What do five key passages in Acts say about prayer languages, commonly called ‘tongues,’ being the sign of the empowerment of the Spirit?
As noted in my translation and commentary on Acts, Luke links receiving prayer languages with being empowered and (re)filled with the Spirit in three explicit paradigmatic or exemplary instances, and one clearly implied paradigmatic and exemplary instance, and another example that he omits entirely, but the church practiced this gift (Corinth).
This post is not about one’s salvation; “tongues” is not necessary to receive it. Rather “tongues” is a subsequent gift that come with the empowerment and infilling and immersion (baptism) with the Holy Spirit.
All translations are mine, and they are tentative in this post (I may revise some of the passages). If you would like to see others, please click on biblegateway.com.
This post is part of my ongoing project to translate and comment on the NT, for those around the globe who do not have access to the wonderful, printed Study Bibles and commentaries, though of course anyone can read this post. The main goal is missional.
Also of interest:
1.. In Jerusalem, the 120 disciples at the birth of the church knew Jesus from the beginning or early on (2:1-4). The church was born and empowered, and the charismatic environment can now ripple throughout Acts, and this gift and the Spirit’s power are for everyone who are afar in geographical distance and subsequent generations (2:39).
1 And when the Feast of Pentecost had fully come, all of them were together in the same place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there was a sound like the rush of a powerful wind. The whole house was filled where they were sitting, 3 and tongues as fire were seen by them, were distributed among them, and settled on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them inspiration to speak out. (Acts 2:1-4, emphasis added)
It is important to realize four biblical truths about the 120. First, that they had already converted to and trusted in the Messiah (Luke 9:1-2; Luke 10:22; John 20:22). They had already been saved. Second, they received their prayer language as a sign of this infilling of the Spirit. Third, therefore salvation and the (re)filling of the Spirit are two distinct, divine acts. Fourth, they–the 120 disciples– were speaking in languages they did not understand, but the pilgrims from all over the world understood them because the 120 disciples were speaking in the pilgrims’ native languages: “Aren’t all of them Galileans who are speaking? So how do we each hear them in our own language, to which we were born?” (Acts 2:7-8, emphasis added). “We hear them speaking with our own languages the great things of God!” (Acts 2:11, emphasis added). They were Galileans who were speaking, and they did not know those far-flung languages by their own study and knowledge. It was a supernatural gifting. It was not a miracle of hearing.
2.. In Samaria, in an atmosphere of Philip working signs and wonders (8:7, 13), Peter and John came from Jerusalem to endorse the evangelistic campaign and lay hands on the Samaritans. Simon the Sorcerer saw that the Spirit was given (8:17-18).
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent to them Peter and John. 15 They went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For he had not yet come upon any one of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus. 17 Then they laid hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18 When Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Spirit was given (Acts 8:14-18, emphasis added)
It is important to realize the same three biblical facts. First, the Samaritans had converted to and trusted in the Messiah. As a sign of their faith, they were water-baptized. Even Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Second, the gift of spiritual languages is clearly implied, for Simon saw something (v. 18). What did he see? Luke assumes his readers would understand that the visible sign was spiritual languages, in light of Pentecost and when two prominent apostles prayed and laid hands on the Samaritans. Recall that Peter preached to the pilgrims in Jerusalem, and told them that they have seen and heard the gift of tongues: “Therefore he was exalted to the right hand of God; receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he poured out even what you see and hear” (Acts 2:33). It could be objected, however, that Peter said “see” and “hear,” not just “see.” Third, therefore salvation and the (re)filling of the Spirit are two distinct acts.
3.. In Caesarea, Cornelius and his household, who were Gentiles (or Cornelius was), needed their own Pentecost (10:44-48).
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone listening to the message. 45 And the circumcised believers who went with Peter were amazed that even upon the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, 47 Who can refuse water to baptize these who have received the Holy Spirit, as we also have?” 48 He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for some days. (Acts 10:44-48)
And it is also important to realize the same biblical truths, with perhaps a compacted element. First, Cornelius and his household heard the word, so faith rose in their hearts. Second, they received their Spirit-inspired prayer languages. Third, it could be the case that salvation and the empowerment of the Spirit to the point of receiving prayer languages can happen at the same time, or at least one right after the other. It is the Spirit who works both salvation and the empowering infilling. Finally, they spoke in tongues. It was not a miracle of hearing, but of speaking.
4.. In Corinth, Paul spent eighteen months there because Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him that he had numerous people there (Acts 18:1-18). In regards to Paul, Luke never mentions any of the spiritual gifts, including prayer languages, but Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians spells out that these believers exercised them powerfully and frequently (1 Cor. 12:7-11; 14:1-40). Once again, Luke’s omissions speak volumes about the charismatic atmosphere in Acts.
That is, Paul’s experience proves that Luke does not have to explicitly link the fullness of the Spirit and prayer languages every single time. Paul received the fulness of the Spirit, but his prayer language is not mentioned at that time (Acts 9:17-18). But we know that he used this gift very often (1 Cor. 14:18).
5.. In Ephesus, twelve disciples believed in the Messiah, but knew only the baptism of John (19:1-7).
1 And so it happened that while Apollo was at Corinth, Paul went through the upper regions and went to Ephesus and found certain disciples. 2 He said to them, “Have you received the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied to him, “We have not at all heard whether there is the Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people that they should believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul put his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 They were about twelve men in total. (Acts 19:1-7, emphasis added)
And, as expected, it is important to understand the same biblical truths. First, the twelve men were called “disciples,” and in every instance in Acts this refers to believers in the Messiah Jesus. And Paul even called them believers (Acts 19:2). Second, they received the fullness of the Spirit and spoke in their prayer languages. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct acts of God. Finally, these twelve spoke. It was not a miracle of hearing, but of speaking.
Summary and Application
Sometimes I used the unusual “(re)filling.” This simply denotes that it is possible to be filled with the Spirit many times, but this is not the same as being born again many times. Empowerment can be separate from regeneration by the Spirit, and empowerment can happen many times in the believer’s life. Or empowerment and regeneration can happen at the same time, and then after regeneration, empowerment for service can happen many times.
These cases are paradigmatic and exemplary because they illustrate that converts to the Jesus Movement or the Way also had to be filled with power and this speaking gift. Tongues is in addition to salvation, not a required (necessary) condition for salvation.
It should be noted that prophesying was also a gift of the Spirit, but not in all cases. So the focus of this study has been tongues.
Luke expects us to fill his omissions with the power of the Spirit because the entire sweep or context of his book of Acts is charismatic. It is similar to his omitting water baptism in key places. Often he does say that new converts got baptized with water: Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13, 35-38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5. Yet in other cases water baptism is not brought up for new converts: Acts 9:42; 11:21; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34.
However, it must be said that “tongues” is not explicitly mentioned every single time that the Spirit was poured out in those five passages, so if interpreters want to believe that it is not the necessary requirement and sign and evidence for the initial infilling or immersion in the Spirit, then they are certainly free to believe as they wish.