The Study of the Holy Spirit
"Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit." Acts 8:17
E: Is Tongues-Speaking in the Book of Acts Normative?
Part E: Is Tongues-Speaking in the Book of Acts Normative?
And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:31
E. Is Tongues-Speaking in the book of Acts normative? The questions immediately arise: (1) “Is speaking in tongues a required indicator of salvation in the book of Acts?” (2) “Is speaking in tongues a required sign of the baptism of the Spirit in the book of Acts?” (3) “Is speaking in tongues a sign of a ‘second blessing’ or a ‘deeper walk with God’ in the book of Acts?” The best answer, in any case, seems to be, “No.” In fact, it seems unwise to take the position that the book of Acts is normative (normal) for all Christian experience. Let me raise several questions to demonstrate the truth of that statement.
1. The first occurrence in the Bible of speaking in tongues is found in Acts 2:1-13. (See a chart for the only three occurrences of speaking in tongues in the book of Acts.) Is Jesus’ founding of His Church on the Day of Pentecost a repeatable event? The answer? Of course not. Jesus can found His Church only once. He can send His Spirit to the collective Church only once.
a. Since the Day of Pentecost is an unrepeatable event, does it not make sense that there might be unusual signs marking that official event? Yes, that makes sense, particularly when one acknowledges that it is impossible to see a spirit. Spirits are bodiless. So how would anyone know whether or not the Holy Spirit had been given by Jesus unless there were some tangible, observable phenomena unique to that day? When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism, He did so in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). This was necessary because how would anyone know the Spirit had descended upon Jesus otherwise? The dove has become a universal symbol of the Holy Spirit.
b. Does it make sense to demand or even expect that these same signs would mark every day of the life of the Church, or the life of an individual member of the Church? No, that does not make sense.
c. By way of illustration, when ground has been set aside to erect a new building, whether for a church building, a civic building, or a commercial building, there is usually some sort of “Ground-Breaking” ceremony. Officers of that group gather together, sometimes accompanied by dignitaries and officials, and hold a brief ceremony outdoors on that land. They use fancy shovels and ceremonially turn over shovels full of earth to mark the official commencement of new construction. The Ground-Breaking Ceremony is a public sign that construction is to begin officially. A picture is often published in a local newspaper or magazine. Does it make sense to conclude that officials will hold this same ceremony each day of the construction process? Of course not. We do not expect that. And we should not expect that the events of Pentecost would continue on day by day in the life of the Church.
d. When the new building is complete, there is, in many instances, a “Ribbon-Cutting” ceremony. This ceremony inaugurates the completion of the construction of the new building and the opening of that building for public use. A brief service takes place, speeches are given, and someone brings out a giant pair of scissor to cut the ribbon that has been ceremonially placed in front of the entrance. Once that has been done, the public are invited to enter the building for an “Open House,” where they may view the new facility. Does it make sense to expect a Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony each day as one enters the building thereafter? No, that does not make sense. There is only one Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony. Should the Church collectively or church members individually expect that the events of the Day of Pentecost repeat themselves each day of the life of the Church? No, we would not expect that.
e. And yet, practitioners of glossolalia, speaking in tongues, apparently do just that. Instead of viewing the Day of Pentecost as an unrepeatable event, they take the position that speaking in tongues, at least, is normative for the whole Church age. Let us proceed with some more questions.
2. Is the sound of a mighty, rushing wind to be expected each time the Holy Spirit enters a person? No, we would not expect that, would we? But why not? If speaking in tongues, according to Charismatics and Pentecostals, is normative, why is a mighty, rushing wind not normative? Isn’t it inconsistent to hold that tongues is to be expected but the mighty, rushing wind is not? And conversely, if the sound of a mighty, rushing wind is not normative, why is speaking in tongues?
3. Are flickering flames of fire to be expected each time the Holy Spirit enters a person? No, we would not expect that. But why not? Again, if speaking in tongues is normative Christian experience, why do we not hear reports of flickering flames of fire on the heads of people today, at least once in awhile?
