21 July 2022

Tongues in Caesarea


In Caesarea, Gentile converts spoke in tongues and “magnified God” after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit

Alpine brook - Photo by kazuend on Unsplash
In
Acts, all converts repent, are baptized in water, and receive the Spirit (not necessarily in that order). Likewise, when the disciples received the gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” - [Photo by kazuend on Unsplash].

And on that first day, what appeared to be individual “tongues of fire” appeared to rest on each disciple. Later, Peter described the event to the pilgrims assembled near the Temple as “what you both see and hear” in reference to these initial manifestations.

In some ways, Pentecost was a unique event. It was 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 who were present were followers of Jesus and not new converts to the faith.

In the church’s earliest stages, 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 faith, at least not officially.

CORNELIUS


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, for “your prayers and alms have ascended for a memorial before God.” It seems 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. In it, he 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 he heard a voice command him to rise, “Peter, slay and eat.”

This Peter refused to do.  “At no time have I eaten anything common or unclean.” This scene was repeated two more times, then the vision ended, leaving him confused about what it meant. Then the men from Cornelius arrived, and Spirit reassured Peter that the Lord had sent them. He was to go with them, “doubting nothing” - (Acts 10:9-16).

In the narrative, Cornelius is described as “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 applied to Gentiles who adopted at least some Jewish beliefs and practices but did not get circumcised and become proselytes. The description is important to the story. Cornelius was no hardened sinner but a just man well known to many Jews for his devoutness.

CAESAREA


The next day, Peter went with the men to 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.”

This statement is pivotal to the story. By default, an uncircumcised Gentile was outside the covenant of Israel and considered “unclean,” and this was regardless of any sin or sins he may or may not have committed. No uncircumcised man could be a member of the covenant community. And the upright conduct of Cornelius was “well attested” by many Jews - (Acts 10:17-33).

After Cornelius told Peter his story, the latter began to speak to all those who were at the centurion’s house. “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 matters is not ethnicity or circumcision, but righteous conduct.

And Peter then preached the gospel to Cornelius’ household. But before he had finished doing so, the Spirt fell the Gentiles, and he knew this because they spontaneously began to “speak in tongues and magnify God.”

Clearly, these individuals did speak in tongues, and Peter’s reaction demonstrates that he considered this a supernatural act. He attributes their “speaking in tongues” to the activity of the Spirit.

Nothing in the passages even suggests the “tongues” were used to translate any words from anyone or for anyone who was at this event.  Moreover, the Gentiles were also heard “magnifying God” by Peter and those with him. And this indicates that the Apostle understood “speaking in tongues” to be an indicator or “sign” that the Gentiles had received the Spirit. Whatever the effect of “speaking in tongues” on the recipients of the Spirit, for Peter and his Jewish companions, the manifestation was irrefutable evidence that God had granted the gift of the Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles.

JEWISH REACTION


In response, Peter baptized Cornelius and his entire house “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and he did not also circumcise them. Also noteworthy is that the Gentiles received the Spirit BEFORE they were baptized in water – water baptism was not required prior to receiving the Spirit.

The Jews with Peter are described as the “faithful of the circumcision.” This highlights the issue. Not only had Gentiles just received the Spirit, 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 in water, he declared that the Gentiles had “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 the Day of Pentecost, this was a unique event in that it signified the gospel was open to Gentiles.

Moreover, Peter provided the reason why the gift of the Spirit was accompanied by "speaking in tongues." It confirmed to his Jewish compatriots that God had granted salvation to the Gentiles, and not only so, but the very same salvation already enjoyed by Jewish believers in Jesus.

Not only were Gentiles not to be treated as “common and unclean, but” they were also to be accepted as full members of the covenant community, circumcised or not.

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, some Jews questioned him as to why he had fellowshipped 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. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If, then, God gave to them the like gift as he did also to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God? And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also has God granted repentance unto life” – (Acts 11:15-18).

This passage emphasizes again that the Gentiles received the very same gift that Jewish believers received on the Day of Pentecost (“even as on us at the beginning”).

Clearly, “speaking in tongues” in Caesarea was a “sign” of the receipt of the Spirit, though in this case it was specifically to show Jewish followers of Jesus that God had accepted Gentiles and granted them the very same gift they had received at Pentecost.

This certainly points to “tongues” as 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 when they received the Spirit, so, ALSO, the Gentiles at Caesarea were heard “magnifying God” when they were filled with the Spirit.

 Nevertheless, “speaking in tongues” certainly is “A sign,” and the incident at Caesarea provides further precedence for assuming that it is an indicator that someone has been accepted by God and filled with His Spirit.



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