Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

The Speaking in Foreign Languages at Pentecost

by Rev Clarence bouwman


Preached: Pentecost, Sunday morning 18 May 1997.
Text: Acts 2:4b "...and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. "
Scripture Reading: Genesis 11:1-9; Revelation 13:1-10
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)

Hymn 36:1,5
Psalm 138:2
Hymn 23:1,6,7
Psalm 87:1-5
Psalm 22:10;
Hymn 52:1,2

Beloved Congregation of Jesus Christ the Lord!

There remains so many questions, so much confusion, around the event known as Pentecost. Take only the matter brought up in our text, that matter of speaking in other tongues. What is this? How are we to understand it? Or a more fundamental question: why did the outpouring of the Holy Spirit result in speaking in tongues? Should we be speaking in tongues? These questions need answers. They need answers, Scriptural answers, because the Pentecostal movement around us says Yes, every true believer must speak in tongues as the saints did on Pentecost day. More, these questions need answers, Scriptural answers, because the Lord God never does anything without a reason; there is a reason why the Lord caused His disciples to speak in other tongues on the day the Spirit was poured out. In fact, brothers and sisters, here is revelation from God; through making the disciples speak in other tongues on Pentecost day, the Lord God tells us something, something important for us and our salvation. That revelation is this: the disciples and the church of all ages are told that the salvation Christ obtained is for peoples of every tongue, tribe and nation. More, Christ brings unity among a divided mankind. I use this theme:


1. why the foreign languages?
2. so what?

1. I mentioned in the theme that the disciples spoke foreign languages. Those of you who are aware of what goes on in Pentecostal circles will note that I have not adopted the standard Pentecostal understanding of this text. For that circle of people is convinced that the speaking in tongues mentioned in our text implies that the disciples entered into some state of ecstasy so that they began to utter all kinds of mumbo-jumbo understandable to none but God Himself; more, through this verbal gibberish these disciples were praising God. These Pentecostals see a parallel event in I Cor 14, where speaking in tongues is indeed presented as a gift God gave to the church in Corinth. Yet as it turns out, brothers and sisters, we are not to lay a direct connection between Acts 2 and I Cor 14. Just as the "soundÖas of a rushing mighty wind" and the appearance of the "tongues as of fire" was a one time event restricted to the moment of the Spiritís outpouring, so also this speaking in tongues as mentioned in Acts 2 was a one time event, restricted to the moment of the Spiritís outpouring. That should become clearer as we move along this morning.

The first four verses of Acts 2 list a number of successive events. The action on Pentecost Day begins with God Himself. Out of no where there arose suddenly a particular sound, that of "a rushing mighty wind." That particular sound was followed by a unique sight; "divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat on each one of them." These two signs together were evidence that the Holy Spirit had been poured out, and so lead to the conclusion recorded in the first part of vs 4: "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." It is after we are told that the Spirit made His home in the disciples that we are informed of the response of the disciples to this miracle. God in the Spirit has come to men, is now pleased to dwell within sinners. And what is the reaction of sinners to this initial coming of God to live in men? That initial response is told to us in the words of our text; the reaction of these believers on Pentecost Day is that they "began to speak with other tongues." Yet this was not a response that arose from within themselves; this, we know, was rather a response prompted by the outpoured Holy Spirit, for Luke hastens to add the last words of our text: "as the Spirit gave them utterance." And that leaves us with questions. Is this response to the Spiritís presence not odd? Would singing and dancing with joy not have been a more fitting response to the marvel of Pentecost, of God coming to live with men? Or would prophesying or preaching to the people about Godís mighty deeds not have been more appropriate? Or even evangelising? Why is "speaking with other tongues" the response which the Spirit prompted? "What does this mean?"

