The Greek texts actually call it ‘languages.’ What should we call it today?
I have been walking with Jesus since the Jesus Movement in the 1970s and have observed many things from then to now. I’ve lived my faith in the Renewal Movement, broadly defined.
The translation is mine (with a little help from F. F. Bruce’s The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, Eerdmann’s, 1990).
How is the word ‘tongues’ used in two major passages in the most key chapter of all in the book of Acts and the history of the church?
Let’s begin with the wonderful event described in Acts 2:1-4, which launched all Renewal Movements throughout Church history: Acts 2:1-4.
1 And when the Feast of Pentecost had fully come, all of them were together in that place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there was a sound like the rush of an extra-strong wind. The whole house was filled where they were sitting, 3 and tongues [glōssa] as fire were seen by them, were distributed among them, and settled on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other languages [glōssa], as the Spirit gave them inspiration to speak and declare. (Acts 2:1-4, my tentative translation)
Luke uses hesitant language: “like,” “as.” The real sound and the real tongues as fire (not “tongues as of fire”) were still representative of divine, heavenly reality, much like the dove that descended on Jesus at his baptism was a real dove representing heavenly reality (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). I believe the fire looked like tongues. What else did the disciples see? A physical tongue settling on them? Not likely. It was fiery tongues, appropriate, since they are about to receive the gift of Spirit-inspired language (archaically called “tongues”).
In v. 3, the Spirit settled “on” or “upon” them. The Greek preposition is epi, which has the basic meaning of “upon.”
But on v. 4, the Spirit did not just settle on them, but filled them. He baptized them. John the Baptist’s water baptism was immersion. He could have been called John the Dipper. The Spirit immersed spirit and soul, and even their bodies (Rom 8:11), just as water immersed John’s candidates. The body too, since the Spirit inspiring them to speak affected (but not forced) the physical tongue.
In Greek glōssa means both the physical tongue and a language. In French even today langue means both “tongue” and “language,” so v. 4 is translated as “parler en langues” (“speak in languages / tongues”). In Elizabethan English, which influenced the translation of the King James Version (King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603), tongue could mean both the physical tongue and language. In the early seventeenth century and later, the tongue and language could be synonyms. Note the line in the 1739 hymn, “O for a thousand tongues!” No doubt today it would have been written as “O for a thousand languages!” (if the syllables matched the notes). Today, however, we don’t say, “This is the German tongue,” but “this is the German language.” The New Century Version, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation, and the Message Bible all correctly use languages in v. 4. The editors of the Spirit-Filled Life Bible (3rd ed., Thomas Nelson, 2018) in their notes calls the God-given gift “spiritual languages.”
The reason for my expanded translation “Spirit-inspired languages” is found in the Greek verb in vv. 4 and 14: apophtheggomai, used only three times in the NT, twice in chapter 2 and once Acts 26:25. It can mean in certain contexts to speak out and declare under inspiration (BDAG, p. 125). Even the great conservative scholar F. F. Bruce says the term means “a weighty and oracular utterance” and references 1 Chron. 25:1 in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the third to second century, BC, and pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent). It is impossible to imagine a more powerful “weighty and oracular utterance” that the Holy Spirit himself inspiring the 120 in Acts 2:1-13.
So whenever glōssa is used in the context of the gift and empowerment of the Spirit, I mostly translate it “Spirit-inspired languages” or “spiritual languages” or “prayer languages,” but sometimes as “tongues,” in my commentary on the Four Gospels and Acts (God willing). Nowadays the word tongues has acquired a certain whiff or strong smell of contempt and condescension and irrationality from its detractors. Therefore, it would be great if those who have the God-given and wonderful gift of glossolalia (“language talking”) would stop using the word tongues, but instead called it a term that reflects the Greek text more accurately, in order to help the critics to understand the experience better.
Spirit-inspired languages or spiritual languages or prayer languages: yes.
But I see no change in vocabulary anytime soon, unfortunately.
Let’s move to the final passage.
