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In the context of Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles who were assembled in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of the Pentecost (vv 1-4). This coming of the Spirit was accompanied by the following characteristics:
(1) A sound from heaven like a great wind filling the place where they were sitting.
(2) Divided (cloven -- KJV) tongues like fire sat on each one of them.
(3) They spoke with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. We will see from the context, as we proceed, what the nature of these tongues were.
The event here described must be the promise of the Holy Spirit which Jesus had described in 1:3-8. Peter later explains this as the pouring forth of the Spirit (2:17), the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit received from the Father (2:33; cf. 1:4,5). It gave them the power to bear witness to the people about Jesus, beginning at Jerusalem, just as Jesus had promised, and it came "not many days" after Jesus had promised it (2:14-36; cf. 1:3-8). We must conclude that this is the baptism of the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised.
Since all Jewish males were required to be at Pentecost, there were Jews assembled in Jerusalem at that time from all over the world. Vv 9-11 lists 15 different areas. These people congregated to observe what the apostles were doing. They were amazed because, despite they fact they were from many different native lands, these people all heard the apostles speak in their own languages in which they were born (vv 6,8). Yet the speakers were all Galileans, hence they did not know the languages from having learned them all. Clearly the tongue-speaking refers to the miracle of men being able to speak languages they had never learned.
Consider the following summary of the characteristics of tongues as here described: (1) Men spoke in languages which had previously existed and which were even known to some of the people present (vv 6,8,11). (2) The people present were able not only to recognize what language was spoken, but they could also understand the content of the message (v11). (3) The things spoken consisted of lessons regarding spiritual things, which informed and instructed the people who heard, because they were able to understand the message (v11). (4) Yet the miracle, which amazed the people, was that these things were accomplished through men who had never studied nor learned the languages they were speaking (vv 7,8,11,12; cf. Acts 4:13).
From the above summary, it follows that the tongues accomplished two purposes: (1) The hearers were instructed and informed, because they could understand the message in their own language. (2) A miraculous sign confirmed that God was working in these men -- the hearers could clearly see that the speakers, who were from only one place, were able to speak all these languages; and the hearers knew the languages were spoken correctly because they themselves knew the languages. This is the same sense of tongue speaking described in 1 Cor. 12-14; Acts 10,11, & 19.
Note how this differs from modern so-called tongue speaking. Men claim today they have received the "Pentecost experience." They say they have received the same baptism in the Holy Spirit and have the same gifts of the Spirit. But what they do never measures up to what happened here.
What modern "tongue-speakers" utter is gibberish that no one present understands, themselves included. There is no evidence they speak any existing language, and studies have shown that they do not speak any known language. Of all the millions who claim to have this gift today, rarely does one find anyone who even claims to speak a human language they have not studied. The reason is obvious: if they made the claim, they could be easily tested by calling in someone who knows that language! If people claim they know someone who spoke a known language, it is always someone long ago or far away. It is impossible to get witnesses who can be checked out (John 8:17). It follows that, despite their claims, modern "tongue-speakers" do not have the same gift that was received by the apostles in Acts 2 and is described in other New Testament passages.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2/2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.