To get an answer to our question, brothers and sisters, we should find out first what is meant by the phrase "speaking with other tongues". I mentioned already that our text does not refer to some unintelligible mumbo-jumbo as is lauded by the Pentecostals and apparently present for a while in Corinth. We are to note that Luke uses in our text a specific formulation. He does not speak about "speaking with tongues" (as Paul does when he writes about the unintelligible sounds made by the Corinthian believers); Luke rather speaks about "speaking with other tongues". That phrase "other tongues" happens to be a standard expression referring to foreign languages. That indeed recognisable foreign languages is meant by the words of our text is further demonstrated by the remarks made by the audience; vs 6: "everyone heard [the disciples] speak in his own language," vs 8: "how is it that we hear, each of us in his own language in which we were born?", vs 11: "we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God." The point of our text is this: these simple disciples from Galilee were speaking in Egyptian, in Latin, in Parthian, etc. Instead of speaking the language of their youth, these uneducated fishermen, tax collectors, whatever they were, were verbalising sounds, finding words and making sentences in languages they had never studied, in languages they had never spoken before. In short, here is a miracle prompted by the Spirit; "they began to speak in foreign languages as the Spirit gave them utterance." So once more the question arises: why is speaking in foreign languages the response of the disciples to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Or better: why does the outpoured Spirit prompt the disciples to respond in this way to the miracle of Pentecost? To get an answer to this question we shall have to look into the OT; what does the Lord say in the OT about foreign languages? So we find ourselves in Gen 11.

We know the events recorded in this chapter. After the flood, people migrated from the mountains of Ararat to the plains of Shinar, in what is today Iraq. On this plain they determined to build "a tower whose top is in the heavens" (vs 4). The Lord, however, was displeased with this development, and so put an end to it by confusing their speech, creating new languages. Thatís Gen 11. Yet, congregation, to get a handle on this matter of languages, we shall have to go further into Gen 11. What, at bottom, prompted this confusion of speech? What was so wrong with that tower building, and why did God disrupt that building project specifically by confusing their language? In Paradise, the Lord God gave to mankind the mandate to "have dominion" over all creation. Godís intent, though, was not that those two people, Adam and Eve, should control and cultivate all creation; it was through being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth that mankind would be able to have dominion over all creation. After the fall into sin, the command to have dominion, and so also to fill the earth, remained. God, after all, promised redemption and renewal so that fallen man would be able to exercise dominion again. In the years after the fall, however, the redemption God granted was rejected by the human race. Yes, after the fall men multiplied, and yes, men had dominion over creation. There was, for example, a Lamech whose three sons discovered the secrets of tent-dwelling, of musical instruments and of iron making (Gen 4). But manís dominion was very much anti-God; the human race developed a world empire with no room for the Creator. That in turn threatened the coming of Jesus Christ. And so it was that the Lord sent the flood to destroy that race of apostates. After the flood, the Lord God renewed His covenant with mankind. To Noah and his sons God repeated the instruction given to Adam in the beginning: "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Gen 9:1; cf vs 7). The command remained to have dominion, to control and cultivate the earth, and therefore also the command remained to fill the earth, to spread out over all the earth. And again: why should man have that dominion, why fill the earth? It was all to be done so that the way could be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. That command to fill the earth was needful so that the promised Saviour could one day come. But what do people do? This: they decline to fill the earth. Altogether they leave the mountains of Ararat, and altogether they migrate to Mesopotamia and determine to settle together in the fertile land of Shinar. Yes, they develop the earth, have dominion according to Godís command, for they find out how to make bricks, how to make mortar. But they use their new abilities not to spread out, to fill the earth, to have dominion over all of it and so prepare the way for Christ; they use their abilities instead to build for themselves a city, and in the city a tower with its top in the heavens. And why that tower? Vs 4: "lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." Shinar was a plain, was flat, and as such did not have natural landmarks that could be seen from miles away. That was then the purpose of the tower: to have a landmark so that hunters and hikers could find the way back home, would not get lost. Yet what, beloved, is this? This mentality is nothing else than unbelief. God had said: spread out, all the worldís for you. And because God was God could each individual who loved this God, irrespective of where he was on the face of the earth, know himself safe in Godís gracious hands. But the people of Gen 11 did not trust God to care for them, did not feel safe in spreading out and being dependent on God for protection and food; they felt far more secure in togetherness. And togetherness with its resulting security was very much a possibility; they were, after all, one people with one language. This unbelief, this refusal to trust in God and so obey Him in turn endangered the coming of the promised Saviour. There we have also the reason why God responded as He did. Says the Lord: "Indeed, the people are one and they all have one language.... Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one anotherís speech" (vs 6f). Thatís Godís response: create various languages. Multiple languages would break manís unity, would drive people apart. And thatís what happened. The one builder no longer understood the other, the one accused the other of having gravel in his mouth. So working together and living together became impossible; in frustration with each other they quit building and parted ways, spreading out in every direction. One language became many languages, one people became many peoples, many tribes. In the process of time, the many tribes developed their different customs, different traditions, different values. The one human race became divided into countless pockets of peoples who no longer understood each other; from now on nation stood over against nation, tribe over against tribe, tongue over against tongue. And in the course of history one consumes the other in passion and war....

