I. Tongues in Acts

A. The term in Acts 2:4 is "other tongues" (heterais glōssais). The translation "different languages" reflects the understanding of this term based on the context of Acts 2:6 and 11. The other possible translation is "ecstatic utterances," based on 1 Corinthians 12-14 and possibly Acts 2:13. It is uncertain how many different languages were being spoken at this Pentecost experience, but it was many. If you try to add up all the countries and regions in Acts 2:9-11 it must have been well over twenty. Several of the 120 believers must have spoken the same language.

God did something unique and powerful to inspire this small group of frightened men and women, waiting in a locked upper room, to become bold proclaimers of the gospel (both men and women). Whatever this initial sign of the coming of the promised Holy Spirit was, God also used it to confirm His acceptance of other groups (e.g., Samaritans, Roman army officers, and Gentiles). "Tongues" in Acts was always a sign to believers that the gospel had overcome another ethnic, geographical barrier. There is a distinct difference between the tongues of Acts and Paul's later ministry in Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14).

Theologically it is possible that Pentecost is the direct opposite of the tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 10-11). As prideful, rebellious humans asserted their independence (i.e., refusal to disperse and fill the earth), God implemented His will by the use of multiple languages. Now, in the new age of the Spirit, the nationalism which impedes humans from uniting (i.e., one world government of the eschaton) has, for believers, been reversed. Christian fellowship across every human boundary (i.e., age, sex, class, geography, language) is the reversal of the consequences of Genesis 3.

B. "as the Spirit was giving them utterance" (Acts 2:4) The verb is imperfect active indicative, meaning the Spirit began to give them. The word "utterance" (apophtheggomai) is a present passive (deponent) infinitive. This term is only used by Luke in Acts (cf. 2:4,14; 26:25). It is used in the Septuagint for the speaking of prophets (i.e., Spirit-inspired speech, cf. Deut. 32:2; 1 Chr. 25:1; Ezek. 13:9,19; Mic. 5:11; Zech. 10:2).

I prefer this interpretation to the Classical Greek etymological meaning "raised volume," "impassioned speaking," or "elevated rhetorical speaking." Luke knew the Septuagint and was influenced by its terminology. The Septuagint was the Jewish Bible of the Mediterranean world and became the Bible of the Church.

II. Tongues in Corinth

A. The Greek term used in 1 Cor. 12:10 for "tongue" is glōssa.

It was used in the OT as a synonym for "nation." In Greek it was used for speaking the language of a nation. This would imply that it had the connotation of a known human language. However, the need for an interpreter, which also is a spiritual gift, instead of a translator, along with Paul's fuller discussion in chapter 14, leads one to think this was an ecstatic utterance at Corinth.

Exactly how the "tongues" of Corinth are related to the tongues at Pentecost recorded in Acts is uncertain. The miracle in Acts 2 is of the ear (cf. Acts 2:6,8,11), not the tongue. The "tongues" experiences of Acts communicated the gospel directly to the Jews of the Diaspora who were present. It also functioned as a way to recognize the presence, power, and will of God for the inclusion of other groups, like the Samaritan (cf. Acts 8) and Cornelius, a Roman army officer (cf. Acts 10). The tongues in Acts were a sign to the believing Jews that God had opened the door for Gentiles to be included (cf. Acts 15:8). Notice no need for an interpreter in Acts!

Tongues at Corinth are similar to the ecstatic speech of the Greek religions (e.g., Delphi). Corinthian tongues were apparently being misused or over-glorified (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1 and 14:1-33).

Tongues were a way for an individual believer to intimately commune with God, but without understanding. It is a valid gift (cf. 1 Cor. 14:39), but it is not for all believers (cf. 1 Cor. 12:29-30, which has a series of questions that expect a "no" answer). It is not a gift that proves one is saved or shows one is a spiritual person. Tongues plus interpretation was another means of communicating the gospel and its relevance.

B. "interpretation of tongues" (1 Cor. 12:10).

Remember, Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, Roman in culture, Greek in geography. The city's location, combined with the danger of sailing around the cape of Greece in the winter, made it a commercial crossroads of the eastern and western empires. Every nationality would be in Corinth, but tongues needed a spiritual gift to communicate its message for the church, not just a translator. Tongues in Corinth was not a known language.

1 Cor. 12:11 emphasizes the truth that the Spirit gives to each believer a ministry gift (cf. 1 Cor. 12:7,18); also, which gift is the Spirit's choice, not the believer's. There is no hierarchy of gifts. All the gifts are to serve the body of Christ, the church (cf. 1 Cor. 12:7). They are not meit badges, but servant towels.


III. Conclusion

A. I certainly affirm that speaking in tongues is a continuing spiritual gift.  None of the gifts ceased with the NT (inspiration did, see Special Topic: Inspiration).  The use of 1 Cor. 13:8 as proof of tongues is poor exegetical thinking.  The purpose of 1 Cor. 13:8-13 is that everything but love will cease.  Please note 1 Cor. 14:39!

B. However, because of the questions of 1  Cor. 12:29-30, which are all marked as expecting a "no" answer, I do not think every believer has any one gift.  Gordon Fee, a charismatic commentator, has helped me understand this issue better.  See Gordon Fee's

1. Gospel and Spirit

2. How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

3. The Disease of the Health, Wealth Gospel

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