I believe that spiritual gifts are as useful for this present age as they were for the first century church. The church is still in need of edification, and the world needs to know the Savior. Spiritual gifts are a way in which these two needs can be fulfilled. However, I advocate the proper use of spiritual gifts, a number of which have become distorted through misguided interpretation. One of these misused gifts is speaking in tongues. Before I delve into Scripture for an explanation, I would like to briefly explain why this topic is important to me.
When I was ten years old, I was convinced that I had received the gift of speaking in tongues. Prior to receiving it, I had learned about it in church (I grew up Pentecostal). Even in a Missionettes class (a Bible study for girls) I was taught to start saying syllables and hopefully the heavenly language would just flow out. Over the years I observed others with the “gift” and was taught that speaking in tongues was a heavenly language that was between God and me. Even though I couldn’t understand what I was saying, it was supposedly a powerful prayer tool, and I even heard from the pulpit that the enemy can’t understand what I’m saying to God when I speak in tongues. I was taught that it couldn’t be controlled, like the Spirit just takes over. I believed most of these things for quite a few years. I’ve even been in services when people were encouraged to raise their voices in their heavenly languages, and a chorus of “unknown languages” rang out. But then I noticed my “language” started to change. It began to sound like languages I’ve learned or heard before. Questions began forming in my mind about the validity of this gift, but I pushed them aside for a few more years. It wasn’t until I was confronted about it with Scripture that I realized what I had learned in church and what Scripture teaches about speaking in tongues (which I will address below) were at odds with one another. I no longer “speak in tongues,” but my prayer life has been the better for it. However, I do believe that there is a spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, but it’s different from the Pentecostal view.
First, I would like to discuss the end of Luke 24 and Acts 1-2. In Luke 24 Jesus is about to ascend to heaven, but before this event, He tells His disciples something important in vv. 46-49: “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” In Acts 1 Luke reiterates these events. It is important to note in Acts 1:2-8 that Jesus is speaking specifically to the Apostles about the Holy Spirit coming upon them. He makes it clear that they (the Apostles) will receive power from the Holy Spirit, they will be His witnesses, and they will proclaim the Gospel in all of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem. Again, vv. 12-13 also mention that it is the eleven Apostles who are given these instructions. Luke’s account continues with how the Apostles and others gather together to devote themselves to prayer. On one occasion, when there are about 120 people gathered (v. 15), Peter speaks up and says that another man should take Judas’ place among the Apostles. This event ends with Matthias being chosen. When Acts 2 begins, Luke is writing about the day of Pentecost, a different day than when the 120 were gathered together. I think many people assume that all of these people were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; however, Scripture does not indicate this. Let’s take a look at what happened.
Acts 2:1 opens with “When the day of Pentecost had come.” This indicates that this day is different from the previous event. It continues by saying that “they were all together in one place.” The closest reference to “they” is the Apostles, but I also think that Acts 2:14 affirms this claim. We’ll get to that in a moment. In vv. 2-3, we read about a noise from heaven “like a violent rushing wind” that fills the house and about tongues like fire which were being distributed and resting on each person present. Then v. 4 says, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” If we stop here, the Pentecostal view of an unknown, heavenly language still seems to fit, but the actual meaning of “tongues” is further explained in the following verses. Verse 5 is a parenthetical note, but it’s important for this passage. It states that there were Jews living in Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven.” This indicates that they didn’t all speak the same language, which v. 6 affirms: “And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.” In v. 7 these same men are astonished because they know that the men speaking in tongues are from Galilee, meaning that they shouldn’t be able to speak all of the languages being spoken. Scripture provides even more clarification about this manifestation of the Spirit. The Jews say again in v. 8, “And how is it that we each hear them in our language to which we were born?” These men have been living in Jerusalem, yet they hear their native tongue, obviously a known language. Verses 9-11 make this point even more clearly by listing all the nations and regions where these Jews are from. If you look at a map that many Bibles provide, you’ll notice that there’s no way that these Galileans would have known all of these languages. Verse 11 also adds the Jews’ remark, “we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” Two major points to grasp so far is that this first example of speaking in tongues involves speaking known languages, and it is meant to testify about God’s greatness. Let’s continue.
While some people remain perplexed (v. 12), others mock the Apostles by basically saying they are drunk (v. 13). Verse 14 is the beginning of Peter’s defense: “But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words.’” In my opinion, this verse affirms that this specific filling of the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles because of what Jesus said in Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8. The Gospel will be preached in Jerusalem first. Also, Peter is still addressing the same men, which means that he is still speaking in tongues here because the Jews understand him. As you can read for yourself, Peter not only defends their speaking in tongues through Joel’s prophecy (vv. 17-21), but more importantly, he shares the Gospel (vv. 22-36). When the Jews hear what Peter has to say “they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (v. 37). They are told to repent and be baptized (v. 38). After these things they will receive the Holy Spirit (v. 38). Verse 41 testifies that about 3,000 people received Peter’s message and were baptized that day. The Holy Spirit enabled the Apostles to preach the Gospel in many languages at once and many were saved.