Of the various nations that arose from this confusion generated because of unbelief at the tower of Babel, there was only one which God was pleased to choose for Himself. Said the Lord to Israel: "Out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth..., the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession" (Dt 7:6). So it was that God gave His ordinances to Israel alone; He did not declare His Word to any other nation (Ps 147:19f). Yet why did the Lord choose that one people for Himself? No, not because God was interested in this one people alone. Rather, as God said to Abram: "by you all the families of the earth, [every tongue and nation], shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3). God chose Abram, made His covenant with the people of Israel, so that through Israel He might reach the nations. You see: God divided the peoples at Babel so that He might break the power of their unbelief, might keep open the way for Christ still to come. And God wanted Christ still to come for the benefit of the nations.

In the course of time, the promised Saviour was born in Israel. On the cross He satisfied for sin, died, arose again, ascended into heaven. The throne He received did not give Him power over Israel alone; the throne He received on the day of His ascension gave Him sovereignty over all the world, over every tribe and tongue and nation Ėwhy?Ė because the redemption He obtained was not meant for Israel alone, but for all nations and peoples and tribes and tongues. His triumph on the cross was to benefit many peoples; from every tribe and tongue men should be reconciled to God, more, the divisions and antagonisms generated by unbelief should be removed, removed so that peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation can again be one people, one new race in Jesus Christ. And that, beloved, that is pointed up by the response of the disciples to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that is the reason why the Holy Spirit prompts the Galilean disciples to respond to His arrival not with singing and dancing, but rather with speaking Latin, Egyptian, Parthian, Phrygian, etc. In this speaking in other tongues it was announced to all who had ears to hear that the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles was broken down, was announced to all that the saving work of Jesus Christ was universal in scope, was geared to men and women of every language, of every race, of every culture. As such, the foreign languages spoken on that first Pentecost day were a prophecy of the countless languages that would be used by the missionaries of later years to bring Godís saving Word to every tribe under heaven. Here, then, was also Gospel for peoples who yet lived in darkness; the Word of life would no longer be restricted to Hebrew, no longer be directed only that one people Israel. Jews and Greeks, Parthians and Medes, Cretans and Arabians, Chinese and Australians: all would one day hear the mighty works of God in the sounds of their native language. That in turn means too that the divisions and antagonisms that have characterised the relations between peoples and tribes since the days of Babel should also come to an end. The preaching of the gospel, after all, leads to faith, and faith to renewal, to receiving a new heart, a heart that loves God and therefore loves the neighbour too. It is that renewal worked by the gospel, that new love for God and the neighbour, that leads to swords being beaten into plowshares (Is 2:4), that leads to peace among men of various races and tongues and cultures. The speaking in tongues of Gen 11 drove people apart, but the speaking in tongues of Acts 2 draws people together. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, that Spirit of Jesus Christ who works faith in men of unbelief, who applies to sinners the salvation obtained by Christ on the cross.

