What the Bible Says About Speaking in Tongues
“We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Acts 2:11
A recent study by Infinity Concepts and Grey Matter Research found that about one-quarter of surveyed evangelicals claim to have spoken in tongues. Speaking in tongues is often practiced in Pentecostal and some charismatic churches. Those who subscribe to other faiths commonly regard it either as gibberish and nonsense brought on by overzealous worship, or they do not know anything about it. People who have spoken in tongues or heard others do it believe it is absolutely real.
The Bible mentions speaking in tongues less than a handful of times and only in the New Testament. If we are to discover if this ancient practice is real or not, even today, we must study the Word of God. Let us look first at the only time anyone in the Bible spoke it.
The Day of Pentecost
The events of Acts 2 occurred not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection three days later. He then appeared to the disciples and over 500 others (1 Corinthians 15:6). One of His final messages before His ascension back to heaven was His promise to send the Holy Spirit.
“You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5)
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:8)
Ten days later, the Day of Pentecost arrived. It is the fiftieth day after Passover and Jesus’ death on the cross. It is also a time to celebrate the Jewish festival called the Feast of Weeks. The festival draws thousands of Jews from around the region every year, packing the streets of Jerusalem.
The festival is why the disciples and certain other followers of Christ gathered in the upper room (likely the same upper room as when they ate the Last Supper the night before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion). As they prayed, the wind began to get rather blustery.
“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2)
Little did the disciples know the entire world was about to change forever.
Wind and Fire
The Bible records the miracle and the chaos that quickly erupted as the wind continued blowing.
“Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of [the disciples]. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (v3–4)
Just as Jesus promised, He sent the Holy Spirit to baptize everyone in the upper room spiritually. They saw what looked like flames hover above each of their heads. Wind and fire are often used symbolically in the Bible. Wind is used scripturally to indicate the Holy Spirit, and fire is used to indicate God’s presence (see also Exodus 3 and 13).
However, in Acts 2, the “divided tongues” were not literal flames but rather spiritual indicators. Notice the verse says, “as of fire,” and not actual fire. This miracle was God’s sovereign way of illustrating the enormity of what was occurring. They needed a visibly divine display, or they may not have understood the significance of the Spirit’s coming.
The people packing the streets also heard the wind rushing. Then, suddenly, confusion set in. Everyone was speaking other languages, including those they did not intellectually know. Everyone could suddenly speak clearly to each other no matter who they were or where they were from.
The disciples heard the confusion in the streets, so they rushed outside to see what was happening. It did not take long for Peter to step forward and begin preaching the gospel (v14–39), where 3,000 people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior (v41), and the Christian church was born.
What is Speaking in Tongues?
In Acts 2, those speaking in tongues were not speaking as some might imagine today. They were speaking actual earthly languages that other people could understand. Whoever they talked to, the other person was able to understand them. However, not one person knew how to speak the other languages, which tells us God was performing another miracle.
Why would God do such a thing?
The Holy Spirit speaks through us for three reasons:
- To offer praise and worship to the Father
- To edify the church
- To provide a sign to unbelievers
Look again at verse four of Acts 2.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
The Bible uses the word tongue in several ways. First, the phrase “other tongues” in verse four indicates the people were speaking with a knowable language through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible will also use the phrase “in a tongue,” singular. This phrase usually refers to false gibberish used by counterfeit pagans pretending to be spiritual. It was a practice that some people learned from the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah.
Third, the Bible sometimes phrases it as “tongues,” plural. When we see this form, the writer is referring to the genuine gift of speaking a foreign or common human language. Though people may not understand what a person is saying, it still accomplishes one of the three goals mentioned above.
However, the Holy Spirit does not want to waste His message, which is why we need an interpreter. The apostle Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 14.
Reasons for Speaking in Tongues
Paul defines speaking in tongues in three ways: its importance in prophesying and interpreting, its purpose as a sign to unbelievers, and the need for orderliness when someone speaks.
First, Paul clearly states that prophesying is more important than speaking in tongues.
“I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied.” (1 Corinthians 14:5)
Notice that Paul refers to a genuine gift of languages through the Holy Spirit (“with tongues,” plural). Though God distributes His gifts through His sovereign will (1 Corinthians 12:11), Paul desires that we all possess the gift of tongues just as he did (v18). However, more importantly, he wishes we would prophesy, which would be more valuable to the church.
The Need for An Interpreter
Speaking in tongues and prophesying can only edify the church if someone interprets the language. 1 Corinthians 14 tells us any time a word from the Lord is given by speaking in tongues, He also gifts someone with interpretation.
