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This question, addressed to Trinitarian Protestants, regards the nature of the incident related by Luke, Acts 2:3, when a manifestation of fiery tongues was seen in association with the eleven, after the ascension of Jesus Christ.

It is notable that the only manifestation of the Holy Spirit, himself, is when, in a direct involvement between Father and Son, he is seen bodily descending, Luke 3:22, in a dove-like form, upon the newly baptised Jesus. I suggest that the manifestation of tongues is not that of the Person, himself, but rather of what is being gifted, as a result of the Person’s indwelling.

Most Protestant Trinitarian commentators of whom I am aware have viewed the manifestation of the Angel of the Lord, or of other angelic presences (such as the three coming to Abraham, the one with whom Jacob wrestled, the angel seen going up in a flame by Manoah and his wife, and the presence in the fiery furnace) as temporary manifestations of He who would, later, be fully incarnate.

None, that I know of, attribute any such manifestations as being of the Person of the Holy Spirit, making the visibility of the descent, as a dove, a unique event. And I have never heard or read any suggestion that such would ever be expected to happen again to any other person.

The Head has been anointed and the body shall receive the anointing via the Head and within that body.

Then the fact of tongues only ever being seen to visibly descend upon the eleven, and those directly associated with them and nobody else, might therefore suggest that this event is, also, unique, the only other comparable occurrence being, Acts 19:2, in the case of twelve who, since they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit, could not have been aware of either of the above events and therefore were granted an experience similar to, though differing from, that which was unique.

Does the unique character of these events not point to a non-repetition of them and point to a considered and balanced attitude that such things have, indeed, ceased ?

I am interested in hearing argument, to the contrary, from a Protestant and Trinitarian standpoint.


As stated below in comment : the unique character of the tongues incident (similar to the uniqueness of the descent) suggests to me a non-repetition and I am looking for reasoned arguments to the contrary.

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    @curiousdannii I will ponder an edit, but I thought it was clear that the unique character of the tongues incident (similar to the uniqueness of the descent) suggests to me a non-repetition and I am looking for reasoned arguments to the contrary.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 31 at 12:21
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    Obviously, every time one "speaks in tounges" Christendom isn't experiencing a new Pentecost, that was a unique historical event. However, there is no Biblical evidence for cessation. There is a theology manual written by Wayne Grudem, who pretty much tears down the most oft appealed to cessationist's points of view. This is ironic given that Grudem is essentially a Baptist! One would think that the discussions on glossalalia in the Pauline literature would be enough to settle the debate.
    – user65254
    Apr 2 at 17:38
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    @curiousdannii The unique nature of the occurrences indicates (to myself) a non-repetition (a cessation). But I am interested in arguments to the contrary. I am not expecting arguments simply against cessationalism and in favour of continuation. I am seeking clarity on those two occurrences and whether we should expect them to be repeated.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 3 at 0:27
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    Right, the focus is on whether we should ever expect tongues of fire again, rather than on whether any gift of "tongues" is legitimate or not? I think a lot of the answers are really not about that question.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 3 at 0:34
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    @curiousdannii Yes indeed. I agree. I would not have asked a question that is a mere duplicate of many others re : cessation/continuance. I have specifically focused on two occurrences which (I would say) are unique and never to be repeated. And I think that that is actually the crux of all following arguments. If those two are never to be repeated than why would one ever expect ceretain other elements to be repeated ?
    – Nigel J
    Apr 3 at 0:37

4 Answers 4

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There is a distinction to be held, as OP suggests, between the signification of a gift and the gift itself. In the given example of the Holy Spirit descending visibly, as a dove, upon the Lord Jesus Christ it is to be understood that the dove was not itself the Holy Spirit of God but was a signification, visibly, for human perception to grasp:

And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God. - John 1:31-34

This visible, dove-like manifestation of the Holy Spirit descending and remaining upon Jesus is most certainly a unique, one time event for the purpose of manifesting, through the testimony of John the Baptist, the Son of God to Israel. The dove being integral in Noah's discovery that the waters of judgement were abated (Genesis 8) and there being no condemnation for those who are in Christ; this will never happen again.

