Yes, this article is about the phenomenon known as ‘speaking in tongues’. The subject of ‘tongues’ is perhaps the most clouded of any biblical topic today. In hope to honour God, the Scripture and Christian spirituality, I offer my current understanding of this issue.
‘Tongues’ in the book of Acts – The Gospel in ALL languages
The first chronological occurrence of ‘tongues’ in Scripture is at Pentecost in Acts 2.
Luke describes it as amazing and perplexing. “So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘Whatever could this mean?’ ” (2:12) The Apostles, who likely could only speak in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek ‘tongues’ (languages), were speaking ‘the wonderful works of God’ (2:11) in the language of MANY different language groups present at Pentecost – Parthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, (the list goes on in 2:9-11.)
They weren’t speaking gibberish, and they weren’t speaking unknown or ‘heavenly’ languages. The Spirit was miraculously giving them the ability (2:4) to speak ‘the wonderful works of God’ in many different, human, every-day languages.
I’m not sure if we understand how important the Hebrew language was to Jewish people (and still is!). The idea of nation (as in, God’s holy nation of Israel) was inseperable from the tongue (language) of that nation. The attitude of most Jews was that the other nations/tongues weren’t God’s chosen nations/tongues! What was going on at Pentecost was very significant! God was working outside the box! In short, the Gospel was going to go to the filthy, pagan, stinking, non-Hebrew-speaking Gentiles – at least the ones who had faith in Christ.
This was a big deal. Later, in the book of Acts, Peter receives a vision that (among other things) makes it clear that Gentiles were no longer to be shunned. “…You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nations. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (10:28 – and surrounding verses!)
Later on, after Paul is converted to the ‘Way’ of Christ, Luke records a specific occurrence of Gentiles who received the Spirit upon hearing ‘the word’ (the Gospel). The Jewish people couldn’t believe it. “…those of the circumcision who believed (Jewish believers in Christ) were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues (other languages) and magnify God.” Acts 10:45-46
That’s right. Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit that ‘those of the circumcision’ thought was only for them! Gentiles magnifying God in their filthy non-Hebrew language!
Again, these converts weren’t speaking gibberish or unknown languages. The Apostles (possibly themselves knowing these ‘other Gentile languages’ – or at least enough of them to discern what was being said…) knew that God was being glorified. Their ‘astonishment’ wasn’t because of the speaking itself (as if it was something weird), but was rather because of their surprise that ‘the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also’ (which was VERY weird for a pious Jew!).
I won’t take the time to show all the verses in Acts about the ‘door of faith’ being opened to the Gentiles – there are too many of them! This new movement of God is actually one of the primary themes of the entire Book of Acts. Just read the book of Acts and look for this theme. It’s obvious. (and I try not to use that word too often…)
‘Tongues’ in 1 Corinthians – ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the body.’
If we are to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians well, we need to understand why he wrote to them in the first place. We get some key clues from within the letter itself. The Corinthians were good examples of the Roman mindset and lifestyle. In the letter, we clearly see that the Corinthians were prideful about many things. For example, when Paul reminds them in 1:5 that their ‘knowledge’ and ‘utterance’ were enrichments ‘in Him’, we can safely assume that they needed to be reminded of that. You get the idea that they had forgotten this – or needed to be informed of it.
Paul doesn’t waste any time in getting into rebuking the Corinthians for many things. We see that the Corinthians were quite proud of their ‘wisdom’, which Paul humbles them on. Paul points to his own ‘foolish’ preaching when he was with them and suggests that true ‘wisdom’ is found within this ‘foolishness’ (chapters 1 & 2). I would love to go on, but this article is about ‘tongues’; so on to chapter 12 we must go.
The first mention of ‘tongues’ in chapter 12 is verse 10, which is within a series of activities that Paul is mentioning. “…to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues…” Two things feature here for me: 1) the word ‘kinds’ means that there are not just one type of ‘tongue’ but rather several/many ‘kinds’ – which would make sense if we see ‘tongues’ as languages. 2) ‘Tongues’ is here (and elsewhere) paired with the ‘interpretation’ of them – which again makes sense if they are foreign/Gentile/human languages.
After this, Paul takes about 15 verses to discuss the need for unity in the ‘body’ and then the chapter ends with another series of roles/activities, and that not everyone has these roles/activities. The series seems divided into at least two: the ‘appointed’, numbered ones (“…first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”) and those ‘after’ that (“…miracles, then gifts of healings, helps administrations, varieties of tongues.”). It seems interesting to note that the non-normative activities (miracles and healings) are grouped with the seemingly more normative ones (helps, administrations and the varieties of tongues).
