Lesson 4: Comparing The Principle To The Experience (Acts 9:32-11:18)
Speaking in Tongues was a miracle so to talk about tongues is to talk about the miraculous.
That partly explains why people are so bewitched by this experience. It is natural for humans to be fascinated by miracles of any kind even when they happen to others. The prospect of “experiencing” one personally multiplies the fascination. And although tongues are usually represented as something everyone can experience the Bible says exactly the opposite.
Paul rhetorically made this point when he asked, “Do all speak in tongues,” (1 Corinthians 12:30). The answer is obvious.
Tongues is defined as the ability to speak in an unknown language miraculously. That is, the person who spoke in tongues was enabled by God, miraculously, to speak a language they did not already know in the hearing of people who did. Tongues was a three-way miracle.
God miraculously enabled person A to speak in tongues in the hearing of person B. Person B was the focus not A and in every case God wasn’t revealing a truth, He was emphasizing one that had already been revealed.
Another point that is rarely made is the fact that the use of tongues was more for the person hearing than for the person speaking.
It was a miracle used to convince the hearer to accept a truth he or she had already heard but had difficulty processing. In the case of tongues, Hebrew believers were being convinced to accept the fact that God is no respecter of persons. Anyone, including Gentiles could be saved. Tongues was the mechanism used to emphasize this point.
Tongues were spoken several times in the New Testament and, according to Paul, served this very specific and short lived purpose. Once the purpose was served, tongues were no longer needed.
That is really true of all miracles. God doesn’t pass them out like Halloween sweets and they have little to do with alleviating pain or rewarding faith. They are intended to serve God’s purposes not satisfy our need to feel special.
They don’t happen just because you “want” one and it is misleading to suggest faith is the determinant factor. They serve specific purposes, they may make a point but they are always strictly under God’s control.
Of all the miracles in the Bible tongues illustrates this truth best.
- No one ever expected to speak in tongues.
- No one even knew they were possible.
- No one ever prayed for this experience.
- And after they happened no one talked about them.
The meaning was obvious to the first generation of believers, most of whom were Jewish. Tongues wasn’t an issue until years after the fact.
They happened only when God allowed and they made the same strong statement every time…
Tongues are for a sign not to those that believe but to those that believe not.
The Rationale Behind Miracles
A study of “tongues” is not a study of all things supernatural but it does have implications for all miracles. Miracles, like tongues, don’t happen without a reason. There are plenty of Scriptures to substantiate this idea.
Romans 8:28 says “all things work together for good…” and we understand “all things” to include even the bad. God has NOT promised to use miracles or anything else to make life easy or better. It is actually just as much a miracle for God to take a bad experience and use it for something good as it is for Him to prevent “bad” things from happening in the first place.
Paul’s life illustrates this truth. Through him God performed many diverse miracles but Paul didn’t have enough supernatural pizazz to conjure up one measly miracle to eliminate a chronic and debilitating eye disease (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). If the power to perform miracles at will was invested in humans he surely would have been a recipient.
Even the miracles he experienced didn’t relieve his pain. They enabled him to survive – not avoid – beatings, peltings, ship wrecks, exposure and more on several occasions. He felt all the bruises, lacerations, hunger and discomfort during and after these events…in spite of his miraculous survival.
Can we call these miracles blessings? Yes, but only if you broaden the meaning of the word “blessing.”
And the meaning is stretched even further when applied to the miracle of tongues. They were a blessing but only in a back handed sort of way. Though a miracle, they were intended to correct the first generation of believers not make them feel good or give them power.
Another interesting observation about miracles has to do with timing. Miracles didn’t abound in every generation. They were used mostly during times of transition, when revelation was coming in large amounts: The Exodus and the Gospels with Acts are two obvious examples. Because revelation is at a standstill now, we really shouldn’t expect so many miracles today, especially of the more sensational kind like tongues.
These things need to be kept in mind particularly as we study this next passage.
This is a very long passage and we have only a general idea of how much time elapses but the events and all the miracles that occur are practically and philosophically connected.
During this period the first church is still staying close to home base, Jerusalem, and only in the region of Judea. Their foray into Samaria had no lasting impact on their action plan.
God, however, is gently moving them out and away to other people and lands and He uses several kinds of miracles to make this happen, the capstone of which is tongues.
We can’t just assume these miracles – we’ll list the miracles shortly – happened because someone had faith or because Peter was an Apostle or because someone needed a special blessing. There has to be more to it than that. God is not a sensationalist and He doesn’t operate by caprice. He acts rationally and expects us to isolate the rationale.
Fortunately for us the New Testament gives us the answer to our question before we start our study. We have the all encompassing principle that helps us understand the purpose behind the miraculous use of tongues. Please allow me to say it again:
Tongues are for a sign not to those that believe but to those that believe not.
The Setting – 4 to 6 Six Years After Pentecost
The events which begin in Acts 9:32 occur at least four years after Pentecost. Approximately one year had expired before the persecution recorded in Acts 8:1 and there were three years before Paul returned to Jerusalem from Damascus (Galatians 1:18).
Note: We don’t know exactly when Paul’s conversion took place. It could have been two or more years after Pentecost but we do know that he was in the area of Damascus for three years after his conversion.
The question we must ask is, what had the Apostles and the first church accomplished in this time?
This represents anywhere from four to six years. That isn’t a long time but with the kind of power God extended to those first believers a lot could have been accomplished. In the first year thousands were miraculously converted to Christ. Multiply that by three or more years and the results should have been even more phenomenal.
When we look to the record (Acts) to read all about it we find nothing. Not a little but nothing. The last person to make an intentional effort to carry to Gospel everywhere was Philip. The last major event after Pentecost is Paul’s conversion followed by his immersion in ministry and his return to Jerusalem three years later. Otherwise there is nothing. We could call this period the mysteriously missing years.
The next question we must ask is, why had nothing been accomplished? Where had they gone, who had they witnessed to, what were they planning to do?
To all of these questions we draw a blank. There was no indication that any significant moves or ministries had been performed. The only difference was Peter had started some type of itinerant preaching schedule at least in all the communities of Judea (Acts 9:32).
We don’t know when this itinerant schedule was started.
We don’t know if he ever returned to Samaria or not.
As far as we know between the Peter’s ministry in Samaria and healing Aeneas in Lydda no other miracles had been performed through Peter.
What we do know is that all of a sudden after several years of silence things begin to happen. In fact, beginning in Acts 9:32 and going through the end of Acts 10 there is a series of miracles which, on the surface, don’t seem to be connected. A careful study of these miracles will reveal their purpose and significance.
The chronology follows:
Persecution Produces Evangelism
- The church in Jerusalem is persecuted and scattered (8:1-3).
- The entire church – accepting Apostles – go everywhere preaching the Gospel (8:4) but only to Jews (Acts 11:19).
- Philip, however, goes to Samaria, preaches the Gospel and many people are converted (8:5-25).
- Philip, led by the Spirit, meets a Eunuch returning to Ethiopia following a diplomatic meeting in Jerusalem. The Eunuch gets saved and is baptized by Philip (8:26-39).
- Philip travels north, preaching in several villages eventually settling in Caesarea, a Gentile town with a Roman military installation (8:40).
The Conversion of Paul
The conversion of Paul is the next major event and his story is significant because he eventually becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles. To say his conversion was miraculous would be an understatement. His conversion represents a complete turn-around (repentance). On his way to Damascus to apprehend and prosecute Christians several notable miracles occur:
- He was blinded by a bright light (9:3).
- He audibly heard the voice of the Lord telling him to go into Damascus to receive further instruction (9:4-6). He was in the city fasting and without sight for three days (9:8-9).
- The Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision telling him to minister to Paul (9:10-16).
- When Ananias laid hands on Paul, his sight was restored, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he was baptized (9:17-18). Tongues were not necessary in this instance because there was no reason to believe Paul couldn’t be saved and Jesus was well established as the Messiah.
- Paul spent the next three years learning about Christ, debating the Jews and preaching the Gospel in and around Damascus before returning to Jerusalem (9:19-25).
- His exuberance was not well received in Jerusalem and he was sent home to Tarsus (9:26-31).
His story pauses here and begins again later when Barnabus enlists Paul’s services in ministry to the people of Antioch, the better part of whom were Gentiles.
Peter Evangelizes Gentiles
At some point during Peter’s itinerant preaching miracles started happening.
- He heals Aeneas of palsy in Lydda (9:32-35).
