Growing up as I did within the movement of Oneness Pentecostalism, the experience of speaking in tongues was highly valued as a constituent part of conversion-initiation. Indeed, it was often and emphatically stressed that until one had spoken in tongues, one was not fully saved. This theology of speaking in tongues as a crowning sign of salvation was almost entirely taken from the narratives in Acts 2:1-4, 10:44-46 and 19:5-6. On the basis of these passages, it was urged that the gift of the Spirit was accompanied by the gift of tongues, and the one without the other was not possible. I can clearly remember, though it has been over half a century ago, one preacher taking off his shoe during his sermon and pointing out that the “tongue” in the shoe was an essential part of the shoe—you couldn’t have the shoe without the tongue.
While Luke offers more than twenty descriptions of conversion-initiation in the Book of Acts, only three unambiguously describe the phenomenon of speaking in tongues with perhaps one other occasion where it might be implied (Ac. 8:17-19). Of course, the Pentecostal group to which I belonged largely ignored all the other occasions of conversion except the three mentioned earlier. Still, on these three occasions Luke does, indeed, describe converts receiving the Spirit and speaking in tongues. I should clearly say, at this point, that Luke seems to envision these experiences as genuine miracles of speaking in known human languages (Ac. 2:6-11). This is the normal meaning of the Greek terms Luke uses, glossa and dialektos. More importantly, however, is how Luke understands the meaning of this experience in the larger context of his work.
Luke’s larger purpose in the Book of Acts is to show how the gospel, which began within the context of Judaism, spread outwardly so that it eventually included the nations. The paradigm from Jesus’ words in Ac. 1:8, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, forecasts the progress of the book. The crossing of ethnic barriers came neither immediately nor smoothly, however. Luke shows how this happened in a series of “steps”, beginning with the choosing of the Seven, one of whom was a Greek proselyte (Ac. 6:1-6), to the conversion of some Samaritans (Ac. 8:4-5, 25), to the conversion of an African (Ac. 8:26ff.), to the conversion of Saul, who was divinely commissioned as a missionary to the gentiles (Ac. 9:15), to the conversion of a Gentile military officer (Ac. 10:1ff.), to the preaching of the gospel to Greeks in Antioch, Syria (Ac. 11:19-21), and finally, to the great missionary journeys of Paul to Asia Minor and Greece (Ac. 13:1-3). Each of these ethnic expansions was a serious theological challenge to the earliest Jewish Christians. The Book of Acts climaxes with the description of Paul “…proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness—unhindered” (my translation). The final word in the Greek text of Acts is the word “unhindered”. That this is Luke’s final word is often obscured in the English Versions, which tend to place it earlier in the sentence, but it is certainly important as the crowning word of Luke’s treatise, given his emphasis on the progress of the gospel as it crossed the various ethnic boundaries of the Greco-Roman world. If we are to understand Luke’s theological intent in those passages that describe tongues-speaking, we should do so within this larger context.
The initial occasion, the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (Ac. 2:1-4), is essentially a reversal of what happened in Genesis 10-11, the story of the scattering of the nations from Babel, all speaking different languages. In this ancient account, humans had refused to obey God’s command to “fill the earth” (Ge. 9:1), preferring instead to stay together in order to build a great ziggurat into the heavens as the “gate of God” (Ge. 11:3-4). It was a rebellion for which God confused their languages and scattered them over the earth (Ge. 11:9). By contrast, at Pentecost, Jewish representatives from the nations of the world came together at the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem, where they were amazed to see the Spirit descend upon Jesus’ disciples, all of them speaking the languages of the Greco-Roman world and prompting the question, “What does this mean?” What, indeed? Was there sign value to this occasion of tongues-speaking? Certainly, there was! The fact that the languages spoken were from Rome, Asia Minor, North Africa, Mesopotamia, Crete and Arabia—Luke’s hyperbole indicated they were from “every nation under heaven” (2:5)—pointed toward the international scope of the gospel. The sign value of the tongues was hardly a sign of personal salvation for the apostles and disciples, however. After all, of the disciples who received the Spirit, Jesus already had indicated their names were “written in heaven” long before Pentecost (Lk. 10:20). Tongues, then, held a sign value, not to point out that these disciples were now “saved”, but to point out the larger context of Luke’s literary goal, to describe the gospel as it would cross ethnic barriers and be carried to all the world.