But certainly the uniqueness of the signification of God's Spirit permanently inhabiting flesh does not indicate an ending to such things, but a beginning. Jesus, having been signified to us as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, continues to do so from that moment on and there need not be a descending dove each time:

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;  Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.  I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. - John 14:16-18

Every person who repents and believes is cleansed from all unrighteousness and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is brand new in human experience and yet promised by the Father, just as the sending of the Christ was promised. As the manifestation of the Christ was signified, so the manifestation of the promise of the Father:

And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. - Acts 1:4-5

They waited and, on the day of Pentecost the promise was fulfilled along with a signification; visible, cloven tongues 'like as of fire' sat upon each of them. The promise was not one of speaking in tongues but one of the operation of God's Spirit within men unto prophesy, visions, and dreams:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. - Joel 2:28-29

This promise, never before fulfilled, came to pass with initial, visible signification to those through whom the fulfillment would be proclaimed and was explained by Peter as applicable to any who would "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call."

Tongues of fire representing God's Spirit, sent by God's Word made flesh, unto prophesy is the sign. The sign is not speaking in heretofore unknown languages, but tongues like as as of fire visibly resting upon certain men. Speaking in heretofore unknown languages is a gifting by that which was signified.

Once again, the signification being unique and one-time does not imply that the gift signified is unrepeated: Every believer in the signified Son receives this signified promise and is enabled to operate "as the Spirit gives utterance". Just as there is a distinction to be maintained between the sign and the promise fulfilled, so there is a distinction to be maintained between the fruit of the Spirit and the giftedness imparted by that Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is (not are) love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. These things will develop in every single believer in increasing measure as one walks according to the indwelling Spirit rather than the encapsulating flesh. The manifestation of the Spirit through gifts, administrations, and diversities of the Spirit are distinct from the fruit and are dispensed as the Spirit wills: the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.

The list of 'gifts' in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 contains 'word of wisdom', 'word of knowledge', 'faith', 'healing', 'miracles', 'prophesy', 'discerning of spirits', 'kinds of tongues', and 'interpretation of tongues'. These are manifestation of the one Spirit and they are given, says Paul, to every man for the collective benefit: Many different parts of one body.

To be certain, everything that God has signified is liable to be misunderstood and misused by men. Baptism is both over and under emphasized. Spiritual gifts (specifically tongues here) are both over and under emphasized. But baptism is not ended by the completion of the signification. Rather, the true baptism signified (with the Holy Spirit and fire) is begun. Likewise, the Baptism of the Spirit is not ended with tongues like as fire. Rather, the unity of a diversity of mankind into one body through the gifting of one Spirit is begun.

If 'tongues' has ceased then so also 'faith' is ceased for they appear in the very same list. Lots of people misuse 'spiritual gifts' for fleshly gain so as to appear spiritual, either to themselves or others, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater nor miss the forest for the trees:

But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.- 1 Cor.12:11-14

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You provided three main examples - Luke 3:22, Acts, 2:3, and finally Acts 19:2. We have then 3 for-sure examples of the Holy Spirit working as an individual Person of the Trinity.

There is one verse in the Bible that indicates cessation of speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 13:8, ESV: "Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away."

Cessationists interpret this to mean that tongues have stopped. Yet, it says also that knowledge will pass away. We still have knowledge, and there is nothing to indicate them ending at separate times (Note: tongues could mean languages here). Furthermore, there is context surrounding this, vs9-10: "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away."

Thus, it indicates itself that the will not cease until the Second Coming. In my final point concerning this verse, some will claim that the Greek indicates that they will cease before "the perfect comes". It is not so, as we can see by looking at other context of the verb.

However, the Question asks if the "unique character" implies a cessation of gifts.

If we were flip a coin, and it landed on heads 100 times in a row, it does not mean that it can't land on tails - while I don't want to compare God to chance, just because something doesn't happen doesn't mean it can't - the intertestamental period attests to this.

I will not argue the "unique character" of the Holy Spirit coming down as fire and resting on the Twelve all at once - no Protestant can claim that this has happened since with any grounding.

Paul tells us, after apparently speaking in tongues has ceased, he says in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11:

"For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills."

