Works of God in Our Tongues (Acts 2:1-11)

by Joseph M. McShane, S.J.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 10, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The public message of Pentecost is a challenge to all the peoples of the earth to discover their unity as children of God. It does not support isolation in Christian sects, which claim an exclusive monopoly on the Spirit and demand conversion to the language and mores of their tribe as the price of salvation.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God" [Acts 2:1-11].

Pentecost affirms that there is a different spirit, which God gives the churches to renew and transform human life. Renewal and transformation take place in the Christian community guided and filled with the Spirit (I Cor. 12:4-13) It is very easy to romanticize the Scripture passages which speak of the Spirit at work in the community. The Pentecost story in Acts seems a miraculous, one--time-only communication of the gospel to crowds gathered from throughout the world. The guidance of the Spirit-Paraclete, a prominent feature of life in the Johannine churches, might seem a mystic experience of union with Christ and the Father that did not survive the apostolic generation. The Fourth Gospel itself notes the passing of the apostolic leaders, Peter and the beloved disciple.

Paul’s vision of the varied gifts of Christians working together in harmony under the direction of the Spirit remains just that (I Cor. 12A-13) We pay lip service to the ideal, but face a pastoral reality in which harmony or unity is achieved only by rejecting the gifts of some. We may acknowledge that the Spirit dwells in all Christians, but we find it very difficult to demonstrate that we are the heirs of God about which Paul writes (Rom. 8:8-17) In any case, we frequently think that all experiences of spiritual transformation belong to the private, individual realm of experience. They are not open to public observation or communal participation, except in the more Pentecostal forms of Christian worship.

Romanticizing the primitive days of the church and privatizing religious experience make it difficult for most of us to grasp the public significance of Pentecost. Luke’s account in Acts highlights the public importance of the event. This dramatic manifestation of God’s presence is not oriented toward the communal practice of glossolalia. Rather, the gift of tongues becomes a gift of speaking in other languages so that people from throughout the world could hear "the mighty works of God" (2:11) Even that miraculous event remains incomplete and misunderstood until it is interpreted by the apostolic preaching. God has fulfilled a promise to bring salvation to all in the last days. The death and heavenly exaltation of Jesus as Lord has inaugurated this new age.

Luke’s table of nations takes in not only those living in Palestine or in the Roman Empire, but even those beyond its boundaries in Parthia and Mesopotamia. Exegetes trace the origins of such a list to the work of ancient geographers and astrologers. It represents a catalog of all the peoples of the earth and presents in miniature the cross-cultural challenge that still faces Christianity. One public manifestation of the Spirit is proclaiming a message of salvation. And the "mighty deeds of God," which constitute the experience of God’s power, are no longer limited to a particular people, a particular language or cultural group. Christianity gave ritual expression to this conviction in baptismal initiation. All persons became children of the one God, whom they addressed as Abba, Father, regardless of the human divisions of gender, race or status.

Luke expresses the dilemma of particularity seeking universality in the crowd’s reaction to the apostles. How can these Galileans be speaking of God to other nationalities, in their own tongues? On one level, Christian missionaries have faced this challenge by seeking to render the Bible in all the languages of the world. Such efforts required the recording and description of many languages, which would otherwise have remained the possession of local tribes. On another level, the links between Christian missionaries and the global expansion of European and North American commerce and culture have reduced Christianity to a new form of particularity. It provides the symbolic and religious underpinnings of the white, Northern European and American claim to control and dominate all the peoples of the globe.

The public message of Pentecost is a challenge to all the peoples of the earth to discover their unity as children of God. It does not support isolation in Christian sects, which claim an exclusive monopoly on the Spirit and demand conversion to the language and mores of their tribe as the price of salvation. Pentecost affirms the cultural and linguistic diversity of all the peoples of the earth. Its message of forgiveness summons all peoples to the common cause of justice and seeing that life prevails over death.