Tongues in Jerusalem
When the Spirit was poured out on 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.” Additionally, what appeared to be “tongues of fire” came to rest on each disciple. And so, two supernatural manifestations accompanied the arrival of the Spirit, one visual and the other audible.
And in the second chapter of Acts, the stress is on both aspects and their combined effect on the crowd of Jewish pilgrims gathered near the Temple.
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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 was an epochal event that signified the commencement of a significant new era. He does this by informing the reader that these events occurred when the “day of Pentecost was filled full.” This term represents a Greek infinitive that means to fill something completely.
Moreover, Peter links the events to Joel’s prophecy that “in the last days, God will pour out His Spirit.” What occurred on Pentecost marked the start of the “last days,” the age of fulfillment. This was no routine annual feast day, but the fulfillment of all that the Levitical feast foreshadowed.
In his sermon, Peter does not address the manifestation of the “tongues of fire,” but their appearance does recall the words of John the Baptist when he declared that the “Coming One” will “baptize you in spirit and fire.”
At the start 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 seems 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 praises to God in his own language.”
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Clearly, under the direction of the Spirit, the 120 disciples were speaking in known human languages. But this does not mean the Spirit-inspired “tongues” were used to translate the gospel or Peter’s sermon for the crowd.
Greek was spoken commonly in the eastern Roman Empire and was 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 most logical option for Peter to communicate with the largest number of people gathered around him.
What impressed the pilgrims was NOT the disciples’ supernatural ability to translate languages, but the fact that each man heard the “Galileans” magnifying the “mighty works of God.”
In popular thought at the time, Galilee was a backwater province populated by poorly educated Jews and a good number of Gentiles. How could they know how to praise God in so many different languages?
Why God chose to use “tongues” as evidence of the Spirit’s presence is not explained in the account. 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 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 – (Isaiah 28:10-13).
And, years later, Paul does 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 nor Luke makes this scriptural connection, so the point should not be pressed. Regardless, the sight of 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, and it can be argued that the church as a divinely appointed institution was born that day.
It is no surprise, then, that such a pivotal event in Salvation History would be characterized by supernatural manifestations. And we must not forget that three “signs” accompanied the Spirit’s arrival – “speaking in tongues,” a “sound like a mighty rushing wind,” and “tongues of fire.”
Whether these events form the pattern for what occurs every time someone receives the gift of the Spirit remains to be seen in Acts. Regardless, these three “signs” certainly did confirm that Jesus had poured out the gift of the Spirit on his church.