There is nothing to indicate anything has changed - while perhaps rarer, they surely have not stopped.

It would be foolish to think that miracles of the Father have ceased - He is personal and works in our lives. It is the same with the Spirit as well as Jesus, who worked around 30 miracles on earth, more now that He is in Heaven, surely we don't except the Spirit?

What is speaking in tongues?

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    So I would ask why there is no instruction to either Timothy or Titus (who, after Paul's decease, were to ensure that the churches were properly governed and administrated) regarding this (suggested as a very prominent feature of fellowship and worship) aspect of the church ? And the text you cite , 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 could refer to translation of languages. But from what I have seen and heard, interpretation (of what is called 'tongues') is rarely, if ever, attempted in modern times
    – Nigel J
    Mar 31 at 16:42
  • I think that is the interpretation of tongues, which does likely refer to the interpretation - however, there are two gifts concerning tongues, or languages. I think the one listed first does indeed support my point, but I agree that one is concerning translation of the Word. Mar 31 at 18:28
  • @NigelJ In Corinthians it is ostensible that the "tounges" (Gk. glossolalia) are gifts (Gk. charisms) of the Spirit. It is difficult to think that one's expertise in foreign languages, a purely secular pursuit, is a spiritual gift.
    – user65254
    Apr 3 at 20:52
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    @AlbertusMagnus Paul the apostle commands that none speak in a way that none can understand, so the speaker of an unknown tongue must ascertain beforehand that there is someone present who can interpret what is uttered. Otherwise, the speaker must remain silent at the command of the Apostle..
    – Nigel J
    Apr 4 at 10:59
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    @HumantheMan If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 28But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God 1 Cor 14
    – Nigel J
    Apr 4 at 18:52
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The question has the 'cessationism' tag, and a query has been raised as to the difficulty of pentecostals and cassationist both being in the Protestant, trinitarian category. So, I sought a definition of cessationism that might be agreeable to both parties. It came in this recent article in a Presbyterian magazine:

"What's a cessationist? It's the view that spiritual gifts ceased after the Apostolic Age. If that means that the scriptures are closed and cannot be added to, and that direct revelation from God has ceased, then count me in [the author states, but adds-] I've had my fill of tongues interpretations which sound like poorly rehashed authorised version memory verses, and prophecies which are so vague they are meaningless." The Record, April/May 2024, article by David Meredith p.32, 'Mission Matters'

He gives an example of one of Jean Darnall's prophecies about 'rivers of fire' flowing from the north of Scotland right down to Land's End, and beyond. That was uttered in 1967, with the interpretation she stated proving to be utterly false. He goes on to then point out that the supernatural power of God still operates, down to this very day. Therefore, cessationism is not about disbelieving that. He lists, as examples, Bible-believing preaching, of the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit through such faithful preaching, the supernatural at work through prayer, boldness in speaking God's truth through the indwelling Holy Spirit, divine providence, and the miracle of each spiritually dead person coming to faith and new life in Christ: "The conversion of a sinner is more miraculous than the creation of the universe."

The dove at Jesus' baptism, and the rushing wind and tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost are viewed as being unique events. In that sense, Presbyterians are cessationists. They maintain that all such events have ceased, as the main question asks.

At the Spirit's manifestation at the start of Jesus' ministry, all three Persons interacted just that once, in that way. It was a never-to-be-repeated blessing at the start of Jesus' ministry. John the Baptist had been told to look for that visible sign. There was a union of divine love with the Father speaking from heaven his approval of the Son he'd sent, and the Holy Spirit descending on the image (eikon) and the likeness (karacter) of the invisible God. Later, the Holy Spirit uniquely gave those in that upper room an audible, and a visual assurance that he had arrived, for Jesus promised he would come as a gift, to fill them supernaturally, to bring glory to Christ and to the Father, by empowering them for ministry. That gift enabled the new church to burst forth on to the global scene. It need never be repeated.

Conclusion 1 Corinthians chapter 12 shows that "the manifestation of the Spirit" is given to every believer "to drink into one Spirit" via particular gifts for each person to use to build up the body of Christ. Love is paramount. This manifestation is not visible, but the presence of the Spirit is manifested by the activity of a gift working within.