Then comes Chapter 13. It begins with a literary pattern that is not mentioned often. Paul moves through various activities, giving a ‘big’ example followed by a ‘lofty’ example.
-Though I speak with the tongues of men…
…and of angels
-though I have the gift of prophecy…
…and understand all mysteries and all knowledge
-though I have all faith…
…so that I could remove mountains
-though I bestow all my goods…
…and give my body to be burned
I don’t know anyone who claims to understand all mysteries and all knowledge; or to have removed mountains; or to have the ‘gift’ of giving their body to be burned, but strangely, I often hear people describe their ‘gift of tongues’ as a ‘heavenly’ or ‘angelic’ language based on this passage. I’m not sure that’s what Paul’s point is… The point, of course, is the supremacy of Love.
The only other place ‘tongues’ is mentioned in chapter 13 is when it is said that they will ‘cease’. The next 2 verses seem to suggest that this will happen ‘when that which is perfect (complete) has come’. I’ve heard this passage used to support the view that ‘tongues, miracles, healings – and probably anything else non-normative – ‘ceased’ after the Bible was written, or after the Apostles died. That seems forced to me, to say the least. Verse 12 seems to suggest that the ‘perfect’ that will come is either Jesus Himself or the New Heaven/Earth (or both?). So I say with no hesitation, whatever ‘tongues’ are, they most certainly have not ‘ceased’.
We have finally reached chapter 14 – THE ‘tongues’ chapter. As we move through the chapter, keep in mind that the main goal for Paul is for the church to grow and be edified. Everyone agrees that people in this church were speaking in ‘tongues’ and some (many? all?) didn’t understand what was being said.
This chapter is where the conversation about tongues takes many different directions. Words like ‘spirit’, ‘mysteries’, ‘mind’, ‘understanding’, and ‘sign’ are taken in wildly different ways. Indeed, it is a daunting task to try and sort through them all.
I offer the following statements from what I see in chapter 14 (with verses noted):
- The ‘tongues’ here are (as everywhere else) human languages/dialects. (14:10-11)
- Paul strongly suggests (demands?) that ‘tongues’ be interpreted for edification. (14:5, 13, 26-28)
- The speaker him/herself should try to interpret the ‘tongues’. (14:5, 9, 13, 15?, 19?)
- Speaking/praying ‘in(by) the Spirit’ is simply to speak/pray truthful, godly, spirit-directed statements/prayers. ALL speaking/praying ‘in(by) they Spirit is good for YOU (and God certainly understands you!), but Paul reminds the Corinthians that when ‘in church (gathering)’, they must seek to ensure that the speaking/praying is not only ‘in(by) the Spirit’, but also is understandable for others to be edified. (14:2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13-17, 19)
- The Lord speaks to/through people of all languages (Isaiah 28:11 – quoted in 14:21), which is a ‘sign’ to unbelievers of God’s character, but ‘in the church’, if everyone spoke with ‘tongues’ those unbelievers would have quite a different impression! (14:23)
Other things to consider: 1) Corinth was a multi-lingual city, having two sea-ports and being a large center for trading from all over the known world. Speaking and interpreting other languages would have been more than a little helpful! 2) The Greek language was the most widely spoken/written/known language. You were on safe ground using it. If you used another language, you risked not being understood. 3) The Greeks/Romans called the ‘uncivilized’ people on the edges of their Empire ‘barbarians’. They didn’t speak Greek.
I offer these further statements with these 3 points in mind:
- A ‘tongue’-speaker may indeed mean ‘someone who isn’t (at least for the moment) speaking Greek’ (14:5, 13)
- Paul would have known many languages of the Greek/Roman world. (14:6, 10, 14, 18)
- If Paul prayed in a language other than Greek (which he probably knew best – other than Hebrew, perhaps), his prayer was indeed ‘in(by) the Spirit’, but praying in Greek was better for others – and even his own understanding of his prayer. (14:6, 11, 14-15)
- The frequency of the idea of ‘edification’ in chapter 14, and its ending suggest that the main point is for order, learning and instruction. Which probably means that there was dis-order, confusion and arguments present – and pride. (14:1, 12, 20, 31, 33, 37-40)
Today – Miracles, Experiences and Love
Let me be blunt. To suggest that God ‘doesn’t do miracles’ today is not only dependent on shabby Bible interpretation, but is to deny the God of all power His power. Also, let me assert that my ‘non-miraculous’ reading of ‘tongues’ (excepting the Acts 2 occurrence) in NO way needs to be seen as ‘de-miracle-izing’ God.