4. Why did the baptism of the Holy Spirit take place years after the salvation of most if not all of the people gathered together in the house (Acts 2:1-12)? If that experience is normative, why should we not expect the same today – that speaking in tongues would only occur years after salvation?
5. Why is it that the first instance of speaking in tongues in the early Church occurred without the laying on of hands? For those who lay hands on people in order to dispense the gift of speaking in tongues, why? There is no evidence on the first occurrence of tongues that anyone laid hands on anyone! So if Pentecost represents a normative experience, why lay hands on anyone?
6. While we are asking questions about Pentecost, here is another. Is there any evidence that those who spoke in tongues had to practice in order to learn how to do it? There does not appear to be any practice required, either on the day of Pentecost or on any other subsequent glossolalic manifestation of the Spirit, whether in Acts or Corinthians. It was miraculous and one doesn’t need to practice a miracle. Either one can do it or else one cannot. So why do people today even attempt to coax or instruct or teach others how to speak in tongues? Doesn’t that sound phony? It certainly does to me.
7. Why is there no evidence given that the three thousand who placed their faith in Jesus also spoke in tongues (Acts 2:37-47)? If speaking in tongues is that important and is normative, why did the new converts not speak in tongues?
9. After Peter and John had been arrested, imprisoned, and forbidden to teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 4:1-18), the gathered believers prayed that they all might speak God’s word with all boldness (Acts 4:23-29). They asked specifically for accompanying healing and signs and wonders (Acts 4:30). In response to their prayer, “the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31). Why was there no mention of speaking in tongues?
10. When multitudes of believers were being added to their number, why was there no mention of their speaking in tongues (Acts 5:14)?
11. After the selection of the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6), the word of God kept spreading, and the number of disciples in Jesus increased greatly (Acts 6:7). Why was there no mention of speaking in tongues?
12. When Philip successfully evangelized among the Samaritans, men and women were being baptized (Acts 8:1-12). Why was there a delay in their receiving the Spirit (Acts 8:14-17)? Could it have anything to do with the fact that it was Peter who had been given the keys to the kingdom (Matt. 16:13-19), and that He needed to be present officially to inaugurate the despised Samaritans into the Church? And when Peter and John did lay their hands on the new Samaritan believers and they received the Holy Spirit, why is there no mention made that they spoke in tongues (Acts 8:17)? If speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of the baptism of the Spirit, why is it not mentioned here?
13. The Holy Spirit instructed Philip to go to the road that leads southward from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). Philip did so and was able to present the good news about Jesus to an Ethiopian eunuch who was an official in the court of Candace, queen of Ethiopia. The unnamed official seems to have been a proselyte to Judaism returning from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, for he was reading from the scroll of Isaiah (Acts. 8:30-33). After Philip instructed him about Jesus from the Old Testament Scriptures, the man obviously believed in Jesus and requested to be baptized (Acts 8:35-38). The Holy Spirit “snatched Philip away” to a place called Azotus but the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39-40). The conversion of this official to Christianity clearly was significant, for it opened the Gospel to the Ethiopians of North Africa. Why was there no mention either of the official’s having received the Holy Spirit or of his having spoken in tongues? Clearly the Holy Spirit was mentioned several times in this account by Luke, the historian!
14. Acts 9:1-19 recounts the amazing conversion of Saul of Tarsus to faith in Jesus. He was blinded by a light flashing from heaven, and he heard Jesus ask him why he was persecuting Him (Acts 9:3-9). In a vision, Jesus instructed a man named Ananias to lay hands on Saul so he could regain his sight (Acts 9:10-12). The Lord assured Ananias that Saul was His chosen instrument to bear His name both “before nations and kings and sons of Israel,” who would suffer on behalf of Jesus’ name (Acts 9:15-16). When Ananias had come, he laid his hands on Saul, telling him that the Lord Jesus had sent him so Saul “might look up and be filled with [the] Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17, literal translation). Immediately, something like scales fell off Saul’s eyes. He “looked up” (literally, i.e. regained his sight) and, having stood up, he was baptized (Acts 9:18). That probably means that Ananias baptized Saul with water, though it might also mean that he was baptized with the Spirit. Regardless, there is no mention of Saul’s having spoken in tongues on this occasion, though he was certainly given that gift (1 Cor. 14:18). If speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of being baptized with the Spirit, why is it not mentioned here? Rather, as happens repeatedly in the book of Acts, the outward indicator of the presence of the Holy Spirit was that Saul immediately and boldly “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,” asserting that He is the Son of God (Acts 9:20, 22, 28).