5 There were staying in Jerusalem devout Jews, men and women from every nation under heaven. 6 When this sound happened, the crowd came together and were amazed because each one heard them speaking in their own language [dialektos]. 7 They were beside themselves with amazement and marveled, saying, “Look! Aren’t all of them Galileans who are speaking? 8 So how do we each hear them in our own language [dialektos], to which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites; and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the regions of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking with our own languages [glōssa] the great things of God!” 12 They were beside themselves with amazement and were greatly perplexed, talking to each other, saying, “What does this mean?” 13 Others mocked and were saying, “They are drunk on sweet wine!” (Acts 2:5-13, my tentative translation)
Glōssa and dialektos are synonyms: language (BDAG p. 211), which is understandable by someone, even if not by the speakers. They are not ecstatic gibberish, as BDAG seems to imply (p. 201). And they are not “ecstatic” at all. They are Spirit-inspired and Spirit-prompted.
This whole episode was a miracle of speaking, not of hearing (contrary to what some teachers and bloggers claim). It would make no sense for the Spirit-filled disciples to speak in Greek or Aramaic, while the visiting Jews—there for Pentecost—were hearing them in the two languages that most (or all) of them already understood, but it somehow got retranslated into their own peculiar language! Too convoluted. Simply and clearly stated, Acts 2:1-4 says the disciples spoke in different languages to their own, and it says the listeners understood their own languages and marveled that the disciples could speak in them.
1 Cor. 14 lays out the guidelines for the church assembled together speaking in Spirit-inspired languages, and basically it is this. Paul, who was not there at Pentecost, says in vv. 10-13 that there are many languages in the world, and each has its own value (today we know there are over 7000 spoken languages). But if one speaks in a Spirit-inspired language that no one understands with their minds, then the speaker will sound like a foreigner, and no edification will take place in the assembly. But note that Paul does not say the language that is not understood with the mind is gibberish. Just because someone speaks in a Spirit-inspired language that you personally do not understand does not allow you to draw the false conclusion that the speaker is babbling nonsense (contrary to the opinion of bloggers). He could be speaking in one of those 7000+ languages. God does not inspire gibberish.
Here’s a true-to-life example. Most Americans do not understand Chinese, but let’s say that a man is speaking a Spirit-inspired language that he does not understand either, but it happens to be Chinese. He is speaking in a private setting in the church, say, during ministry time after the sermon. Let’s say a Chinese man is visiting the church and hears it and asks the speaker: “Do you know Chinese?” “No,” the speaker replies. “Why do you ask?” “Because you were speaking in my Chinese dialect, about the wonderful things of God, and you told me to get my heart right with him. You were preaching the gospel to me!”
Stories like that are reported all the time and cannot be tossed aside. I heard a missionary say that a little girl from a Central American country spoke in her “tongues” in perfect unaccented English, though she did not know one word of English! But as Paul says, it is better if the speaker or someone else can give an interpretation in the assembly.
In Acts 2:5-13, the speakers did not understand the Spirit-inspired languages with their minds, but the hearers understood those languages with their minds, much like the Chinese visitor did. Likewise, 1 Cor. 14:14-15 says one can pray in a Spirit-inspired language, and his spirit prays, but his mind receives no fruit from it because the mind does not understand the Spirit-inspired language. But the speaker’s spirit is edified. Nonetheless, Paul encourages the Corinthian believers to pray in Spirit-inspired languages through their human spirits, and to pray with their minds in known languages that their minds understand.
So whenever glōssa is used in the context of the gift and empowerment of the Spirit, it means “Spirit-inspired language” or “spiritual language” or “prayer language,” not the archaic “tongue.”
But I see no change anytime soon, unfortunately.
So how does this teaching draw you closer to Jesus?
The Spirit launches you out. Picture it this way.
Imagine that you are in a big international airport. You have two ways to get to your next flight. You can take the conveyer belt or walk next to it. You sensibly choose the conveyer belt, and you even walk on it while it is moving forward. The belt and motor driving it forward empowers, carries, and propels you forward. This is like Spirit baptism-immersion and Spirit-inspired language, not the same thing, though often connected. Others who choose to walk without the conveyer belt are moving forward, because they have been born again, but you enjoy faster progress because you have been baptized-immersed with power in the Spirit.
If you got your prayer language, use it! You will be propelled forward in your walk with God and service! If a sin or habit keeps holding on, then regularly using your Spirit-inspired language will make it wither away because your spirit is built up and your Spirit-inspired prayers work its way to your flesh and evaporates besetting sins.