Tongues and Pentecost

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.


Matthew said...

An interesting thought Chris, but how does this sqaure with Acts 2:11? Or have I missed the point of your post?

Chris HH said...

Ac 2:11 we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.

This is not clear either way (to my mind anyway, perhaps a Greek scholar can put me right)

Does it mean we all hear them speaking all our languages, or we all hear them speaking our respective languages.

I think the former is the conventional wisdom on the passage, but that doesn't mean it can't or should not be challenged. To my mind the latter makes much more sense, fits better with the rest of scripture, and the context of the events.

[I'm not saying that tongues cannot be the languages of men, that is clear from 1Co 13:1. But this would seem to be the exception, rather than the rule (1Co 14:2)]

Matthew said...

Having re-read a couple of times, now I'm getting the drift!

It's interesting that before the Pentecostal revivals of 100 years or ago, those seeking the baptism in the Spirit expected to speak in known languages for the purpose of evangelising.

Even if we take the more traditional reading, I don't believe that the tongues-speaking was the means of communicating the gospel - it was a miraculous sign.

We are told that the 120 were "proclaiming the mighty deeds of God" and when Peter came to preach (presumably in either Greek or Aramaic) the crowd all understood him (not surprise in that, as Jews of the diaspora they would surely have had a working knowledge of both languages even though they may not have been their native dielect).

And this of course was a "sign" to accompany the preaching of the gospel as promised by Jesus.

Chris HH said...

Thanks, Matthew: agreed.

I guess I probably confused things by combining a repost to the cessationist position, with an alternative exegesis of the text.

As you rightly point out, the later is not needed to do the former.

However, if you do take the more traditional view of this passage, then an expectation of speaking in known languages is understandable is it not? Why then do we not have this expectation, and how do you square this with 1Co 14:2?

Matthew said...


Firstly there are present day reports of xenolalia in an evangelistic context. But that is no biblical proof!

I would say what is key for 1 Cor 14 is context: Paul is speaking of the gathered church and contrasting (in that context) tongues spoken to God and prophecy spoken to men. In the second of these (prophecy) he is clearly not an exhaustive explanation of either how we speak to one-another (even in a metting), or even of the nature of prophecy: many OT prophecies are not addressed to men.

So why should Paul's explanation of tongues in 1 Cor 14 be universally applied if his explanation of prophecy isn't?

Also, in your interpretation of Acts 2 (which I do like very much!) the overall effect is still that men are communicating the truths of God to other men through the medium of tongues.

As to a present day expectation for xenolalia, perhaps that is also one of context! If at the instigation of the Holy Spirit you or I found ourselves unable to communicate the good news in any language we knew, perhaps we would reach to God for this particular manifestation of the gift of tongues!

Chris HH said...

I don't doubt the accounts of xenolalia, though I think 1Co 13:1 is the closest you get to biblical evidence. (It's good enough for me.)

What strikes me though is that these seem to be "gifts for the moment", very much like the context you describe, rather than abiding gifts that are subject to the one who receives them. So it would be consistent that in 1Co 14:2, Paul is not discounting xenolalia, but, as you say, it is in the context of the church, where it is not expected that someone will bring a tongue which can be translated rather than interpreted by the Spirit.

It makes me wonder if perhaps some of the manifestations of xenolalia may actually be glossolalia with an interpretation; as I propose for what happened at Pentecost. As you point out though, since the net result is the same, the difference is somewhat academic: extraordinary tongue vs. extraordinary interpretation.

The interpretation would certainly be extraordinary, as I don't think it is usual (a) for unbelievers to get interpretations from the Spirit, or (b) for interpretations of tongues to come like "hearing the person speak in your own language" — this for me is a bigger problem for my exegesis of Acts 2.

But I'm sticking to my guns for now! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the post - it got me thinking again about the miracle that took place.

When I was at Covenant College we had a paper on the batism of th Holy Spirit and glossolalia and I believed, and still do, that it was a miracle of hearing in the instance of Pentecost.

It was great reading the banter too between yourself and Matthew. I must admit I had never considered whether or not non-believers would or could receive an interpretation, but I still don't see enough to move me from wher I am. I'm holding fast to a miracle on their hearing....but I am more open to the argument than I have previously been. Thanks both

Dave Shutt


Chris HH said...

Thanks, Dave.

If you believe that the Baptism in the Spirit at Pentecost was accompanied with glossolalia, and that there was an additional miracle that meant those listening heard them in their own languages; then that is exactly the position I was proposing.

If you disagree, can you clarify what distinction there is between "a miracle of hearing" and an "extraordinary interpretation"?

Ricky Carvel said...

I find all this debate very interesting, even if it is of no direct relevance to me in my (mostly non-charismatic) part of the church. All these greek words are a bit confusing to those of us who haven't been to bible college!

Anyway, I am interested in the 'cessationist' stance - it was a belief that was widespread in the church that I was raised in, although I never really bought into that belief myself.

However, I have never encountered the situation of a cessationist in a church/small group meeting where people are speaking/singing/praying in tongues.

I've been in meetings where people have spoken in tongues and (to be honest) sometimes it sounds real and at other times it just sounds like nonsense with no linguistic structure.

But how do cessationists react when faced with the real thing? Has anyone experience of this situation?


ps I have heard tale of contemporary people gaining the ability to speak in languages they have never learned, for the purposes of evangelism, but sadly I don't have details or references to hand. I wonder what a cessationist would say about that...

Chris HH said...


Something I really appreciate (in retrospect) about the Scottish Episcopal Church (at least speaking for the one I attended) is that although they never taught on the gifts, they never taught against them either. They did not preach about what they were not living out, but neither did they lower the word of God to account for their (lack of) practise. So when in my own studies I came across the gifts in Acts and Corinthians I came with a blank sheet, and no preconceptions.

