Speaking in tongues in most African churches has become the norm. It is expected that if you go to church, you will hear tongues. In fact tongues are one of the markers differentiating Bazalwana (Pentecostal and Charismatic churches) from African Traditional churches (like ZCC and the Apostolic Churches). For this reason, unbelievers no longer find it strange when they hear people shouting in tongues. For they see the practice as part of what it means to be in a Christian church. Despite our familiarity with tongues, there is much confusion around their purpose. I hope by considering the first instance of tongues that we can gain some clarity for Christians today.

A Case Study: Tongues at Pentecost

The first time the Holy Spirit brought about the gift of tongues was at Pentecost. The disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Many eye witnesses came running to the disciples and asked what it might mean. This question is still very relevant and important for us today.

Many Christians consider tongues to be a marker of more powerful faith.

It’s an important question because today, in most gatherings, tongues is understood as a sign of greater spirituality. Many Christians consider tongues to be a marker of more powerful faith or prayers. Therefore when we see someone praying or speaking in tongues we associate that with being ‘Spirit-filled’. But is that what speaking in tongues signals? Or is there more? What does it mean when the Holy Spirit manifests this particular spiritual gift in our gatherings? Peter answers these questions in his reply at Pentecost.

1. God Fulfils His Promises

The first thing Peter teaches about tongues is that they signal a fulfilment of God’s Old Testament promises. For God promised that he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28). In answering the Jewish crowds, Peter quotes an Old Testament text. He preaches, “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be,’ God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh'” (Acts 2:16-17). Therefore Pentecost was a sign that this promise has been fulfilled. On this side of that event, tongues reminds us of what God accomplished in history.

But what does this mean? According to Joel, God pours his Spirit out on all flesh regardless of:

  • Economic status (“even on my servants”)
  • Gender (“male and female”)
  • Age (“young and old”)
  • Ethnic group (“all flesh”).

The tongues at Pentecost were proof that God is faithful.

God gives three more signs, indicating the fulfilment of this promise: “prophecy, visions and dreams” (Acts 2:14-18). Therefore manifestations of the Holy Spirit through tongues, prophecies, visions and dreams, and whatever other gifts, reveals to us that God has faithfully fulfilled his promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on his people.

Spiritual Not Economic Transformation

The implications of this first point cannot be overstated. For it functions as an important corrective to how we understand the Spirit’s work and view spirituality. Because for many, especially those in the developing world, the work of the Spirit is closely tied to economic transformation. Contrasted with what we saw from Acts 2 above, manifestations of the Spirit are loaded with the promise of prosperity instead of seen for what they are: the fulfilment of God’s salvation, promised in the Old Testament. The tongues at Pentecost were proof that God is faithful in fulfilling his word.

The result of having the Holy Spirit is not that people become wealthy and healthy.

Significantly, in this passage, God does not discriminate against or differentiate people on the basis of economic status. Rather, God is pleased to give his Spirit to all people. Young and old. Poor and rich. Healthy and sick. But the result of having the Holy Spirit is not that people become wealthy and healthy. Instead God makes himself and his will known to all peoples. For he is most concerned with our relationship with him. Thus he fulfils his promises and exhorts us to faith in Christ.

2. The Spirit Preaches Christ’s Lordship

Peter then continues his teaching. He says that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit are a sign that God has made Jesus Lord and Christ (Acts 2:22-36). Thus contrary to modern perceptions regarding the Spirit’s work—where speaking in tongues is a sign of how spiritual someone is and miracles such healing or deliverance indicate powerful, impressive faith—true manifestations of the Holy Spirit will testify to the lordship of Jesus.

And their purpose among believers, as I will argue in my next article, is the edification of believers. As Paul writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Manifestations must therefore point away from the recipient to Christ, in service of others.

When we fixate on the works of the Spirit we lose sight of his mission.

The gifts of the Spirit are intended to edify other Christians and exalt Christ. Therefore humility rather than fame ought to accompany them. Furthermore, their measure is not how great the ‘man of God’ is but whether that man makes much of Christ. When we fixate on the works of the Spirit we lose sight of his purpose and mission, to make Christ known. The only appropriate response, therefore, to manifestations of the Spirit is the praise and proclamation of Christ. The Holy Spirit does not give gifts to make much of man. He does so in order to exalt Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

The Work of God or the Wares of Man?

When the Holy Spirit first used the gift of tongues he was not drawing attention to how spiritual the disciples were. He used tongues as a sign of God’s faithfulness and to signal Christ’s lordship. Why then do tongues function so differently in many churches today? Surely the disparity between Pentecost and the present should cause some reflection and reform?

When God is at work it should never result in anything other than his own glory.

Like other gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, tongues serve to edify believers and exalt Christ. When it leads to the exaltation of ‘super spiritual’ leaders or powerful men of God we have missed the Spirit’s work. Let us remember, when God is at work in our gatherings it should never result in anything other than his own glory. That is how it was in Acts 2. It should be no different today.