The Gift of Tongues in Acts



This post continues a series on spiritual gifts. If you have not yet done so, please read “Why I Am Not a Charismatic” as an introduction to this post.

Today, I am going to examine the gift of tongues as found in Acts.

The Day of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech. (Acts 2:1–4, HCSB)

In this famous passage, the gift was given for the first time, and it was also defined. There is no room left for doubt that they were speaking in different languages.

Many translations render this literally as “other tongues,” but we already established that this regularly refers to languages when not a literal tongue, and literal tongues would not make sense here.

This text also shows that the gift was given to the speakers rather than to the listeners. The passage gives no indication that the listeners were gifted to understand. There is such a thing as a gift of interpretation, but nothing suggests that it was given at this time.

Different Dialects

There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language?” (Acts 2:5–8, HCSB)

The author here switched from using the word glossa (“tongues”) to using dialektos, a word which very specifically means different languages or dialects. This further solidifies the fact that they were speaking in real intelligible human languages. The interchangeable use of glossa and dialektos shows that the same meaning was intended by both.

Hearing Each Language

“Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.” (Acts 2:9–11, HCSB)

The author here switched back to using the word glossa.

A valid question has been raised. Did every listener hear every speaker in his own language? Or did every listener hear their own language from at least one speaker?

This verse seems to make it clear that there were different languages being heard. “We hear … languages” (Acts 2:11, HCSB). Notice that “languages” is plural, as is it is in the Greek.

It seems that the Spirit gave each one of the speakers the ability to speak in a specific language. In this way, everyone present was able to hear “the magnificent acts of God” in their own language. They would have also heard languages they did not understand.

Drunken Speakers?

They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!” (Acts 2:12–13, HCSB)

This text makes perfect sense when it is understood that different languages were being spoken. Those willing to listen heard the message in their own language from the speaker gifted with that language.

However, the skeptics chose to ignore those speaking in their own language. Instead, they focused on the speakers they could not understand and mocked them.

This ends the references to tongues on the day of Pentecost. We will now move forward to the next mention in Acts.

Gentile Believers

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speaking in other languages and declaring the greatness of God.

Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for a few days. (Acts 10:44–48, HCSB)

It is granted that the translators of the HCSB took some interpretative liberty by adding the word other before languages. However, based on the definition of tongues found in chapter 2, this interpretation is entirely valid.

The Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles. As proof, they were given the ability to speak in languages they did not know. Had they started making incomprehensible sounds, it would have proven nothing.

Final Mention

Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people that they should believe in the One who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in other languages and to prophesy. (Acts 19:4–6, HCSB)

Once more, the Spirit came on believers, and they spoke in languages they did not know.

I have now gone through each mention of the gift of tongues in Acts. In each case, it is clear that believers were given the ability to speak in different languages.

Tomorrow, I will go through each mention in 1 Corinthians to understand Paul’s response to the abuse of this gift.

Spiritual Gifts Series

  1. Why I Am Not a Cessationist
  2. Why I Am Not a Charismatic
  3. The Gift of Tongues in Acts
  4. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–13
  5. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14

What Do You Think?

Is this a fair interpretation of the gift of tongues in Acts? Please do not bring up any arguments from 1 Corinthians yet; those will be covered tomorrow.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.