I spent a lot of time in my last post giving some personal background of my experiences in the Pentecostal (“Spirit-filled”, “Full-Gospel” etc.) environment. I did so because I couldn’t jump into the theology without telling you my background. There are several aspects of Pentecostal worship, but “speaking in tongues” is central. This is considered by most Pentecostal churches to be the “evidence” of the baptism in the Spirit. The big problem, however, is that “tongues” is not one phenomenon.
“Varieties of Tongues”
Before considering the Scriptural basis for “tongues,” I want to define what I believe to be three distinct phenomena that the term might describe.
- The Pentecostal phenomenon described in the Book of Acts. In this case the miracle was not in the speaking but in the hearing. Peter addressed the crowd in one language (probably Aramaic) but every listener heard the “the mighty acts of God” proclaimed in his own language. One could get technical and say that this was not so much speaking in tongues as it was hearing in tongues. But so much of Pentecostal theology (if you want to call it that) is invested in this event, even to the point of taking the name, that it needs to be addressed.
- The supernatural ability to speak in any language, even an unknown one.
- Speaking in a language not directly intelligible to men but given by the Holy Spirit. It may or may not be accompanied by an interpretation in a known language.
The Pentecostal Miracle
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.” (Acts 2:5-13)
If this is what is meant by Pentecostal, then to my knowledge there are no Pentecostal churches in existence. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean that the Church has the ability to proclaim the Gospel in all languages, albeit naturally, then every Christian church is Pentecostal. Either way, whatever happened on the day of Pentecost is not happening anywhere today. As a side note, it might be said that only those hearers to whom the Holy Spirit granted the ability were able to hear the Word. Those from whom it was withheld may have been those mockers.
What does it mean?
The question they asked one another was “What does it mean?” The answer to that is found in the Old testament.
The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the Lord said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth. Genesis 11:1-9
The Tower represented the hubris of man, a desire for fame and recognition, and a desire for self-protection apart from the Providence of God. A fallen man had enough power alone to do great evil. But God recognized that a united and fallen human race could not be stopped from the evil it could bring about. So how did he prevent this? By destroying the common language that enabled them to operate in concert. Language holds the key to power.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God could now reunify the human race by in essence undoing what had been done at Babel. Pentecost is the anti-Babel. It is the reconciliation of all mankind in the Blood of Christ, and language holds the key to the Church’s power. The Church of Jesus Christ was born on the day that God loosed our tongues. So in very literal sense, all Christians speak in tongues when in the Spirit we proclaim the power of Christ’s victory on the Cross.
I will cover the next two cases in later posts.