The third of the supernatural phenomena associated with the Day of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit was the ability to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:4) The crowd’s reaction show us that this was definitely an unusual experience (they were ‘amazed and perplexed’); Galileans had the reputation for being uncultured (see John 1:46, John 7:52) and clearly had a pronounced accent (see Matt 27:63); historians tell us they struggled to pronounce guttural sounds like K and G and tended to ‘swallow syllables’ as they spoke, so it was all the more astonishing that they spoke in many different languages to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the holy festival and were understood by all.
The purpose of this supernatural experience was to alert the people to what God was doing, for people clearly heard the disciples ‘declaring the wonders of God’ in their own languages. (Acts 2:11) This led to opportunities for witness, as Peter responds to the question ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:13) It’s no coincidence that God should choose this method of witness; Jesus is described as ‘the Word’ (John 1:1) and, as John Stott says, “Ever since the early church fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the curse of Babel.” There, the pride and ambition of humankind led to the confusion of different languages (when I used to teach French, I always tackled the question of ‘why can’t we all speak the same language?’ by referring back to Genesis 11!); here, speaking in tongues led to the blessing of the gospel reaching all nations (and the list of nations covered harks back to Genesis 10 where we see the scattering of Noah’s descendants). This multilingual witness coheres with the universal offer of salvation in the church’s message and its consequent worldwide mission and reminds us that the Holy Spirit is given to us so that we can be witnesses, not so that we can hoard blessings ourselves. Howard Marshall reminds us, referring to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem, that “their presence and participation in what happened constituted an indication of the worldwide significance of the event.” Without the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the church really would not exist!