The Sign: Tongues Part 1
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
June 20, 2013
Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
Lesson II.A.1.b: The Sign: Tongues
Scripture: Acts 2.4b-2.11
Acts 2.4b-2.11 (KJV)
4b and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
4b and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
and began to speak with other tongues,
Although glossolalia Def.—incomprehensible speech in an imaginary language, sometimes occurring in a trance state, an episode of religious ecstasy, or schizophrenia. is not always a proof of the presence of the Spirit of God, because many pagans practiced speaking in other tongues, nevertheless, in this incident, these men at Pentecost were given an unnatural ability to speak in tongues that were not their own, as the Spirit gave them utterance. The word translated tongue is the Greek word dialektos, and it can mean language as well as dialect. The various languages being spoken corresponded to the nationalities of those present.
They “began to speak with other tongues,” which was not their native language, though they had never learned any other. They did not speak about things that were commonly being discussed around old Jerusalem at that time. They spoke the word of God, and they praised his name, as the Spirit gave them utterance; significant and important sayings that were gladly received and committed to memory. The situation was probably not that one person was enabled to speak one language, and another person another language (which was the condition of the families that were dispersed from Babel), but that everyone was enabled to speak various languages, whenever he would have an occasion to use them. And we may be correct if we suppose that they themselves understood as well as those to whom they spoke, which the builders of Babel did not—“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech” (Gen 11:7; NKJV).
They did not speak an occasional word in another language, or hesitantly speak in broken sentences, but rather, they spoke what to them was a new language and they spoke it as readily, properly, and elegantly, as they would have if it had been their mother-tongue; because whatever God produced by a miracle was the best of the kind. They did not speak from a script, from any previous thought or meditation, but as the Spirit gave them utterance; he furnished them with the words as well as the language. Now this was:
1. A very great miracle; it took place in the mind, where words were revealed by the Holy Spirit. They had never learned these languages before, and they had never learned any foreign language, which might have made it easier to learn these. It is probably the case that they had never so much as heard these languages spoken, or had any idea what they were. What's more, they were neither scholars nor travelers, and they had never had any opportunity to learn languages either by books or conversation. Peter was bold enough to speak in his own tongue, but the rest of them were no spokesmen; instead, they were common men, uneducated, and most were fishermen. They were not quick learners; but now they are changed and it could be said of them, not only “the heart of the rash understands knowledge, but the tongue of the stammerers is ready to speak eloquently” (Isa. 32:4). When Moses complained, “I am slow of speech,” God said, “I will be with thy mouth,” and “Aaron shall be thy spokesman.” But He did more for these messengers of his: He that made man’s mouth—made theirs new.
2. A very appropriate, necessary, and useful miracle. The language the disciples spoke was Syriac, a dialect spoken by the Hebrews; so it was necessary that they be endowed with the gift, for understanding both the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, in which it was written, and the original Greek of the New Testament, in which it was to be written. But this was not all; they were commissioned to preach the gospel to every creature, to disciple all nations. But how are these twelve men to accomplish such a vast mission? How would they master the various languages in order to speak intelligibly to all nations? It would take a man a lifetime to learn their languages.
And therefore, to prove that Christ could give authority to preach to the nations, he gives ability to the apostles to preach to them in their own language. And it seems that this was the accomplishment of that promise which Christ made to his disciples—“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14:12; KJV). After all, things have been considered, it may be supposed that the successful preaching of the gospel by these men was a greater work than the miraculous cures Christ wrought. Christ himself did not speak with other tongues, nor did he enable his disciples to do so while he was with them: but it was the first effect of the pouring out of the Spirit upon them.
After they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These “other tongues” are not unknown tongues. There were many tongues spoken by Jews throughout the Roman Empire. These worshipers had come from the different areas of the Roman Empire for the Feast of Pentecost. Remember that all male Jews were required to come to Jerusalem for three of the feasts. They were in Jerusalem because of that, and many of them couldn’t speak Hebrew. That is not unusual. There are many Jews in our country today who cannot speak Hebrew. For years it was a dead language. In Israel today, Hebrew is being spoken again. These apostles were from Galilee. They couldn’t speak all these other languages. But they are speaking them now. The Spirit gave them utterance.
TONGUES, GIFT OF—the Spirit-given ability to speak in languages not known to the speaker or in an ecstatic language that could not normally be understood by the speaker or the hearers.
Apparently, the only possible direct reference in the Old Testament to speaking in another tongue or language is found in Isaiah 28:11: “For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people.” This seems to be a reference to an invasion of the Assyrians. They apparently would speak in another language, one probably unknown to the people of Israel. The Apostle Paul later applied this verse to speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:21). The Apostle Peter considered the phenomenon of speaking in tongues that occurred on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Joel 2:28–32).
In an appearance to His disciples after His resurrection, Jesus declared, “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name, they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17).
On the Day of Pentecost, the followers of Christ “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The people assembled in Jerusalem for this feast came from various Roman provinces representing a variety of languages. They were astonished to hear the disciples speaking of God’s works in their own languages. Some have suggested that the miracle was in the hearing rather than in the speaking. This explanation, however, would transfer the miraculous from the believing disciples to the multitude who may not have been believers.
Tongues as a gift of the Spirit is especially prominent in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. In 1 Corinthians 12, the phenomenon of tongues is listed with other gifts of the Spirit. As one of the several gifts given to believers as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, tongues is intended, with the other gifts, to be exercised for the building up of the church and the mutual profit of its members. In 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul puts the gift of tongues in perspective by affirming that though we “speak with the tongues of men and of angels” (v. 1), if we do not have love, the gift of tongues has no value.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals more specifically with the gift of tongues and its exercise in the church. In this chapter, the tongue is not an intelligible language, for it cannot be understood by the listeners. Therefore, a parallel to the gift of tongues is the gift of interpretation. The gift of tongues was used as a means of worship, thanksgiving, and prayer. While exercising this gift, individuals address God, not people; and the result is to edify themselves and not the church (1 Cor. 14:2, 4). This gift is never intended for self-exaltation but for the praise and glorification of God. Paul does not prohibit speaking in tongues in a public service (14:39). But he seems to assign it to a lesser place than the gift of prophecy. Paul claims for himself the gift of tongues-speaking, but apparently, he exercised this gift in private and not in public (14:18–19).