Unfortunately, apart from the main question, I have not given the answer looked for - arguing that visible manifestations of the Spirit would happen after Pentecost, with visible appearances of the invisible Holy Spirit. Having worked my way through the details of the question, seeking to substantiate visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit apart from the dove, I finally see how even the Pentecost wind and flames were not actually the Holy Spirit but heralds of his invisible arrival to indwell each believer. Both events were unique. Christians thereafter receive the manifestation of the Spirit in the gifts that he bestows.

Apologies for failing to answer the second question. I did try, but ended up persuaded that there could not be any sound argument that those events would be repeated. Not that such events could be argued for, because the evidence lies in visible proof of them having happened later on. The only proof of such happenings is in the Holy-Spirit-inspired New Testament records via witnesses of those unique, first-century events.

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In my initial answer, I presented several sources collectively advocating for continuationism. However, the original poster (OP) indicated in the comments a preference for reasoned arguments addressing the specific aspects of their question. Thus, in this follow-up, I aim to provide concrete arguments that align more closely with what the OP has requested.

Firstly, I will refer to a key argument outlined in Craig S. Keener's book Miracles: 2 Volumes: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Concretely, an argument he presents on pages 259-263. This argument will set the general stage by defending continuationism from cessationist objections. Next, I will quote a more specific argument in defense of the continuation of the gift of tongues that Craig Keener published in this article.

For background information on Keener, please visit https://asburyseminary.edu/faculty/craig-keener/. Additionally, it's worth noting that Keener has since authored a more recent, condensed work titled Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World. Moreover, he engaged in a debate titled Craig Keener, Peter May & Joshua Brown: Miracle Healing - does it happen today?, which explored the legitimacy of contemporary cases of miraculous healing. Though not directly addressing tongues, the topic of that debate closely intersects with the broader discussion on cessationism versus continuationism which is quite relevant to the OP's question.

Craig Keener's first argument on cessationism vs continuationism

One Theological Caveat

Because I am now turning to postbiblical examples of healing claims, and some of my Western readers may find many of the healing claims in this book astonishing for a particular sort of theological reason, I digress at this point also to address an objection that may arise for some of them (although not for myself, and certainly not for antisupernaturalists). This objection involves the doctrine, held by a minority of conservative Protestants, known as “cessationism,” the belief that extraordinary supernatural manifestations through individuals have ceased. Later I will treat the rise of a form of Protestant cessationism in the West that accommodated Enlightenment antisupernaturalism, allowing God’s (visible) activity exclusively (or at least almost exclusively) through natural means. I must digress here, however, to observe that modern cessationism is not all of one kind.

Many modern cessationists do not exclude God’s supernatural activity in the present but simply argue that it does not occur to the same degree or in the same form as in the nt (in which case “cessationist” might not be the best term for it, but I defer to the preferred usage of some of the view’s advocates). This position would not need to exclude from consideration, even with regard to the question of supernatural causation, most examples offered later in this book. It would not regard them as normative, but the issue of normativity is not important for establishing the main points of this book: that eyewitnesses can claim to have seen healings and that some healings may involve supernatural causation.

From an apparent diminution in the magnitude of miracles in many parts of the world today a historian working from analogy could argue that nt miracles were exaggerated. A moderate cessationist (again, not my approach) could counter that if any of Jesus’s miracles (or other miracles in his name) are granted as genuine miracles, then God acted in Jesus’s ministry and confirmed his distinctive claims; these claims in turn allow us to set Jesus apart. This approach, if taken, would not weaken my argument from analogy even for genuinely supernatural miracles in the Gospels and Acts, since the point is not the quantity or degree but the existence of genuine miracles. As I noted in chapter 5, a single genuine miracle would be sufficient to refute Hume’s claim against miracles from experience, and I will suggest later in the book that we have far more than a single case (though I do not argue that all the claims I narrate in following chapters need be understood in those terms).

