29 June 2022

Tongues in Jerusalem

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was marked by audible and visual “signs” that caused much consternation

Jerusalem - Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash
When the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, all 120 disciples present in the “
upper room” were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Also, what appeared to be “tongues of fire”  rested on each disciple - [Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash].

Thus, two supernatural manifestations accompanied the arrival of the Spirit in the fledgling church, one visual and the other audible. And the second chapter of Acts stresses both aspects and their combined effect on the crowd of Jewish pilgrims.


This understanding is confirmed by Peter when he explains in his sermon what the crowd had just witnessed:
  • Being, therefore, by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this, which you see and hear” – (Acts 2:33).

As the editor of Acts, Luke wants us to understand this as an epochal event, one that signified the commencement of a significant new era. And he does this by informing the reader that these events occurred when the “day of Pentecost is being filled full.” This represents a Greek infinitive that means to fill something completely, and here, it is in the progressive present tense, signifying an ongoing action.

Moreover, Peter links the events to Joel’s prophecy that “in the last days, God will pour out His Spirit.” What had just occurred marked the start of the “last days,” the onset of history’s final era before the “Day of the Lord,” and the age of fulfillment. This was no routine annual day of Pentecost, but the fulfillment of all that the feast day had foreshadowed.

Peter does not address the incident of the “tongues of fire,” but their appearance recalls the words of John the Baptist that the “coming one” would “baptize you in spirit and fire.” At the start of the book of Acts, Jesus charged his disciples to “tarry in Jerusalem” until they received the Spirit and reminded them that “John baptized in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence” – (Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5).

But it appears the crowd was most affected by hearing the disciples “speaking in tongues.” This group was comprised of Jewish pilgrims from many countries who were in the city for the feast, “devout men from every nation under heaven.” They were amazed because each pilgrim heard the disciples “speaking in his own language” praises to God.


Clearly, on this occasion, believers under the direction of the Spirit were speaking in known human languages– (Acts 2:1-8).

But this does not mean the Spirit-inspired “tongues” were used to translate the gospel or Peter’s sermon to the crowd.

Greek was the most commonly spoken language in the eastern Roman Empire and the de facto standard langue of commerce. Many of the men present certainly did understand Greek, and Luke presents us with Peter giving his sermon in Greek.

Nothing in the passages suggests that other disciples were interpreting his words for him with their newly acquired gift of “tongues,” and speaking in Greek would have been the best and logical option for Peter to communicate with the largest number of people gathered around him.

What impressed the pilgrims was NOT the disciple’s supernatural ability to translate, but the fact that each man heard these “Galileans” magnifying the “mighty works of God.” At that time, in popular thought, Galilee was a backwater province populated by poorly educated Jews and a good number of Gentiles. In modern parlance, “country bumpkins.” How could they know how to praise God in so many different languages?


Why God chose to use “tongues” on this day as evidence of the Spirit’s presence is not explained in the chapter. For that matter, the book of Acts never provides the divine rationale behind the gift of tongues, though on the day of Pentecost it certainly made a lasting impression. Over three thousand of the pilgrims repented and were baptized after Peter’s sermon.

luke may intend for us to recall the prophecy from the book of Isaiah:
  • For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little. Nay, but by men of strange lips and with another tongue will he speak to this people; to whom he said, This is the rest, give you rest to him that is weary, and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. Therefore shall the word of Yahweh be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little; that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken – (Isaiah 28:10-13).

The Apostle Paul did make this connection in his first letter to the Corinthians:
  • In the law, it is written, By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak unto this people; and not even thus will they hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelieving – (1 Corinthians 14:21).

However, neither Peter in his sermon nor Luke in his narration of the events makes this connection, so the point should not be pressed. Regardless, the phenomenon of (presumably) poorly educated Galileans speaking in known foreign tongues certainly did impress the Jewish pilgrims in the immediate vicinity.

We must bear in mind that Pentecost was a unique and inaugural event. This was the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the church, and it can be argued that the church as a divinely appointed institution was born on this day.

It is no surprise that such a pivotal event in Salvation History would be characterized by supernatural manifestations. And we must not forget that two “signs” accompanied the Spirit’s arrival – “speaking in tongues” and the “tongues of fire.”

Whether these events form the pattern for what will occur each and every time someone receives the gift of the Holy Spirit remains to be seen. Regardless, these two “signs” most certainly did confirm that Jesus had poured out the gift of the Spirit on his church on that day.

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