When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:1-6)
Believe it or not this is a favourite passage for cessationists! Their argument, which I have seen expounded many times, on my excursions round the wider blogosphere, is that the "Apostolic" gift of tongues was speaking in "known translatable languages" for the "purpose of evangelism". They then argue that since this is not how the modern "charismatic" gift of tongues is used, what is currently manifest cannot be the true gift of tongues as it was poured out on the day of Pentecost. Further support, so they claim, for the cessation of this gift.
It is somewhat surprising that any cessationist should claim to be an expert in what the gift of tongues is; but not surprising at all that they get it so badly wrong! Let's look at what the passage actually says.
they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [plural].... they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them [plural] speak in his own language [singular].
First lets take note of the words used. They all spoke in other tongues [greek: glossa] and each heard them speak in his own language [greek: dialektos]. If the purpose of the passage was to show that the disciples were speaking in known languages, surely the same word "dialektos" would be used in each case, but it is not. Dialektos is the word used for the standard language associated with a particular nation; glossa on the otherhand is better translated not as language but as dialect, as it is used for the words spoken, not for a nation, but by a particular group of people.
Now lets take a look at the tenses. The standard way this passage has been understood would read better as "they were bewildered, because each one was hearing one of them speak in his own language" or "they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak many languages (including their own)" But this is not what the passage says.
Let us also put ourselves into the position. If as a foreigner in a strange land, I heard someone standing in the street speaking English, what would my reaction be? That something miraculous had happened? Or that I had met someone who had learned my language? How would I know whether his english speaking was due to learning or due to a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. If I had no reason to suspect the latter, surely I would assume the former. Also consider, imagine a group of people all speaking simultaneously different languages. How would that be different from the normal hubbub for the marketplace that already held people from all these different places? Who indeed would be able to distinguish what one man said in one language over the noise created by the other 119 speaking in languages that were not understood.
No, this is what I believe took place: the disciples all spoke in different tongues, that were distinct from the languages of the nations.
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. (1Co 14:2)
This in itself was miraculous, for it was not words that they had learned, nor babbling that they made up, but utterance given by the Holy Spirit. But there was a second half to this miracle, for although they were all speaking different words, the Greek heard them as if they were speaking Greek, the Hebrew as if in Hebrew. Throughout the crowd, astonishment and bewilderment broke out, as they could not agree what language these men were speaking that all could understand as if in their own native tongue. And indeed we are told, that some did not understand them at all, but just heard the unintelligable words, like those of drunken men.
This was indeed a fulfilment of Joel 2, the Spirit poured out on all flesh. For what we see, is not just the miraculous gift of tongues on the disciples, but an indiscriminate outpouring of the miraculous gift of interpretation too. It was a reversal of Babel! At Babel, one people with the same speech were confused and scattered into many nations. At Pentecost, many nations were gathered together, and a new unified people of God was formed who again spoke with words that all could understand.
It is clear, however, from Paul's instructions to the Corinthians, that this is not a phenomenon that we should expect every time God's people speak in tongues (not to say that it cannot, nor has not occurred in some instances). Unless the tongues are interpreted, the usual situation is that no-one will understand. Further proof, that these were not known translatable languages. Nor were they used in evangelism, but were give by the Spirit to declare the mysteries of the Spirit, and the mighty works of God — in short, exactly the same manifestation of tongues that is present in every Spirit-filled believer today.