Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 2:1-13] The Coming of the Holy Spirit

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-13

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested[on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Observations and Reflections

Justin-Holmes1.jpgPentecost was fifty days after the second day of Passover. Jesus was raised from the dead on the 4th day of the passover (depending on sources). He then visited with his disciples for an additional 40 days. If we add the days between the 2nd day of the Passover and the day Jesus was raised, we get a count of about 43 days (depending on which gospel we read). That means that their was just 7 days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the holy Spirit. What went through the disciple’s minds during that 7 days must have been a mixture of fear and excitement. What would happen once the Holy Spirit comes? Will the kingdom of God “suddenly appear”? Would Jesus return with the Spirit? I am sure that much discussion was had as they were waiting.

But how appropriate it was that the Spirit was given on the day when Pentecost would be celebrated, a celebration of thanks for the harvest. Once they received the Spirit it truly became a celebration of thanks. So much so that people from around the nations were able to hear the gospel message in their own language.

It is here that we need to address what “other tongues” means. The Greek manuscripts use the phrase “ἑτέραις γλώσσαις”, which quit literally means “other tongues”. There is no more  additional information in the Greek texts that can help this debate. Thus it is hard to know if the disciples were speaking known languages or if they were speaking unknown languages and the audience was just hearing the message in their own language. However the rest of the passage will give a better understanding.

Lets first consider the fact that some men accused them of being drunk. This seems unlikely if the disciples were displaying the miraculous ability to speak multiple languages. That is impressive even in our own generation. This seems to point to an unknown language. If I speak in French or German people will know it’s another language and they would be impressed. They would not accuse me of being drunk. Likewise, if the disciples were speaking known languages they would not have been accused of being drunk. However, it would appear that people of their own native tongue may not have been able to understand them or receive the message in their own language which means it would sound like nonsense to them. This idea is confirmed by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

Secondly, Luke lists the nations that were there to hear the phenomenon. Their were 15-16 different different people groups present at the event that Luke lists as hearing in their own native tongues. This leads us to ask whether or not there were more than 12 disciples speaking in tongues, or if some disciples got multiple tongues, or if they were all speaking the same unknown tongue and the various audiences just heard it in their own native tongue. I would suggest it’s likely the 3rd option because it’s consistent with Paul’s understanding of speaking in tongues and Luke often agrees with Paul on matters of theology and Spirit.

The fact that Paul believed speaking in tongues to be an unknown language is fairly clear in his writings. Paul’s version of speaking in tongues requires a supernatural interpreter. One that is given the gift by God, not by being a speaker of a known language. Knowing another language is not a manifestation of the Spirit. It also would not be a very impressive demonstration of the Spirit’s outpouring. If someone started speaking in another known tongue people would not believe it’s from God. They would just think that this person knows multiple languages. The reason why people believed tongues were from God was because it was an unknown tongue.

 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:7-10)

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:6-9)

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:13-19)

With the biblical evidence laid out, we must look at history. There are account of Christians speaking in tongues outside the Bible. The Greek Phiosopher Celsus was a 2nd century opponent of Origen and the Christians. Of the Christians speaking in tongues he wrote,

“Having brandished these threats they then go on to add incomprehensible, incoherent, and utterly obscure utterances, the meaning of which no intelligent person could discover: for they are meaningless and nonsensical, and give a chance for any fool or sorcerer to take the words in whatever sense he likes.” (Contra Celsum, Page 403)

Additionally, the idea that people could speak in a heavenly language was not unknown to people of the time. In the Testament of Job (TOJ), Job’s daughter was described as speaking such a language. Additionally, his other daughter was able to speak in the language of the Cheribums.

“And she took on another heart—no longer minded toward earthly things—but ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God in accord with the style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed “The Spirit” to be on her garment.” (Testament of Job 48:2-3)

“Then did the other daughter by the name of Amalthea’s Horn (Keren Happukh) gird herself and her mouth spoke in the language of those on high; for her heart was transformed, being lifted above the worldly things. 28 She spoke in the dialect of the Cherubim, singing the praise of the Ruler of the cosmic powers (virtues) and extolling their (His) glory.” (Testament of Job 50:27-28)

The TOJ was an inter-testamental work that was known already at the time of the Apostles. Likewise, the Greco-Roman world was no unaware of tongues. The idea that speaking in an unknown and divine language was reasonably well accepted in it’s time. A 3rd century Philosopher, Lamblichus, commented on this phenomenon in his address of Platonic philosophy saying,

(About heavenly tongues) Also, there is a mystic reason. For because the Gods have shown that the whole dialect of sacred nations, such as those of the Egyptians and Assyrians, is adapted to sacred concerns; on this account we ought to think it necessary that our conference with the Gods should be in a language allied to them. Because, likewise, such a mode of speech is the first and most ancient. And especially because those who first learned the names of the Gods, having mingled them with their own proper tongue, delivered them to us, that we might always preserve immoveable the sacred law of tradition, in a language peculiar and adapted to them.