Much progress toward internationalism was made over the next several months. In Jerusalem, the apostles appointed the Seven to rectify the problem between the Aramaic-speaking Jews and the Greek-speaking Jews, and the fact that all the appointees had Greek names suggests they may have been drawn from the Hellenistic side of the Christian community (6:3-6). At least one of them was a non-Jew, the proselyte called Nicolas of Antioch, probably a Greek. Then, after Stephen’s martyrdom, Philip’s preaching of Christ in Samaria became the next bold initiative (8:4-5). Here, the Holy Spirit was withheld from those believing Philip’s message, and indeed, the Samaritans would not receive the Spirit until the coming of apostolic representatives from the Jerusalem Church. Hearing of what happened, the Jerusalem church had felt it necessary to send Peter and John to investigate this new venture (8:14), and it was only after Peter and John were there that the Samaritans were blessed with the gift of the Spirit (8:15-17). There is no mention of tongues-speaking in this narrative, though it might be inferred from Simon Magi’s plea to buy this wonderful new power (8:18-19). Still, even if there was an experience of tongues-speaking, the sign value would have been primarily for the sake of the apostolic representatives from the Jerusalem church, a clear indication from heaven that these Samaritans were now to be included in God’s people. So convinced were Peter and John that this new outlet for the gospel was acceptable, they also continued to preach in other Samaritan towns before returning to Jerusalem (8:25).
The second occasion where tongues-speaking is described by Luke is at the house of the Roman centurion at Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital on the seacoast. This incident featured Peter, the big fisherman, who was staying at the home of a tanner at Joppa. Already, he had come some distance in his appreciation that God was rearranging his cultural priorities. The fact that Peter was staying at the home of a tanner—a despised trade which rendered him and everyone in his home unclean because of the constant contact with blood—meant that Peter was already traveling in new social territory. Here, in a vision of non-kosher animals, God made it vividly clear that Peter was not to call anyone unclean whom God had made clean (10:9-16), and Peter was directed to accompany some men to Caesarea (10:17-23). At God’s instruction, Peter went with them, though fortuitously he also took with him six Jewish brothers (10:23; 11:12), Christian Jews who would later serve to corroborate Peter’s experience. Peter’s opening words to Cornelius immediately indicated the discomfort he felt at entering a Gentile home (10:27-29). Still, he frankly told them that that he now understood more completely that God did not show favoritism (10:34). In the end, Peter told them the story of Jesus, and at the climax, the Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentiles, an outcome which none of them had expected (10:44). Indeed, the Jews accompanying Peter were absolutely astounded that God had given the gift of the Spirit to these uncircumcised non-Jews, but they could hardly deny it, for they heard them speaking in tongues (10:45-46)! Later, Peter would face an inquisition back in Jerusalem for this foray into Gentile territory (11:1-3). However, after he had explained what had happened—a story corroborated by the six Jews who accompanied him—they had no further objections (11:18). The salient point is this: the phenomenon of tongues-speaking in this incident was the clinching point to convince the Jerusalem church that Gentiles now could be included in the people of God. Peter phrased it like this, “…the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us in the beginning” (11:15), and later, “God gave them the same gift he gave us” (11:17). Peter’s language that the Spirit came on these Gentiles like it had come on the apostles “in the beginning”, almost certainly was a reference to the phenomenon of tongues-speaking at Pentecost, and it immediately suggests that tongues-speaking was extraordinary—something not usually to be expected in conversion-initiation. Was there a sign value in this tongues-speaking? Certainly! However, it’s sign value was for Peter and the six Jews who accompanied him, and later, the Jerusalem church. It was convincing evidence that God had led Peter into this crossing of the final ethnic boundary.
