May 20, 2018
Speaking in Tongues
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The most important event in the history of the nation of Israel was the Passover that led to their Exodus out of Egypt. Fifty days after the Passover God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This is why Israel celebrated Pentecost fifty days after their celebration of Passover. When God gave the Law to Moses fifty days after setting Israel free Mt. Sinai was smoking with fire.
On the first Pentecost after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, Jews from all over the Roman Empire gathered in Jerusalem to observe the festival. Fire appeared again. It was not the fire of the Law that God gave through Moses. It was the fire of the gospel preached by Jesus Christ. Fire appeared above the heads of Christ’s apostles as they preached the gospel of Christ in languages from all over the world, languages that none of the apostles had learned or known.
Fifty days after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, fifty days after Jesus our Passover Lamb was sacrificed for us, Christ preached his gospel through the mouths of his apostles. They spoke in languages they had never learned. These weren’t “prayer languages” or ecstatic gibberish or verbal explosions of religious enthusiasm. The apostles preached Christ’s gospel in real languages that were spoken and understood in countries all over the Roman Empire.
After the Great Flood that destroyed the world after the preaching of Noah, God told the people to disperse throughout the world. They refused. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They were devoted to the religion of humanism. Their god was humanity. They trusted in themselves. They thought that by sticking together, relying on each other, and cooperating with each other, they could work their way right on up to Godhood. They would, in effect, become God. The Tower of Babel was a monument celebrating the false religion of salvation by human works.
God responded to their boastful religion by confusing their languages. They couldn’t understand each other anymore. With communication impossible, they could not finish what they had set out to do. The First Commandment forbids idolatry. To trust in your own strength, your own intelligence, your own knowledge, or your own wisdom is to construct within yourself an idol. Idolatry damns.
Only God can lift us up out of idolatry. He does so by speaking to us. The work that Jesus did when he became our Passover Lamb was vicarious. He acted as our substitute. He did – all by himself – the work we needed done. He obeyed. He suffered. He fulfilled both the demands and the promise of the law. He was both the obedient Son and the suffering Servant. Nothing more needs to be done to rescue us sinners from our sin, to deliver us from death, and to save us from hell than what Jesus did when he became our Passover.
But that we may personally receive the benefits of Christ’s Passover, we need the Holy Spirit that Jesus poured out on his church on Pentecost, fifty days later. Pentecost undoes the confusion of Babel. When we seek God on our own we are left lost. St. Paul wrote, “Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7) When the Spirit of truth comes and reveals to you the saving truth of the Christian religion, he enlightens you. Homemade faith is confusion and delusion ending in despair. The true faith, the faith produced by the Holy Spirit, is the saving faith that receives what Christ alone can give.
This is what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit:
The Holy Spirit teaches. He teaches peace. He teaches the peace of Jesus. This is not the peace of the law. The peace of the law depends on you. It depends on your obedience. You must obey the law to find the peace with God that the law promises. You must love God with your whole heart and you must love your neighbor as yourself. But you don’t. No one who depends on the law as the road to God will ever find true peace. The peace of Jesus is not the peace of the law.
It is not the peace of an ecstatic religious experience. The apostles spoke in real, cognitive languages on Pentecost. There is no hint here of a special prayer language or a super-charged angelic language that brings some sort of emotional high. The Jews who were present to celebrate Pentecost heard the gospel spoken to them in the languages of their home towns. They could have preached in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. The Jews would have understood. There was no practical need for the apostles to speak the gospel in other tongues. There was, however, a powerful symbolic purpose in it. By giving the apostles the supernatural ability to speak in languages they had never learned – languages from all over the Roman Empire – the Holy Spirit made it plain that the gospel was for all people. By speaking God’s word in the language closest to their hearts the Holy Spirit was telling them that the gospel is not a strange message – not when you are filled with the Holy Spirit.
