Lesson 2: Comparing The Principle To The Experience – (Acts 2)
The Bible contains both historical and technical information. Some books are more history than others (Acts) and some include more technical information (Romans), but all the books of the Bible represent some history and some technical information.
In order to understand any particular teaching in the Bible you must understand both: history and technicalities.
The history includes culture, language, circumstance, etc. and, let’s face it, they did things in Jesus day we would never do in ours – such as knocking a hole in the roof of a friends house to gain access to Jesus. Without the technical data, we might conclude that the best way to approach Jesus is through a hole in the roof.
Historical events without explanations are open to any meaning a person would like to impose on them.
Can you imagine how Abraham-sacrificing-Isaac would be interpreted if we didn’t have technical data to explain it? Fortunately, we weren’t left in the dark. No space to discuss it here but for a full read on that event go to this post.
For now, suffice it to say that bare history is not enough. We can’t understand the history without the passages that explain the history.
Paul used this history-plus-technical-information approach to explain tongues and a lot of his information came from the Old Testament not the New.
That makes since. “Tongues” was a Old Testament mechanism (sign) used to rebuke Israel in both the Old and in the New Testaments. The circumstances were different but the principle was the same. “Tongues” (foreign languages) were used in both instances to convince obstinate, unbelieving Israel that they were working against rather than with God.
In the Old Testament the sign was manifested when Israel was taken captive by Assyria. In the New Testament the sign was manifested when the followers of Jesus, the Man they threatened and eventually killed, spoke in foreign languages on the Day of Pentecost. They were shocked on both occasions. In each case God had their full attention.
Hebrews understood the purpose of signs but Gentiles did not. They had no background or knowledge that could help them know how to respond to this type of phenomena.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Paul’s explanations were directed at Gentile not Jewish believers. He was speaking to people who had little, if any, knowledge of the Old Testament.
And to help bridge the knowledge gap and simplify the issue, Paul condensed his explanation to one short statement which we must use to interpret the “tongues” experience. That principle is found in I Cor. 14:22 and briefly stated is:
Tongues are a sign to unbelievers not to believers.
We discussed the principle thoroughly in part one. Now we must apply the principle to the first historical occasion when tongues were spoken in the New Testament, Acts 2:1-13.
Remember, we are taking history and exposing it to the light of technical truth to reveal what spiritual lessons we can take from the event.
Based on the principle there are two questions we must ask:
- Who was not “believing?”
- What were they not believing?
Before we look at Acts 2 it is important to define “unbeliever.” The term is commonly used to refer to any person who is not saved whether they have heard the Gospel or not. That is the simplest definition of the most common but not the only type of unbeliever.
There are many things a person must believe after salvation and there is no guarantee they will believe any of it just because they are saved.
There is also the matter of “institutional” unbelief which was the case with Israel. Even Pharaoh fits into this category. He was an individual but his position represented an institution and signs were used in the Exodus to convince him that God meant business, that one institution – Egypt – was being separated from another – Israel.
So, a second type of “unbeliever” is the person (or institution) – Christian or not, faithful or not, sympathetic to God or not – who is clearly exposed to some point of truth but fails to accept it.
Not every Gospel believer accepts every new truth without hesitation. In some cases it takes time to sink in. On very odd occasions new truths are accompanied with signs. That was the case with Tongues.
Now, let’s look at Acts 2:1-13.
After reading Acts 2:1-13 there are several observations to be made:
- They were spoken on the Day of Pentecost. A very significant event on the Jewish religious calendar. Jews from all over Judea, Gallilee and distant parts of the world travel to Jerusalem for this occasion.
- The church was together, unified and meeting at the Temple in Jerusalem.
- All of them spoke in tongues.
- They spoke in tongues simultaneously.
- They were speaking human languages.
- Multiple languages and dialects were spoken, even the language of Judea.
- No interpreter was necessary.
- No specific message was conveyed. The crowds response was, “what does this mean,” v. 12.
WHO IS THE UNBELIEVER?
If tongues are a sign to those who don’t believe then it makes good sense to start by answering the question, “who is the unbeliever in this passage?” To get it right, we must study a little more of the historical detail.
The Day of Pentecost was a major religious event for the Nation of Israel. It was one of those occasions when Israelite people from all over the world would make their way to Jerusalem and there were two categories of Israelites in Jerusalem on the day.
