The Study of the Holy Spirit

by James T. Bartsch

"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance."  Acts 2:4

Part B:  The Significance of Tongues in Acts 2


B.           What was the significance of speaking in tongues in Acts 2?  Jesus did indeed send the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).  A spirit is, by definition, invisible.  How would Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem know that He had succeeded in sending them the Holy Spirit?

1.               First, there came the sound of a violent rushing wind (pnoe) that filled the entire house in which they were gathered (Acts 2:2).  This synonym for pneuma, a more typical word for breath or spirit, would have immediately reminded the gathered disciples of the promised Holy Spirit.  There was thus and audible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

2.               In the second place there was a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3).  Something that looked like flickering tongues of fire rested on each of them.  This would have visually reminded the disciples of the Holy Spirit.

3.               In the third place there was a linguistic manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Luke recorded that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:4).  The reader of both the Greek New Testament and the English translation would immediately note the parallelism between the visible and linguistic manifestations of the Spirit.  There were tongues of fire flickering (Acts 2:3), and all began to speak with other tongues (Acts 2:4).  It becomes readily apparent that the Greek word glossa, tongue, refers to the organ in the mouth.  But the flames looked like tongues (Acts 2:3), whereas in Acts 2:4 the tongues referred to speech.  This can be borne out by the fact that the crowd were bewildered because each of them was hearing them speak in his own language (Grk. dialektos, literally dialect) (Acts 2:6).  They expressed their amazement at being able each to hear in his own native language (lit. dialect) (Acts 2:8) in which he had been born.  The listeners listed all their various nationalities and observed again that they heard the speakers speaking of the mighty deeds of God in their own tongues (glossa), meaning languages (Acts 2:9-11).  We conclude, then, that speaking in tongues means miraculously speaking in a recognizable foreign language which one has not previously learned.

4.               For the sake of definition, we should here mention that scholars have constructed a word from the Greek language that conveys the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.  It is the word glossolalia, which combines the word glossa (tongue) and the word lalia (speech).  Glossolalia is the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.  Generally speaking, the term glossolalia tends to refer to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues as it is practiced today by the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.  The word glossolalia does not appear in the Greek New Testament.

5.               It is probable that the loud sound of the violent wind was what initially attracted the attention of the surrounding populace and caused them to gather together around the believers who had just received the Holy Spirit.  By the time the crowd arrived, however, they made no mention of either the violent rushing wind or the flames of fire.  The crowd only commented on the believers’ speaking in languages they could not have learned (Acts 2:6-12). Judging by Peter’s sermon, however, the onlookers must have seen the tongues of flickering flames as well as have heard the rushing wind and the speaking in unlearned foreign languages (Acts 2:33).  The sound of the violent wind drew the unbelievers to the site, but it was the speaking in tongues that most impressed them. 

6.               What was the significance of the speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost?  That, after all, is the topic of our discussion.  And it is a legitimate question, for the gathered crowd in Jerusalem asked that very question, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).

a.               First of all speaking in tongues signified to the gathered disciples 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).  The speaking in tongues was not the only sign, of course.  There was also the sound of rushing, violent wind and the flickering tongues of flame on the head of each of them.  Together, these would have been a powerful confirmation to the disciples that the Holy Spirit had come.  But the wind and the flickering flames were temporary.  They were evidently one-time phenomena.  The evidence of speaking in tongues continued on, as the rest of the history of Acts illustrates.  The wind was very impersonal; the flickering tongues of fire were less so, for each believer, apparently, possessed a flame, however briefly.  But speaking the praises of God in an unlearned language was very personal and experiential indeed.  It was an individualized, expressive experience that each participant would never forget!

b.               A second purpose of speaking in tongues was that it fulfilled prophecy.  Joel had predicted that God would pour forth His Spirit upon all mankind (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).    This would result in revelatory experiences.  Joel mentioned prophesying, visions, and dreams (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18).  Speaking in foreign languages was never mentioned, but Peter understood that it was a revelatory phenomenon that fit generally into the category that Joel had predicted.  The unusual experiences of the fledgling Church on the Day of Pentecost by no means fulfilled all the predictions Joel made (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-21), but they were a substantial deposit.

c.               Third, the tongues-speaking 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.  Jesus had “poured forth” the phenomena they had both seen and heard (Acts 2:33). 

1)              Peter began his message to the incredulous citizens of Jerusalem gathered around the early believers.  He denied that his associates were drunk on grape juice, as some of the onlookers mockingly charged (Acts 2:13-15).  He stated rather that what the onlookers had witnessed was a fulfillment of Scripture (Acts 2:16-18).  He quoted the extended passage of Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:16-21) in order to conclude with the statement, “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). 

2)              He then proceeded to speak of Jesus of Nazareth – His ministry of miracles, His death, and His resurrection, predicted in Scripture (Acts 2:22-32).  Then he stated that Jesus had been exalted to God’s right hand.  He had received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and through the Spirit Jesus had poured forth the phenomena that the onlookers had both seen and heard (Acts 2:33).  Jesus was presently sitting at the Father’s right hand, waiting to be given His kingdom and triumph over all His foes (Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:34-35).  God had anointed this Jesus as Messiah, but they had crucified Him (Acts 2:36)!

3)              God had prepared the hearts of many of those Israelis who had gathered to investigate the phenomena and had remained to listen to Peter’s speech.  They were conscience-stricken and asked what they needed to do in order to remedy their guilt (Acts 2:37).  Peter promptly replied that they needed to repent (metanoeo), which here meant they needed to change their mind about who Jesus is and what they had done to Him (Acts 2:38).  Instead of remaining among those who had rejected Jesus and executed Him as a blasphemer, they needed to place their confidence in Him.  Peter added that they needed to be “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  He was not implying that water can wash away sins.  He was asking them to identify themselves publicly as followers of Jesus Christ.  Their baptism would be an outward sign that they had placed their confidence in Jesus as their Messiah.  Each who followed Peter’s instructions would be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, for salvation would be granted to every person whom God called to Himself and who thus called on the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21, 38-39).  This was but a brief summary of Peter’s message, for he spoke at great length in urging his hearers to extricate themselves from the terrible judgment to befall the Jewish people (Acts 2:40).  That judgment began in earnest, incidentally, when the Roman army under General Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.  Meanwhile, there was a selective, but overwhelming response to Peter’s message.  God added three thousand to the number of believers that day (Acts 2:41)!

4)              The signs they had witnessed, including speaking in tongues, along with Peter’s message and the calling of God had achieved their desired impact.  Three thousand Jewish people were moved to become devoted followers of Jesus and active participants in the early church (Acts 2:41-47).  Jesus had begun to build His Church (Matt. 16:16-18)!

Part A: Predictions of the Gift of the  Spirit. Part C: The Significance of Tongues in the House of Cornelius in Acts 10.

This study is based on, and the links to Scripture reference the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE , Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. (

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB 1995.  Used by Permission.)

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Updated February 4, 2022