What is Speaking in Tongues?
Summary: At Pentecost God poured out supernatural strength on the disciples, what difference does that make for us today?
This morning as we turn to God’s Word, we see the Church begin to expand. It’s like the opening kick-off, the ecclesiastical starting line for a marathon of gospel growth and expansion throughout the ages and around the world. And right here, right from the very beginning, we see God has always intended to draw a radically diverse group of people to Himself, that He has always intended to unite them with each other, and He has always intended to give them the power, strength, and tools they need to live for His glory and their own joy.
So, let’s dive back into the book of Acts and see what we can learn about what happened on that particular morning in Jerusalem and what it teaches us about God, about ourselves, and about how we should live today.
We pick up where we left off last week. Jesus had told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait because they would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them. They didn’t know exactly what that meant or what form it would take, but they’re being obedient, they’re waiting for Him and preparing to celebrate a major religious festival. About 120 of them are gathered together and we read:
Acts 2:1 When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”
13 Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”
OK, in order to better understand this, let’s dig into some of the details, explain a few things and then we can ask a few questions. The first thing I want to point out is another mention of the Christian’s unity. We saw it last week when they were all praying in the upper room and now Luke mentions it again.
Acts 2:1 When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
I intend to keep making a big deal out of this because the Bible makes a big deal out of it: the early church was known by it’s unity. These were people who spent time together, who had a sense of community, a sense of identify, a sense of belonging with other Christians. And that is something we easily lose sight of in our increasingly fractured, divided, and individual Western lives.
The church should be a place where you can belong, where you fit, where you connect and find strength from a common cause – the cause of Christ. And while there is certainly truth to the fact of the universal Church that we all belong to, there is no replacement for having and maintaining a connection to a single, local, body of Christ where you know people and they know you and you can all say, “we are all of one accord” not just “this is the church I go to some times.”
It’s not going to be easy, you’re going to have fight for it, but it’s Biblical. It’s what God intends. And, I will say this boldly: I truly believe your spiritual growth and health will often be limited to the extent that you ignore this truth. God did not design or intend for us to function as solitary Christians. His plan, evident all throughout the Bible, is communities of Christians.
And, to take it a step further, God’s plan is diverse communities of Christians.
I want you to ask you to think about something: God could have started the Church at any time. He could have picked any day He wanted and any place He wanted and He could have picked any method He wanted. Isn’t that true? But there was a plan – Jesus told His disciples “Wait!” And don’t just wait anywhere, wait in Jerusalem.
Why? Because God was up to something. It was all very, very intentional. Jesus was killed during the feast of Passover. Now we’re at the feast of Pentecost. You know the Pentagon is a building with five sides, well Pentecost was a feast that happened fifty days after Passover. It was originally known in Hebrew as the Feast of Weeks because it occurred a week of weeks (7 x 7 = 49) after Passover and then the feast is the next day.
It was one of three feasts that every Jewish male was supposed to attend which explains why you have all these crowds of people in town.
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Luke lists religious pilgrims from
locations spread across what we call the
Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Iran,
Iraq, Turkey, up into Southern Europe
and down into North Africa. They’ve all
made the religious pilgrimage to be in
town for the holiday and this is the
moment; this is the place that God blew
the starting whistle for the church – He
really did intend for the message to go
global, to go viral we would say today,
but notice, He used a bunch of people who were also from out of town – a bunch of Galileans who lived up north, to do it.
This is important because it shows what the church is supposed to be. It shows who the church is for: it’s for everyone – it’s the church of Jesus Christ, and it’s a church for all people, a place where everyone is welcome. And, when we do it right, it’s a place where everyone hears us speaking the wonderful works of God. The church of God is intended to be a multi-racial, multi-national, multi-lingual wonder.
Consider this: God could have done something else. He could have made all the disciples bioluminescent – made them glow in the dark – that would have been miraculous, it would have gotten people’s attention, but He didn’t. He chose language because He was choosing to bring people together with a message and not just an experience. A message that is for all people: every nation, every tribe, and every tongue.
And for those of you who know your Scripture, think about this: Pentecost was the beginning of a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the dispersion and division God created at the Tower of Babel. After dividing languages and scattering humanity around the world, now God uses language to bring people back into relationship with Himself and each other.
As the Book of Acts unfolds we’ll see people from all sorts of backgrounds receive the Gospel and find new identity in Christ and then we’ll watch as God weaves them into the existing fabric of the Church brightening and expanding her pattern in the process.
Friends, this is what God does – He breaks boundaries and draws us together with people who seem different on the surface. People we wouldn’t have spoken to or shown interest in before suddenly become my brother, my sister in Christ and nothing bonds two people together as closely and as comprehensively as a walk with their common God.
