There are three, and possibly four instances of speaking in tongues recorded in the book of Acts. In each instance, the ability to speak in tongues served to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit. Recall from part 1 the close connection between “Spirit” and “breath” and “words.” When people were given the ability to speak words in unfamiliar languages, this could only mean that it was not the speaker’s own spirit giving utterance to the words. The ability to speak in tongues convinced both the receiver and others in attendance that the Holy Spirit had been poured out.
Speaking in Tongues on Pentecost
In Acts 2:1-3 we read about the mighty rushing wind that filled the house where Jesus’s apostles were sitting, and tongues of fire rested over each one of them. It is here that we find the first instance of speaking in tongues:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.Acts 2:4
This shocking and observable event naturally prompted many questions (2:12-13), leading to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (2:14-36). At the conclusion of this sermon, Peter challenged his Jewish audience to respond in repentance and baptism.
And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.Acts 2:38-39
- The ability to speak in tongues was directly connected to their being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that gave them the ability to utter foreign words.
- This event was in the context of a large Jewish assembly in Jerusalem (2:5-12).
- Peter says the promised Holy Spirit was not limited only to the apostles who were given the ability to speak in tongues, but would be given to those who would repent and be baptized
The gift of the Holy Spirit to be received in baptism was not offered until after the Holy Spirit was poured out in astonishing fashion upon the apostles. Because of the mighty rushing wind, the tongues of fire, and the ability to speak in tongues, Peter thus concluded that the promised Holy Spirit was available not only to the Jews and to their children, but to “all who are far off.”
Speaking in Tongues in Caesarea
In Acts 10 we read of another occurrence of speaking in tongues. What makes Acts 10 unique from Acts 2 is that the individuals involved were Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) who believed in Jesus.
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain some days.Acts 10:44-48
- Peter knew the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles because he heard them speaking on tongues as observable proof.
- Once again, we see a close connection between the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit and baptism. Here Peter saw that the Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles and responded by commanding the Gentiles to be baptized, just as he had commanded the Jews on Pentecost.
Speaking in Tongues that Occurred in Ephesus
Just as in Acts 2 and Acts 10, we read of another occurrence of the ability to speak in tongues in Acts 19. Acts 19 is unique in that the Holy Spirit was poured out specifically upon disciples who had only been baptized with John’s baptism, and were previously unaware of the Holy Spirit.
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking on tongues and prophesying.”Acts 19:1-6
- Just as on Pentecost and in Caesarea, when the Holy Spirit came on them, they began to speak in tongues.
- Just as on Pentecost and in Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit is once again closely connected with baptism. Here they were baptized, then Paul laid his hands on them, then they were given the ability to speak in tongues.
- Unlike Acts 2 and Acts 10, where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit resulted in the command to be baptized, here we see the reverse order. They were baptized, but did not receive the ability to speak in tongues from baptism itself, but when Paul laid his hands on them giving them the ability to speak in tongues and prophesy.
Speaking in Tongues that (Probably) Occurred in Samaria
There is one other instance in the book of Acts, where the ability to speak in tongues is not explicitly mentioned, but is likely implied. In Acts 8 we read about Philip preaching the gospel to the Samaritans, who responded in baptism. But here, Luke finds it noteworthy to mention that even though they were baptized, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.Acts 8:14-16
Notice that by this time, the apostles recognized that baptism that did not result in the reception of the Holy Spirit was an abnormality. They recognized the absence of the Holy Spirit following the Samaritan’s baptisms as a problem in need of a resolution. Up to this point, the Holy Spirit was given to all those who obeyed him in baptism (Acts 5:32; cf. Acts 2:38-39).
And so we read happened:
Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”Acts 8:17-18
When the apostles laid their hands on the Samaritans they were given the Holy Spirit. Simon recognized this because he saw the Spirit’s power in some observable way. Since speaking in tongues was the outward sign in other recorded instances where the Holy Spirit was poured out on people, it is very likely that speaking in tongues occurred here in Samaria as well. Just as in the other passages, it is once again closely connected to baptism, though not received through the act of baptism itself. As in Acts 19, the ability to speak in tongues was given through the laying the apostle’s hands.
The Significance of Speaking in Tongues
It is helpful to notice that Luke highlights the ability to speak in tongue at critical moments in the early church’s history. Recall that Luke opened the book of Acts with two of Jesus’s promises about the Holy Spirit. First, Jesus reminded his disciples of the difference between his baptism and John’s baptism.
“John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”Acts 1:5
Then Jesus told his disciples how when they receive the Holy Spirit, they would be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and finally to the end of the earth.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”Acts 1:8
The key moments in the book of Acts where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit resulted in the ability to speak in tongues, corresponds precisely with these introductory verses. First, we see the ability to speak in tongues when the gospel was first preached among the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 2). Then, we read about the Holy Spirit being given in a powerful manner in when the gospel was first preached in Samaria (Acts 8). We read about the ability to speak in tongues in Caesarea, when the gospel was first preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10), which opens the door to Paul’s mission to carry the gospel “to the ends of the earth”. The final occurrence circles back to highlight the contrast between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit (Acts 19), showing that John’s promise had in fact been fulfilled.
In each instance, the miraculous ability to speak in tongues served as undeniable proof that God’s Spirit had been poured out. First we see the Spirit’s presence with the Jews, then the Samaritans, then the Gentiles, then among John’s disciples. In each instance, the outpouring of the Spirit severed either to prove that baptism was now needed, or to demonstrate the Spirit’s approval of baptisms which had just occurred.
How exactly does the outpouring of the Spirit lead to the necessity of baptism? How is baptism connected to those times when the Spirit was poured out in such an amazing way? What role does the Spirit play in baptism today? These questions will be the focus of the next part of this study.