Speaking in Tongues: What the Bible Actually Teaches

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 sam