Home > Speaking in Tongues > Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels? (pt. 2)

Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels? (pt. 2)

Two other passages in Acts discuss speaking in languages as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. These passages both are points where small groups of people move across the line demarcating belief in the Jewish God, and belief that the full revelation of that Jewish God and the Messiah is Jesus. When they shift, or perhaps a better word, expand, their beliefs, there is a breaking of the chains of the law of sin and death that allows the powerful indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Both of these groups in some way expand their beliefs in a way that frees them and blesses them with God in them. The gift of languages is bestowed upon these new believers (or, old believers in YHWH who have in turn believed in the Messiah as they acquired knowledge of who He was) as they put their faith in Christ for the purpose of validating with the power of the Spirit the reality of their conversion.

Passage #1 is Acts 10:44-46:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit come on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in languages and praising God.

The immediate initial presence of the gift of languages in passage #1 is almost certainly for validation purposes. This moment in Acts 10 where Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion, and his household come to believe marks and foundationalizes a shift in the theology of the early church. Up until this point Peter and the other very Jewish disciples of Jesus Christ were very pro-Jews following Christ, but not really excited or deliberate about going after the Gentile community. Like the Jewish faith prior to Christ, the Jewish faith after the Messiah only let in a handful of Gentiles. Acts 10 is the story of God speaking in clear ways to Peter about what He thinks about the Gentiles and how He wants Peter, the leader of the church, to see Gentiles as people who are just as welcome into the Messiah Kingdom as the Jews. It required clear visions from God and clear proofs in order for Peter’s theological Weltanschauung to expand enough to include Gentiles. Hopefully that brief treatment of a much larger issue was enough. The point that I want to be clear is that this is a very difficult mental transition for Peter to make.

So, God (in addition to visions and His clear hand in bringing these two people together) showed Peter a sign that Peter could not deny was evidence of the power of God, the spiritual gift of languages. God here used the gift as a way of evidencing that Cornelius truly had become a member of the kingdom of God, that indeed Gentiles were not only welcome to come to Christ, but were allowed to become full participators in that Spirit-filled kingdom. This gift was used by God to validate to Peter that God’s way has been opened to all – proved by the “signs” that accompanied “those that believe:” in the name of Jesus they spoke in “new languages” (Mk. 16:17). After they were speaking in languages, Peter was convinced that these believers were a part of the kingdom and then baptized them in the name of Jesus. It was the miracle of the gift of languages that immediately led to formal baptism into the fellowship of believers and clear acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit was in them. It validated Cornelius’ and his household’s conversion.

The gift of languages, if given by God for validation purposes, should not be something that people can be taught to do or something that people can copy, but should be an inimitable supernatural sign. The speaking of nonsense syllables is something that is able to be imitated well. I know of many, many cases where the gift of tongues has been imitated by people who felt intense pressure to fake it to be seen as more spiritual. It is then not much of a sign of God if it is something that can be copied. When God speaks through miraculous signs, it is unable to be replicated in a way that is convincing. Although the magicians of Pharaoh copied some of the signs of Moses, they were cheap imitations and obviously were not from the power of God. Their snakes were swallowed and their copycat miracles amounted to parlor tricks compared to the might of God. It would not make sense for God to send a sign that is readily faked in a convincing manner, that’s not how the God of Scripture has shown himself to be.

And passage #2 is Acts 19:4-6:
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe6u in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in languages and prophesied.

This passage demonstrates the inadequacy and incompleteness of the Jewish belief prior to Christ. Although the believers in Ephesus probably believed much of what Paul did, even up to the point that John was the one who was to come before the Messiah, there was much that they did not know to be true and therefore could not believe. Their knowledge was inadequate, and therefore so was their faith; thus, they had not yet entered the kingdom of God here on earth. The spiritual gifts of languages and prophecy confirmed to the believers that their belief and baptism into Christ was the ultimate, it was the entrance into the spiritual life that they had been looking for, not because it was full of lofty spiritual experiences, but because it, like the gifts given to the new believers, was undeniably real and powerful.

A few important things to note about both passages: Neither of these passages give us a hint as to the nature of the gift of languages, that is, neither passage tells us what the gift of languages actually sounded like or how it was heard by the disciples. There is an underlying assumption in the written text that the reader knows what the gift of languages is like. Why is this assumption present? Because the text has already shown us precisely what the gift of languages is like in Acts 2. There is no need in the proceeding passages about languages to explain how the gift manifested itself, for we have already read how the gift manifested and know what it is like. Neither of these passages demonstrate a sort of a second baptism into Christ – for this interpretation to work it has to be completely read into the text, and even then, it doesn’t work (I’ll exegete these passages in light of the second baptism theology in my Q & A).

Both passages show the gift of languages being used a confirmatory sign. It would seem that the sign in these passages was used as a confirmatory message of the Spirit to the church as a whole, validating the messages that the life in the Kingdom of Jesus was for all and that belief in the Jesus Messiah was the only sufficient way to come into this kingdom. 1 Corinthians (which we will dive into presently) definitely indicates clearly that tongues is not a sign for believers, but is a sign for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). This messes with my interpretation a little bit.

There are a few possible reconciliations to this, but here is what I deem to be the most likely and most fitting with the whole of scripture on the gift of languages. Paul is talking about the primary use of the gift, a sign for unbelievers; however, God could given the gift to the believers discussed for a dual purpose: both as a sign for unbelievers and in order to affirm to the believers that these people truly had become believers. We see a similar dual usage of the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Paul says, “prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22), but says soon after that an unbeliever coming in during a prophetic message may be led to repent of their sins and worship God. So, for the gift of prophecy, we see that though Paul clearly says it is for believers and not for unbelievers, he also notes a use of prophecy that is for unbelievers. The best reconciliation of these two dichotomous statements (found within the same handful of sentences) is that Paul’s statement about prophecy being for believers was about the typical usage and primary purpose of the gift, but did not necessarily mean that the gift couldn’t have some atypical usages or secondary purposes involving unbelievers. It certainly would not be a stretch to say that the gift of languages works in the exact opposite way: it is primarily a sign for unbelievers but there are cases in which the gift has a secondary purpose or secondary purposes. One such purpose is for new believers to be confirmed as Spirit-filled participators in the kingdom.

Alrighty… this is still long… we’ll work through 1 Corinthians 12-14 in the next post…

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