The first category were locals who had been born and raised in the very Jewish atmosphere of the Judean or Galilean provinces.
- They had a very strong sense of nationalism.
- They believed that Jewish land was holy ground.
- They believed the Jewish language was God’s language.
- They believed the Temple coinage was God’s money (hence the money changers in the Temple).
- They observed very strict laws governing their relation to non-Jews.
- Peter said it was unlawful for a Jew to keep company with a Gentile, Acts 10:28. This was a human rule not one from the Bible.
- Paul later rebuked Peter because he was refusing to eat with Gentile believers, Galatians 2:11-14.
- A Samaritan woman was surprised when Jesus, a Jew, asked her for a drink of water. She even made the comment “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans,” John 4:9.
- During the ministry of Jesus, publicans – Jews who collected taxes for Rome – were shunned as being too sinful to associate with, Matthew 9:11.
The second category of individuals were those of the dispersion.
These were people who were natural born Jews but lived in other countries or they were naturally born Gentiles who had become Jews – proselytes.
They usually spoke a Gentile language in their everyday life and only made it to Jerusalem on special occasions and probably not every year. For their weekly religious exercises they attended local synagogues, which could be found throughout the Gentile world wherever there was a high concentration of Jewish people.
But, the important point to understand is that local, more nationalistic Jewish people viewed the dispersed Jews condescendingly. They even had a separate synagogue for them in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9).
This judgmental attitude was displayed very soon after the Day of Pentecost. Widows from Gentile territories (outsiders) were being neglected and it was the local Jews (insiders) causing the neglect (Acts 6:1). And these were all Christian people. Instead of banding together they were carrying on with the old way of thinking.
Several points to consider:
- Speaking foreign languages in the vicinity of the Temple openly and publicly was an absolute slap in the face to the local Jewish people (insiders).
- Even the visiting Jews would have recognized the offense of using foreign languages so openly in the Temple area.
Tongues did serve as a means of getting their attention. The Bible states that it was this fact alone that actually caught the attention of the crowds and brought them together to hear what was being done (vs. 4-6).
Verse six even says the crowd was “confounded.” The Greek word translated here means amazed, surprised, excited, agitated, confused or disturbed. That is to say, the fact that these Galilean Jews were speaking openly, obviously loudly, publicly and in the Temple grounds really got the crowd in an uproar.
- Not only did the disciples speak in foreign languages but they were recognized as Galileans (v. 7).
That is, there accent gave them away. It was Peter’s accent that gave him away as a follower of the Lord when Jesus was being tried (Matt 26:73). This fact compounded the offense. Galileans were treated more or less as outsiders so this fact added to the insult.
When Philip first told Nathanael about Jesus the Nazarene (from Galilee) Nathanael remarked, “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). His remark epitomizes the attitude which prevailed among the people in Judea.
- The Grecian Jews were, of course, unfamiliar with the recent events surrounding the ministry of Christ.
They may have heard of Christ after arriving in Jerusalem but they had not seen or heard Him in person. When Peter preached the Gospel they were hearing this news for the first time.
- These tongues were understood by the crowds.
The tongues spoken in Corinth were not the same as those in Acts 2 and the proof is one group understood the languages the other did not. One group needed an interpreter the other group did not.
The tongues in Acts 2 were languages which could easily (without interpretation) be understood. The problem in Corinth was communication. No one was interpreting what was being said from one human language to another.
- The tongues did not make anyone believe.
Speaking in foreign languages got everyone’s attention but no one got saved because of it.
The “tongues” made the crowds aware of this small band of believers which they otherwise would have ignored. Once their attention was focused on the believers, Peter preached the Gospel. It was only then that people believed or not.
Their only response to the tongues was, “what in the world is going on?”
In that situation tongues was nothing more than an alarm – a sign – that something was changing. The change, of course, was the message of Jesus.
- Tongues being used as a sign of judgment was not a new concept for the Jewish people.
Isaiah’s prophecy alone would have caused any sincere Jewish person to think long and seriously about the claims of Christ. This prophecy of a “judgment of languages” had made foreign languages a sore spot for all Jews.
Foreign languages for us today are an inconvenience, for the Jews is was an offense.
This wasn’t the first time in history God had passed judgment using languages. At the Tower of Babel God had judged the nations by confounding their language and the average Jew would have been very familiar with this historical fact.
Who were the unbelievers?
