Question: I am a new Christian and would like to know what happened on the Day of Pentecost. What does Acts 2:4 mean when it says, "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues?"
Answer: "Pentecost," meaning "fifty," was an Old Testament Jewish festival, observed fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:9-14). It was on a particular Day of Pentecost, following the Ascension of Christ into Heaven (Acts 1:9-11), that the Holy Spirit came in power upon the early disciples who were "gathered with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). We are told that "there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting, And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them" (vss. 2-3). As the disciples were "filled" with the Spirit they "began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (vs. 4).
In this verse, the original word translated "tongues" is glossa, the word from which we get our English term "glossolalia," the technical term for speaking in tongues. A study of Acts 2 demonstrates that "tongues" means "languages." Acts 2:6 explains: ". . . every man heard them speak in his own language [dialektos]."
The original word for "language" is dialektos. You can hear the English word "dialect" in dialektos, a word meaning "the language of a particular region." In Acts 2:8 the question was asked: "How hear we every man in our own dialektos?" or "How hear we every man in the language of our own region?"
There are three other places in the Book of Acts that show us the meaning of the word dialektos, and, on each occasion, the word clearly means "language." For example, in Acts 21:40 we are told that Paul spoke to the people in the Hebrew dialektos, or "in the Hebrew language" (see also 22:2; 26:14). From this it would appear reasonable to conclude that the miracle of Pentecost involved communication through languages that had never been learned.
On that particular Day of Pentecost there were people from 16 different linguistic groups present. Acts 2:9 and following tells us that there were Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and those who were dwelling in Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, foreigners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians. They all said, "we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2:11).
The same terminology is used to describe what happened to Cornelius and his household who were also heard to "speak with tongues [languages], and magnify God" (Acts 10:46). Later, Peter related the experience of Cornelius and his household to what happened at Pentecost: "And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water: but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?"
In these wonderful accounts of divine enablement, we see God the Holy Spirit reversing what happened at Babel. Linguistic barriers were torn down, and the Gospel message of Christ went forth.