With the birth of the Church in the book of Acts, there were several notable events brought about by the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Of these events, speaking in tongues remains one of the most hotly debated topics in the contemporary Church. While the argument ranges from whether or not tongues is an active gift of the Spirit today, to the nature of this gift as communicated in the New Testament, the purpose here shall be to communicate these issues as limited by the book of Acts. This paper will examine not only the original language and the context of the passages dealing with speaking in tongues in the book of Acts, but also will consider the application of the issue to both the first-century Church as well as the contemporary Church today.
Because of the controversy surrounding the topic at hand, it is important to know a little about the original language in which Scripture was written. This will enable the reader to more fully understand the implications of what is being said by having both the denotation and connotation of terms. Regarding glossolalia, the most important Greek term would be “glossa.” The Strongest NASB Exhaustive Concordance indicates that this term occurs 6 times in the book of Acts. Of these six times, we will be looking at five occurrences, each of which are contained in the following verses: Acts 2:3, Acts 2:4, Acts 2:11, Acts 10:46, and Acts 19:6. Glossa is defined by the Strongest Concordance very simply as, “a tongue, a language.” While these two ideas may at first appear to be synonymous, one use of glossa in our considered passages in Acts indicates that they are not. In other words, the context of Acts 2:3 demonstrates that the physical organ is in mind, while the remaining passages refer to a spoken language.
Looking to further communicate the idea of the term, Vine comments on the distinction by explaining further that glossa, “is used of (1) the ‘tongues…like as of fire’ which appeared at Pentecost; (2) ‘the tongue,’ as an organ of speech…; (3) (a) ‘a language,’…(b) ‘the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt’.” So, while it has been stated that the organ of speech was in mind when translating glossa in Acts 2:3, Vine clarifies that the phenomenon seen was not literally the physical organ itself. This makes sense as the verse indicates that “there appeared to them” these tongues of fire, so as not to confuse these tongues as themselves any actual fleshly organ of speech.
Passages in Question
Having considered the occurrences of the most important term, glossa, and its implications from the original language, we shall now move forward to consider the four pericopes of Scripture which deal with the issue of speaking in tongues in the book of Acts. These are the following: Acts 2:1-4, Acts 2:5-13, Acts 10:44-48, and Acts 19:1-7.
Acts 2:1-4, NASB Updated
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Following the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, we see here that the disciples noticed a visible sign of the coming of the Spirit, not unlike His coming as a dove at the baptism of Christ. While the NASB states that “they [the tongues of fire] rested on each,” the literal rendering of the text would indicate that “it” rested on each. Because of this, many commentators point out that the tongues themselves are not in mind, but rather the Spirit Himself. Gill notes the differences in manuscripts by stating that the thing sitting was “the fire, or the Holy Ghost in the appearance of fire. The Syriac and Arabic versions read, ‘and they sat upon each of them’; and so Beza’s most ancient copy, that is, the cloven tongues sat on them.” In either case, it is evident by the use of “fire” that this activity is representative of the divine presence of the Spirit.
With this presence of the Spirit, verse 4 indicates that the disciples were both filled with the Spirit and spoke by His gifting. Robertson notes that, “Each one began to speak in a language that he had not acquired and yet it was a real language and understood by those from various lands familiar with them. It was not jargon, but intelligible language.” This is important as some today believe that one universal heavenly language was spoken in which all who heard were able to understand. This idea is disproved, however, by both verse 3 noting the plurality of tongues, and later verse 13 noting particularly that all did not understand. Burton Coffman agrees by indicating that “Despite the insistence of some that this has reference to ecstatic utterances like those of so-called ‘tongues’ today, such a view is refuted, absolutely, by the fact that men of many nations understood every word in their native languages.”
Acts 2:5-13, NASB Updated
5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 They were amazed and astonished, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs--we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God." 12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others were mocking and saying, "They are full of sweet wine."
In this passage, we revisit the idea that several languages were being spoken to men of diverse lands. The amazement experienced by the crowd from verse 7 is summed up by Calvin’s comments on verse 11: “Luke noteth two things which caused the hearers to wonder; first, because the apostles being before ignorant and private persons, born in a base corner, did, notwithstanding, intreat profoundly of divine matters, and of heavenly wisdom. The other is, because they have new tongues given them suddenly.” While the reader today may not understand the implications of this comment, it is important to understand how reviled Galilee was in the mind of the 1st Century Jew. MacArthur points out that, “Galilean Jews spoke with a distinct regional accent and were considered to be unsophisticated and uneducated by the southern Judean Jews. When Galileans were seen to be speaking so many different languages, the Judean Jews were astonished.” Perhaps this very point is why the scoffers who did not understand the languages which the Galileans spoke considered them to be intoxicated. Peter goes on to defend the disciples; however, as he remarks that it is only 9am, which was a Jewish time of prayer at the Temple. This was far too early in the morning and far too sacrilegious to be the case.
