Gift of Languages
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 24, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Acts 2:1-7, 12; 1 Corinthians 14:13-19
Luke reports, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (2:1). Were they all there? Yes. Were they all together? Yes. Were they all in one place? Yes. This community context is also mentioned in Acts 1:14 where the followers of Jesus are said to be “all united in their devotion to prayer.” In addition, it is clearly stated in Luke 24:49 where Jesus invited his followers “to stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” It is almost as if being together is the context of the community, ready and expectant, provides the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
At any rate, Pentecost was a communal experience, and it was only because they were together that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability” (2:4).
Acts 2 (Pentecost) tells the story of the beginning of the church. The coming of the Spirit is the sign that the church has begun. We are told that God has begun to live among God’s people in a new and more intimate way.
Scholars tell us that there are three great Jewish festivals to which every male Jew who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem was required to attend – the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacle. The name “Pentecost” (another name is “The Feast of Weeks”) means “The Fiftieth” because it is a harvest festival that comes 50 days after Passover. The festival also commemorates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is thought that more people attended Pentecost than even Passover, which would explain the unusually large crowd in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. At any rate, the church’s birth comes at the time of this crowded festival.
Note, especially in Acts, that the Spirit comes to those who have remained committed to Jesus, and it comes in very dramatic fashion. What was first heard is then seen – tongues of fire (2:3). And it is not until verse 4 that we learn that this strange interruption is none other that the promised Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had stated that the Christ, “Will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
But it is crucial to see that this gift of the Spirit comes to all who confess Christ as risen, not just to the apostles. As we are informed, this presence of the Spirit in all of God’s people is the sign of the new time of God’s action in the world. God is doing a new thing through Christ. The ability of each one to speak in tongues is the evidence that each one has the spirit.
Now, here we need to grasp Luke’s understanding in Acts of “speaking in tongues.” It is different from Paul’s understanding in 1 Corinthians 14.
Repeating, when the Spirit falls on believers at Pentecost, it falls on all of them, not just Peter and the apostles. In this miraculous outpouring of the Spirit, every believer received a gift from God. And that gift was used to advance the mission of the church. On this “birthday of the church” every believer contributed to the spreading of the gospel as they spoke in languages that were understood by people from different places throughout the world. This speaking in many languages symbolizes the gospel’s power to overcome differences and bring salvation to all.
As I mentioned earlier, there were thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival. While they were all Jews and proselytes (2:10), their coming from all over the world is a sign that the Gospel is for the whole world. This is pointed out by the nature of the gifts of speaking in tongues on this occasion. In Acts, when the first believers received the Spirit they were empowered to speak in known languages they had never studied.
Now, scholars tell us that in other places in the New Testament “speaking in tongues” involves uttering sounds that are not a language known to anyone present. So this manifestation of the Spirit in Acts is extraordinarily different from the understanding of other New Testament writers, including Paul.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 14
In his final instructions on how to use spiritual gifts in worship, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gift are to be used to build up the church. That is Paul’s central conviction concerning the use of gifts. To make the point, he compares the gifts of prophecy and tongues. In 1 Corinthians and most of the New Testament, “speaking in tongues” means uttering things that neither the speaker nor the hearers understand.
You will recall that this is different from Acts 2, where the tongues enabled people of various languages to understand.
But in Corinth, speaking in tongues is a gift that enables the speaker to sense a closeness with God and an encounter where the believer feels that God has taken control of his/her speech. Therefore, it enhances the person’s experience of God. And, as far as Paul is concerned, this is a good thing, but it is not the best thing when the church is gathered as a community. Why? It is not the best thing because it only benefits the person having the experience.
This leads Paul into a discussion of the advantages of prophecy over speaking in tongues. To be sure, Paul is not against personal and private encounters with God and admits that he himself has spoken in tongues (14:8), but Paul clearly states that prophecy is superior. Why? Prophecy is superior because it provides something that benefits others. The voice of prophecy is a message that builds up the whole church by being a word from God. So, in worship services, prophecy is superiors to tongues.
Scholars inform us that prophecy does not refer so much to predicting the future as to giving authoritative teaching. Early Christian prophets were people who brought God’s word for that moment. These prophets helped the church to determine what it should do and teach in a particular moment and situation.
A second reason Paul favors prophecy over tongues has to do with the use of the mind. Paul says in verse 14, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.” Paul does not want tongues or ecstatic manifestations to be the only kind of spiritual experiences believers think about because they only engage a part of the human person. Prophecy, according to Paul, is superior because it captivates the intellect as well as the spirit. Thus, genuine Christian spirituality is not just about lofty mountaintop moments or oneness with God, it is also about clearheaded thought about God. For Paul, listening to the voice of God in the in-depth discussion of an issue is also a mark of Christian spirituality. In worship, the spirit and the mind should be involved.
A point of clarification! Paul does not oppose the practice of speaking in tongues. No doubt he believes that such encounters can enhance one’s experiences of God. But Paul does want to regulate the use of tongues in worship services. Fearful that the Corinthians might require tongues or any other gift as the one experience for all believers, Paul makes clear that true spirituality seeks the good of the other person or the whole of the church. Its example is the self-giving love of Christ. When we see gifts used to strengthen the church’s life, we are seeing the practice of authentic Christian spirituality.
The Empowerment of the Community “Going Public”
This has to be one of the main points of Acts 2. Jesus had been raised from the dead, shown to be Lord and Savior, but nobody knew how to talk about it. And few possessed the courage to speak of it. But then at Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended and things were brought to speech. People began to talk to one another and then to those on the streets.
Pentecost means that a new wind of mission is let loose upon the earth. Pentecost means that God is empowering the church to reach out “to offer them Christ.” At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shoves the church from the safety of locked doors in the Upper Room into the struggles and realities of the world’s needs and meaninglessness without Christ.
Yes, what happened to all those disciples at Pentecost can happen to us. A large number of new members were received into a church and were asked what brought them to this particular church. Several answers were given – newspaper advertising, hearing the services on radio and television, the minister, the youth program, the music, etc. – but by far, the largest number said, “I come to this church because of a personal invitation from one of the members.”
Certain Languages that Everybody Understands
One of the real miracles of Pentecost was not so much charismatic speaking but charismatic listening. The listeners heard about “God’s deeds of power” in their own multiple tongues or languages. Thus, Pentecost was a powerful miracle of hearing as well as speaking.
Now this truth should speak loud and clear to the contemporary church. For sure, preachers should preach the Gospel of Christ in a biblical, relevant, and vital way. The Gospel message should also address the people where they actually live. Then it should speak to them in languages they can truly understand and move them to ask the question, “What does this mean?” (2:12).
Clearly, it means that everybody understands the common languages of concern, compassion, presence and burden-bearing. Consequently, our task as God’s people is to share God’s story in languages that people who have never heard it can understood. Come, Holy Spirit!
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.