For most Christians, especially in the West, this idea of a change in the character of the miraculous could fit our experience. If Jesus healed everyone who came to him, as some hold, matters are different today (and indeed, not only in the West). If healing was normally instant in the nt (at least in cases where we are informed, apart from Mark 8:24–25), many or most recoveries attributed to divine help today differ from those in the nt era (though I will cite some claims of instant healings today as well). Yet I believe that it is difficult to find a solid nt rationale for the change (the texts cited for this perspective rely heavily on theological inference, sometimes, as in the case of 1 Cor 13:8–12, apparently in the direct face of what the text says), unless it would be that God lavishes miracles more freely in particular points in salvation history than in others (a perspective many noncessationists would share). While in historic Christian teaching Jesus is unique, the same cannot be said for signs workers like Stephen in Acts (or among some biblical figures preceding Jesus).

My purpose in this book is not to offer a theological or biblical response to cessationism, which I have offered in other works (primarily responding there to “hard” rather than moderate cessationism). But I respond here briefly with respect to the matter at hand: if God lavishes miracles more freely at some particularly significant points in salvation history (a reasonable observation from Scripture), one still cannot conclude from the nt that no such significant points would continue to occur. Although miracles appear particularly dramatic in Jesus’s ministry, these echo (as we have noted) signs narrated in earlier significant eras, such as those of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, and are in turn echoed in ministries in Acts (not, incidentally, limited to the Twelve plus Paul, as some suggest; see Acts 6:8; 8:6). They are not limited to a single phase in biblical history but appear at various significant points; the time of Elijah and Elisha was a case of a biblical revival to reverse, at least temporarily, national apostasy. They are not, then, limited to Jesus’s ministry or to the events of “salvation” as most narrowly construed; they apply also to the expansion of God’s message. The evangelization of previously unevangelized people groups, where we encounter many miracle reports today, seems analogous to the kinds of settings we have in Acts.

The apparently consistent nt perspective is that Christians live in an eschatologically significant time, what nt theologians often describe as the “already/ not yet” of the kingdom. Early Christians did not expect that era to last for centuries, but the point is that they defined the period between Christ’s first and second comings as eschatological, a period in which many of God’s promises were being fulfilled. One could also argue that when God stirs the hearts of believers to live in this reality, that is also a significant time when God may act in dramatic ways. I can empathize with even a fairly conservative cessationist perspective on a level of some of my experience and as an understandable reaction against some widespread charismatic abuses, but I do not believe that this is the solution most compatible with the theology that we find in the nt. I believe that such theology should lead us to expect and weigh more heavily continuity rather than discontinuity. In the case of some moderate cessationists, the difference might be one of degree.

In any case, while hard cessationists might find some reports in this book as shocking as full-scale antisupernaturalists would, I believe that even in the West moderate cessationists probably constitute the majority of cessationists today. I would thus invite those committed to this theological perspective to join noncessationist theists, including myself, in recognizing the better-founded among modern miracle claims (normally those supported by trustworthy witnesses) as a legitimate argument in support of the plausibility of biblical miracle claims.

Conclusion

What the radical Enlightenment excluded as implausible based on the principle of analogy, much of today’s world can accept on the same principle of analogy. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide claim to have experienced or witnessed what they believe are miracles. Eyewitness claims to dramatic recoveries appear in a wide variety of cultures, among Christians often successfully emulating models of healings found in the Gospels and Acts. Granted, such healings do not occur on every occasion and are fairly unpredictable in their occurrence; yet they seem to appear with special frequency in cultures and circles that welcome them. Radical Enlightenment antisupernaturalism is far from the majority view in the world and thus henceforth ought to argue rather than presuppose its case. I have merely introduced Majority World perspectives in this chapter. In the following two chapters, I turn to a number of concrete examples.

This specific argument, delineated on pages 259-263 of the book, provides essential context countering cessationist objections to the continuation of miracles. It's noteworthy that Craig Keener included this caveat in his book recognizing that he is not only addressing the skepticism of atheists, agnostics, and radical antisuperanturalists who dismiss all supernatural claims across the board, but also contending with skepticism from cessationist Christians. These cessationists, situated along a spectrum, may accept the supernatural claims in the Gospels and Acts while rejecting to different degrees the millions of miracle accounts throughout history and in modern times that have been reported after the apostolic age, depending on how radical they are in their cessationism.

