Tongues in Caesarea
In Acts, all converts repent, are baptized in water, and receive the Spirit, but not necessarily in that order. Likewise, when the disciples received the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
And on that first day, what appeared to be individual “tongues of fire” came to rest on each disciple. Later, Peter described the event to the pilgrims assembled near the Temple as “what you both SEE and HEAR” when describing these manifestations.
|[Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash]|
Pentecost was a unique event, the initial outpouring of the Spirit that equipped the church to “become my witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth.” Moreover, all the disciples present that day were followers of Jesus, not new converts to the faith.
At this early stage, the gospel was preached to Jews and Jewish proselytes. Evidence suggests that only a handful of Gentiles received the gospel prior to the incident in Caesarea. Reaching out to the larger non-Jewish world was not yet a priority for the young movement.
Cornelius of Caesarea was a Roman centurion who received a vision in which an angel instructed him to send men to Joppa to fetch Peter. His prayers were about to be answered though in ways he could not have foreseen – (Acts 10:1-8).
The next day, in Joppa, Peter also received a vision and saw “heaven opened, and corning down was a kind of vessel like a large linen cloth, being let down upon the earth by its four corners.” In it, he saw ritually unclean animals and heard a voice command him to rise, “slay and eat.” But this Peter refused to do. “At no time have I eaten anything common or unclean.”
In chapter 10, this scene is repeated two more times, then the vision ends, leaving Peter confused about its significance. Then the men from Cornelius arrive, and Spirit reassures Peter that the Lord sent them - (Acts 10:9-16).
In the narrative, Cornelius is called “a righteous man who fears God and is well-attested by the whole nation of the Jews.” This identifies him as a “God-fearer,” a term for Gentiles who adopt at least some Jewish beliefs and practices but do not get circumcised and become full proselytes.
The description of Cornelius as a “righteous man” is important to the story. He was no hardened sinner but a just man well-known among the local Jewish population for his devoutness.
The next day, Peter departed for Caesarea. After meeting and conversing with Cornelius, he stated to those present - “You know well how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joining himself or coming into one of another nation. Yet God has pointed out that I should not be calling any man common or unclean.”
His statement is pivotal to the story. By default, an uncircumcised Gentile was outside the covenant of Israel and considered “unclean” regardless of any sin the man may commit. No uncircumcised man could be a member of God’s covenant community. And the upright conduct of Cornelius was “well attested” by many Jews - (Acts 10:17-33).
After Cornelius told his story, Peter began to speak to those who were present. “Of a truth, I find that God is no respecter of persons, but, in every nation, he that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” Again, what mattered was not ethnicity or circumcision, but righteous conduct.
And Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius’ household. But before he finished, the Spirit fell on the Gentiles, and he knew this because they began to “speak in tongues and magnify God.” Clearly, these individuals did speak in tongues, and Peter’s reaction shows that he considered this a supernatural act. He attributes it to the Spirit.
Nothing in the passages suggests the “tongues” were used to translate Peter’s words for his audience. Both Peter and the Jews with him heard the Gentiles “magnifying God.” And the Apostle understood “speaking in tongues” as an indicator that they had received the Spirit.
Whatever the effect of “speaking in tongues” on the recipients of the Spirit, for Peter and his Jewish companions, it was irrefutable evidence that God had granted the gift of the Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles.
In response, Peter baptized Cornelius and his entire house “in the name of Jesus Christ.” And the Gentiles received the Spirit BEFORE being baptized in water – baptism was not required prior to the receipt of the Spirit.
The Jews present that day are described as the “faithful of the circumcision.” This highlights the issue. Not only had Gentiles just received the Spirit, but they also did so while in an uncircumcised state. The Jews were “amazed that upon the Gentiles also the free gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out.” And they knew this to be the case because “they heard them speaking with tongues and magnifying God.”
When Peter called for Cornelius and his household to be baptized, he declared that they “received the Holy Spirit as well as we,” a reference to the original outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
SIGN OF THE SPIRIT
Like Pentecost, this was a unique event since it signified that the gospel was open to Gentiles. And Peter provided the reason why the gift was accompanied by “speaking in tongues” – to confirm to his Jewish brethren that God granted salvation to the Gentiles, the very same salvation already enjoyed by Jewish believers.
Not only are Gentiles not to be treated as “common and unclean,” but they are also acceptable members of the covenant community, circumcised or not.
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was questioned about fellowshipping with Gentiles in Caesarea. In response, he reiterated the same point:
- “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning… If God gave to them the like gift as he did also to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God? – (Acts 11:15-18).
This passage stresses that the Gentiles received the very same gift that Jewish believers did on the Day of Pentecost (“even as on us at the beginning”).
Clearly, “speaking in tongues” in Caesarea was a “sign” of the Spirit, though, in this case, it showed Jewish believers that God accepts Gentiles and grants them the very same gift received by the church on Pentecost.
This story points to “tongues” as being a sign of the baptism of the Spirit, at least on this occasion, but the circumstances were unique, and that makes it difficult to conclude that “speaking in tongues” is always THE one and only “sign” of the Spirit.
Moreover, just as “tongues of fire” also appeared on the disciples in Jerusalem, so the Gentiles in Caesarea were heard “magnifying God” when they were filled with the Spirit. There are similarities and differences between the two accounts of what happened when the Spirit arrived.
Nevertheless, “speaking in tongues” certainly is “A sign,” and the incident at Caesarea provides further evidence for assuming that it is an indicator that someone has been filled with God’s Spirit.