Speaking in tongues: Why tongues were given

Why were tongues given? Why did God's Spirit, in all his sovereignty, enable his first recipients to speak these strange languages? This is the right question to be asking because it's one that the Scriptures answer.

The Spirit's demonstration

"God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us." (Acts 15:8)

Luke, the author of Acts, explains the purpose of tongues within his narrative. In Acts 15:8, within the context of the conversion of Cornelius' Gentile relatives and friends (Acts 10-11), Peter addresses believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees. They were insisting that "the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). They were shocked by Peter's acceptance of the Gentiles. In the Samaritan case (Acts 8), Phillip’s activity would similarly have cased tension.

Peter's explanation to the Jewish Christians who had criticized him was simple: "the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning...if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" (Acts 11:15-18). Some time later, when the matter came up again in Jerusalem, he argues similarly: "God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us". (Acts 15:8)

Peter replies to this situation by explaining the function of 'tongues' in the spread of the gospel. He says that the Spirit showed (that is, 'demonstrated') his acceptance of Gentiles by providing the outward sign of speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-46): the Holy Spirit came on them "as he had come on us"; he gave them the Holy Spirit, "just as he did to us." That is, God showed he had given his Spirit to these groups of half-Jews and Gentiles by giving them 'tongues' – the same sign given to the Jews.

It was not immediately clear to the Jewish Christians that God did accept Samaritans, much less Gentiles. But God gave the Gentiles the same sign he had given the first Jewish disciples in the beginning (Acts 2) to show them his acceptance of them. (It had to be the same sign, for otherwise it would not have conclusively shown that God had accepted them in the same way (by giving his Spirit to them) and upon the same basis (through faith in Jesus alone) as the Jewish believers.)

Therefore, the reception of tongues was the Spirit's demonstration of his own reception of different cultural groups into the Christian community: Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles. In this way God "showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them" (Acts 15:8).

The Apostles witness

It also seems that God wanted the reception of the Spirit (as evidenced by the sign of tongues) to be witnessed by the Apostles. We often forget how different this time in salvation history is from ours. At this time Christians would have automatically doubted the authenticity of the conversions and the reception of Samaritans into the Church. But to stop the segregation between Jews and Samaritans infiltrating the Church, God provided them with an unmistakable sign. And in this way God was also fulfilling his plan in a special way of making the Apostles the first-hand eye-witnesses of the gospel's progress from Jerusalem (Acts 2-7), to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-11:18) – as in this case – and to the ends of the world (Acts 11:19 – 28:31), as foretold by Jesus (Acts 1:8).

Their written accounts

Because of this progressive demonstration as the gospel penetrated across people groups, we now know that any people group, without distinction, who turns to the Lord in faith and repentance, will be be given God's Spirit as God's people. As witnesses, the Apostles recorded these events and their meaning in Scripture, so that by them the Spirit continues to teach this vital lesson to every generation of Christians. Today, new cultural groups who turn to Christ do not require the sign of tongues to prove their reception of God's Spirit, for the Holy Spirit makes clear their acceptance through these narratives in Acts.

The conclusion on Spirit-baptism

Baptism in the Spirit is not a special experience of the Spirit promised for Christians subsequent to their conversion. Tongues are not the evidence of its reception. Spirit baptism is given by Christ when he includes individuals into God's people through faith and repentance. The Scriptures maintain that every Christian has received baptism in the Spirit; this is what it means to be Christian. The basis of Christian unity – that all of God's people have equal status in his Church – relies on the truth that all are given one baptism in one Spirit. Tongues were given as a sign to prove this. When God first gave his Spirit to different people groups he gave them all the same sign of tongues to demonstrate his acceptance of them all in the same way and upon the same basis.

Coming up

We'll be talking more about speaking in tongues (especially the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-14) in the context of gifts of the Spirit.

More on this topic

The gift of tongues: What the Scriptures describe

The day of Pentecost: Part III - The meaning

Speaking in tongues: The pattern in Acts | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.