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Disclaimer: this is going to be a bit of a long question, so bear with me.

I've heard people claim that the purpose of the gift of tongues is to preach the gospel to foreigners in their own native languages. People who hold this view commonly cite Acts 2 as their biblical basis:

3 And tongues that looked like fire appeared to them, distributing themselves, and a tongue rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with different tongues, as the Spirit was giving them the ability to speak out.

5 Now there were Jews residing in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and they were bewildered, because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty deeds of God.” 12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were jeering and saying, “They are full of sweet wine!”

[Acts 2:3-13 NASB]

Now, without invoking Acts 10 just yet (I'll do in a second), notice that Acts 2:3-13 never mentions the words "preach" nor "gospel", nor gives the impression that they were preaching. We are only told that they were speaking "the mighty deeds of God" (V11) and that many took it as a joke and said "They are full of wine" (V13). If that's preaching, it's not a very effective one.

Rather, the real preaching began immediately after with Peter's sermon (Acts 2:14-42), when Peter raised his voice and spoke to the whole multitude, and thousands converted to Christ. The tongue speaking that happened before was just the warmup to catch people's attention.

That said, now let's jump forward to Acts 10:44-48, when Peter is in Cornelius's house preaching to him and his household:

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had also been poured out on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter responded, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

[Acts 10:44-48 NASB]

Notice that Peter is astonished because he realizes that Cornelius and his household, despite being Gentiles, just had the same miraculous experience they had had at Pentecost in Acts 2. But here is the key point: when Cornelius and his household spoke in tongues, what did they say? Were they preaching to foreigners? Was Cornelius preaching the gospel to Peter? Of course not. Rather, V46 is very clear that they were exalting God. In other words, they were praising/worshiping God in tongues, the content was directed at God, not at foreigners (they were inside a house).

Question: in light of Acts 10, where the gift of tongues was clearly used for praising/exalting God, and acknowledging that Acts 10 and Acts 2 present the exact same experience, can we conclude that Acts 2 is an instance of "praising God in tongues" rather than "preaching the gospel to foreigners in tongues"?

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  • This will not answer the question but you should also see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/45222/…
    – Dottard
    Mar 3 at 21:26
  • I think praising and exalting Christ is to preach Christ.
    – Dottard
    Mar 3 at 21:47
  • @Dottard - Yeah ... I mean, praising God out loud in front of a lot people can work to some extent as a way of preaching, but qualitatively it is not the same as a full-fledged sermon (like the Sermon on the Mount, Peter's sermon, etc.). The real impact comes from the fact that the praises are in a language that the individual shouldn't know otherwise - that's the miracle that leaves the listener in shock. Mar 3 at 22:00
  • 2
    I agree - but to what extent the disciples spoke in their own language and the listeners heard in their own language, is not stated. The gift of tongues is frustratingly vague in the NT.
    – Dottard
    Mar 3 at 22:02
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In the 2nd volume of his well acclaimed Renewal Theology (Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective): Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living (1990), J. Rodman Williams, the first theologian who wrote a complete Charismatic systematic theology, argues that the speaking in tongues described in Acts 2:3-13 is praise, not preaching.

From Chapter 9 (Phenomenon of Tongues) section IV (Content), pages 225-226 (emphasis mine):

The content of speaking in tongues, according to Acts, was the praise of God. Here we draw basically on the Jerusalem and Caesarean accounts.

When the disciples spoke in tongues at Pentecost, they were praising God. This is apparent from Acts 2:11, which records the multitude's saying, "We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works⁷¹ of God" (KJV). We are not told for what "wonderful works" the disciples praised God. It is not hard, however, to imagine that since they had so recently lived through the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, they were praising God for, among other things, having performed the great work of redemption. Also Christ had just now fulfilled the promise of the Father to pour forth the Holy Spirit.⁷² They had much to praise God for.

It is important to add that when the disciples spoke in tongues, it was not for the purpose of communicating the gospel. Peter thereafter preached the gospel to the thousands assembled (Acts 2: I4ff.). But prior to this, he and all the other disciples were praising God. The tongues therefore were not "missionary tongues" (as sometimes they have been designated),⁷³ equipping the disciples to go forth with a language given each to witness to a particular nation or people. Rather, their tongues were tongues praising God for all His wondrous deeds. Further, it is obvious from the comments of some who, "mocking, said, 'They are filled with new wine,' " that this was joyful, exuberant praise. Although this was deliberate mockery, the charge pointed to a certain rapturous joy⁷⁴ that has its counterpart in alcoholic inebriation. The point, however, was that the disciples were not filled with the wine of the grape but with the wine of the Spirit. They were praising God — exceedingly.

We may observe a parallel to this in Paul's words to the Ephesians in speaking against the drunkenness of wine and urging them instead to be filled with the Holy Spirit. "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit" (5:18). The result (as at Pentecost) will be joyful praise; for Paul continues, "addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father' " (vv. 19-20). The exuberant praise of God with all one's heart flows out of being filled with God's Spirit.

Returning to Acts, we move on again to the situation of the centurion and his friends in Caesarea who were "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (10:46). Earlier I mentioned these two activities as if they were distinct. They may have been (the conjunction "and" suggests such);⁷⁵ however, it is more likely that the Caesareans were extolling God through speaking in tongues.⁷⁶ As we have observed, this was precisely what happened in the Jerusalem Pentecost: the disciples, while speaking in tongues, were declaring God's "wonderful works," in other words, extolling God.⁷⁷ Moreover, since Peter afterward spoke of the Caesareans as "people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (v. 47), it seems altogether likely that just as on the Day of Pentecost the centurion and company through their speaking in tongues were extolling God.

The Book of Acts does not specify the content of the Caesareans' praise. However, since this was the original proclamation of the gospel to the Gentile world, it seems likely that the people in Caesarea were praising God for His great mercy in bringing them salvation. Peter, accompanied by his Jewish fellow believers, had preached the good news to the Gentile Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends. The Gentiles, who prior to this had "no hope and [were] without God in the world,"⁷⁸ had now heard the gospel, believed, and entered into salvation. Surely they had much to praise God for — a praise that came forth in the transcendent language of tongues.

Based on these accounts in Acts, speaking in tongues may be described as transcendent praise: praise that goes beyond ordinary capacity and experience. God had acted through Jesus Christ to bring about salvation and had poured out His Holy Spirit. So marvelous was this occurrence that nothing else could capture it but the transcendent praise of God. Such praise was not in an earthly language because no language of earth could begin to express the extraordinary depths and heights of the occasion. Only language uttered by the Holy Spirit on the lips of persons involved could be adequate. So they all praised God in the self-transcending language of other tongues.

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