This moment in Acts marked the beginning of the church. Consider the magnitude of this situation. Literally thousands of people are hearing about Christ in their own language, and they become saved. These people could then share this good news with people in their native tongue. How quickly the Gospel would have spread! Jesus gave specific instructions to His Apostles to wait in Jerusalem so that the Holy Spirit would empower them to preach the Gospel to these people. Some Christians argue that the sign of being baptized in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues, and they use Acts 1 and 2 as proof texts. However, as I’ve repeated, the fact that Jesus told His Apostles that they (specifically) would be baptized with the Holy Spirit is important. Also, when they were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke other languages, it wasn’t something between just them and God. Additionally, they understood what they were saying because they were speaking in their own native tongue while others heard them differently. Ultimately, speaking in tongues was God’s way of using the Apostles to preach the Gospel to unbelievers. I’m not saying that the Apostles were the only people to receive this gift. Acts 10:46; 19:6 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 say otherwise, but I believe the reason why the Spirit empowered the Apostles in such a magnificent way was to usher in the beginning of the church. Their example in Acts is important to keep in mind when reading 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 because Scripture does not contradict itself. Also, the Apostles were the leaders of the church who were empowered by God, and this manifestation of the Holy Spirit demonstrated their authority. With Acts 1 and 2 fresh in our minds, let’s take a brief look at 1 Cor. 12 and discuss 1 Cor. 14.
Paul writes in 1 Cor. 12:4-7, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He continues by listing all the different gifts and says in v. 11, “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” Speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues are listed among the gifts, but there is no indication that these particular gifts are what define someone as being baptized in the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, not everyone receives the same gifts. This is one reason why the body of Christ needs to be unified, both the honorable and less honorable parts (vv. 12-26). Also notice in v. 28 that the gift of “various kinds of tongues” is listed last. Then, in 1 Cor. 13 Paul explains how love is the greatest of all gifts. Without it, other gifts are useless, including prophecy and speaking in tongues. I believe he specifically mentions these two gifts in order to discuss them further in 1 Cor. 14. (Keep in mind that chapter breaks are man-made so all of these chapters are meant to be read together.)
In 1 Cor. 14, Paul seems to be addressing speaking in tongues because it had become important to the Corinthians; however, he encourages them to desire the gift of prophecy because it edifies the whole church body. Let’s take a look at what he tells the church in vv. 1-19:
“Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit (or by the Spirit) he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (Bold words added for emphasis)
As you may have noticed, Paul talks quite a bit about edifying the church. The function of any spiritual gift is to edify the church and bring others into the kingdom, which we read about in Acts. One of the differences between Acts and 1 Cor. 14 is the addition of interpretation of tongues. In Acts 2 there was no need for interpretation because both the speakers and hearers understood what was being said. I believe that speaking in tongues can manifest itself in such a way today. I have heard a couple of testimonies relaying experiences like this. Acts 2 also refers to a situation where there were men who spoke many different languages. Imagine how long it would take for a person to interpret what was being said into every language. In Corinthians, Paul is talking about a setting in which the church is gathered together. It is most likely that many of them speak the same language, but not all, since speaking in tongues is still encouraged. Paul explains that the one who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues because he can edify the entire church. The only time a person who speaks in tongues edifies the church is if he or someone else can interpret. The need for interpretation means that the language he is speaking is not understood by everyone. There is no discussion about it being a heavenly, unknown language. Instead, Paul says that one’s speech should be clear like musical instruments which play a distinct tone. If an instrument produces an indistinct sound, its meaning is unknown, which could be detrimental in important situations like calling men to battle. Likewise, if a person has the gift of speaking in tongues, it has to be made clear for those who hear; otherwise it is confusing and worthless. Paul plainly states that there are many languages (or sounds) in the world, and none is without meaning. The whole point Paul is driving at in this first part of 1 Cor. 14 is that believers should strive to edify the church. He encourages people to desire prophecy, but if they speak in tongues, they should pray to interpret what is being said. The second part of this chapter further explains the purpose of speaking in tongues and how to maintain order within the church. Let’s read 1 Cor. 14: 20-40:
“Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,’ says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.”
