If you have never taken the time to really read through Acts 2, I highly recommend you do so. It tells the story of particularly memorable celebration of the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The Jewish feast of Pentecost was primarily a feast of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest which, over time, also became associated with the remembrance of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shauvot, it is one of three solemn feasts that, historically, all Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to attend. In the Jewish faith, it would be celebrate exactly 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits when the first fruits of the barley harvest were remembered.
Acts 2 tells the story of how Pentecost came to mean something different for Christians. It tells about an unforgettable encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a day which jump starts the ministry of the apostles. As Rachel Platten says in her hit Fight Song, “I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion,” the events chronicled in Acts 2 tell of just one days which causes the Gospel of Jesus to explode onto the world stage. And what was the key to making this day so significant? The gift of speaking in tongues.
The gift of speaking in tongues, and its sister gift of interpretation of tongues, is an interesting gift. They are both gifts which our Lutheran tradition teaches are still alive and active in the Church today. You will most likely find them celebrated in Charismatic or Pentecostal churches which regularly embrace both gifts as part of their worship services. And they are both gifts concerning which there is a wide variety of beliefs and practices throughout the Church today which can, at times, make them confusing to research and understand.
While I don’t often specifically emphasize Lutheran teachings and theology on this blog, this week, because of the wide variety of beliefs and practices surrounding these gifts, I feel it would be wise. In general, the charismatic gifts are neither emphasized nor denied in Lutheran teaching. They are clearly acknowledged as gifts from the Holy Spirit given to the apostles and used in the early church. While Lutheran teaching would not deny these gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy, could be present in the Church today, it emphasizes the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life and the primary role of any and all spiritual gifts to build up the Body of Christ.
It is not uncommon for churches which celebrate the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of speaking in tongues, to emphasize them to such a point that they become evidence of one’s salvation and faith. This goes against scripture. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is clear to state that not everyone has every gift or even multiple gifts. However, again and again, scripture is clear that salvation is for all who believe and have faith (see Ephesians 2:8, Romans 5:8, John 3:16, John 6:47, 1 John 5:11-13). Lutheran teaching is clear to state that speaking in tongues, or having a “private prayer language,” is not evidence of salvation nor is it an assurance of salvation. Salvation is about faith, not gifts.
So, with that being said, what exactly is the gift of speaking in tongues? And how is it related to the gift of interpretation of tongues? Let’s step back into the events of Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, they each find themselves able to speak in a real, legitimate, foreign language which they had not heard or studied prior to that moment. They were able to speak the language clearly and fluently so that those who were familiar with the language could understand them. This gift works in a very similar way still today. Generally, I hear stories of missionaries able to suddenly speak the language of a remote tribe in an attempt to share the Gospel with them but I have seen it happen in the midst of a prayer meeting in the suburbs of Minneapolis as well. In that instance, one person began speaking in a language they didn’t know only to have an foreign exchange student from Asia thank them for speaking in their native language so they could more fully understand and participate in the prayer meeting.
The gift of interpretation of tongues is similar to speaking but finds one able to understand a language they have not previously heard or studied. Someone with this gift is able to translate a message spoken in tongues into a language more common to the audience to whom it is being spoken. It starts with the ability, as Peter demonstrated in Acts 2:14-15, to distinguish between gibberish nonsense and a real, actual spoken language.
For both of these gifts, it is important to note that they only experience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just because someone has studied and is fluent in many languages, or seems to have a knack for being able to quickly learn different languages, doesn’t mean they have either of these gifts. These gifts refer to times when the person speaking or interpreting has no prior knowledge of the language with which they are interacting.
Additionally, as with all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit we have been talking about, their primary purpose is to build up the body of Christ. These gifts are not given to make you appear more spiritual or to allow you to brag that your faith is stronger. They are not given for you to keep to yourself. When the gift of tongues first appears in Acts 2, people from around the world were gathered in Jerusalem. When the apostles began speaking in tongues, it was so all those who were gathered would be able to hear about Jesus and how he defeated death, paying the price one and for all for their sins. As a result of being gifted with the ability to speak in other languages, the Good News of Jesus began to spread throughout the entire world.
A great way to know if a church you are part of is striving to honor the purpose of these gifts is to observe how they are used in a group worship setting. If someone speaks in tongues is there any attempt made to seek an interpretation and then to share that interpretation in a way in which most everyone present can access it? Does what that interpreted message build up the body of Christ either locally or globally? Does the message line up with what is in Scripture? Yes, these gifts can be weird to witness and experience but they can also be a powerful testament to unstoppable nature of the Gospel.
- Read through Acts 2. What parts stand out to you that you haven’t noticed before?
- Talk to someone who has studied a language significantly different than your native language. What were some of the hardest things about learning to read, write, and speak a different language for them? What doors did learning a new language open for them in sharing about Jesus?
- Step into the world of someone who doesn’t speak the common language. Listen to a television station being broadcast in a different language without subtitles. Visit a church or neighborhood where your native language isn’t spoken. Pay attention to what you wished you could understand and what you wish you could contribute to the situation. Take a moment to appreciate the power of a shared language when trying to communicate even the most basic things…and then ponder how much easier it is to share your faith when you speak the same language as the person you are sharing with.
Sources - Check out the links below to view a couple of the sources I found helpful when researching for this post.