to examine the function of the gift of tongues as it is treated in the book of Acts. No attempt is made here to deal with those issues that arise out of 1 Corinthians 14, the passage that ad dresses the matter of abuses of tongues within one particular local congregational setting.

The book of Acts is a logical starting place for an investigation of this topic because it records early Christian practice throughout a wide geographical and multicultural territory. Also, what one later encounters at Corinth seems to be an abuse of a gift whose legitimate function is clearly presented in Acts.

Acts records three episodes of tongues-speaking. These are at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4, 6-11), at the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:46), and at the rebaptism of 12 men at Ephesus (Acts 19:6). We will examine each one in turn so as to establish the practical function of tongues in each event. We will also attempt to determine whether any common pattern develops among the three occurrences.

The day of Pentecost

Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival that occurred on the fiftieth day after Passover (Lev. 23:15, 16; Deut. 16:9- 12). It was a celebration of the harvest (Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:17-22; Num. 28:26- 31). It was also called the Feast of Weeks, for 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. Viewed against this back ground, the Pentecost episode of Acts 2 has many implications.

Late Judaism taught that at the giving of the law at Sinai God proclaimed the Decalogue amid fire and wind in all the languages of the world. 1 In view of the fact that a mixed multitude left Egypt along with Israel and became part of Israel, it seems quite likely that some among them might not have been very fluent in Hebrew—the language of a slave people. Yet once the mixed multitude became part of Israel, God regarded them as His people. If in fact the mixed multitude needed to hear the proclamation of the law, it seems reasonable that God might communicate in whatever languages they would most clearly understand.

Israel viewed the Mount Sinai episode as the point at which they became a special nation. It was on this day that they entered into a covenant with God—a covenant in which Yahweh became their God, and they became His peculiar and holy people. Whereas they had been set free 50 days earlier (according to their interpretation of the chronology of Exodus 19:1), it was only at Sinai that they became a theocracy with God as their ruler. Thus, whenever Israel celebrated Pentecost, they relived the whole drama of the giving of the law. This makes it especially noteworthy that it was on the day of Pentecost that God introduced the gift of tongues as a means of communicating the gospel in their own languages to people "from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:6, 5)* who were gathered in Jerusalem. 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, 2 is used by Luke three times (its only New Testament occurrences) in contexts that underscore clarity of speech and understanding (Acts 2:4; 2:14; 26:25).

On the day of Pentecost the gift of tongues was given to serve a practical evangelistic purpose. The apostles did not know all the languages that were rep resented in the multitude that day in Jerusalem. Thus, by bestowing this gift, God was supplying a need. And from this time onward, wherever the apostles went, they had this facility for foreign languages. Languages they could not have learned in a lifetime of study were immediately available to them as a result of this gift. 3

The value of this gift cannot be over estimated. Jesus had commissioned His followers to take the gospel to the whole world. If these few apostles were to lay a firm foundation for such a multilingual worldwide mission, they needed a working knowledge of the languages of the Greco-Roman world. Such a knowledge they did not have. But this lack was sup plied by the gift of tongues. 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. What better strategy could be devised for church planting than to send new converts to witness among their own language groups? That was the Holy Spirit's strategic plan.

What would it take to plant the church in Jerusalem, the citadel of Judaism? What would it take to have common people shed their fear of religious leaders and take a bold and revolutionary stand for Christianity right within Jerusalem? 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 miraculous proclamation of God's message in many languages, which the religious leaders had taught the people to believe had been the miracle that God had used to set them apart as the people of Yahweh, 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.

Consider for a moment the striking parallels between these two Pentecosts. Fifty days prior to both Pentecosts divine deliverance had been effected through a vicarious death: the death of the Paschal lamb, and the death of Jesus. On both days God used tongues as an authenticating sign of His act. At both occasions God was commencing a new relationship with His people. And Peter's message of promise and fulfillment must have fallen on fertile and expectant listeners. Thus, tongues were God's sign and endorsement of the church among the Jews. This was a difficult but necessary stage in laying the foundation of the church. The doors were now open for thousands of Jews to come into the church.

The conversion of Cornelius

Once the church was established in Jerusalem, the next question was How could the gospel cross over to the Gentiles? Jewish prejudice made this a very difficult bridge to cross. Even though the new Jewish Christians were truly converted, they were still children of their times. Their prejudice against Gentiles was deep-seated and constant. How then could they initiate an outreach to the Gentiles?