15. In the name of Jesus, Peter healed a man named Aeneas, who had been bed-ridden with paralysis for eight years. All those who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him and “turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:32-35). Why is there no mention of these new believers speaking in tongues?
16. When Peter brought back to life Tabitha (Dorcas), a woman who had died, “It became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:36-42). Why is there no mention that these new believers spoke in tongues?
17. We have already noted supernatural events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius and those gathered in his house as recorded in Acts 10. Both Cornelius and Peter were given visions, and the prompting of the Spirit to Peter was unmistakable. We have already noted that upon the salvation of those in Cornelius’ house, immediately “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those listening to the message” of Peter (Acts 10:43-44). It is obvious that the speaking in tongues that occurred served as a sign to the believing Jews from Joppa present there. What did it signify to them? It signified that “the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:45-46). From the controversy that erupted upon Peter’s return to Jerusalem, speaking in tongues was a very necessary sign indeed. It convinced the Jewish believers in Jerusalem that the Gentiles had indeed been given the same gift as they had been given (Acts 11:1-18)! Here we can see a reason for the gift of tongues. Does that same reason continue to exist? Evidently not, for within a few years all Jewish converts to Christianity would be well aware that God had given the gift of the Spirit to Gentiles as well as to Jews.
18. Some believers from Cyprus and Cyrene came to Antioch and preached Jesus to Greeks. “…A large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21). When Barnabas was sent to confirm them, he being “a good man, and full of the Spirit and of faith,” “considerable numbers were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:22-24). Why is no mention made of anyone speaking in tongues?
19. After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison and the death of King Herod, who had planned to kill him (Acts 12:1-23), Luke recorded, “But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Why did he not mention anyone speaking in tongues?
20. Barnabas and Saul, assigned to an evangelistic work by the Holy Spirit, found themselves in Paphos on the island of Cyprus. The proconsul, Sergius Paulus, requested “to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:1-7). When Elymas, a magician, opposed them, Saul, or Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit and called down a judgment of temporary blindness on the man. Consequently, the proconsul believed, “amazed at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:8-12). Why was there no mention of the proconsul’s speaking in tongues?
21. When Paul and Barnabas attended the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul was given the opportunity to address the worshipers. He reviewed the entire history of Israel culminating in Jesus. The people and rulers in Jerusalem had put Jesus to death, but God raised Him back to life. He is God’s Messiah, as the Scriptures confirm. Through Jesus, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed, forgiveness which the Law of Moses could not provide (Acts 13:14-39). After the service had ended, “many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:43). The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord,” but jealous Jewish people began to oppose Paul. Paul and Barnabas announced that they were turning to the Gentiles, who “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). When Paul and Barnabas were forced to leave the city, “the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Luke reported, “the word of the Lord was being spread throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49). Why did he make no mention that anyone spoke in tongues?
22. In Iconium “a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks” (Acts 14:1). Paul and Barnabas “spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands” (Acts 14:2-3). Why is there no attestation by means of speaking in tongues?
23. Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel to the people of Derbe and “made many disciples” (Acts 14:20-21). Why is no mention made of anyone speaking in tongues?
24. Paul took Silas with him on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). They found that the churches that had been founded on Paul’s first journey “were increasing in number daily” (Acts 16:4-5). Why is there no mention of anyone speaking in tongues?
25. There was a momentous event that would forever alter the course of western civilization. God called Paul to spread the good news about Jesus in Europe (Acts 16:6-10). In the city of Philippi, the Lord opened up the heart of a woman named Lydia “to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” She and her household were baptized (Acts 16:14-15), but there is no account that she spoke in tongues. Why not?
26. In the city of Philippi, the Lord opened up the heart of a woman named Lydia “to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” She and her household were baptized (Acts 16:14-15), but there is no account that she spoke in tongues. Why not?
27. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into jail. A great earthquake released them and the other prisoners from their bonds. The jailer was about to commit suicide when Paul dissuaded him. The trembling jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved (Acts 16:22-30). Paul immediately replied that he should believe in the Lord Jesus, and he would be saved, along with all his household. After washing the wounds of Paul and Silas, the jailer was baptized, and so was his household (Acts 16:31-33). He fed the two prisoners in his own house and was filled with joy, “having believed in God with his whole household” (Acts 16:34). Yet there was no mention of anyone speaking in tongues. Why not?
28. When Paul and Silas traveled to Thessalonica, some of the Jewish synagogue attenders, along with “a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women” were persuaded to join Paul and Silas, having believed in Jesus (Acts 17:1-4). Yet there is no mention that anyone spoke in tongues. Why not?
29. Many Jewish people in the synagogue at Berea believed the message of Paul and Silas, including some “prominent Greek women and men” (Acts 17:10-12). Yet no mention is made that any spoke in tongues. Why not?
30. After Paul had delivered his speech at the Areopagus in Athens, “some men joined him and believed” (Acts 17:16-34). Why is there no mention made of anyone speaking in tongues?
31. Paul traveled to Corinth and began to teach in the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 18:1-4). Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (Acts 18:8). Yet no mention is made of anyone speaking in tongues. Why is this the case?
32. Subsequently Paul arrived at Ephesus and found some disciples. They were believers, but were deficient in their knowledge, having only been taught the need for repentance, having been baptized into John’s baptism. But these disciples of John were obviously unaware of John’s teaching that someone mightier than he would come baptizing by means of the Spirit. When Paul instructed them about Jesus, they placed their faith in Him and were baptized by water in Jesus’ name (Acts 19:1-5). Still, they did not speak in tongues, and apparently the Holy Spirit had not yet descended on them. Why not? It was not until Paul had laid hands on them that the Holy Spirit came upon them. Not only did these believers speak in tongues, but they also prophesied (Acts 19:6). Several questions are in order:
a. Is this normal Christian experience?
b. If it is, why is there no mention, either in Acts 2 or in Acts 10 that believers not only spoke in tongues, but also prophesied?
c. Why was it necessary for Paul to lay hands on these new believers when it was not necessary either in Acts 2 or Acts 10?
d. Why was there a delay in the receipt of the Spirit and in speaking in tongues after salvation here, but there was no delay in Acts 10? Furthermore, why was the delay in the arrival of the Spirit here only a matter of moments, but in Acts 2, the delay of the arrival of the Spirit upon believers was surely a matter of years? What is normal?
e. What was the purpose of speaking in tongues and prophesying here? The answer is not as evident as it was either in Acts 2 or in Acts 10-11. We can only conclude that the purpose of speaking in tongues and prophesying was an audible reminder to Paul and to the Church-at-large that being merely a disciple of John the Baptist, as great and as truthful as he was, was not sufficient to enter either Christ’s Kingdom or the church, or to receive the promised Holy Spirit from Jesus. In order for that to happen, one must believe in Jesus. At the same time, Paul’s authority as an apostle was also validated here. See a Chart on the instances of speaking in tongues in Acts.
33. In Ephesus, God performed extraordinary miracles through Paul. Seven sons of Sceva tried to imitate Paul’s success in casting out demons, but they were overpowered by a demon-possessed man. This became well-known to all in Ephesus. Many “who had believed kept coming,” and confessed their magic practices and burned their magic books. The “word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:11-20). Despite the miraculous overtones, no mention is made of anyone speaking in tongues. Why is this the case?