God is holding the entire universe together, and without his power, not a single blade of grass would grow. The distinction between the so-called ‘natural’ and ‘super-natural’ is a post-Enlightenment distinction, not a Biblical one. God caused and called nature itself into being – including the surprising and miraculous things that seem to defy nature. The Bible gives us no ‘laws of nature’ for which God must ‘break’ to do a miracle. He is God, and that… is the end of that.
Also, let me say that I fully believe God can and does give people TODAY miraculous language-speaking-abilities in similar fashion to the Acts 2 occurrence. But again, these are not private, heavenly languages, but languages of humans. Humans whom God wants to hear the Gospel of Christ. He is God. He is able to do anything consistent with His own nature.
I do not, however, believe everything I hear, nor everything I read, nor everything I see on T.V. Experience alone, while not to be ridiculed or devalued, is not the final say. Though God can and does heal physically, people at healing meetings full of adrenaline who can honestly ‘feel’ healed, all-too-often end up not being.
Sadly, people can ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things that aren’t real. I don’t believe in the monster under the bed, but I nearly convinced myself as a kid that he was there. To put it another way, if you think you have to be baptised by immersion to be saved, you’re probably going to be baptised by immersion. If you think you have to ‘speak in tongues’ to be saved or a ‘full-on’ believer, you’re certainly more likely to give it a try.
It has to do with our expectations. Well-meaning and genuine believers in Jesus who see and hear others in their faith community speaking in ecstatic ‘gibberish’ (I know of no better word to describe what is often seen/heard) are certainly more likely to do it themselves. In some church settings, the teaching is that this is an essential for true conversion – commonly with back-room ‘training’ sessions where people are ‘taught’ how.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, much of the modern practise of ‘speaking in tongues’ seems to me to contradict the primary nature, character and personality of the Holy Spirit. ‘Just let it flow’, ‘say whatever comes to mind’, and ‘start with a random syllable and get it going’ don’t fit at all with the pattern of experiences in Scripture.
When the Apostles (and I suggest us as well!) were filled with the Spirit, they spoke the Gospel with boldness. Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as ‘gentleness, patience, self-control’, etc. Ultimately, the primary role/function of the Holy Spirit (who, by the way, is the Spirit of Jesus!), is to direct us to Jesus. To glorify Him, to re-make us into His image. To renew our hearts and minds according to the character of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit leads us not into our prayer closets (though we depend on Him mightily in prayer), but rather out into the world in loving and humble service of others. This is the kind of Spirituality that the world desperately needs.
As Christians, let us seek to major on the majors. To whisper where the Scripture whisper – and SHOUT where the Scripture shout! This is where we have true, un-shakable unity. In Christ and His death and resurrection. Let us share THIS love with the world.
 Paul likely wrote the Corinthian Letters before Luke wrote the book of Acts, but I’m referring to the sequence of actual events, not the records/writings of them.
 Actually, ‘tongues’ (as different human languages) is first mentioned in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, when God ‘confounded’ their ‘tongues’ (languages) – causing humanity to spread. It has been well said that Pentecost is the ‘un-doing’ of Babel. The Gospel (and God!) is not partial to any one language.
 Which resulted in the representatives from the various places being able to take the Gospel of Christ back to where they lived! In other words, the ‘tongues’ in Acts 2 was for a reason.
 Indeed, just the idea of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) was offensive to say the least for many Jews. For them, speaking Greek and reading Greek would inevitably lead to living a Greek lifestyle.
 The text doesn’t separate ‘speaking with tongues’ and ‘magnifying God’ as though they were two things. The speaking itself is magnifying God.
 Actually, the verses before this (12:4-11) also speak of this unity. Read them and look for the words ‘same Spirit’. This is the main point of chapter 12.
 Again, the word ‘varieties’ demands that this is not referring to a single language (heavenly, etc.)
 Actually, the chapter downplays the importance of ‘tongues’, and raises the importance of prophecy – so that the body may be edified. Read chapter 14 and look for the word ‘edify’, ‘edifies’ or ‘edified’. See the main point?
 For example, a Parthian person praying ‘by the Spirit’ in the Parthian tongue (in the midst of the church/gathering), would be ‘giving thanks well’, but others that didn’t know the Parthian tongue would not be able to understand it, be edified by it, or know whether or not to say ‘Amen’ to it. (14:15-17)
 Others have demonised moder-day ‘tongue’-speakers (or claim they are doing so because of demons). I see absolutely NO reason or grounds to do this. My desire is to have unity in the essentials and seek clarity on the non-essentials.
 On that note, I find it incredible the amount of detail given in many instructions for speaking in this manner. 99% of it doesn’t even bother trying to tie it in with Scripture, and are rather built purely on the recent (less than 150 years) tradition of experience.