So let’s talk about that – let’s talk about a walk with God, and let’s ask the question: is what we see here in Acts descriptive or prescriptive? That is, how should it affect us today? Is this is just an amazing story for us to hear? Is it like watching the latest Star Wars or Marvel movie and saying, “Wow!” as the special effects unfold? Or does any of this push forward into our lives today? Is this something that should continue?
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On one level the answer is no – this is not a typical format for church – we don’t sit around and pray until spectacular physical signs occur each week leading to mass evangelism. Pentecost was exceptional. It was a specific event, orchestrated in a specific manner, at a specific time, by God. But in other ways, yes. God still sends His Spirit upon His people in powerful, extraordinary ways. Let me say a few things about the specific act of speaking in tongues and then move on to some general thoughts about this empowering with the Holy Spirit.
As we go through the book of Acts we will this kind of supernatural speech, or speaking in tongues, appear several more times in the early Church, and there are some who believe it continues today. But it has been a source of great controversy in the modern Church. I don’t want to get to deep into it today since the subject will come up again, but I do want to make a few basic points.
First, God never sets it down as a rule that all Christians must have this experience. In writing to the church in Corinth, where people were having the experience, the Apostle Paul asks them rhetorically – do all speak in tongues? And the obvious answer was no. Christians should not all expect to speak in a language unknown to them.
And since that is true, my second point is: speaking in tongues is not a requirement for leadership in the church. When Paul lays out the requirements for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus he says an elder should be able to teach – but he says nothing about being able to speak in tongues.
Third, speaking in tongues is not a requirement for membership in the church or a test of genuine faith. There are plenty of teachings about and warnings against false teachers in the New Testament and yet nowhere does the Bible say: “and you will know they are false teachers because they can’t speak in tongues…”
Fourth, speaking in tongues is not God’s SuperGift, the one you pull out when all else fails. Here in Acts we see the gift used in what seems to be an evangelistic manner. In Corinthians, and today, it is described as more of a “private prayer language” between you and God, and if anything is spoken publicly, it is to have an interpretation.
But God will still hear your prayers, even if you don’t speak in tongues. If He hasn’t given you the gift of tongues, and He hasn’t given it to me – then He must want you to pray in English like I do, or whatever your mother tongue happens to be and He’ll hear you just fine – you never need to fear that God can’t hear you because you’re not “spiritual enough” to pray in tongues. That’s a tragically depressing thought.
Fifth, and finally, remember, God is the one at work here in Acts, and today in our modern lives. He is the one who chooses to give whatever gifts He wants including speaking in tongues, to whomever He wants, at whatever time He wants, for His own glory – read 1 Corinthians 12 for a reminder.
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Instead of focusing on the controversy over speaking in tongues, here’s what we all need to do: make ourselves increasingly available to God for His purposes and expect His power and presence as we do.
When the Spirit came here at Pentecost, it was evident by the sound of rushing wind, by something that appeared like flames over their heads, and by their speech – we might not see those same signs today, but we can, and should, still experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a power that may be subsequent to our salvation as it was for these early disciples.
You see, I want to point out to you: the people this happened to were already saved, they were already born again. They had already received Christ as their Savior and they had already received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But they were waiting, as Jesus told them to do, to receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.
The terminology of this experience is not precise, some people call it the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, some people call it the empowering of the Spirit, some people call it being filled with the Spirit. As John Stott says, “The terms are many and interchangeable, the reality is one, and there is no substitute for it.” (Stott, 60).
So don’t get caught up in the exact label, or be put off by a term you may have heard cast in a bad light before. Instead, look with me at Scripture and ask yourself, is this something I have experienced? Do I know a supernatural empowering in my life for the things that God has called me to?
Think about our Lord Himself. Think about Jesus. He was fully-God and fully-man. We don’t believe that He was fully man and then at some point God came upon Him and used him in a special way. No, we believe He was always fully God and fully man. And yet what happened in His baptism? The Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove, and then, according to
Luke 4:1 Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
So, Jesus was always God, always in relationship with the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity, but now we are told that He is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins His ministry. Something happened here and Luke is drawing our attention to it.
Then look at the experience of the disciples. After Jesus rose from the dead He met with the disciples and presented Himself to them – this was the time when Thomas was not there, it’s why he’s known as doubting Thomas – Jesus showed up and
John 20:22 … He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
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These are the same people we find “filled with the Holy Spirit” here in Acts 2. They had already received the Spirit – they were sealed for salvation – that happens at the time of our conversion.
This is very important to understand, it is of absolutely vital importance – there are only two kinds of people: saved people, that is Christians who have the Spirit of God living in them and unsaved people, that is non-Christians who do not have the Spirit of God.
In writing to early Christians living in Rome Paul said:
Romans 8:8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in
you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.