I have been in the situation you describe (as the tongue-speaker). I was baptised in the Spirit while I was at University and attending a CU group that had a real mix of backgrounds (and more than a few cessationists).

Their reaction varies considerably depending on the personality of the cessationist, and how strongly they hold to their cessationism. Some were curious; others gave me disapproving glances, but said no more; others waited until the end of the meeting and politely asked me not to do it again; and one guy went ballistic! He accused me of being deceived by the devil, and quoted lots of allegedly weighty theologians who believed that the gift of tongues had ceased. When I respectfully said I thought they were all wrong, he denounced me as "arrogant" and stormed off.

I didn't attend that group much after that!

Christopher Negron said...

Hi guys, I just wanted to share a short story that Bryn once shared, or at least I think it was him? He was preaching in California at a church meeting and began moving in the gift of tongues. After the meeting, a woman from Asia (I don't know the specific country) approached him and asked how he learned to speak in her native language. She was amazed to here the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I beleive some prophecy spoken in her native tongue! I was a part of covenant college with Dave Shutt, and put together a paper on speaking in tongues, and submitted to Keri that was addidtional to work that had been given to the rest of the group. Intersting enough one of the comments I recieved pertianing to the Acts 2: 11 passage opened my mind to see that the Holy Spirit can and never will be boxed in by what I think! I am with David on this one, and feel that their were two miracles that happened on that day. The 120 were mightily baptised in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. The second was a miracle of hearing! What the beleivers were speaking, God could have allowed the hearers to hear in their own languages what the church was procliaming in tongues. You guys have all the brians, so I defer to your wisdom on this issue. Live Radiantly! -Chris Negron

Chris HH said...

Thanks, Chris.

Brains is rarely what counts in these matters, as my "friend" with his list of learned cessationist theologians goes to show.

Thanks for chipping in. It's nice to know I'm not alone in reaching the "two-miracle" conclusion, even if I have a different way of expressing it.

Dave Shutt said...

I agree, I agree haha

Excellent post Chris. I've been really provoked in my thinking regarding this aspect of Pentecost and also by Matthew's recent posts on the Holy Spirit.

Keep it going, love to JHH and Michael!


Dale from USA said...

One of the mis-understandings of tongues is that most christians generally lump it all together as one. A distinction I never hear much is the difference between the personal praying in tongues (Book of Acts) and the corporate manifestation gift of speaking in tongues (one of nine gifts described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14).

I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in April of 1981 and have prayed in tongues ever since. But, I have never given a message in Tongues in a church setting. When Paul asks the question "Do all speak in Tongues", he is only referring to the corporate manifestation gift. He is not talking about the evidence of the personal baptism/filling of the Holy Spirit.

Please visit my blog at http://dalefromusa.blogspot.com/
and please leave a comment

Elwyn Jones said...

It's wonderful how believers in our Lord Jesus Christ are reasoning together over God's Word.
It many not be possible to fully put our arm's of understanding around God's Word especially in these day's of a dry and thirsty land but I have been most encouraged by your research and reasoning together in this blog and comments.

piccadillywilson said...

For those needing a bit more background on this debate Wikipedia has a great article explaining the Cessationist position.


tina said...

speaking in tongues is a topic so many people want to know about... i just wrote a friend an email about the whole thing!

I know that there is a lot of controversy on this issue out there in the Christian community. But from seeing the Holy Spirit's power in this way and having experienced it, it is a great gift! I first witnessed this gift, among others, at a church in Yale, MI. They operate in what is called the 'body ministry' where worship, teaching, and gifts can be used in the church to minister by the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is primarily where these gifts of the Spirit are used... to edify the church or 'body of Christ'.

For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in is spirit he speaks mysteries 1 Cor. 14:2

I think that this is pretty self explanatory. When He grants us this gift, it is for our use in communicating with Him. I think that it is a unique gift in that we can edify the church through the gift of interpretation of tongues (if someone else in the body has it, or if we have it).

All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 1 Cor. 12:30

Just like I am not a teacher, not all have the gift of tongues. I know that there are a variety of gifts listen in scripture [but my knowledge is limited at the moment to name all of them :-) ] In my experience, i was never really prayed over or had people lay hands on me or anything. The Bible says that even if a person is in a meeting with Spirit-filled believers, he can be granted the gift and be filled with the Spirit. I first started praying for the gift of tongues about 4 years ago. And for some reason, God decided to give it to me a few months ago in September. My friend, Shelley, told me about the baptism of the Holy Spirit during that time 4 years ago and she prayed with me about it.

One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself 1 Cor. 14:4

Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. 1 Cor. 14:5

Tongues is a unique gift in that instead of edifying the body of Christ, it edifies your body. God has given also the gift of 'interpretation of tongues' where another believer interprets your tongue (unknown languages). Now, this gift of interpretation is used to edify (or build up) the body of Christ. This is why in the book of Corinthians, they talk about the order of worship and how to handle the gifts in a meeting. Anyway, this interpretation is brought on only supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in an assembly (or gathering) of believers and non-believers. See above 1 Cor. 14:5.

I don't want to confuse you so if you have questions, go right on ahead and ask.

So, in conclusion, in order for the gift of tongues to edify the body of believers, or the church, it must be followed by an interpretation. As a result, this interpretation will build up the church!! And if He gives us the gift of tongues, it is a language between God and the believer!

David Shaw said...


I have been looking for a site/blog online that is pentecostal in nature that articulates their beliefs in an intelligent way; they are not as easy to find as it may seem. I came across your blog through another site (I don't remember which) and have enjoyed what I have read of your writings. I will check back.