When you do not have the Holy Spirit the gospel is strange indeed. God gives forgiveness of sins and eternal life to undeserving sinners freely for Christ’s sake. They cannot do anything to get it. God gives it. That is strange. A man suffers and dies in agony on a cross and rises three days later. That this is the “wonderful works of God” makes sense only to those who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Others think that the gospel is like the mutterings of drunken fools. Nonsense! So they say. It makes no sense. Only the Holy Spirit can make sense of it for you. He shows you in his Word how Christ’s death on the cross has made peace between God and us and how Christ’s resurrection proves our sins are forgiven.
The Bible repeatedly teaches us that God works faith in our hearts through his Word. Through Isaiah, God compares the Word that goes out from his mouth to the rain and the snow that cause the grain to grow. St. Peter writes that the gospel preached to us is that incorruptible seed by which we are born again. St. Paul writes that faith comes by hearing the Word that is preached.
St. Peter preached on Pentecost and as a result of his preaching three thousand people were born from above. Who did it? Who gives the Word its power? The Holy Spirit does. He is the Lord and giver of life.
We need the Holy Spirit. We don’t need the signs and wonders with which he adorned the preaching of the apostles. That was then and this is now. Some things do change. Before the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament at the hands of the apostles, he validated their word by many wonderful miracles. As the New Testament came to its completion, the miraculous signs gradually disappeared. We don’t need the gift of speaking in tongues. We don’t need special revelations. But we do need the Holy Spirit. We need the preaching of his Word. We need the Lord and giver of life. And here he is. The Church is his greatest creation.
For the past hundred years or so, the church has been plagued by a religious movement that distracts Christians from the gospel of Christ. It promises a baptism in the Holy Spirit, quite separate from the baptism that Jesus instituted for the forgiveness of sins. In fact, it denigrates Christian baptism as merely symbolic and promises a Spirit baptism that will fill you with supernatural power to avoid sin and live a victorious Christian life. The so called evidence of this baptism in the Holy Spirit is the ability to speak in tongues. This movement is known as Pentecostalism. There are denominations that are openly Pentecostal such as the Assemblies of God. Pentecostalism has also penetrated mainstream churches. It is sometimes called the Charismatic Movement. Pentecostals or Charismatics claim that God still gives the gifts that he gave to the apostles on Pentecost. They claim that they have these gifts and they point to passages in the New Testament, mostly in 1 Corinthians, to prove their point.
But the Bible does not prove their point. The gifts of tongues, revelations, prophesy and other gifts God gave to the early church died out by the time the apostles died. This should not surprise us, since these gifts were given to authenticate the teaching of the apostles. St. Paul wrote of this in 2 Corinthians 12:12,
It is no coincidence that with the claim to speaking in tongues, Charismatics also claim that God speaks to them directly from heaven. Famous Pentecostals like Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn claim that God speaks directly to them. They pawn off their own notions as divine teaching, leading the faithful to rely on their own experiences rather than on the objective Word of God written down in the apostolic Scriptures.
Proof that the modern Pentecostal Movement is not from the Holy Spirit is that they uniformly deny that God gives us salvation in the holy sacraments. They turn baptism into a mere symbolic washing providing no forgiveness of sins. They turn the Lord’s Supper into a mere memorial of Jesus that is not his true body and blood and that does not give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
The Pentecostal Movement reminds one of a one year old opening up his Christmas present. He is so enamored with the packaging that he pays little attention to the gift inside. The spectacular gift of speaking in tongues on Pentecost is the packaging. The gift, the permanent gift that remains with the church throughout all the ages until the end of time, is the gospel.
The Holy Spirit is powerful to save. He saves, not by impressing us with signs, but by imparting to us the obedience, blood, and righteousness of Jesus. He gives us Jesus the Savior. This is how he saves us. The Holy Spirit impresses upon our hearts these words of Jesus:
Come to church. The church is the Holy Spirit’s creation. She has the forgiveness of sins. She is the ark of salvation, the body of Christ, the temple of the living God, the very kingdom of heaven on earth. She has the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit directs us to Christ.
Christ alone is our salvation
Christ, the Rock on which we stand.
Other than this sure foundation
Will be found but sinking sand.
Christ, his cross and resurrection
Is alone the sinner’s plea
At the throne of God’s perfection
Nothing else can set him free.
Rolf D. Preus