Meditations in Acts : 15 : Why Other Tongues?
Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
We have observed two things amazingly happening on this day of Pentecost, this world-changing morning – a sound of a mighty energy releasing wind, and tongues of fire resting on each disciple without burning them up. Now we come to the third thing, the one that seems to stir up controversy. Let’s simply take note of what we are told and then reflect on it.
Luke simply records that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we have read these words so many times that they have lost all significance. We might have simply recounted the three things we’ve already noted, but Luke says that what was happening here was that these men (and women?) were being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. The wind and the fire seemed to be indicators of it happening and the ‘other tongues’ seemed to be the outworking or expression of it. Now that phrase, being ‘filled with the Spirit’ was not unknown. It was first used by God to describe how He had equipped two men to work creatively in making the tabernacle (see Ex 31:3) and was later repeated by Moses (Ex 35:31). This ‘filling’ was to enable them to do something they were naturally unable to do.
Now the expression isn’t used again like that but similar ones were. For instance, “he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again.” (Num 11:25) Although the Spirit did not fill them, when he came on them momentarily, they were enabled to prophesy. Similarly, “When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him and he uttered his oracle:” (Num 24:2,3) i.e. as the Spirit touched him he was able to speak out in a way he previously couldn’t do. When we come to the book of Judges we see this again and again, e.g. “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him.” (Jud 6:34) Boldness, courage and strength were the enabling things that the Spirit brought when he come ON each of the judges God used to deliver Israel. The famous prophecy in Joel spoke of the Spirit coming: “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:29) but note that even there it is ‘on’.
Jesus had said, “in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” (Acts 1:5,8). The power had clearly come and Luke, possibly with the wisdom of the years of teaching from the likes of Paul, identified it as a ‘filling’. As we said in a previous study, when you baptise or immerse a cup, it is filled. These disciples were immersed in the Spirit in such a measure that they weren’t just touched by the Spirit, but they were filled with Him. He has come to dwell in them for ever more.
Now comes the outworking or expression of it. We’ve noted what the Spirit enabled men to do in the Old Testament period, so why this expression now? Sometimes we are careless with our language and just speak of ‘tongues’ but here it makes the emphasis, “other tongues”, i.e. they have the ability to speak another unlearned language. This was the specific enabling of the Spirit. In what follows, we will see that it is the ability (in this case at least) to praise and worship God in specific languages of the people round about them.
It is like a barrier has been taken down between them. It is like God is saying there is a new possibility of there being no division between men, there is a new possibility of unity between men so you can all worship together. It is like it, but not it, because this was a one-off situation for the initiating of the church (except when it happened to the Gentiles in Acts 10). Elsewhere Paul speaks of ‘tongues’ as speaking to God in mysteries (1 Cor 14:2) so this episode (and possibly the Acts 10 one) appear to signify something special.
First it is a Holy Spirit supernatural enabling so they can do something they normally cannot do, and second, it signifies a taking down of barriers between men. It is a sign of the opening up of the life of the Spirit and thus salvation through Christ to the whole world. Here in Jerusalem it was primarily Jews but they had come from a variety of surrounding nations. They were representative of the world. Later in Acts 10 we will see the Gentiles specifically included by the same means, but for the moment, the greatness of God is being spoken out without language barrier by the enabling of the Spirit, thus indicating, we suggest, the intent of God. He wants barriers to fall so that no people grouping anywhere in the earth feels excluded. The Message: there are no boundaries when the Holy Spirit is at work!
To conclude this examination of the things that happened to the disciples on this day of Pentecost, as the Church is brought into being, let us summarise what happened: the power of God came (sound of wind) the post-Cross acceptance of God came (fire without destruction) and a divine empowering to enable these disciples to cross national barriers (other tongues). To create the new Church, the disciples were empowered, accepted and sent. This is what we are, a people who have been transformed by the power of God, a people accepted by work of God and a people sent by God to bless His world. But one critical thing more that we haven’t really picked up on much: this empowering brought a joy and a wonder at the greatness and goodness of God and that overflowed from these disciples and was heard by the surrounding world. Does the surrounding world hear and see the greatness and goodness of God through us because we have been empowered by God’s Spirit? If they don’t see it, is it because we need a flesh filling? We’d better ask for it!