The “tongues of fire” which rested on the heads of the apostles afforded no vain show. It was a sign, and the fact indicated by that sign was at once known to be a reality by that which at the same moment of time took place within them. “They were filled with the Holy Ghost;” by which term the sacred historian clearly means to understand that they then received in full measure all the blessings from on high, through the Spirit of God, which their Master had so often promised to them. They were at once enlightened, instructed, cheered, exalted, inspired. This was so well known to have been expected, and to have been received, that the historian does not dwell upon the fact, but passes on to specify a most extraordinary endowment, which, from its nature, excited great amazement, and for which expectation had not even in the evangelical circle been distinctly prepared. They “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” That is to say, they began to preach the gospel in languages they had not previously known, but the mastery of which was at once given to them. Much has been said to divest this of a miraculous character, under various explanations. But it is all in vain. No other hypothesis will agree with what ensued, or meet all the circumstances of the case. It was necessary that these men—all belonging to one small nation, and speaking one of the least diffused of tongues—should, in receiving the charge to preach the gospel in all lands, know the languages of the nations among whom they were to labor. And it was requisite that they should be either inspired with this knowledge, and thereby be qualified for immediate work; or that they should sit down to learn those languages, and labor at this task many weary years, during which the gospel would remain unpreached. There was therefore every reason to expect from antecedent probability, that the Lord would in this age of qualifying and attesting miracles, remove this discouragement from the path of his servants in the discharge of that duty to which they were called. It was the Lord’s purpose that his word should at once have free course and be glorified among the nations through their ministration; and how this was to be brought to pass, while the appointed messengers were shut up in the narrow dumbness of one tongue, and mostly with habits of life unused to the acquisition of languages by the common process, it is hard to see. God had undertaken to supply all their needs, and to afford them every requisite qualification for the work to which they were called. There could be for them no need more urgent, no qualification more important, than that they should be enabled to declare to the nations in their own languages, the wonderful works of God; and therefore, in “the gift of tongues,” this need was supplied, this qualification was furnished.
Besides, the reality of this marvellous endowment was at once, and on the spot, subjected to test and recognition. There were then present at the feast Jews from all parts, to most of whom foreign tongues were native, just as English, or French, or German, is native to Jews born in those countries. The regions from which they principally came are specified, and these extend from the Euxine to the Indian Ocean, and from the Persian Gulf to the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the coast of Africa. Many of these, together with the native Jews, flocked to the spot, as soon as the report of this marvellous transaction had spread into the city. To the latter, who knew not what was said, nor recognized the words as those of known languages, all this seemed idle babble, and they derided the speakers as men drunk with wine. This imputation was warmly repelled by Peter, who pointed to the earliness of the hour (nine o’clock) as an adequate disproof. And such it was. For, although it is certainly possible for men to get drunk before that hour, morning drunkenness is not anywhere usual, and it found a peculiar prevention in Palestine, from the custom of abstaining from meat or drink until that very hour, when the morning sacrifice was offered. But the strangers were astonished, as they recognized these several languages, and said one to another, “Behold, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherever we were born; we do hear them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God?”
Perceiving their perplexity, the apostles stood up, and Peter, after vindicating them from the slander just indicated, proceeded to explain the real nature of the transaction, and, in a most noble sermon, to declare the great doctrine of Christ crucified for their sins, and raised again for their justification. This was the first evangelical sermon, and it was gloriously acknowledged by the Holy Spirit under whose influence it was delivered; for they that heard it were “pricked in their heart,” and cried to the speaker, and to the rest, of the apostles, “What shall we do?” The answer was ready: that they should repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus for the remission of sins—thereby attesting their belief in Him as their Messiah and Redeemer, and expressing their purpose of heart to become his followers and disciples. With “many more words” than those recorded, did the earnest apostle press these doctrines upon his hearers, urging them to save themselves “from this untoward generation.” Moved by the Spirit, hundreds—thousands—received these words into their hearts, and that day there were added to the church by baptism no fewer than three thousand souls. This was a glorious triumph, well suited to encourage the apostles in the labors that lay before them; for it showed them that there was no limit to their holy conquests, seeing that they were to be won, “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, with the Lord of hosts!”
It is observable that we have here another instance in which the apostles are recognized as Galileans by their dialect. The fact of such a plainly distinguishable provincial dialect is not at all strange. Every country affords examples of this, and perhaps none more so than our own. We know from various authorities that the dialect of Galileo was reckoned very barbarous and corrupt by the people of Judea. This dialect seems to have been characterized by a sort of vague or indistinct pronunciation of particular letters, and in the mispronunciation, confusion, or suppression of certain other letters, especially the gutturals. Thus the nice ear of a metropolitan Jew was often at fault with regard to the meaning of the words; and, out of their own province, the Galileans were often understood to say something very different from what they meant to express. Many curious instances of this may be collected from the rabbinical writings. Two may suffice. A Galilean woman said, “Whose is this lamb?” but she pronounced the first letter of the word for “lamb” (immar) so vaguely, that the hearers could not determine whether she meant a lamb, an ass (chamor), wine (chamar), or wool (amar). Another woman, saying to her neighbor, “Come, I will feed you with milk” (tai doclic chalaba), pronounced the two last words in such a manner (toclic labe) that they might be heard as a curse, “Let a lion devour thee.”
That so many foreign Jews heard the apostles speak in their own tongues, implies that they severally spoke different tongues; and not that all tongues were at once known to and spoken by all who received this gift. To each was given the power of speaking those tongues he would have occasion to use in the course of his ministrations; and possibly additional languages were given when the occasion for their use arose. If a stranger should come to a place manifestly unable to speak its language, and suddenly acquire power to preach in that language with force and ease—this would be a sign to that people, almost as signal as that by which the strangers at Jerusalem were on this occasion so strongly impressed. That there were differences in this respect is clear, from the declaration of Paul to the Corinthians, that he spoke with tongues more than they all (1Co_14:18); and this fact corroborates the view we have stated, for the missionary travels of this apostle were most extensive, and he had need of many languages, that he might be able to preach the gospel in the various lands to which he went.