34. The rest of Acts contains the account of Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his seizure by a mob, his imprisonment, trials, and journey to Rome. Acts 28 ends with an account of his speech before the gathered Jewish people in Rome. They came to his lodging in large numbers, and Paul was “testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them about Jesus …. Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe” (Acts 28:23-24). In this final account of conversion to Christ in the book of Acts, and indeed in the last nine chapters of the history, there is no record whatever of anyone speaking in tongues. Why not?
35. If speaking in tongues is the normative sign of salvation, baptism of the Spirit, or a second blessing received after salvation, why are there only three occurrences explicitly mentioned in the entire book of Acts, the history of the early church? (See a chart of the instances.) The answer seems to be that speaking in tongues is not a normative experience of salvation; it is not a normative experience indicating baptism of the Spirit; it is not a normative experience indicating a deeper walk with God or any kind of “second blessing.”
36. The value of speaking in tongues in the book of Acts is clearly a “sign” value. It is important for the reader to understand that, important as a sign might be, the thing signified is of greater importance than the sign itself. Let me illustrate. Jesus performed a great many miracles in His ministry here on earth. The Apostle John in his gospel appropriately called these miracles “signs” (from semeion). He used this term twenty one times. In his conclusion, John stated, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). So what is more important – the miracles that Jesus performed – or what the miracles signified? An honest answer, it seems to me, would be that what Jesus’ miracles proved was more important than the miracles themselves. And what did they prove? They proved that Jesus is God’s Messiah and Son. And anyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life through His name! By the same token, that which speaking in tongues signifies is more important than actually speaking in tongues.
37. So let us review. What are the things signified in the book of Acts by the miracle of speaking in languages one has not previously learned? (See the chart on speaking in tongues in the book of Acts.)
a. First of all when the followers of Jesus gathered in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost spoke in tongues, it signified to them that Jesus had succeeded in reaching heaven, and that the Father had sent the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ request, just as Jesus had promised (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; Acts 1:4-5).
b. A second purpose of speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost was that it fulfilled prophecy. Joel had predicted that God would pour forth His Spirit upon all mankind (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). Pentecost was at least a partial, if not a complete fulfillment of that prophecy.
c. Third, the tongues-speaking on the Day of Pentecost would serve as a proof to receptive Jewish people in the audience that the risen Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God, that He had received the promised Holy Spirit from the Father, and that He had sent the Spirit, who had “poured forth” the phenomena they had both seen and heard (Acts 2:33).
d. A fourth purpose of speaking in tongues occurred in the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. When the Gentiles gathered in his home spoke in tongues immediately upon having trusted in Jesus, it served as a sign to the Jewish believers that God had determined to pour out His Spirit on Gentile as well as on Jewish believers. This was true both for the Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter to Cornelius’ home from Joppa (Acts 10:44-48) and also for Jewish believers in Jerusalem, who had been scandalized that Peter had eaten with Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18)! We must bear in mind that in both these cases, not only the speaking in tongues, but also the angelic appearance to Cornelius, the vision from God that Peter had seen, as well as the instruction of the Holy Spirit were all four vital cogs in reassuring Jewish Christians of the universality of the good news about Jesus (Acts 10-11).
e. A fifth purpose for speaking in tongues in the book of Acts was to alert Paul and adherents of John the Baptist that even following the Biblical teachings of John was not enough for salvation if that teaching did not include faith in Jesus Christ. Once these disciples of John had trusted in Jesus, their speaking in tongues confirmed that they had received the promised Holy Spirit and were now full-fledged New Testament believers, a part of the Church universal (Acts 19:1-7).
38. We conclude then, that in the book of Acts, (1) Speaking in tongues is not a required sign for salvation. (2) Speaking in tongues is not a required sign of the baptism of the Spirit. (3) Speaking in tongues is not a sign of a ‘second blessing’ or a ‘deeper walk with God’. We conclude, therefore, that in the book of Acts, speaking in tongues is not normative. It is not the normal or expected behavior of most Christians.
Prepared by James T. Bartsch
Published Online by WordExplain
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(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Used by Permission.)
Updated June 29, 2019