Select Page

Tongues–a Transition Issue in Acts

Dr. Grant C Richison


The book of Acts is a transition book that bridges between Old Testament/Gospels doctrine and the doctrine of the church. The economy of Israel concluded with the launching of the church in Acts 2.

The primary purpose of tongues was an evidential ratification of the shift from the Old Testament economy to the New Testament economy. This was especially true during the opening days of the church era. Miracles provided evidence for the launching of a new movement away from Israel and to the church (He 2:3-4). God uses signs such as tongues to accredit the apostles of New Testament and their message about the church.

The purpose of tongues is stated clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. It was to prove to Jews that God had changed His dealings with Israel as a nation to a new group of believers called the church. See my studies around this passage here: The quotation in the previous verse from Isaiah 28:11 was to show that speaking in the Assyrian language to the Jews was a “sign” of judgment against Israel. It was a “sign” (semeion) to unbelieving Jews.

The four accounts in Acts that introduce the Holy Spirit to the church involve four different classes of people. The transition in these groups were never intended to become a permanent pattern for the church. Acts dealt with temporary transitions from the Old Testament to the New. The book of Acts furnishes an historical record of the early life of the church.

Tongues on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 1,2

Jews came from all over the world on the day of Pentecost (Ac 2:4-14). It is important to remember that the events at Pentecost in Acts 1 and 2 was an age-inaugurating event. It was the event of the permanent deposit of the Holy Spirit to a group of people who became the church. The Holy Spirit took up permanent residence in the church at that time. This was a transition from the economy of Israel to the church. It was a once-for-all inaugural situation giving evidence that a new economy whereby both Jews and Gentiles would be incorporated into the same entity, the church.

Reception of the Spirit in Samaria, Acts 8 (no tongues)

The church received the Holy Spirit permanently and initially at Pentecost. At Samaria the situation was different. The permanent gift of the Spirit was given through apostles to them. This was a gift to the half-Jew, half-Gentile Samaritans. This an initiation for people who were not aware of the Pentecost event. The Samaritans were now admitted into all the blessings of the Spirit resident in the church since Pentecost. This included regeneration, baptism, indwelling, sealing and the privilege to be filled with the Spirit. This was not something in addition to Pentecost but the dispensing of the privilege of the new economy of grace to them having not been aware of it until this point.

Philip’s revival in Samaria was not to show that the Samaritans were already inducted into the new age of the church. The point is despite believing Philip’s preaching “concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” and their baptism in water “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” they had not yet been admitted into the new economy of the church and its privileges (Ac 8:12, 16). Luke emphasizes this idea by showing that the Jerusalem church dispatched Peter and John to Samaria to lay hands on the Samaritans that they might “receive the Holy Spirit” (Ac 8:14-16), that is, that they might be admitted into the new economy of grace or the church. Pure Jews were admitted at Pentecost; now half-Jew Samaritan believers are admitted.

To emphasize the uniqueness of this situation, Luke indicated that the Samaritans had believed and had been baptized with water in Christian baptism, Ac 8:16 “For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Note that the word “only” (monon] indicates that they had not entered yet into the new economy. They needed to be initiated as a group into the new age. At this point they were baptized into the body of Christ (1 Co 12:13).

The purpose of this event was to show full-blooded Jews from Jerusalem that believing Samaritans were accepted into this new economy (Acts 11 will show that pure Gentiles are also accepted into this economy). The reception of the Spirit to others than Jews showed them that God is now dealing with an economy that includes both believing Jews and Gentiles. The coming of the apostles Peter and John was important to show authority and unity in the church. It was vital that the Samaritan church not act independently from Jews in the church.

Tongues at Caesarea, Acts 10:1-11:18

Tongues at Caesarea witnessed that the new age of the church had been fully introduced with the admission of Gentiles into the new economy. The intention of these events was inaugural and introductory, not permanent. We do not make a wedding ceremonial repeatable many times over.

Baptism of the Spirit is not found in Acts 10; thus, tongues never were an evidence of being baptized by the Spirit. Baptism of the Spirit happens at conversion.

The reception of the Spirit was revealed progressively in the New Testament. The next step was to show Jews that pure Gentiles were inaugurated into God’s economy of the church (Ac 10:1-48; 11:13-18). The events with Cornelius in Acts 10 marked the permanent giving of the Holy Spirit to pure Gentiles. The initial reception of the Holy Spirit is given in each episode in Acts 2, 8 and 10. Each instance initially admitted a specific racial group into the church age (Ac 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17). Each episode refers to the initial bestowment of the gift [dorean, free gift] Spirit to a particular group. The New Testament confines the phrase “gift of the Spirit” to the inaugural event of the reception of the Spirit. Once the gift of the Spirit was dispensed to the three groups, the Holy Spirit was no longer bestowed as a gift given to people initially entering into the status of the church.