Craig Keener's second argument on Acts 2 and the gift of tongues

Pentecost (Acts 2:1) was a significant festival in the Jewish calendar, offering the first fruits of grain to the Lord (Lev. 23:16). Its significance in this narrative, however, may be especially that it was one of the major pilgrimage festivals, when Jewish people who lived all over the world came back to visit Jerusalem. This sets the stage for the experience of the Spirit that will drive the church in Acts across all cultural barriers.

The narrative opens with God’s people in unity (Acts 2:1). They have been praying together (1:14), and prayer often precedes the coming of the Spirit in Luke-Acts (Luke 3:21-22; 11:13; Acts 4:31; 8:15).

Suddenly, they experience signs of the Spirit. The first two signs touch key senses, hearing and sight. They evoke biblical theophanies, perhaps also as foretastes of the future age. First, they hear a wind, perhaps prefiguring the promised wind of God’s Spirit that would bring new life to God’s people in Ezekiel 37:9-14. Second, they witness the appearance of fire, which was often associated with future judgment (cf. Luke 3:9, 16-17).

The third sign, however—speaking in tongues—is the most important of the three. This is clear because it occurs again at two other outpourings of the Spirit in Acts, although no one present on those occasions recognizes the languages spoken (Acts 10:46; 19:6). On this first occasion, though, their experience is also important because some people do recognize the languages and it therefore forms the bridge to Peter’s sermon. The crowds hear this sound (2:6) and ask what this phenomenon means (2:12). Peter goes on to explain that this tongues-speaking means that the promised time of the Spirit has dawned (2:16-18).

Since tongues-speaking represents an example of the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit in “the last days” (2:17), we should no more suppose that tongues have ceased than that prophecy has ceased, and we should no more suppose that prophecy has ceased than that the last days have now been supplanted by days later than last days that are no longer “last”! If we take the Bible seriously, it makes no sense to deny that God who poured the Spirit out (2:17-18) has now poured the Spirit back, or that we no longer need the Spirit empowering us for evangelism (1:8) so long as the task of reaching the ends of the earth still remains to be fulfilled. Of course, when that task has been fulfilled, and our mission is complete, Jesus will return (Matt 24:14; Rom 11:25-27; 2 Pet 3:9-12). We will no longer need these gifts that provide windows on God because we will know him even as we are known (1 Cor 13:8-13).

What is speaking in tongues in Acts? It seems quite implausible that Paul would use related wording to describe a gift of the Spirit only by coincidence. Both Luke and Paul refer to the Spirit enabling worship in unlearned speech (Acts 2:11; 10:46; 1 Cor 14:2, 14-17). In 1 Cor 12:10; 14:2, 13, 18-19, however, only God understands the speech, unless someone present is divinely gifted with the understanding (the gift of interpretation). What matters for Paul is not the linguistic element, but that one’s heart communicates with God. Likewise, in Acts 10:46; 19:6, apparently no one present understands the language.

Acts 2 seems to reflect a special situation for this first outpouring of the Spirit, in which God inspires the worship in languages that will be recognized by the many foreign Jewish hearers on this occasion. There have been subsequent occasions of languages being recognized by someone present (see e.g., Del Tarr, The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues [Springfield, Mo.: Access, 2010]; Jordan Daniel May, Global Witnesses to Pentecost: The Testimony of “Other Tongues” [Cleveland, Tenn.: CPT Press, 2013]). That is not, however, the normal purpose of tongues in the Bible or subsequently.

Yet Luke has a special reason to highlight this special occurrence of recognized tongues in Acts 2. Luke’s “thesis statement” for Acts is Acts 1:8: the Spirit empowers witnesses for Jesus to the ends of the earth. (The witnesses are in the first case “the eleven and those who were with them” in Luke 24:33, but they become a model for the continuing mission of the church, since the spread of the good news must continue to the ends of the earth, far beyond the conclusion of Acts 28.)

