Tongues: Speaking or Hearing?

On the day of Pentecost, when the disciples assembled together and the Holy Spirit descended, the believers began to speak in tongues, and others heard the wonderful works of God in their own language. Did the apostles miraculously speak other languages, or did the listeners simply hear the works of God in their own language? In other words, was the miracle of tongues the speaking or the hearing?

A basic rule of interpretation is to allow the biblical text to say what it says, not to impose our own understanding on it. Therefore, the following five observations are in order: 

(1)     Acts 2:4 says the disciples began “to speak with other tongues.” This indicates the disciples themselves spoke languages different from their native language. The text does not say that the message was spoken in the disciples’ native language and somehow miraculously changed into another language so that the people who did not speak the disciples’ native languages would hear and understand what they were saying in the hearer’s own native language. 

(2)     The phrase “as the Spirit gave them utterance” also indicates that it was a spoken message, not merely something the hearers perceived. The word utterance emphasizes “oral communication,” focusing on the “sound” being made, and it carries the idea of urgency of the matter being expressed. This term fits well with the actual message they would have been communicating—“the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). This same word is translated in verse 14 as “said,” also indicating that it was spoken communication of a very important message, namely Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Thus, the disciples spoke in other languages—languages that they had not previously known or used—to communicate what great things God had done in and through Jesus Christ. The results of this miracle of speaking in tongues ranged from amazement and doubting (v. 12) to mockery and accusation (v. 13). Therefore, the question arises: “Why accuse the disciples of drunkenness if the miracle was merely hearing?” Clearly, it was something different about the disciples themselves that caused these reactions. Something about the disciples made the people from these various groups take note. Specifically, the disciples were speaking in foreign languages that, under normal circumstances, they were not able to speak. This strongly argues that the miracle in Acts 2:4 was one of vocal communication

(3)     The ability to communicate to the people who understood and spoke the various languages was given by the Spirit to the disciples (Acts 2:4), not the people to whom the disciples were communicating. In other words, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the ability to proclaim divine revelation were given to the disciples, not to the unsaved people who needed to hear the truth. The miracle emanated by the Spirit through the disciples, not upon the hearers. 

(4)     In Acts 10:46, the miracle recorded here was that even certain Gentiles (v. 45) were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to “speak with tongues” (v. 46). The evidence  of this miracle was that the Jews with whom Peter had been conversing (v. 45) “heard” the languages being spoken. Again, the communication was intelligent, rational language being spoken. These Gentiles were glorifying God, and that is what the Jews heard and understood. 

(5)     The final case of tongues in the book of Acts confirms the misinterpretation of those who believe the miracle was merely the “hearing” of one language into the different languages of the hearers. In Acts 19:6, twelve disciples of John the Baptist received the Holy Spirit, “and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.” Note that the text says nothing about people “hearing” or even another specific group of people being present at that specific time and location. The miracle at this event was the speaking in tongues, which was given by the Holy Spirit.

This is an important issue because many within the modern-day Pentecostal and charismatic movements claim that the disciples spoke in unintelligible gibberish (what they define as “tongues”) and that the actual miracle entailed the listeners hearing the works of God declared in their own native tongue. This is not the clear meaning of the text, and God’s people must beware of allowing God’s Word to be twisted in order to “support” a teaching that is contrary to Scripture. — Pastor Gary Freel