Were the disciples speaking in tongues on Pentecost?

Q. Was it the gift of tongues being exemplified in the book of Acts at Pentecost or would this fall under the category of a great miracle? I ask this because many cessationists believe that the babbling experienced today in many churches is not of God, yet literally everyone that is close to me prays in tongues. Some will point back to what happened in Pentecost and say that the “babbling” today can’t be of God because the gift of tongues is not that, yet Paul says to the Corinthians, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.” So was the gift of tongues at Pentecost or was this symbolic of the Great Commission and the gospel being preached to all nations?

I’d like to point out first that it’s never correct to describe the exercise of the gift of tongues as “babbling.” That implies that what is being said is nonsensical. “Babbling” is a term that’s used by people who want to oppose and perhaps ridicule the use of the gift today. But the Bible describes at least three uses of this gift, and in every case the understanding is that the person is speaking something meaningful in an actual language. The word “tongue” is being used in the sense of “language,” as when we say of a person, “His mother tongue is English.” The Greek uses the usual word for “language,” which can also mean “tongue,” whenever it describes this gift.

Greek has a separate, distinct word for “babbler,” meaning someone who says things that don’t make sense. This other term is found, for example, in the book of Acts, when the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens accuse Paul of making no sense because he’s talking about the resurrection of the body: What is this babbler trying to say? But that term is never used in the Bible for someone who’s “speaking in tongues,” which really means speaking in a language that has not been acquired in the usual way through immersion or study.

One use that Paul describes for this gift is to bring an authoritative message from God to a group of believers who have gathered together for worship. But the premise is that this message is meaningful, in an actual language, because Paul says that such a message should only be shared if someone is present who can “interpret” it. The word used means to “translate” from one language to another, as in Acts 9:36, where Luke reports, “Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas.” So clearly an actual language is in view.

Another use that Paul describes for the gift of tongues is in prayer to God. I believe that’s what he’s referring in the passage you quote in your question. No one else understands the person not because what they’re saying isn’t meaningful, but because they don’t understand the language that’s being spoken. And so, Paul warns, such prayers should not be said out loud in worship if they are not interpreted. “Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else,” Paul asks, “say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” Clearly the speaking here is directed towards God, not towards the assembled believers. So this is a second use of the gift. And note that Paul doesn’t say, “since what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense,” i.e. you’re “babbling.” Instead, he says, “they do not know what you are saying,” that is, they don’t understand the actual language in which you’re speaking.

We might wonder what the value of this would be even for the person praying, since they don’t know what they’re saying either. But I think this is also what Paul is talking about when he writes in Romans, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (There Paul says that this is through “groanings too deep for words,” but in both cases the idea is that the Spirit is taking someone’s prayers beyond the limits of the human language that they know.) So the value for the person praying is to have the reassurance that the Spirit’s prayers are being added to their own as they intercede for something. They don’t understand what’s being said, but they know that it has to be meaningful.

The third use for the gift of tongues is to proclaim the good news about Jesus across a language barrier that would otherwise stand in the way. This is what I see happening on the day of Pentecost. It’s true that the events of that day also constitute a great sign that the good news is for all people and that the curse of Babel has been broken that made different languages a barrier to human community. As the book of Acts progresses, we see the promise of this day realized as people from wider and wider parts of the Roman Empire become followers of Jesus. But the promise began to come true on the day of Pentecost itself, as three thousand people became believers after hearing the good news in their own languages.

There are stories and traditions in church history about further uses of this expression of the gift of tongues. For example, some of the earliest missionaries to various parts of the world are said to have been granted the ability to preach the gospel in the local languages without formally acquiring them. I’ve personally heard several anecdotes about people in our own day having similar experiences. A further theory I’ve heard is that this expression of the gift of tongues might also manifest itself in divinely aided language acquisition: God would help us learn a new language much faster and better than we could in our unaided human ability, so that we could use that language to share the good news. I don’t see why we couldn’t consider that an expression of the gift of tongues as well.

So to summarize, if someone argues that the gift of tongues was not being used on Pentecost because the speech then was meaningful, while speaking in tongues consists of meaningless babbling, the proper response is to say that the gift of tongues actually always involves speaking meaningful things in an actual language, whether to address a group in worship, to speak to God in prayer, or to share the good news across a language barrier. So if speaking in tongues in worship or prayer is meaningful speech, then the events of the day of Pentecost, which were also meaningful speech, could have been, and were, another expression of the gift of tongues.

An icon of the Holy Spirit descending on the first believers at Pentecost.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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