Acts 10:44-48, NASB Updated
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 "Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Just as it was on the day of Pentecost, the new Gentile believers also spoke in various tongues. While we do not see the same “tongues as of fire” being distributed amongst the Gentiles, we do see the present circumcised (Jewish) believers amazed that the Gentiles had received the Spirit in the same manner as they, with the speaking of different tongues. The response was so convincing that Peter himself believes none can discredit them from being baptized in obedience to Christ. Henry states that, “The Holy Ghost fell upon others after they were baptized, for their confirmation; but upon these Gentiles before they were baptized: as Abraham was justified by faith, being yet in uncircumcision, to show that God is not tied to a method, nor confines himself to external signs…Now it appears why the Spirit was given them before they were baptized—because otherwise Peter could not have persuaded himself to baptize them, any more than to have preached to them, if he had not been ordered to do it by a vision.”
Considering Henry’s statement, it was necessary in this instance of first-preaching to the Gentiles that the Holy Spirit should come prior to their baptism, that they may be both accepted and indeed baptized. God’s providence here left the Circumcision without excuse to include the Gentiles into the body of believers, although later we see Paul battling against the Judaizers who believed quite the opposite. Like the Jewish believers at Pentecost, it appears that speaking in tongues here again refers to being given the capability to communicate in unlearned languages. Verse 46 also appears to point out that they may have been speaking Hebrew, as the Jewish believers both heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. This praise likely would not have been understood had not at least one Gentile been speaking Hebrew.
Acts 19:1-7, NASB Updated
1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said to him, "No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." 3 And he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" And they said, "Into John's baptism." 4 Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus." 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 There were in all about twelve men.
This passage of Scripture seems to line up with Henry’s statement regarding Acts 10:44-48. Here we find an instance in Scripture where believers received the Holy Spirit after baptism “for their confirmation.” Like the birth of the Church at Pentecost, and the first inclusion of the Gentiles into the body of believers in Caesarea, these Gentiles also spoke in tongues with the coming of the Spirit. The apparent difference here is that He came with the laying on of hands by Paul. This is similar to Acts 8:14-17, where Peter and John laid hands upon those who had been baptized by Philip, however, there is no account there of any glossolalia. Burton Coffman disagrees, stating that, “It is a mistake to make another Pentecost out of this. Walker said that ‘This was the same phenomenon witnessed on Pentecost and at the house of Cornelius’; but in neither case was the phenomenon due to the imposition of apostolic hands. This is therefore clearly something else.”
While his statement is accurate as far as the coming of the Spirit, he overlooks the relationship we see of these three events between this coming and speaking in tongues. MacArthur comments that, “This signified their inclusion into the church (see note on 8:17). Apostles were also present when the church was born (chap. 2), and when the Samaritans (chap. 8) and Gentiles (chap. 10) were included. In each case, God’s purpose was to emphasize the unity of the church.” So, according to MacArthur, the laying on of hands here was merely an expression of the unity of the Church under the authority of the apostles, and does not indicate anything somewhat different from the speaking of tongues in association with the coming of the Spirit seen in chapters 2 and 10 in Acts.
Having reviewed the usage of the Greek term “glossa” in the book of Acts, as well as the context of the passages where it occurs in reference to “speaking in tongues,” we must move forward to how this applies both to the 1st Century Church as well as the contemporary Church. Restricting this discussion solely to the book of Acts, it is quite evident that speaking in tongues was an evidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers, be they Jew or Gentile. Additionally, this speaking in tongues was an act whereby God was glorified through the communication of the Gospel in known human languages, although said languages were unlearned by their speakers. There is no indication in Acts that glossolalia was a repeated incident for any individual beyond their first experience with the Spirit, nor is there any indication that speaking in tongues was a certain byproduct of that experience (see Acts 8). Taking these points into consideration, as far as can be gathered from the speaking of tongues in the book of Acts, the 1st Century Church experienced this phenomena in accordance with the coming of the Spirit at salvation alone. If this was not always the case, as it was not, speaking in tongues is not a guaranteed sign that one has received the Spirit of God. While the Gospel has been communicated throughout the world today and the Word of God is available in almost all known languages, it is no longer necessary to assume that speaking in tongues will accompany salvation with the coming of the Spirit. We should not deny the power and will of God to do as He pleases in this world, however, we should also see that for those who insist the occurrence of glossolalia still occurs today, that at a minimum they are being regulated by what is communicated in Scripture, not simply emotions, experience, or church tradition.
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