- He raises Tabitha from the dead in Joppa (9:36-43). As far as we know, he had never raised anyone from the dead before. In response, he stayed in Joppa for “many days.” We aren’t told how long.
- During Peter’s stay in Joppa, a man in Caesarea, Cornelius, is told by an angel in a vision to send to Joppa for Peter (10:1-8). In the vision he is given both Peter’s names (Simon and Peter), the name (Simon) and occupation (tanner) of the man Peter stayed with and the general vicinity of the house (by the seaside). In response, Cornelius sent soldiers to fetch Peter.
- While the soldiers were on their way, Peter has a vision which clearly makes the point that God has pronounced as “clean” things which had formerly been considered “unclean” (10:9-17). Peter’s first response was confusion.
- While Peter thinks about the vision the Holy Spirit tells him that men have come for him and warns him to go with them without contradiction (10:17-20 & 11:29).
- Once Peter – with his party of Jewish believers – arrives at the home of Cornelius and after introductory conversation he preaches the Gospel. Cornelius with all his friends and family believe and the evidence of God’s acceptance of their faith was SPEAKING IN TONGUES (10:44-46). And following that, the evidence the Hebrews accepted these Gentile believers was their baptism in water.
Does this situation fit the pattern of God’s instructions for evangelism? Are lost people suppose to locate Christians or are Christians the ones who are suppose to search out the lost?
Why hadn’t Peter and the other Christian’s already been to Caesarea and preached the Gospel? Caesarea was only fifty or so kilometers north of Joppa. It was a little more than one hundred kilometers from Jerusalem. That isn’t a lot of distance to cover in eight years time.
And besides, Philip had settle in Caesarea several years before.
To any well informed and thinking Christians this whole situation seems awkward. It doesn’t fit the picture of what we call evangelism. How was a city this close left out of the evangelistic efforts of the first Christians for so many years?
The truth is, under normal circumstances Caesarea would have been the last place the Christian Jews would have gone for any reason. Caesarea and Joppa were both sea ports. It was very unusual to have two sea ports built so close to each other but it was necessitated by the friction that existed between Roman authority and Jewish nationals.
Joppa represented strong Jewish nationalism and therefore anti-Roman sentiment. Herod had Caesarea rebuilt to expedite the shipping of Roman supplies and military personnel in and out of the area and it also served as a place where Roman officials could escape from Jewish revolts when they occurred. In fact, this was the city to which Paul was taken when the Jews were trying to kill him. It was the only place his protection could be guaranteed.
That means, of course, that Caesarea represented the worst of everything that the Jews hated. That, however, was no excuse for failing to evangelize this city. Every miracle in this situation was for one reason…to bring the Apostles to a place where they could acknowledge and recognize the acceptance of Gentiles into the community of faith.
Visions without interpretation have no meaning. Cornelius had no idea what to the conclude from his vision. He was so confused, his first response to Peter was to worship him.
And Peter was also confused. The vision only made sense when the rest of the details were made clear. No doubt Peter would have resisted going to visit Cornelius had God not specifically told him to go.
Visions, therefore, never convey a message by themselves. They must be understood in light of additional information. In this case the additional information came when the Spirit gave explicit instructions to Peter.
This was a momentous occasion in the history of the New Testament. The Apostles had now recognized and accepted Gentile believers into the community of faith but the story doesn’t end there.
Peter and the men who had gone to Caesarea return immediately to Jerusalem and on arrival they are confronted by the Christians in Jerusalem. The Bible actually says they “contended” with Peter, accusing him because he went in to a Gentile’s home and ate with them.
But, Peter patiently shared his experience and in the end the Jewish believers glorified God realizing that they too were granted salvation through Jesus Christ.
Who were the unbelievers? Clearly, the Hebrew Christians were the unbelievers in this instance.
What did they not believe? Clearly, they had a difficult time accepting the fact that Gentiles could and were getting saved.
We, of course, are not trying to say that God does not perform miracles today. There is no question that miracles still happen. In fact, the greatest miracle of all is salvation and it is the only one which is said to cause great rejoicing in heaven.
Of course, we believe God performs other miracles as well. They are not as obvious or as sensational as some of the miracles of the early New Testament days but they are miracles none the less.
Unfortunately, I believe tongues are no longer necessary today. and if for some reason they happened I would have to ask, who didn’t believe and what were they not believing. Those are fair questions.