In the episode of the conversion of Cornelius God took the initiative by first sending an angel to him in a vision (Acts 10:1-6), and then by giving a vision to Peter (verses 9-16). Inasmuch as God had begun by planting the church in the most unlikely place—Jerusalem—He now chose the most unlikely apostle of all—the ultraconservative Peter—to open up the new mission to the Gentiles. And Peter's initial response, "Surely not, Lord" (verse 14), clearly expresses his shock and dismay. Even when the Gen tile 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" (verse 20). His anxiety is further indicated by the first question he asked the Gentile guests, "For what reason have you come?" (verse 21, NKJV). Peter then asked six fellow Jews to go with him on this unusual mission (verse 23). And when they arrived at Cornelius' home he began by explaining that his visit to a Gentile home was contrary to the law (verse 28).

While Peter was preaching at Cornelius' house, the Holy Spirit descended on the assembled Gentiles as He had done on the day of Pentecost, and the gift of tongues was given to them as it had been given to the apostles at Pentecost. In accepting these Gentile converts and giving them the Spirit and the gift of tongues God authenticated His action with the same sign He had used for founding the church in Jerusalem. What would it take to convince Peter's Jewish delegation that God would accept Gen tile converts the same way He accepted Jewish converts—by faith in Jesus 1 What would it take to have the Jerusalem church accept Gentiles into fellowship ? God used the outpouring of the Spirit and the gift of tongues—two signs that the Jerusalem church had come to believe in as undeniable evidences of divine activity—as a key to open this new door.

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 (Aramaic, Greek, and Latin), and possibly other local languages.

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 rebaptism

The third and final episode that Acts records of the giving of the gift of tongues is the experience of the rebaptism of 12 men by Paul at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6). This is the most difficult to interpret because it lacks any contextual details.

It seems that there was at Ephesus a "John the Baptist" sect that believed and taught that John the Baptist was equal to or greater than Jesus Christ. The 12 men may have been Jewish converts who viewed themselves as disciples and "thought of John the Baptist as the height of God's revelation—perhaps even as the Messiah himself." 4 If this assumption is correct, there was a need to show the supremacy of Jesus Christ as the only Saviour and Lord. John the Baptist had taught that the Coming One would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

After Paul had established the deficient condition of the 12 disciples, he instructed them more fully, and upon their confession of faith rebaptized them (Acts 19:1-7). It was at their baptism that they received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. 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 thus served to overcome human resistance and prejudice at Ephesus just as it had in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Ralph Earle has observed that these 12 men "received a divine gift of languages designed to enable them to minister the gospel of Christ to the exceedingly polyglot cosmopolitan city of Ephesus, as well as the entire western section of Asia Minor." 5 F. F. Bruce points out that the 12 were to become "the nucleus of the Ephesian Church," which was becoming the second most important center for the Gentile mission. 6 The gift of tongues would help associate these men "in the apostolic and missionary task of the Christian Church." 7 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." 8 Once again the gift served a practical and strategic evangelistic purpose.

The evidence found in the book of Acts makes it clear that tongues played a practical functional role in the apostolic church by facilitating the movement of the gospel across difficult man-made barriers. The purpose of the gift was not to glorify any man or to give to the church a superfluous experience, but to provide impetus 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 instances where the indications are not so clear, the general pattern still suggests known languages.

In an evaluation of the present phenomenon of the tongues movement, the data presented in Acts needs to be carefully examined. Understandably, this data does not answer all questions about tongues. But based on this brief survey, we may suggest that the gift of tongues comes by divine initiative and brings glory to God in the furtherance of the mission of the church. It has a practical function for the church, and is intended to bring about growth and unity in the body of Christ.

*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.

1 Philo De Decalogo 33. See also R. A. Cole,
"Gift of Tongues," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia
of the Bible, Merrill C. Tenney ed. (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976), volume 5,
pp. 775-777.

2 Diodorus of Sicily Historical Library 16. 27. 1;
Plutarch Pythiae Oraculis 23.

3 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1911), pp. 39, 40.

4 Richard N. Longenecker, "The Acts of the
Apostles," The Expositor's Bible Commentary,
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981),
volume 9, p. 493.

5 Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles, The
Evangelical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zonder
van Publishing House, 1959), p. 284.

6 F. F. Bruce, A Commentary on the Book of
Acts, The New International Commentary on the
NewTestament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1954), p. 387.

7 Ibid.

8 Ellen G. White, "Paul at Ephesus," Review
and Herald, Aug. 31, 1911.


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Joel N. Musvosvi, Ph.D., is chairman of the Religion Departmerit of Solusi College, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

November 1989

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