Bible Bite – What was the definition of Tongues in Acts 2?

Bible Bites TeethThere are a lot of confused people out in internet land when it comes to the apostolic sign gift of tongues (meaning “the spiritual gift of tongues as taught and practiced by the apostles in the era that they were establishing the church”), and not just laypeople.  There are a lot of confused pastors, and a lot of confused scholars.  This is one area where, I will be forced to admit, many people who are highly intelligent and skilled in the handling of scripture appear to recklessly toss their hermeneutics out the window and follow denominational/cultural pressure, testimonial evidence, and theological agendas that seem evidently self-serving.  There’s division and confusion on every aspect of Tongues, even divided opinion about the nature of tongues in Acts 2:4-12:

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Now let’s make a few observations:

vs. 4 tells us that the speaking in tongues (though we don’t know what that means yet) was a work of the Spirit; the Spirit was the one doing the speaking through them.

vs. 5 tells us that the audience who heard the tongues was composed exclusively of Jews who were devout and from all throughout the nations.

vs. 6 tells us that as these devout Jews heard the sound of the “speaking in other tongues”, they assembled around it and when they got there, they were bewildered (i.e. confused, disturbed in their minds) because each individual Jew heard someone speaking in his own language (the Greek here is dialektos, meaning “regional dialect”.  This isn’t just a generic language, but a regional accent as well.  The Spirit not only made the tongues-speakers speak another language; he made them speak it like a local).

vs. 7-8 tell us that these Jews (from all over) who heard their own regional dialect were astonished (i.e. struck in wonder with their mouths hanging open) because they knew that the people speaking to them were all from one distinct local area: Galilee.  These Jews (from all over) all expanded their statement of wonder when they said to one another “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?”  The Greek here actually says ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ ἡμῶν ἐν ᾗ ἐγεννήθημεν, meaning “in our own dialect, (the one) into which we were born?”

– This also seems to strongly challenge the idea that tongues was a gift of hearing and not a gift of speaking.  These Jews could talk to one another about the matter since they were at least bilingual, if not trilingual (as most people had to be back then).  They all heard the tongues speakers speaking (what seemed to be) gibberish, but as they talked with one another they realized that the gibberish was the individual languages of the people standing around them.  If tongues were a gift of hearing, they would have each heard only one Galilean speaking in their own dialect and the rest of them would have sounded like they were speaking Galilean…and in case someone would suggest that each listener hear every tongues speaker speaking in their own dialect, there would have been a fight, not a debate:

“These guys are all speaking in Cappadocian!”

“No their not!  They’re speaking in Phrygian!”

“What?  You’re both wrong!  They’re speaking in Parthinian!”

“FOOLS!  These men are clearly speaking Elamite!”

The text gives us no reason to think that happened, and good thing too.  It would have been rather horrible if the very first outpouring of the Spirit led to an immediate church split over issues of language…but then they would have probably got Peter to hop on the organ and after a few verses of “In the Garden”, they would have had a tearful hug and resolved things.


vs. 9-11 tells us where all these Jews (from all over) were from, and it tells what exactly they were hearing: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God”.  The phrase “mighty works” carries the idea of “great things”, meaning these tongues speakers were talking about all the great things that God had done (though the text doesn’t say what these “mighty works” were…but these Galileans weren’t preaching the gospel.  That came from Peter a few verses later).  It’s also worth noting that in vs. 7-8 the listeners refer to “dialects” (the Greek being dialektos) and in vs. 11 they now refer to “tongues (the Greek being glossa).  There’s no hint that they’re using the two terms in anything but a synonymous way.

vs. 12 tells us (again) that they were “amazed”, but then also says that they were “perplexed” (the Greek being diaporeo, meaning “entirely at a loss”).  Flowing from their perplexity, they asked each other “what does this mean”?  They recognized it as a divine sign, but they didn’t know what the sign meant (i.e. what it was pointing to).

In vs. 13, some of the listeners propose an answer to the question of meaning: these Galileans are drunk.

In vs. 14-36, Peter proposes another answer to the question of meaning: this is the fulfillment of prophecy before your eyes and divine attestation to the fact that Jesus Christ, the one whom you crucified, was the messiah!

Now in Acts 2, is there any idea of ecstatic speech?


Was there any idea of a private prayer language?


Was their even a missionary gift that involved preaching the gospel in an unknown language to foreigners?

No.  People may want to argue that the “mighty works of God” was the gospel, but that begs the question as to why Peter needed to then re-state the gospel.  Did the Holy Spirit not cut the listeners to the heart (as mentioned in vs. 37) the first time?  Did it take him two tries to convict the audience?

Does that sound as idiotic to you as it does to me?

Right now, the internet is full of Charismatics claiming that there’s not a single biblical argument for cessationism that stands up to a plain reading of scripture and instead, charismatic theology is what comes from a straightforward and plain reading of scripture.

Well, Acts 2 tells me, repeatedly, that tongues were distinct and real earthly languages.

Acts 2 gives me no reason to suspect that there was ecstatic speech, a private prayer language, or even a missionary gift of tongues that involved miraculously preaching the gospel in a language previously unknown.  So the question then becomes “when was tongues redefined?” or maybe “when was the definition of tongues expanded to include those other things?”

That’s a future post.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “definitions don’t just change for no reason” Unger


7 thoughts on “Bible Bite – What was the definition of Tongues in Acts 2?

  1. I have to say a hearty Amen! to all of the above. I think you have nailed the exact meaning of this text. May all those who have ears to hear, hear. Unfortunately I believe many Charismatics/ Pentecostals have already closed their minds to a clear understanding of Acts 2. They then readily read there own non-Pentecostal experience into 1 Corinthians 14. and end completely distorting that text. It is to weep! I was raised in a Pentecostal context and had an early experience speaking gibberish which never seemed right to me, but which was accepted as evidence that I had been Baptized in the Holy Spirit. This was before they even new if I was saved no less! Subsequent reading of Acts showed me that there was something seriously amiss with the Pentecostal understanding of these texts. Keep up the good work brother. It is very heartening to see some people speaking the Truth in these strange times.

    • Right on! I’ve never met a Charismatic who could demonstrate his Church practiced the gifts according to the new Testament Rules.
      For example, I,ve had many tell me they have stories of the Tongues being spoken turned out to be real Languages but it was always something they had “heard of” in a Church “somewhere”, never their own!

  2. Yes agree, No less than 14 languages/ dialects were spoken and they aren’t mono syllabus gibberish! It was the mockers that say that they were drunk. Re-blogged

  3. The part I really appreciate is the idea of tongues being used to proclaim the gospel in a foreign language. That’s the way the sane charismatic-sympathizers hope it will be used (for faster Bible translation, or for easier missionary preaching). As you point out, that’s not what the text shows, and in fact is ruled out as a possibility.

    Of course, Parham and his group that tried to create a modern manifestation of tongues thought that’s what the gift would be. They were misguided and wrong from the start – but it speaks volumes about the modern state of charismaticism that such a view is the vast minority, well below the personal prayer language or angelic language nonsense views. They were clearly wrong, but so much closer to the truth than the modern view.

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