In another major programmatic statement for Acts, the Spirit inspires all believers to speak prophetically for God (2:17-18), a last-days gift (2:17) that continues for subsequent generations (2:38-39). Although this wide potential for prophetic speech continues in Acts in the narrower sense (11:27; 13:1; 19:6; 21:9-10; cf. 1 Cor 14:5, 31), all believers, including those who think that other gifts have ceased, at the very least must surely depend on the Spirit in our witness for Christ.

But where does tongues (2:4) fit on the spectrum of witness (1:8) and prophecy (2:17-18)? How do tongues fulfill Joel’s promise of God’s people being able to prophesy (2:17-18)? Like witness and prophecy in the narrower sense, worship in tongues is speech for God and moved by the Spirit of God. Nor is it simply a random example of this sort of speech; Luke’s narrative highlights in Acts 2 a particular dimension about tongues-speaking that is distinctive: it portends the mission to the ends of the earth (1:8).

What greater sign of the purpose of Spirit-empowerment, stated in 1:8, could God offer on the day of Pentecost than for God to empower his people to worship in other people’s languages? That is, God signifies right from the start that the Spirit empowers us for our mission to the ends of the earth. The Book of Acts then provides further examples of God continuing to empower new and unexpected groups of believers, who thereby become colaborers in the mission (8:14-17; 9:17; 10:44-48; 13:52; 19:6).

Various groups of Christians today debate how many Christians should speak in tongues, but all of us can appreciate what tongues on the first Pentecost most of all means for us: God has empowered his church to reach all peoples. Until that mission is complete, let us continue to call on him for his power to use us. This is a prayer that he is sure to answer (Luke 11:13).

Source: The Point of Speaking in Tongues in Acts 2


Bonus

The reader might also be interested in watching Gavin Ortlund's rebuttal to a cessationist documentary: Cessationist: A Critical Evaluation of This Documentary. In the video, Gavin rebuts:

  • 02:25 (1) The "Clusters" Argument
  • 13:04 (2) The Confirmation Argument
  • 25:11 (3) The Fading Away Argument
  • 35:31 (4) The Foundation Argument
  • 50:04 (5) The Church History Argument
  • 57:42 Guilt By Association Tactics

Also of interest might be Keener's own personal testimony and experience with the gift of speaking in tongues: An #Apologetic for Speaking in Tongues with New Testament Scholar Craig Keener


Addendum after clarification

The OP has clarified that he is interested in rebuttals to the purported uniqueness of certain aspects of the event documented in Acts 2. Quoting the OP:

Then the fact of tongues only ever being seen to visibly descend upon the eleven, and those directly associated with them and nobody else, might therefore suggest that this event is, also, unique, the only other comparable occurrence being, Acts 19:2, in the case of twelve who, since they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit, could not have been aware of either of the above events and therefore were granted an experience similar to, though differing from, that which was unique.

Does the unique character of these events not point to a non-repetition of them and point to a considered and balanced attitude that such things have, indeed, ceased?

I believe a rebuttal here should aim to challenge the presupposition that the various aspects of the apostles' experience in Acts 2 are entirely unique, implying they will never recur.

First of all, when someone presents a claim, there are two approaches to rebutting it:

  • Option 1: show that the claim is unsubstantiated, and therefore there is no reason for believing that the claim is true. This shifts the burden of proof back to the claimant who uttered the claim, who is now responsible for convincing us, otherwise we won't accept their claim.
  • Option 2: assume the burden of proof and show that the claim is false (i.e. prove the negation of the claim).

In the case at hand (the specific facets of the Acts 2 experience), I believe it's more reasonable to adopt option 1. Rather than proving that we must inevitably anticipate a recurrence of all aspects, it's simpler to demonstrate that there is no reason to dismiss the possibility of their recurrence.

So let's dissect the various aspects of the Acts 2 experience:

  1. The sound resembling a violent wind filling the house.
  2. A visible display of tongues of fire (presumably observable by at least some witnesses).
  3. The sensation of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
  4. Speaking in an unfamiliar language, understood by at least one person in the audience.
  5. The resultant proclamation of the wonders of God, involving praise, exaltation, and worship.