The purpose of tongues in Acts 10 was to show Peter and his Jewish friends that God was in the business of saving Gentiles. They needed something striking to change their long-held belief that Israel was God’s chosen people.

The supernatural sign of tongues in Acts 10:45-46 was evidence to the Jews that the gift of the Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles in the same way as on the day of Pentecost (Ac 2:4-12).

45 And those of the circumcision [Jews] who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles [non-Jews] also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.

Peter and his Jewish friends were immediately persuaded that God granted the Gentiles equal status with the Jews. Thus, tongues at Caesarea were a sign to the Jews that the gift of the Spirit poured out on Gentiles was evidence of this new status.

Every occurrence of tongues in Acts is a sign (Ac 2:4-5; 10:46; 19:6). The sign was for Jews only, never for Gentiles. The change from God blessing the nation Israel to an entirely different entity was so earth-shattering to Jews that they needed incontrovertible proof that God was doing this, hence the different occasions of tongues. The Jews require a sign (1 Co 1:22). The sign of tongues speaking, or speaking in foreign languages without studying for them, was God’s indication that this mighty change had taken place. It showed them that both Samaritans and pure Gentiles were as much part of the church as Jews were.

Peter and his Jewish colleagues were so thoroughly impressed that God had changed His economy in dealing with Israel that they went back to Jerusalem to tell the existing church there what had happened. The clear evidence was when they heard them speak in tongues. In both Acts 2 and 10 the sign was to the Jews.

17 If therefore God gave them [Gentiles] the same gift as He gave us [Jews] when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

God assured Peter and the Jews who accompanied him to Caesarea by divine intervention that a new age had begun. This was “the like gift” equal to the gift of the Jews (Ac 11:17). Peter could then report to the Jews at Jerusalem that “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

The sign of tongues was not connected to either the baptism of the Spirit or the filling of the Spirit either at Pentecost or Caesarea but to the giving of the Spirit. To force a condition to a free gift (doran) is a mistake.

Tongues at Ephesus, Acts 19:1-7

The situation at Ephesus was the case of Jews and Jewish proselytes who knew nothing of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. The twelve disciples of John the Baptist and Apollos represented the Jewish ethnic group to whom the Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost. These men had not known about Pentecost (Acts 18:24-19:7). They were not believers of the new economy of grace or the church. They knew the Old Testament well (Acts 18:24-26). They only knew the preparatory baptism of John the Baptist who anticipated the coming of the Messiah. They were genuine believers but still living under the economy of the Old Testament.

The case with the Ephesians was different from those on the day of Pentecost, or the Samaritans or the Gentles at Caesarea. These people had not “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). They were converted Jews to John the Baptist’s message prior to the coming of the Messiah. They were Jewish proselytes that had no knowledge of the coming of the Spirit. Their theology was pre-Pentecost.

The sign of tongues among the disciples of John demonstrated to these Jewish background individuals that their fidelity to the Old Testament concept that Jews, and a few Gentiles, was in God’s program no longer.


Tongues in the books of Acts were a sign in every instance (Ac 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). They were a sign to the Jews only, never to Gentiles. Tongues in Acts were a sign to Jews collectively. Tongues were always signs to Jews as members of their racial group. All speaking in tongues in Acts relate to corporate, church-founding events. Tongues were unsought, unexpected and undemanded; it was an initiative by God that He had changed His economy.

Thus, tongues speaking was a known language for confirming the authenticity of the message the new age of the church to the Jews. Tongues were outward evidence to the Jews in Acts 2, 10 and 19 that the Gentiles had received the Spirit inaugurating them into the church. In Acts 19 Paul discovered twelve Jewish disciples who had not yet heard of the launching of the church. They had not “received the Holy Spirit” (verse 2). They needed a baptism that was associated with God’s new program, a program that shifts from the nation Israel to the church.

In the case of Acts 19 it was the Jewish disciples of John (Old Testament believes) who spoke in tongues. They had believed John the Baptist’s message that the Messiah was coming but they did not know that He had come. They were only baptized with John’s baptism (19:3-4). Later they were baptized in the name of Christ (19:5). Speaking in tongues was evidence of a change in economy to them.