“Therefore, let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” (v13)
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or, at the most, three, each in turn, and let one interpret.” (v27)
Without an interpretation, the message is lost, and the church is not edified.
“If I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.” (v11)
Edification of the church is always the priority, especially if the church is wayward, such as was the Corinthian church. The counterfeits feigning spiritual gifts had grown into a problem, which is why Paul offered a corrective path. His message is if there is no interpreter, the person prophesying might be a fraud.
“Therefore, let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” (v13)
Why is interpretation necessary? Paul explains.
“For if I pray in a [counterfeit] tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. [But] if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?” (v13,16, my additions)
The spiritual gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit is never unintelligible nonsense but a human language meant for translation to build up the church.
“Let all things be done for edification.” (v26)
A Sign to Unbelievers
Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11–12 in verse 21.
“With men of other tongues and other lips, I will speak to this people. And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me.”
Centuries before, Isaiah had already prophesied that God would use men who speak foreign languages as a sign to unbelieving Israel.
Both Isaiah and the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 5:15) warned Judah that men speaking foreign languages would be a sign of God’s judgment. God kept His promise when they fell to the Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians.
Similarly, the people speaking foreign languages on the Day of Pentecost were not only a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit but also a sign to unbelievers of another impending judgment. God again fulfilled His word when the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 A.D.
The purpose, whether speaking in tongues or prophesying, is to bring unbelievers to the saving knowledge of the gospel.
“And thus, the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.” (v25)
However, speaking in tongues has no purpose if everyone present is a believer.
When believers come together, who is to benefit from the Spirit’s message? But if an unbeliever is present, then God might (according to His sovereign will) provide an interpretation so that the unbeliever will understand, experience conviction, and come to faith.
Church Orderliness When Speaking in Tongues
Paul then tells the church how the genuine gift of tongues brings orderliness to church meetings. He instructs them:
- There should only be two or three people speaking in a service
- They should only speak one at a time
- Speak only with an interpreter present
If one meets these conditions but there is no interpreter, those with the gift of tongues are to remain silent and pray. The church establishes orderliness and respect when they follow these rules.
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11)
Similarly, Paul provides instruction about those who prophesy — only two or three people could speak, and only one at a time. They also were to judge each other’s words and whoever was speaking was to defer to the one receiving the message from God.
Though necessary in Paul’s day, this set of instructions does not apply to us today since no one has the gift of prophecy any longer. None of Paul’s other epistle letters mentions prophecy, so it seems evident that such a gift ceased existing even before the end of the apostle’s ministries in the New Testament.
This is also true of apostles. The Bible defines apostles as someone who personally witnessed Jesus’ resurrection (1 Corinthians 9:1), was personally appointed by Jesus as in Paul’s case (Acts 9:15), and performed signs and wonders to lay down the foundation of the church (Acts 2:43; 2 Corinthians 12:12).
Since the apostle John’s death, apostles no longer exist, and no one is still laying the church’s foundation 2,000 years later. Instead, evangelists and teachers have replaced both apostles and prophets.
Speaking with the Tongues of Angels
It is controversial whether someone can speak in a divine, heavenly language that sounds to human ears like gibberish. Even this author has experienced someone speaking in such a way, but there was almost always an interpreter. Was the experience not from God?
Paul himself refers to speaking with the tongues of angels.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
It may seem, as some claim, as if Paul is indicating that people can speak in a tongue that only angels speak. But this is not so. Paul uses this choice of wording as an exaggeration to make his point about the importance of love.
Even if he could speak a heavenly language, he would only be a source of noise if he did not have love. Paul is referring to pagan ritual practices of banging cymbals and blasting horns, which had become a big problem in the Corinthian church. It is also why he addresses pagan counterfeits who claim they can speak in tongues in chapter 14.
Again, Paul exaggerates when he talks about faith moving mountains in the next verse. Our faith cannot actually move mountains. He is simply pointing out the importance of love in a Christian’s heart.
Pray and Seek
Scripture does not support the existence of a heavenly language, only an earthly one. Does that mean God, through His Holy Spirit, can still deliver a message to a local church body through some kind of heavenly language, along with an interpreter? Many might find it debatable. But we must remember that anything is possible with God.
If you feel you have this gift, pray and seek the Lord about it. If He sovereignly wills it for you to say something, He will. Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you. Be open to His voice. Be assured that if He gives you a message, He’ll tell you what to say and deliver you to whoever should hear it.