The Charismatic Movement (4): The Practice of Tongues

Acts 2: Initiation

Few days stand out in Scripture with such pent-up anticipation as the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit was given to permanently indwell and empower believers, the Church was born, and the dispensation of the day of grace was ushered into existence. It was also the first time that God’s provision and power were manifested by way of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. No wonder the recorded response and question of Acts 2:12, “And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, ‘What meaneth this?’” It was indeed a tremendous day that altered the course of history. We will examine the practice of tongues but will need to confine ourselves to the events of Acts 2.

The ability to speak in a foreign tongue was a spiritual gift and, like all spiritual gifts, was given for the building up of the body, the Church, comprised of every believer from the day of Pentecost until the Rapture. These spiritual gifts are given by God and are not obtained by simply desiring to have them; they are God-given. The Ephesian epistle teaches us an important principle about the function and purpose of gifts that sheds light upon their use and existence today. We learn that they are given for, and particularly suited to, a specific stage in the development and perfecting of the Church (Eph 4:12). Apostles and prophets, for example, are part of the foundation (Eph 2:20). After the body of doctrine was given (Jude 3), and revelation of the canon of Scripture was complete, the need for these foundational gifts ended (1Cor 13:8-10). The same will be true of each gift, culminating in a day when as believers our gifts will no longer be needed (Eph 4:13). We recognize, however, the current and ongoing need for the gathering gift of evangelists, and the establishing gifts of pastors and teachers. It stands, therefore, that any gift that continues to this day does so for a reason, given that its purpose has not yet been fully realized. So, what was the gift given in Acts chapter two, and what was its purpose and effect on the day of Pentecost, and has that purpose now been realized?

The often misunderstood gift of Acts 2 was the gift of tongues, the supernatural enablement to speak in an existing foreign language without ever having studied or learned that language previously. Acts 2:6, 8, and 11 confirm that speaking in tongues was not some form of ecstatic utterance, gibberish, or heavenly language but, rather, recognizable and understandable human languages. In every occurrence of the translated word “tongue” or “language” in Scripture (the words glossa and dialektos are used synonymously in the NT), the reference is always to either the physical organ we each possess, or the use of it in speaking a known language. While some well-intentioned individuals in the charismatic movement today will claim to have had an experience of ecstatic utterance, the genuineness of their experience or strength of their emotion is not the test. The only test for truth is the Word of God. The real question then, is not, “Was my experience real?” but rather, “Was my experience Scriptural?” Even with the powerful demonstration of such visible and audible signs accompanying the giving of the Holy Spirit (cloven tongues like as of fire and the sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind), the Apostle Peter still goes to Scripture to show the basis for what these visitors in Jerusalem were witnessing. Peter says, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). Therefore, the first thing the Bible teaches us in Acts 2 is that the gift of tongues involved known languages, thus Biblically ruling out every other experiential claim to the contrary given by the modern day charismatic movement. The second lesson is that Scripture always takes precedence over experience, and experience must be understood in the light of Scripture; not the other way around.

But what was the purpose of the gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost? Could not the Holy Spirit have been given without the accompanying visible and audible signs? When Peter stood up to preach, he did not utilize a foreign language but, as on every future occasion of the preaching of the gospel, he heralded the gospel with clarity and simplicity in the language known and understood by all present. So, why is Peter’s message preceded by the introduction of foreign languages through the gift of speaking in tongues?

In Acts 2 God was supernaturally signaling the commencement of something new, the dispensation of the day of grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers, and with that He gave a spectacular sign of authentication. Hebrews 2:4 says that during the presentation of the gospel by the apostles, God was “bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will.” A new day had arrived. Quoting Isaiah 28, Paul says to the Corinthians, “With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (1Cor 14:21-22). The Spirit of God is careful to underscore that it is to “this people,” to the Jews, that God would speak via a foreign tongue. To the Jewish ear, the sound of a foreign tongue in their own land was a certain sign of judgment, of impending captivity. And so it was on that day of Pentecost when those that dwelt in Jerusalem heard their fellow countrymen speak in foreign languages. It was a confirmatory and condemnatory sign and message from God to an unbelieving nation; how encouraging to see the response of some to the clear gospel message that followed. “They were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). We stand in awe as some 3,000 souls showing genuine repentance toward God and faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ are brought into the kingdom, and the Lord Jesus commences to build His Church. Truly, the Lord was working with them and confirming the Word with signs following (Mark 16:20). Today, with the completed Scriptures in hand, with saved Jews and Gentiles united together in one body, and with the dispensation of grace well underway and likely nearing its completion, we look back and appreciate that the purpose of tongues has been fulfilled, taking its place in the foundation of the Church, but with no need to function any longer.