Can Christians Speak with Tongues? (Part II)

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In this examination of Bible teaching David Willey explores the Biblical text to see what speaking in tongues really means, and whether it was merely a first century phenomenon or something that was meant to endure for all believers.

Pentecost

In Acts chapter 2, verses 1 to 21 the events of the day of Pentecost are recorded. We are told, in verse 1, that “they were all with one accord in one place”. If you ask yourself to whom the word ‘they’ refers, it is obviously the twelve apostles, for the account reads like this:

“They cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles. Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place…”(Acts 1:26-2:1).

Chapter divisions can sometimes make things appear more complicated than they really are, so it pays to read across them. But it is also good to ask questions as you read. So, where was the “one place”? It was probably the upper room referred to in 1:13 – although we cannot be sure whether or not that was the Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. Perhaps it was.

Were the twelve apostles alone or were there other people with them? Again, we cannot dogmatise; it was certainly the twelve who were present, but the group could have included some or even all of the 120 people referred to in 1:15:

“In those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty)”.

Filled with the Holy Spirit

In Acts 2, verses 2-3, we read of a sound like a “mighty rushing wind” and the “cloven (or ‘divided’) tongues like as of fire” and as verse 4 says, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. What effect did that have? Verse 4 explains that they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”.

If we look back to Mark chapter 16, we find a list of what the followers of Jesus would be able to do when they had the power of the Spirit:

“These signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17,18).

They could not have done those things in the Upper Room, for obvious reasons. Instead they: “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”.

I don’t imagine that they would have spoken with tongues in the Upper Room, although I suppose that they might have had the opportunity to practise their new ability whilst they were there. But, out in the city of Jerusalem, the whole city was crammed with Jews from all over the Roman Empire, because it was the day of Pentecost. So they were able to go out into the city immediately, and speak in ‘new tongues’ as they endeavoured to preach the good news about the risen Lord to the crowds that were thronging the streets. It was a golden opportunity to start preaching the Word of God to the people.

Speaking with Tongues

If we read through Acts chapter 2 carefully, especially verses 6 to 12, we will see exactly what “speaking with tongues” entailed. The multitude were amazed and said:

“Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:7-11).

These words are very clear. We learn from them that ‘speaking with tongues’ enabled the apostles to speak in foreign languages. We cannot escape this conclusion. When the apostles ‘spoke with tongues’, those who heard them were able to hear the gospel message in their own different languages or dialects – and a list is given of the different places from which the visitors came to make it even clearer.

What was the purpose of this gift which enabled the apostles to speak with tongues? It enabled the apostles in the end to go to any place in the Roman Empire and to be sure that every person there would be able to understand what was said. The apostles had the facility to speak the local dialect, so the people there could hear the gospel in their native language .

Huge Advantage

Think of the benefit that would accrue to us today if we could do that now. We have a Bible Mission that seeks to preach the word of God to all nations. It is relatively easy where the people understand English – but one of the greatest problems we encounter, for example in countries in Eastern Europe, is the language barrier. Without a translator, we can do absolutely nothing unless the recipients can speak English, or unless our missionary visitors have had the time and ability to learn the language.

The apostles had no such problem. Whatever country they went to, because they had the gift of the Spirit which enabled them to speak in new tongues, they could be understood in every place they went. It was a marvellous help in spreading the gospel message – one that would be very useful today, if it were available.

So it is clear from Acts chapter 2 that the Holy Spirit gift of ‘speaking with tongues’ was the ability to speak in different languages and dialects – and I suggest that this is completely different from the gift – of ecstatic utterance – that is claimed by many churches today.

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