The phrase “strange tongues” in the citation from the Law is referring to foreign languages, not unknown languages. Paul uses this OT passage to teach that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, which we read about in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit didn’t empower the Apostles so that they could speak in tongues to each other or just to God. Rather, He empowered them to speak to the unbelieving Jews who needed to hear the Gospel message. Also, in Acts 10:46, I believe the Holy Spirit enabled the believing Gentiles to speak in tongues as a testimony to the believing Jews that the Gentiles, too, can receive the Holy Spirit (since this was debated). However, in Corinthians, Paul explains that if everyone in the church speaks in tongues and an unbeliever or ungifted person walks in, they will think everyone is crazy. There needs to be interpretation and order. Prophecy, on the other hand, is a sign for believers, not unbelievers. It is used to edify the body. However, prophecy can also convict an unbelieving person. Paul writes that if everyone in the church prophesies, an unbelieving or ungifted person is convicted in his heart. All of his secrets are revealed, and he will worship God, understanding that God is among these people.
After this, Paul further instructs that when the church meets together, each person may have something to offer, whether it’s a psalm, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, etc.; however, everything must be done for the edification of the church. He provides specific instructions for tongues. When the church meets, only two or three at most should speak (in turn) and a person must interpret. If there is no interpreter, then a person should keep quiet and speak only to God. The idea of an entire assembly speaking in tongues at once (often without interpretation) seems to contradict Scripture. The idea of praying for someone in tongues without interpretation doesn’t fit either. Remember from the first part of 1 Cor. 14, if people cannot understand what is being said in tongues, it is like speaking to the air: worthless. The instructions for prophecy are somewhat similar. Two or three prophets should speak, but others should pass judgment. This means that the assembly should discern whether their words are from God or not. They still are to speak in an orderly fashion. As many of us have heard before, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (v. 33). In v. 37 Paul makes it clear that his instructions are the Lord’s commandment (yes, even the one about women keeping silent in church and asking their husbands at home. This is a topic for another post). He affirms this statement in v. 38 by saying that if someone does not recognize these teachings as being from the Lord, that person is not recognized. Paul encourages the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues, but everything should be done in the proper manner (vv. 39-40) and for the edification of the church.
After reviewing Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, I believe we can come to a few conclusions about speaking in tongues. First, it involves known languages. There is no evidence that people receive a special, heavenly, unknown language that no one on earth understands but God. This also means that the enemy can understand what a person is saying. The enemy knows our innermost thoughts. That’s how he can trap and tempt us. He knows more about us than we do, and no language is going to stop that. That’s why we need to guard our hearts and minds. Second, there needs to be an interpreter. I believe there are situations when tongues can be understood by the hearer(s) like in Acts. God can work that way; however, that was to a group of unbelievers, people who needed to hear the Gospel. That is why speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers as Paul mentions. In a church setting, there needs to be an interpreter, whether it’s the person speaking in tongues or someone else with the interpretation gift. People need to understand what is being said, or there’s no point speaking at all. Third, all gifts should be used for the edification of the church. If a person wants to continue speaking in tongues without an interpretation then he or she needs to stay silent and speak to God. This means that a person can control speaking in tongues. Also, if someone wants to pray for another person, he should pray in his own language. That way both the speaker and the one receiving prayer understand what is being said, and the latter can be edified and encouraged. Fourth, speaking in tongues is to be conducted in an orderly manner. Two or three people at the most can speak and only with an interpreter present. Everyone should be edified. Spiritual gifts are given to us by the Spirit, not to be directed back to God, but rather to encourage others in the Lord and bring people to the knowledge of Christ.
Speaking in tongues in the biblical sense can be useful. Paul says that he speaks in tongues more than all of the Corinthians, and he’s thankful for it. It makes sense when we consider that Paul traveled quite a bit planting churches in many different regions. Having the gift of tongues would have been beneficial in spreading the Gospel. It can also be beneficial if we minister in areas where no one speaks our language. Speaking in tongues is not a selfish gift meant to stay between a person and God. It is also not a secret weapon against the enemy. It is for unbelievers who need to come to the knowledge of Christ and for the edification of believers when an interpretation is given.
I realize that many people I know will be offended or put off by this post, but I believe all of this to be the truth. I, too, have gone through the experience of what I thought was speaking in tongues. Instead, I believe it was more of a suggestive experience. I was constantly exposed to the Pentecostal experience of speaking in tongues and desired to receive it in this same way. I have also talked about all of these things with a close person in my life who had the same speaking in tongues experience. At first this person did not agree with what I had to say but took time to search the Scriptures and pray about it. After some time, she conceded that Scripture taught something different than her experience, and she realized that she got more out of praying with understanding. Experiences are difficult to contend with, but everything must be tested against the truth of Scripture. Sometimes preachers’ teachings and Scripture are not in sync, and this needs to be corrected. We all need to grow and be edified by the body of Christ. Let us do it with truth and understanding.
If anyone has any questions or comments I would be happy to respond. Know that all of this has been written with love and after much prayer and consideration.
© Lauren Heiligenthal