In our last essay we studied Acts 1:6-26. In verses 6-8 we saw that the disciples had not yet grasped the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God. But regardless of that, Jesus promised the disciples that a greater power, a heavenly power, would be theirs when the Holy Spirit would come upon them. It would be power to witness “in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (vv. 7-8). With that statement Jesus laid out his program for fulfillment of the great commission and set forth the spiritual nature of the kingdom. In this essay we begin a major section of Acts, namely, 2:1-8:1a, which is a record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem. The section also represents a series of firsts for the Church.
The first event Luke records is the first outpouring of he Holy Spirit, which took place on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ Ascension. The Jewish word “Pentecost” literally means fiftieth. The Feast of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Harvest or the Feast of Weeks, was the primary harvest festival. An offering of First Fruits of the grain harvest (which normally was barley) was made the day after Passover (Lev. 23:9-14), and appropriate offerings were required. Then fifty days later, the Feast of Pentecost took place. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated the completion of the wheat harvest, and once again appropriate offerings were required (Lev. 23:15-25). Later in Jewish history, the Jews began to celebrate God’s giving of the law to Moses during Pentecost as well.
On that first Christian Pentecost, without warning, but with much supernatural display, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place. God apparently supplied the supernatural signs so that his people would recognize the importance of the event. The first sign was a roaring sound from heaven, like that of a violent wind. The sound of a roaring tornado comes to mind. The sound, which probably was a bit frightening, filled the house. Notice that there is no indication that an actual wind was present, only the frightening sound of it.
The second sign was visual rather than audible. The disciples saw fire that divided so that a tongue of fire rested on each person’s head. In other words, the event was both a group and an individual experience. Each individual in the group was to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and each was to use his or her tongue to witness.
Third, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place, and the third supernatural sign occurred. Each of the participants began to speak in languages they never learned. Stott declares, “These three experiences seemed like natural phenomena (wind, fire, and speech); yet they were supernatural both in origin and character. The noise was not wind, but sounded like it; the sight was not fire but resembled it; and the speech was in languages which were not ordinary but in some way ‘other.”
Carter and Earle suggest that the supernatural phenomena were symbolic. The sound of a violent wind symbolizes the power of the Spirit, because violent winds are quite powerful. The tongues of fire symbolize purity, because fire is a purifying agent. The infilling of the Spirit symbolizes possession, because those filled with the Spirit had given themselves over to God. And the speaking in unknown languages symbolizes proclamation, because the disciples would use the languages to proclaim the good news about Jesus.
In verse five Luke tells us that devout Jews from every nation in the known world were in Jerusalem for the feast. Then in verse six we see that the 120 must have poured out of the house into the streets when they were filled with the Spirit and noisily began to speak in other languages. The noise of the event immediately drew an international, multi-lingual crowd. And the crowd heard the disciples speaking in their various native languages.
In verses 7-8 we see that the individuals in the crowd were amazed and bewildered by what they were seeing and hearing. The word translated “amazed” is a very strong word. It literally means standing outside of oneself with astonishment. Most of the 120 speakers were known to be Galileans, and Galileans had a reputation for being uncultured. Thus their speaking in the diverse languages of the people who were present was shocking. Therefore the crowd had good reason to be amazed.
In verses 9-11 Luke mentions many nations from several regions. He mentioned nations that were from east of the Euphrates. Some were from between the Euphrates and Egypt. Some were from Asia Minor, and others were from North Africa, and Rome. Among them were Jews and proselytes, as well as Cretans and Arabs. Truly, this was a widely diverse crowd.
Interestingly, in verse 13 we learn that there was a minority in the crowd that did not understand any of the languages. So they sneered and accused the 120 of being drunk.
Some scholars see a connection with the tower of Babel story in Gen. 11:1-9. In that story, God confused the languages of the people forcing them to disperse themselves across the earth. In this story, God did the opposite by breaking down the language barriers, in effect reversing, for a time at least, what happened at Babel.
Now then, all of this is fairly straightforward. On the day of Pentecost, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the assembled believers, accompanied by several supernatural signs, including the sound of a violent wind, tongues of fire, and speaking in tongues.
Speaking in tongues as such were found in the Greco-Roman culture. But the usual phenomenon was far different from what we see here. The usual speaking in tongues were unintelligible both to the hearers and the speakers, whereas the languages spoken here were intelligible to those who spoke the languages. Indeed four kinds of speaking I tongues have been identified by Ken Kinghorn.
First are the real earthly languages that are unknown to the speakers, as seen in this passage. Second are languages that are known only in heaven, as seen in 1 Corinthians 12-14. For these tongues to be understood, they must be interpreted by one who has a gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:11). As you can see, Kinghorn believes that the gift of tongues of 1 Cor. 12-14 is a different phenomenon than the speaking in tongues of Acts 2. As we shall see later, not everyone agrees that this is the case. Third are what Kinghorn calls “demonic tongues.” These are tongues spoken by witch doctors and pagan priests. And they represent what I earlier called the usual speaking in tongues of the Greco-Roman culture. Fourth are tongues that Kinghorn identifies as a “psychological response.” These cases of speaking in tongues are by persons who are participating in groups where the gift of tongues is expected and rewarded. Therefore they fake the phenomenon, because they want to be accepted by the group.
A study of 1 Cor. 12-14 reveals several characteristics of the so-called gift of tongues dealt with there. I suggest you turn to 1 Cor. 12-14 and look at a few verses that show these characteristics. First, the gift of tongues is Holy Spirit inspired speech (1 Cor. 12:7-11). Second, it is a gift given to some, but not all, Christians (1 Cor. 12:30). Third, this kind of speaking in tongues is unintelligible to both the speaker and the hearers (1 Cor. 14:13-17). Fourth, in that same passage, in verse 14, notice that one can pray in tongues. Fifth, the speaker is in control of the gift (1 Cor. 14:27-28). Finally sixth, the message of tongues is directed to God, not to the congregation (1 Cor. 14:2).
In summary, there are at least three interpretations of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues found in 1 Cor. 12-14. First, liberal or radical scholarship interprets it as a fairly typical example of the Greco-Roman cultural speaking in tongues. It is unintelligible gibberish rather than a supernatural gift of God. Second, some Pentecostals, charismatics, and evangelicals believe that the speaking in tongues of 1 Cor. 12-14 is different from that found in Acts two. The Acts 2 gift is that of earthly languages understandable by those who speak the languages, and the 1 Cor. 12-14 gift is that it is a heavenly language, perhaps a language of angels, as 1 Cor. 13:1 suggests. And third, some in these groups believe that there is only one gift of speaking in tongues. That is, the speaking in tongues in Acts two and 1 Cor. 12-14 are the same phenomenon, rather than two different ones.