In the New Testament there are four recorded cases when men and women spoke in each of these cases, we can clearly define the meaning of tongues and the purpose of the gift in the context of the evangelistic work of the early disciples.
A. Languages spoken in Jerusalem:
On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13, Jews and proselytes to Judaism from every nation of the Roman Empire were gathered in Jerusalem (At 2:9-11). The apostles were in an upper room in Jerusalem on this day when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit and began to “speak with other tongues [glossais], as the Spirit gave them utterance” (At 2:4). Verse 6 states that “everyone heard them speak in his own language [dialekto].” Those who were present asked about what was happening, “and how is it that we hear, each in our own language [dialekto] in which we were born?” (At 2:8). They also stated, “We hear them speaking in our own tongues [glossais] the wonderful works of God” (At 2:11). If one would simply read these verses without reading into them any modern-day ecstatic gibberish sounds, then we would clearly understand that Luke was describing a miraculous endowment of speaking in languages that was received by the apostles when they were baptized in the Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to speak in the languages of the people who were present. The people heard them speak in their own dialects the wonderful works of God. The people understood what was being said by the apostles because they said they did.
Luke records that they heard the apostles speaking the wonderful works of God. Therefore, the apostles were not speaking gibberish sounds because of some emotional state of hysteria. They were not speaking some language that was unknown to those who were present. They were speaking the wonderful works of God in the languages of the people who were present.
There is nothing difficult about understanding that the apostles miraculously received the ability from the Holy Spirit to speak the gospel on this occasion in “new languages” (Mk 16:17) to those who were present. They had not studied these languages in which they spoke. Therefore, we would conclude that the reason for the gift of languages for the apostles was evangelistic for the day. People from throughout the Roman Empire were present, many of whom spoke many different languages and dialects. These people needed to hear the wonderful works of God.
In the context of Acts 2, Luke used two different Greek words in reference to the languages that were spoken. The Greek word glossa is used in the plural (glossais) in verses 3,4,11 and 26. This word refers to a known foreign language. It is used in this manner in the context of these passages. The apostles were not speaking a language that was unknown to man. They were speaking known foreign languages that were new to them, for they had never before studied these languages. But the languages were not new to those who came from the areas where the languages were spoken. The people could have never discerned that they were speaking of the wonderful works of God if they did not understand the languages that the apostles used to explain these works.
In verse 4 the apostles “began to speak with other tongues [glossais], as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The tongues here are defined in verse 11 where the word glossais is used again. “We hear them speaking in our own tongues [glossais] the wonderful works of God.” Therefore, it is certain that the apostles were speaking in the languages of the people who were present from every nation. They were speaking languages that could be understood.
The Greek word dialektos is used in verses 6 and 8. This term can refer to either a dialect or language. It was used in this manner in the context of Acts 2. Those from every nation who heard and saw the apostles preaching, stated, “And how is it that we hear, each in our own language [dialekto] in which we were born?” Not only were the apostles speaking in the languages of the people who were present, they were also speaking in the dialects of the languages of the people.
A mother language may have several dialects that are unique to regions other than where a mother language is spoken. What seems to be indicated in the context of Acts 2 is that the apostles not only spoke the mother languages, but also the regional dialects of the mother languages. This fact may be what truly stimulated the curiosity of those who heard. They could not understand how these Galileans could fluently speak in their dialects.
From the use of the above two Greek words in the same context, it is evident that in some way Luke used glossa and dialektos interchangreably. Dialektos was used in verses 6 and 8. Glossa was used in verses 4 and 11. Both of these words were actually used by the people in the context that Luke records. In other words, the audience used these two words interchangeably in the context. Therefore, we would understand that these were synonymous words in the culture when used in reference to spoken languages. At least we must conclude that the people not only heard their languages spoken (glossa), but they also heard the derivatives of their languages (dialects) spoken.
The miracle of the apostles speaking in languages was magnified in the sense that the Spirit not only inspired languages to be spoken, He also inspired all the dialects of the mother languages to be spoken.
The Jews in Acts 2 came from areas where hysterical (or, ecstatic) gibberish was undoubtedly practiced among idolatrous religions. However, when they came to Jerusalem and experienced the events of Acts 2, they recognized that the languages that the apostles spoke were the languages of their homelands. The apostles were not speaking hysterical nonsense. They were speaking the actual languages of the people who were present. The proclamation of those who heard on the day of Pentecost proves that the “tongues” that the apostles spoke were languages.
In Acts 2:13 Luke recorded, “Others mocking said, ‘They are full of new wine.’” This statement has been used by some to affirm that the apostles were actually speaking in gibberish sounds that sounded like men who were drunk. But this was not the case.
We must keep in mind that the apostles were speaking in different languages. Those from Parthia would not have understood the language that was spoken by those from Libya. Those from Galilee, who knew that the apostles were from Galilee, would likewise not understand either of the languages of those from Parthia and Egypt. To them, the apostles’ speaking in any other language than what they understood would only sound like men who were drunk. And drunk men speak gibberish sounds. Therefore, the irreverent mockers dismissed as drunken the apostles who were speaking in a language that they did not understand.
This event of the apostles’ speaking in “tongues” on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 becomes the dictionary to define the rest of the New Testament when “tongues” are discussed. This is a consistent manner by which we must allow the Bible to interpret itself. Therefore, when we come to the next three records of miraculous speaking in languages, we must understand these biblical contexts from the commentary text of Acts 2.
[Next in series: Oct. 16]