So, I think God is very clear: either you have the Spirit or you do not. Receiving the Spirit occurs only once at salvation and it’s forever. It requires no effort on our part and there’s no spiritual life without Him. And yet, that’s not what we’re talking about here in Acts 2.
Here we see the power of God evident in the Christian. It was something the disciples had to wait for, something they had to be available for, something they had to desire and it is something that should happen again and again in the life of the believer.
John MacArthur says: it “is a repeated reality of Spirit-controlled behavior that God commands believers to maintain” (MacArthur Study Bible Acts 2:1).
We see the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit here in Acts 2, but look at what happens over in Acts 4. Peter and John are arrested and brought before the courts and Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit again in vs 8. Then he and John are eventually released, and they meet up with other members of the church and celebrate their release. They pray to give God thanks and
Acts 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
Now again: these people have all received the Spirit for salvation, they’ve even been filled with the Spirit back on Pentecost, but here they are being filled with the Spirit again.
Paul later warns the Ephesians:
Eph 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
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21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul is writing to Christians, people who already have the Spirit, but he tells them to be filled with the Spirit. And, the grammar there is such that you could read it as be being filled, it’s present tense reality – keep on being filled.
Why? So you can speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs encouraging others and worshipping God.
Why were the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2? So they could declare the wonderful works of God in a way that captured the attention of others.
That’s what this filling, some say this baptism, does – the Spirit comes upon us, gives us extraordinary power or experience SO THAT we can glorify God and serve others.
So let me ask – is this happening in your life? Is it something you are praying for? Is it something you seek, something you wait on? Is it something you expect?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are commanded to live continually under the influence of the Spirit of God and the Word of God. We are called to confess sin, pursue purity, die to our flesh, serve God and serve others – but God doesn’t expect us to do all of that on our own, He wants to give us the strength to do it – He wants to fill us, baptize us, empower us – whatever you want to call it – do you have it? Have you know it? Are you walking in the Spirit or are you trying to grind out this life making it through on sheer grit and determination?
Your motive may be right, your desire may be right. But is your source of power and strength right? God wanted the disciples to go into all the world – into Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all men. That was the project He gave them, and gave us. But when it was time to do it, God didn’t send them away on a leadership off-site for some planning, He didn’t stand up a Tiger Team, He didn’t do a Six Sigma analysis. He said, wait and pray. And then He gave them the power to do what He commanded.
And when that happened – some people responded, look with me at
Acts 4:12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”
And then, as we’ll see in our next study, Peter began to preach to them to tell them what it all meant, to explain what was happening, what God was doing.
Acts 4:13 Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”
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Some resisted the power and presence of God. They tried to find another explanation. That could be you this morning – trying to find a way to explain away all of these things. There have always been people who resist God and what He is doing. My friends, don’t be those people. God is reaching out to you – He offers you forgiveness of sin, forgiveness of all the wrong you have ever done in your life. And if He only did that for us, it would be remarkable.
But He does so much more – He also adopts us, brings us into His family, tells us to call Him Father, and surrounds us with the church – men and women that are now like brothers and sisters to us – He gives us a place to belong. A place to be united. A place to give and to receive, to help and be helped.
He gives us meaning, purpose, direction, and identity in life – we have a reason to live and work to be done and a God that is pleased by the work that we do.
But not just that – we have power for it all. You aren’t left to find your own ability, energy, and strength, God offers to fill you with His Spirit for the task. It’s still work, it’s still tiring at times, it’s still hard, but it’s different.
Imagine the difference between building a house with nothing but hand tools and building a house with power tools. We put men on the moon using slide rulers, but does that make anyone want to give up their smartphone?
My friends, depend on God. Depend on His strength. Ask Him to fill you, to baptize you, to empower you. Ask it for His glory and for the good of everyone around you.
How do you that? Well, first of all examine your motives – you can’t just want power and experience for the sake of the ride – the purpose of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the ‘coming upon’, is to bring glory to God, not to excite you, give you an emotional high, or give you a cool spiritual war story of how God used you this one time.
Once your motives are right, simply ask for it and keep asking – remember, this is not meant to be a single event. But as you ask, there is no need to hype things up or work yourself into a frenzy or an emotional fit; the disciples were all sitting when the Holy Spirit came upon them. You don’t earn a gift by your earnestness; you receive it because the giver wants to give. Our position is simply to ask. Ask God to guide you and ask Him to give you the strength and empowering to do whatever it is that He has laid before you.
Now I’ll remind you – there has only been one Pentecost in the history of the Church, so don’t expect rushing winds and flames in response to your prayer – but do expect to be increasingly aware that God is using you for His glory and the good of others.
Let’s pray together and ask God to work these truths into our lives.