The Strange New Language of the Holy Spirit

Holy Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11
May 15, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

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The first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven was mistaken as a drunken soiree. While some cultures consider it to be a day of revelry, this particular Pentecost morning was a bit too early for any wild celebration. What caused the mocking dismissal was that the disciples—mostly uneducated men from Galilee—began to speak in new languages. Everyone in the catalogue of nations—from Parthians to Romans—heard the disciples speaking in their own language.

In the Bible, there are two words used in the passage for the word language: tongues and dialects. A new tongue was one of the signs, along with the tongues of fire and the sound of the rushing wind, that the Holy Spirit had come just as Jesus had promised.

Today there are a number of Christians who practice “speaking in tongues.” They fall under the broad heading of charismatic Christians, named for the word charisma, meaning a supernatural gift of the Spirit. One denomination is the Assemblies of God. There was also some infiltration of the charismatic movement in our own Church body a while back, but it’s mostly died out. In addition to speaking in tongues, they also have practices such as holy laughter (check that one out on Youtube, it’s a riot), rolling around on the ground and shaking, a strange thing about God throwing precious gems out of heaven to enrich believers, faith healings, and my favorite, the holy barks.

Today we’ll only concern ourselves with speaking in tongues. As it’s practiced today in charismatic churches, Christians will begin to speak incoherent gobbledygook as a sign that the Holy Spirit has come again to them. It’s kind of like baby babbling; it’s a bunch of syllables uttered with inflection, but it communicates nothing. Even though no one really knows what it means, they believe it to be heavenly speech, and something that grants a particular grace.

The problem with this practice is that it’s not what the Bible means when it reports Christians speaking in tongues. On the day of Pentecost it was different. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Are not all of these who are speaking Galileans? And how do we hear, each one in his own language, in which we were born?” The speech that came from the mouths of the disciples was not gibberish, but each person heard and understood in his own language. Ironically, the charismatic practice of speaking in tongues is more like a drunken ramble than it is to the day of Pentecost.

Never mind that St. Paul says that tongues will cease (1 Cor 13:8), the main error of the charismatic practice is that they confuse the Holy Spirit’s signs with His instruments. The new languages, along with the tongues of fire and the wind and the healings performed by the disciples, were only to confirm the Word that they spoke. They were saying something new, and claimed that it came directly from God. Like the prophets of the Old Testament. Since there was at that time no written New Testament, God confirmed that the words spoken by the Apostles were truly His own words by the accompanying signs. These signs weren’t signs of God’s grace, but signs that pointed to the Word.

The Word is the instrument of the Holy Spirit. It’s not the one who speaks a new language who has God’s grace, but the one who hears of God spoken in his own language. The Spirit doesn’t grant grace through speaking, but through hearing. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by Christ’s Word. With the Word is Holy Baptism—God’s Word put to the water—and the Supper of Jesus—His last word and testament.

While the charismatic movement is generally far removed from you, there is a more subtle danger that is much closer. Many Christians who deem themselves to be evangelically and missionally minded presume that our modern culture cannot understand the Word of God as it has been traditionally presented, and so they find it necessary to reframe the Christians religion in new language. Sometimes it’s speaking “heart language” instead of “head language;” other times it’s adjusting your language to the culture. You may have heard a sermon like this before. “I understand the words you’re speaking, but I have no idea what you’re saying.” The words are real words, but it’s spiritual gibberish.

The trap is that even a new language can communicate the old manner of speaking. The old speech is the speech of the law. It’s about working to improve your condition in order to gain God’s favor. It’s about trying to find that favor in places where He has not promised to place it. It’s about rejecting the gifts God gives in favor of offering your gifts to God. But your works are can never be the great work God requires.

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So why don’t we speak in tongues today? Well, we still do. It just happens in a more natural way—with time and study. In seminary I studied Greek and Hebrew (love Greek, Hebrew is a bit more difficult for me). And with the help of the Duolingo app on my phone, Ich lerne Deutsch jetzt.

The disciples didn’t go through a course of study to learn the Edomite dialect, or spend some time immersed in the Mesopotamian culture. The Holy Spirit granted them immediately and supernaturally to speak in a new language in order that every nation assembled—both Jews and proselytes (proselyte means a convert)—would hear how this Pentecost would be different from every other Pentecost that had been since the Law to observe Pentecost was given. That these men began to spontaneously speak in the new languages is one sign that what they spoke was not of themselves, but from God.

We may marvel at the miracles of Pentecost, but it’s very possible that we miss the greatest miracle of them all. It wasn’t just new languages that the Apostles spoke at Pentecost, but they spoke something entirely new, something that could never have been said before. The languages and tongues were simply a means to communicate the miraculous content of the message. We hear them speaking in our own tongues the great works of God. The works we can offer are quite puny indeed when compared with the great work of God. What is this great work of God?

Peter’s sermon sums it up. The great work of God is the work He accomplished in Jesus Christ. The incarnation joins God and man, divine and human inseparable for all eternity. He is so invested in us that He became one of us. The first sin and the sin that underlies all our sin is that we desire to be like God, but His desire is to be like man. He humbles Himself in the flesh. Until He dies. A slaves death. He is punished for sins He gladly bears. And beyond all hope He rises from the grave in victory over our enemies. He ascends into heaven and leads our captors captive and all of these enemies are now under His feet. And He sends the Holy Spirit, the great Gift of God from heaven. The Spirit calls out this new language, this Christ-language.

This new speech supercedes the old speech in every language. The Good News of Jesus Christ fulfills the old Law because it’s the news that Christ has performed the greatest work, the only work that counts for righteousness before God. And the Spirit comes to give you this great work. Freely. As a gift. Creation is redeemed by the Son of God, who sends the Spirit whose job is to make you holy.

This is the Holy Spirit’s new language—heard by everyone at Pentecost in their own language and heard by you today—it’s the telling of the great work of God in Jesus Christ. Marvel at the miracle.

The Strange and New Language of the Holy Spirit Is the Telling of the Great Work of God in Jesus Christ

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA