Tongues in the Book of Acts: Breaking Jewish Prejudice
We have consideredPaul’s explanation of the tongue-speaking phenomena in 1 Corinthians 14. It was a sign, Paul said, of the judgement of God on Israel (1 Corinthians 14:22; Isaiah 28:11). The confusion of the Jews on the day of Pentecost, when they assumed the disciples were drunk, may be a further indication of judgement. When we harmonise the occurrence of tongues in Acts with Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians, we discover that tongue-speaking was a sign, more generally, of the transition from Israel to the Gentiles. God judged Israel’s confirmed unbelief, rejected the nation and opening the gospel up to the nations of the world. This is how we see tongues used in the book of Acts.
Tongue-speaking occurred in only three passages in the book of Acts; first, Pentecost in Acts 2, second, extensions of Pentecost in Acts 10 and again in chapter 19. The Samaritan conversions in Acts 8 is also an important parallel passage but without the manifestation of tongues.
So, we come first to Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). Observe first, that tongues in Acts 2, were real, living, but foreign languages. This is clear from the use of two words used synonymously—glossa (γλωσσα—tongue, 4) and dialektos (διαλεκτος—dialect, 8). Second, the Bible does not say that tongue-speaking itself played any part in the spiritual experience of those gathered. They did not enlighten the listeners, nor enrich the speakers, any more than the sound of the wind or the tongues of fire did. Third, the disciples spoke in tongues (4), but we are not told that the 3000 converts did. There was no need to since the sign had already appeared and evidently tongues would cease (1 Corinthians 13:8).
Fourth, tongue-speaking was not an evangelistic tool. On the day of Pentecost, it was not tongue-speaking that brought about conversions. The conversions took place after they had heard the preaching of the word (14-36) and were convicted (37). The Greek language was sufficient for the spreading of the gospel message across the world and there was no need for tongues as an evangelistic tool at Pentecost. The same is true of the tongues in chapter 10 and again in chapter 19.
So, if Pentecostal tongues were not the language of heaven, or for evangelism, or for lifting up into a higher spiritual experience—what were tongues for?
Let’s look a little closer at Acts 2. Pentecostals often overlook the fact that there were other manifestations of the Spirit on that day of Pentecost. The Lord visibly and audibly made himself known in a very powerful way and these manifestations of the Spirit meant something, especially to a Jewish audience. First, the sound of the rushing mighty wind (2:2) pointed to the power of the Spirit (Ezekiel 37:9-14; John 3:8). Then there were the “divided tongues as of fire” 2:3), which pointed to the presence of the Holy Spirit who “rest[ed] on each of them” (Luke 3:16). God was present with Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5) and with the Israelites in the fiery pillar (Numbers 14:14). Finally, there was the tongue-speaking (2:4) which indicated the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on “all flesh” as Joel said would happen (Joel 2:28).
But Joel’s prophecy was only partially fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit had not yet been poured out on “all flesh,” in fact it was only on the Jews and Jewish proselytes gathered in Jerusalem. As Luke the historian followed the spread of the gospel, then, he highlighted the events that mark the pouring out of the Spirit on “all flesh” and he often linked it back to the initial Pentecost event (10:47; 11:17; 15:8).
The book of Acts is the story of how the gospel to “all flesh” was accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, how would believing Jews, steeped in nationalism and prejudice against Gentile and semi-Gentiles like the Samaritan accept such a thing? The answer is found in the gift of tongue-speaking. As we trace the occurrences of tongues through the book of Acts and see how God used tongues to break down the walls of prejudice and suspicion of believing Jews and bring Jew and Gentile harmoniously into the Body of Christ.
The story of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-11:18) is particularly interesting and central to our understanding of New Testament tongues. Luke took considerable time to tell the story (all of chapter 10 and most of chapter 11). No other interaction between two people takes up so much space in the book of Acts, than the story of Peter and Cornelius.
In the first part of the story (10:1-33) Luke took the time to tell how God brought this Jewish zealot and a Roman centurion together. It’s a story that spans four days (1-24) and ends with what is arguably one of the most amazing declarations of the New Testament—that God shows no partiality but has accepted those of every nation (34).
Peter had been convinced of this in a roof-top vision, but how was he going to break down the prejudice of Jewish Christians at large? Through tongue-speaking. At some points in the story of his conversion, Cornelius slips into the background and the “believers from among the circumcision” come into focus (10:45), and then the disciples gathered at Jerusalem (11:4-18). We could say, that the story is not about Cornelius, but about the Jewish Church’s acceptance of Cornelius who is representative of the Gentiles (11:18).
Contrary to their first instinct, the Jewish Christians could not withhold baptism (10:48), nor withstand God (11:17), because it was evident, through the manifestation of the Spirit, that the Gentiles had experienced the “same gift” as they had at Pentecostal—“the Holy Ghost fell on them [the Gentiles], as on us at the beginning.”
The centuries-long prejudice had been broken down.
The third, and final tongues incident in Acts occurred at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). This incident has a few important features we need to keep in mind. First, Paul the apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) is the ministering apostle, not Peter. Paul was not involved at Caesarea and was not at Jerusalem when Peter made his case in defence of Cornelius.
Second, this incident occurred at quite a distance from the epicentre of Christianity and involved a small, isolated, group of 12 Jewish men (19:7), converts of Apollos’ incomplete gospel (18:25-16). These men had not heard about Pentecost—although it was quite a few years before, perhaps 13 years. They were disciples of John and had faith in the “one which should come after him, that is, on Jesus Christ.” (19:4). But they had not heard the rest of the story; Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and coming of the Holy Spirit. This might seem strange in the context of modern immediate communication, but Luke had already told us that Apollos had the same experience, even though he had travelled (18:24-26).
Third, Paul connected these men with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They were living with a pre-Pentecost understanding of Jesus. Presumably, Paul had identified this deficiency and his question, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed” diagnosed the problem very well. Finally, and most importantly, all at Ephesus heard the gospel, both Jew and Greeks (19:10), but this incident created a dichotomy and identified a transition; a break with unbelieving Judaism (8-10), and the spread of the gospel in Asia.