The Gift of Tongues in the Book of Acts

The Gift Of Tongues In The
Book Of Acts

Lewis Johnston Jr.

Through the gracious permission of Dr. John Walvoord, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra, we are able to make available to our readers this article by Dr. Lewis Johnston (Dallas Assembly) which appeared first in that periodical. The article presents the problem relative to speaking in tongues and indicates a proper biblical approach. We trust that other articles in future numbers will provide help that some feel necessary in this matter.

The teaching discernible from the Acts appears to be in thorough harmony with that which we learn from 1 Corinthians. The gift of tongues is the gift of speaking in a known language for the purposes of confirming the authenticity of the message of the apostolic Church.

There are three distinct instances of speaking in tongues in Acts: Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6. It is possible that Acts 8 is a fourth occurrence of the gift in the light of v. 18 and Luke’s use of the word “saw”. It could conceivably refer to some outward manifestation observed by Simon. We cannot, however, be sure of this. Perhaps the simplest way to analyze the significance of the occurrences is to look at them in order.

Acts 2:4. It is quite clear and definite that the gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was an utterance in known languages. The terminology of Luke is convincing at this point. In verses 4, 11 he uses the word “glossa,” which is the normal word for the tongue as the organ of speech.

It is, of course, often used in the metaphorical sense of a language, a sense which it has here. This sense is confirmed by Luke’s use of the term “dialektos,” which is rendered by the AV in 2:6 by the word “language.” This is its meaning, and it is unfortunate that it does not render 2:8 with the same word. The word “dialektos” occurs about six times in Acts, and each occurrence it refers to a known language or dialect. In other words, the sense of a known tongue in 2:4 is made definite by the description of the phenomenon as a speaking in a “dialektos” in verses 6, 8.

This force is also evident from the use of the adjective “heterais” (AV, “other”) in 2:4. The word usually although not always, refers to a difference in kind, and it is rendered more accurately by the English word different. Thus, on Pentecost the utterances were not a form of ecstatic speech but known languages as Luke implies in verses 6, 8, 11.

One other thing should be noted: The presence of Jews here confirms the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. Paul states that the gift is a sign to Jews, as prophesied in the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 28:11). The intent is to confirm the fact that God has now identified Himself with the message proclaimed by the apostles (cf. Heb. 2:3-4).

Acts 10:46. In the occurrence of the phenomenon in Cornelius’ house, Luke’s terminology is similar to that in chapter two. He uses the word “glossa,” and we have no reason to believe that he means anything other than that which he clearly means in Acts two, known languages. Furthermore, there were again Jews present, confirming again Paul’s statement regarding the intent of the gift.

Acts 19:6. This final occurrence in the Acts concerns John’s disciples, who met Paul and heard from him that they had been in a half-way house between Judaism and Christianity. They were baptized by Paul and spoke in tongues in evidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them. Again, the terminology of Luke is similar to that of Pentecost (“glossa” is used again), and there is no sound exegetical reason which would demand a different sense from that normally to be expected. They spoke in known languages, or tongues. As also in the other occurrences, Jews were present, and Paul’s words regarding the intent of the gift are confirmed a third time.

There is one final thing that ought to be mentioned at this point. It is well known that the terminology of Luke in Acts and of Paul in 1 Corinthians is the same. In spite of this some have contended for a difference between the gift as it occurred in Acts and as it occurred in Corinth. This is manifestly impossible from the standpoint of the terminology. This conclusion is strengthened when we remember that Luke and Paul were constant companions and would have, no doubt, used the same terminology in the same sense. In fact, it is most likely that Luke learned the nature of the gift from Paul. He certainly was informed by Paul of the unique case of the disciples of John at Ephesus, and it is not unnatural to suppose that he knew of the events in Corinth through Paul, too. In other words, it is most likely that the early believers used a fixed terminology in describing this gift, a terminology understood by them all. If this be so, then the full description of the gift on Pentecost must be allowed to explain the more limited descriptions that occur elsewhere.

So then, to summarize, the gift of tongues according to Acts was a gift which enabled its recipients to speak in known tongues, or languages, at certain times determined by the Holy Spirit in order to authenticate the message of the early Church in the presence of Jews. That it was not universally practiced by believers in the early Church is evident from its limited occurrence in the Acts period, as well as from specific statements in the epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 12:30; Heb. 2:3-4). The force of the aorist “ebebaiothe” (AV, “was confirmed”) in verse 3 is often overlooked. The author in this reference to the confirmation of the message of salvation by the sign gifts (cf. v. 4) apparently looks upon this confirmation as a thing of the past. The inference, and, of course, it is only inference, is that the miraculous gifts have ceased since the reception of the message. The use of the phrase “eis hemas” (AV, “unto us”) in connection with the author and his readers, who were Jews, is also in harmony with the evidence from the Acts and the epistles. The gift concerned Jews.

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No good work is easy work. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German language, and that translation is one of the greatest books of the world. He said: “I sweat blood and water in my efforts to render the Prophets into the vulgar tongue. How difficult it is to make these Jewish writers speak German.” Sometimes he occupied several weeks in hunting out and meditating upon the signification of a single word. It was hard but delightful toil.