When Jesus told the disciples that they would be baptized with fire in just a few days, they changed the subject and asked Him about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. But I can’t get past the statement “baptized with fire.” What does that look like? Is that going to hurt? In Acts 2, we find out what Jesus meant.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
There are two major questions to consider when looking at these verses.
- What did this look like?
- What does it mean to speak in tongues?
As far as question 1 goes, nobody knows. All we know is that it is an event that only happened once in human history, and it had to be an amazing sight!
Given the multitude of Christian denominations and opinions in the world today, question 2 is a very heated topic. While the popular opinion in some denominations is a nonsense language that supposedly shows the influence of the Holy Spirit, scripture does not support this notion. First of all, the Holy Spirit always gives wisdom and understanding when He is mentioned in the Bible. The only times that incoherent sounds and actions are found in the Bible thy are NEVER attributed to the HOLY Spirit.
The fact is the word “tongues” means “language.” And languages convey meaning.
And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilæans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judæa, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
The context in Acts tells us something very specific that we need to understand. This was not gibberish. The Apostles spoke, and people understood them. It is not certain if this means that each man could speak multiple languages as needed or if they spoke and the hearers heard it in their own tongue (language). Either way, thoughts were being expressed in a comprehensible way.
There were outsiders that heard what was happening and thought the disciples were drunk. This does not necessitate that they were speaking in a gibberish way that only special Christians can understand. If I saw a good friend of mine suddenly speaking a language I had never heard, then I would think something was wrong too!
1st Corinthians 14 deals with this subject very well. The key to this gift is understanding. If there is no one to interpret, then the foreign language is of no benefit to the church.
The gift of speaking foreign languages, as well as the other gifts such as miraculous healing, were sign gifts that were promised in Joel and elsewhere. These signs were given to confirm that the message being preached was actually from God. We do not need the gifts anymore. We have the same message and that message was attended with the evidentiary gifts already.
The New Testament even tells us that these gifts did not continue in perpetuity:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
1st Corinthians 13:8
The gift of tongues ceased during the time of the Apostles along with the gift of miraculous healing and other sign gifts. This is evidenced by the fact that Paul does not heal everyone he comes in contact with. In fact, Paul says he left Trophimus sick at Miletum and tells Timothy to have a little wine for his stomach problems.