For if any other thing pertains to the Gods, it is evident that the eternal and immutable must be allied to them.
(Lamblichus, On The Mysteries, Page 309)

The legendary Roman Poet, Virgil, wrote a bit about prophetic occurrences and how mythical persons were able to communicate with god/gods. In his work The Aeneid (click to download), prophetic characters are depicted going into a frenzy of prophetic utterances that includes moans and stammering and babbling.

Another 1st century Roman writer, Lukan, tells the tale of a priestess (Pythia) who utters in a frenzied manner. The priestess of Temple of Apollo and one of the Delphi oracles. Delphi was a place in the ancient Greek world where sacred rituals were performed and prophetesses received visions and messages from the gods. It was so important that leaders and kings would travel hundreds of miles to consult with the Temple Priestesses. It was literally the place where the Greeks believed the gods communicated with man, via the Priestesses.

she boils over with fierce fire, while enduring the wrath of Phoebus. . . first the wild frenzy overflowed through her foaming lips ; she groaned and uttered loud inarticulate cries with panting breath ; next, a dismal wailing filled the vast cave ; and at last, when she was mastered, came the sound of articulate speech. (Lukan, On the Civil War)

Lastly, we should look to the work of Plutarch, a 1st century Greek, who wrote this about the oracles at Delpi,

“Now we cherish the belief that the god, in giving indications to us, makes use of the calls of herons, wrens, and ravens ; but we do not insist that these, inasmuch as they are messengers and heralds of the gods, shall express everything rationally and clearly, and yet we insist that the voice and language of the prophetic priestess, like a choral song in the theater, shall be presented, not without sweetness and embellishment, but also in verse of a grandiloquent and formal style with verbal metaphors and with a flute to accompany its delivery! What a statement, then, shall we make about the priestesses of former days?”

“And as for the language of the prophetic priestess, just as the mathematicians call the shortest of lines between two points a straight line, so her language makes no bend nor curve nor doubling nor equivocation, but is straight in relation to the truth…” (Plutarch, Oracles at Delphi)

It cannot be over-estimated how much influence Delphi had on Corinth (the church that appears to be speaking in tongues). The two cities were merely a 2 day walk away. It could have been traveled in less than a day if one had a beast to ride on. While the town of Delphi was in a stage of decline during the 1st century, it’s sacred practices and sacred history was not easily forgotten. The practices that went on at Delphi would have been carried on even after as the Roman empire kept the city alive for sport, games, and worship. It’s also documented that a large Christian community stayed there safely until the 7th century CE. No doubt that this community would have had crossover with Corinth.

Even more interesting, Plutarch refers to the frenzied uttering of the Delphi Pythia by using the same Greek word that Paul used to describe speaking in tongues; γλώσσαις. (De Pythiae, 24.406) Being that Plutarch actually worked for the temple at one point in history, his accounts are eye witness.

Corinth to Delphi
Corinth to Delphi

There is much more written about the rituals and religion of the pagan religions during Jesus’ time but it would be a hole different post. The facts of the matter are that the majority of the Christian church that spoke tongues came from pagan backgrounds where this behavior would have been revered or at least known. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the behavior of the Christians, speaking nonsense in an unknown tongue, would have not been a unique phenomenon but an extension of an already known phenomenon. However, Paul was not so keen on doing such things in church since it really was not edifying to the body as a whole. I would also imagine that if other churches besides Corinth were doing such things that Paul may have mentioned it. It’s likely that speaking in tongues was not as wide-spread as some would think.

So did the disciples speak known or unknown words? I would side would unknown. However, many of the church fathers from the 3rd and 4th centuries would disagree with me.

Lydia.jpgThe promise of the Holy Spirit had finally arrived. Jesus had been speaking to His followers about the promise of a “helper” that would ultimately lead, guide and provide comfort and hope as they began their missionary journeys. This is a wonderful display of God’s promise coming to light and we as Christians, can share in that joy because we too have the Holy Spirit living inside us.

However, not all were able to recognize the work that Jesus Christ was doing in the lives of His followers. They were confused at the sight of the men and women who had been filled with the Holy Spirit and to them it was not a response of worship but of those who were either drunk or crazy.

This is why it was crucial for God’s people to come together and focus on spreading the joy of Christ to others around them. Hearts were still hardened and filled with unbelief and the time had come for the Holy Spirit to being working in the lives of His people. The Gospel was going to be preached and it would be driven by the power of the Holy Spirit giving courage and direction as they went.

[Featured image by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25. Titled: “Pentecost”] This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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