Shortly, more Gentiles would hear the gospel even farther afield, this time in Antioch, Syria (11:19-21). Here, conversion-initiation follows the more common pattern in the Book of Acts in that they “believed and turned to the Lord” (11:21b). There was no need for tongues-speaking in this case, since the Gentile barrier already had been breached and approved. To be sure, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to investigate, just as Peter and John had been sent to Samaria, but all was well in Antioch (11:22-23). Indeed, Antioch became the sending church for Paul’s outreach to Gentiles in Asia Minor and Greece, and on all these occasions, conversion-initiation is described simply in terms of faith, not in terms of tongues-speaking.
The only remaining incident of tongues-speaking in Acts came when Paul encountered some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus. Here, also, those who were converted spoke in tongues (19:6). The sign value of tongues-speaking is less clear in this narrative. Were these twelve disciples Jews? Luke does not say, though presumably they were. Clearly, by their own admission, they were not aware that John the Baptist’s prediction of the messianic gift of the Spirit had been fulfilled (19:2). We know, for instance, of John the Baptist sects as late as the 3rd century who claimed that John, not Jesus, was the messiah (cf. Recognitions of Clement I.liv). Perhaps Luke saw this as yet another boundary crossed, not so much an ethnic one as a theological one. In any case, there is no reason to suppose that the tongues-speaking here held a sign value substantially different than the other two occasions when it had happened.
Hence, the inherited theology of my childhood, the belief that tongues-speaking was salvific and that the gift of the Spirit was always accompanied by this phenomenon, was promoted by doubtlessly sincere people who were doubtlessly wrong. Their reading of the Book of Acts, sincere though it may have been, was tendentious and flew in the face of the larger context of the Luke’s work. The repeating pattern for conversion-initiation in the Book of Acts is simply faith in the gospel of Christ. This was true at Pentecost, where converts “accepted the message” (2:41), in Jerusalem where they “believed” (4:4; 5:14) and were “obedient to the faith” (6:7), in Samaria where they “believed” and “accepted the Word of God” (8:12, 14), on the Gaza road where the Ethiopian “believed” (8:37, Western Text), at Lydda and Sharon where they “turned to the Lord” (9:35), in Joppa where they “believed in the Lord” (9:42), at Caesarea where they “believed” and “received the Word of God” (10:43, 11:1), in Antioch where they “believed” and “turned to the Lord” (11:21), in Paphos where Sergius Paulus “believed” (13:12), in Pisidian Antioch where they “believed”, “continued in the grace of God” and “honored the word of the Lord” (13:39, 43, 48), at Iconium where they “believed” (14:1), at Derbe where they “put their trust in the Lord” (14:21-23), in Asia Minor where God “opened the door of faith” so that the people were “converted”, “believed the message of the gospel”, “were purified by faith” and “turned to God” (14:27; 15:3, 7, 9, 11, 19), at Thyatira where Lydia “opened her heart” along with her household (16:14-15), at Philippi where a Roman jailor “believed” along with his whole household (16:30-34), in Thessalonica where both Jews and Gentiles “were persuaded” (17:4), at Berea where they “believed” (17:12), in Athens where a few “believed” (17:34), at Corinth where “many…believed” (18:8), in Achaia where Apollos was a great help to “those who by grace had believed” (18:27), in Ephesus where they “heard the word of the Lord” and “believed” (19:10, 18), to the thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who “believed” (21:20), to the Gentiles whose “eyes were opened” (26:18), to those in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea and beyond who “turned to God” (26:20), and finally, to some of the Jewish leaders in Rome who were “convinced” (28:23-24). The three occasions of tongues-speaking in Acts notwithstanding, the normal experience of salvation clearly is expressed in faith—and to borrow Luther’s extension—faith alone.