Of the two classes of Jews in Jerusalem both could be said to be unbelievers.
The locals were obviously the more obstinate of the two. They had heard the message of Christ, most had probably seen Him. This was God’s gracious way of giving these people a last chance opportunity to wake up. Those humbled by this rebuke became believers.
The outsiders, of course, had not heard or seen Christ but this was God’s way of giving them the opportunity to acknowledge and receive Christ as Savior. Even they would have recognized the significance of a “sign.”
Apart from a call to personal faith this also signaled the end of one era (Old Testament) and the beginning of another (New).
WHAT DID THEY NOT BELIEVE?
- They had not believed the prophecies of Isaiah.
There were countless prophecies of Christ’s coming. A few of the more compelling are found in Isaiah. It is also interesting that the prophecy mentioning a sign rebuke is also mentioned in this book:
- Born of a virgin, Isaiah 7:14.
- His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Isaiah 9:6.
- He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him and with His stripes we are healed, Isaiah 53:5.
There are many more to go along with these.
- They had not believed the prophecies of Daniel.
If they had they would have prepared for Christ’s coming.
The wise men – probably influenced by Daniel’s prophecies – recognized the timing of Christ’s first coming and brought gifts when He was born. Their discernment reflects badly on the Jews.
- They had not believed the very person of Christ.
Christ’s ministry was supported by enormous amounts of evidence. The number of miracles He performed, the wisdom He spoke and the grace He demonstrated marked Him as unquestionably the Messiah for whom Israel waited. They had rejected all of this evidence and tongues was God’s gracious attempt to help them see the light. Unfortunately, they were too preoccupied with religious ceremony and politics.
ACTS 2 COMPARED TO CORINTH
The experience in Acts 2 differs completely from the situation Paul was addressing in I Corinthians 14. The people in the Corinthian church represented many different national backgrounds and languages. Corinth had been destroyed in 146 B.C. and rebuilt again by Rome in 46 B.C.
How do you think Rome repopulated the city of Corinth?
It is a fact that the Roman economy was mainly based on slave labor. Slavery may have accounted for one third the population in Rome and professions such as doctors or educators were commonly filled by slaves. Most of these slaves came initially from the wars in which Rome was the conqueror. The slaves represented a broad background of nationalities and many would have been employed to repopulate the city of Corinth. Being willing to relocate to a city such as Corinth was one way a slave could obtain their freedom.
Therefore, many of the people whom Rome used to repopulate the city were from all parts of the Roman Empire. Because of the varied backgrounds represented by these people it is quite possible that there was no common language spoken in the church services.
Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible says, “The population of such a colony as Corinth would consist:
- (1) Of the descendants of the Roman colony…
- (2) Of many resident Romans…
- (3) Of a large Greek population…
- (4) Of many other resident strangers of various nationalities, attracted to Corinth for various reasons…
Rome itself represented a quite varied mix of nationalities. The New Bible Dictionary says, “the vast flow of slaves into Italy, especially during the last two centuries before Christ, had the effect of internationalizing the Roman republic…”
Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians was an effort to address a multi-lingual situation.
On the one hand, he was explaining how they could conduct a church service decently and effectively in spite of there being so many languages represented.
But, at the same time he was also trying to explain the significance of languages when used as a sign and why the Corinthian experience was not the same.
- In Acts 2, God was addressing the problem of unbelief. In Corinth, Paul was addressing a communication problem.
- In Acts 2 there was communication. In Corinth there was no communication.
- Languages miraculously used as a sign did not need an interpreter (Acts 2). Foreign languages employed as a medium of speech in a normal church service did (1 Cor. 14).
- Languages used miraculously as a sign were spoken simultaneously and created the desired effect, a sign or alarm – got everyone’s attention. Languages spoken in a church service to convey the meaning and truth of Scripture needed to be done decently and in order, i.e., one at a time so everyone could hear, understand and benefit from the information provided. That would not happen if they had all spoken at once.
On the Day of Pentecost, tongues were employed as a sign or alarm. Once the sign was delivered the message (Gospel) was communicated by one person, Peter, using the common the language.
Tongues were used here to deal with a particular kind of unbelief, the kind which is due to neglect or stubbornness. This is an informed unbelief. They had heard but were resisting truth. The rebuke helped to wake them up.
If this was the only instance on which tongues were spoken you might not be convinced. The other occasions demonstrate the pattern even more clearly.