Then the world, brothers and sisters, may pursue peace among men, may strive for unity amongst men as the way to peace. The Assyrians of the OT tried it, so did the Babylonians under Nebuchadnessar, as well as the Medes and the Persians. World empires they built, one empire under one ruler, all tribes and languages united under one sovereign, and the idea was to ensure that tribes would fight no longer, that peoples would instead live together in harmony for mutual benefit. The Greeks tried it too, and so did the Romans in the days of the Lord Jesus Christ. But each in turn discovered to their dismay that differing languages implied division, implied that the various peoples, even those gathered into one empire, were still inherently divided amongst each other. So each empire in turn collapsed, fragmented into so many tribes and tongues. Yet despite these failures in the OT dispensation, despite the gospel of unity announced on Pentecost day, efforts would again be made to melt the tribes and tongues of earth into one soup. The apostle John, imprisoned on Patmos by the authorities of the Roman Empire, is told by none other than the Christ of Pentecost that this kind of striving to unity will characterise the NT dispensation, will continue to characterise this dispensation even though the only way to unity was revealed on the day the Spirit was poured out. For John was shown a vision of a beast rising out of the sea, a beast to whom was given authority "over every tribe and people and tongue and nation" (13:7). What this beast is? Itís representative, beloved, of a world empire, of an authority that strives to bind people together, to bind them together despite that division that inherently exists among men because of the division into so many languages. Such is the prophecy of the Christ of Pentecost. And behold how this prophecy has come to pass; this century alone has seen a number of such efforts to unity. Think of Hitler: all nations and languages should be bound together into one under the sovereignty of the German people. There was a Lenin and a Stalin: the tribes and tongues of northern Asia and Eastern Europe should be gathered together into one people. There was the effort first of the League of Nations and then of the United Nations: all the peoples of the world should be brought together, should be made to understand each other, appreciate each other, help each other, should all be one. And today there is the fledgling One World Movement, a renewed effort to one government encouraging all peoples to work together for mutual benefit. Inherent in all of it is a rejection of what God said at Babel, a refusal to accept the fact that God scattered men, set them against each other. And all of it is a rejection too of the gospel of Pentecost, that gospel that announces that there is but one way to reach unity among sinful men, and that is by renewal of the heart through the Holy Spirit. But what says Jesus to John about the survival of the beast? That beast, says Jesus, shall not ultimately triumph, shall instead go to perdition (Rev 17:11). For unity amongst the various tribes and tongues of the world there cannot be, simple because God in Gen 11 set nation against nation, tongue against tongue. And such is indeed what we seen time and again in our century; what, pray tell, is left of Hitlerís Germany? And whatís left of Leninís Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? And have the United Nations in the 50 years of its existence been able to draw people together, to reduce frictions, to foster understanding and peace?

Unity among men? There cannot be, beloved. And yet: there can be! For the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ has been poured out, that Spirit of renewal, that Spirit of unity. Indeed, unity is there already. No, itís not a unity thatís recorded in the press. Itís rather a unity thatís apparent only to the eye of faith, a unity thatís confessed Sunday by Sunday. For this is what we, by the grace of God, may believe: one catholic church, a church not confined or limited to one particular people, a church not confined to one language either, but a church thatís spread throughout the entire world, made up of peoples from numerous tribes and tongues and nations, a church that "is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith" (Art 27). Thatís the new people, the one people of God. This one people speaks today already one language, the one language of faith. This is the people that John saw: that great multitude which no man could number, that multitude "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Rev 7:9). The Church together, united in faith. Thatís the promise of Pentecost.


The Reverend Clarence Bouwman is the minister of Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church. He has also been the pastor of churches in Kelmscott and Byford in Western Australia and Chilliwack, B.C.

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