I've delineated 5 aspects of the Acts 2 experience. Should we conclude that none of these aspects have occurred or will ever occur again since Pentecost? Let's see:

  1. Aspect 1 appears entirely within the capabilities of the Holy Spirit to replicate if desired. Indeed, in Acts 4:31, the house shook where the disciples were assembled, indicating such phenomena can indeed recur.

  2. Aspect 2, once more, seems well within God's ability to reproduce if desired. I discern no reason to assert that this is beyond God's capacity to enact again.

  3. Aspect 3, the filling of the spirit, is something every Christian should aspire to experience. There is every reason, therefore, to think that this aspect can (and should) recur.

  4. Aspect 4 involves the miraculous bestowal of the ability to speak an earthly language previously unknown to the speaker, corroborated by a native speaker. Once again, this is a phenomenon well within God's power to reproduce, and there are testimonies and anecdotes of individuals spontaneously speaking foreign languages understood by listeners.

  5. Aspect 5 entails Spirit-inspired praises during tongue-speaking. Once more, this is well within the capabilities of the Holy Spirit. There is no reason to deem such occurrences as never to be expected.

Can we anticipate an exact replication of Acts 2?

Expecting an exact carbon-copy event with all these aspects occurring simultaneously and identically is perhaps setting the bar too high in terms of expectation. In a sense, the Pentecost event was unique due to its specific combination of multiple factors, including historical, geographical, and contextual elements. However, acknowledging the uniqueness of this specific combination does not preclude the possibility of similar or novel combinations of aspects, or innovative ways in which God might choose to manifest the gift of speaking in tongues.

In short, there's no basis to doubt that God can continue to work through the church, demonstrating extraordinary manifestations, including the gift of speaking in tongues, as the Holy Spirit sees fit, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12.

The cessationist will probably say that this is not convincing. They want stronger proof. Likewise, the atheist finds arguments for the existence of God unconvincing, and wants stronger proof. Conversely, a continuationist will find the peculiar way in which the OP does exegesis unconvincing, and would like to see stronger arguments. In the end, no-one convinces anyone. Everyone believes what they want to believe, according to the epistemological standards they have set for themselves.

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  • 2
    Yet again, I do not see that this addresses my question. I did not ask for a general rebuttal of cessationalism, in favour of continuation. I asked specifically in the light of the uniqueness of two occurrences. Any answer should address (in detail) the apparent uniqueness of the events and the fact that if they have the quality of uniquesness to them, then they will not be repeated. The Holy Spirit was seem (in visible form) once and once only. The fiery tongues (representing a gift) were seen once and once only. So where is the argument that either of these is ever to be repeated ?
    – Nigel J
    Apr 3 at 0:24
  • @NigelJ Oh, so you mean an exact 100% carbon copy of Acts 2, with all its details? That's very unlikely to happen, and I'm not aware of anyone who holds that position, Craig S. Keener included. No matter how similar two experiences might be, you will always find some differences. No two persons have the exact same testimony. My understanding of the continuationist position is that the Holy Spirit is still willing and able to grant the supernatural ability to speak a previously unknown language, but that doesn't mean that the experience and the context need to be exact copies of Acts chapter 2.
    – Mark
    Apr 3 at 0:35
  • @NigelJ Some cases might be more or less similar to what happened in Acts 2, sure, but expecting an exact copy is just setting the bar way too high in terms of expectations, without a justification for such an expectation.
    – Mark
    Apr 3 at 0:36
  • 2
    You have veered off on to another subject. You are now talking about 'unknown languages'. In Acts 2, all the languages were known earthly languages. What you are now discussing is another question altogether. (Which question I did not ask.)
    – Nigel J
    Apr 3 at 0:41
  • 1
    Ah, I see. Thank you for clearing that up. Myself, I have never met a continuationist who had the gift of speaking in earthly languages which they had never studied and could not possibly have learnt (and therefore they would need a foreign speaker to accompany them if they were going to address a congregation). I have only met continuationists who claimed to speak in non-earthly languages. (Which nobody could interpret and therefore there was never anyone to substantiate that any real gift existed.) But I see what you are saying - yes, indeed.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 3 at 0:51

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