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The Gift of Tongues

Posted in Living by Scriptural Principles

God’s Biblical Use of Tongues

On the first post-resurrection Pentecost, Scripture records a miracle that is the cause of much confusion in many churches today. Acts 2:4 records that the Messianic believers had gathered according to the time appointed in Leviticus 23:15-16. It was at this gathering that God’s spirit came from heaven, and disciples began to speak in tongues. (Side note: This is concrete proof that none of the followers of Yeshua believed that the feast days were “nailed to the cross”. Click here for more on the continuing validity of God's feast days.)

The word “tongues” is Strong’s Greek #1100 “glossa”, which appears 50 times in the New Testament. Very few of those occurrences refer to the actual physical tongue in our body, and even when it does, the implication is more often speech than a reference to an organ of the mouth.  Most often the word is in reference to known languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, etc.

The two main passages that address the supernatural ability to speak in an unknown language are Acts 2:1-41 (authored by Luke) and 1 Corinthians chapter 12 – 14 (authored by Paul). (Side note: For a detailed look at Peter’s explanation in Acts 2:14-36 of how the events taking place on earth were the result of Yeshua being anointed as our King and Priest in the heavenly temple, please see the article titled “What Really Happened at Pentecost?”)

By reading Acts 2, it is abundantly clear that the tongues in question were actual languages, understood without the need for interpreters by foreign visitors. Many foreigners were present due to the fact that Pentecost was one of the pilgrimage festivals where the worshippers of Jehovah from all over gathered in Jerusalem. The largely uneducated Galilean fishermen disciples were able to supernaturally speak languages of many countries, listed in Acts 2:7-11, to share with them the good news of the risen Messiah.

It is not hard to understand how an Aramaic or Hebrew speaker could hear an uneducated Galilean speak an Asian tongue and mock them as drunkards (Acts 2:13). If you were at a popular tourist attraction in the US with an English-only speaking friend and there were Asian visitors next to you, if your American friend suddenly started speaking Chinese or Japanese to them, you could easily be confused enough to think there was something off about your friend. You might think he’s making fun of the foreigners, and you might even begin to mock your friend. If you realized they were having an actual conversation, and you knew for a fact that your friend spoke no languages other than English, you would most likely be quite astonished at what was happening.

Scripturally, what was happening in this passage with regards to speaking in tongues? The supernatural ability to speak foreign languages, understood by the listeners, was for the purpose of facilitating the spreading of the Gospel of Yeshua HaMachiach (Jesus Christ/Jesus the Messiah).  This is shown in numerous verses. Acts 2:6 explains that “every man heard them speak in his own language.” Acts 2:8 confirms “how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born.” Likewise, in Acts 10:46 it says they “heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (which shows the hearer understood the message to know that it was magnifying God). Even later, in Acts 11:17, it shows that a subsequent instance on tongues was also “the like gift as he did unto us” earlier in the chapter. Nothing in these passages can reasonably be understood as utterances that are not an actual language.

Although written by two different authors, they are clearly describing the same circumstances. A look at the Greek text shows that Paul uses the identical words Luke used thirteen different times ( 1 Corinthians 12:30; 13:1; 14:2, 4 , 5 (twice in this verse), 6, 13, 18, 19, 21, 27, 39). As such, it would be error to conclude that it was a different nature of utterance in First Corinthians than it was in the book of Acts.  

In addition to wording, Acts Two and First Corinthians have many other similarities, so many that it would be disingenuous to claim they were two different types of tongues. These similarities include the following: 1) the Holy Spirit was the source of the gift of tongues, 2) both apostles and laypeople were given the gift, 3) it was able to be translated and understood by at least some of the hearers, 4) it proved to be a miracle to nonbelievers, 5) it dealt with prophecy, and 6) those who did not understand mocked.   It is abundantly clear that these two passages of Scripture are indeed referencing an actual human language, a gift given by the Holy Spirit, to enable communication about the gospel across language barriers.

Furthermore, several of the statements made show it had to be a true language to which Paul refers. In 1 Corinthians 14:7-9, Paul uses the analogy of music. He’s saying that if I am at the piano and start playing a song you know, you can hum or sing along. But if I start making disjointed sounds (much like a one year old banging on the keys), you are not able to hum or sing along.

Similarly, knowing that the meaning of the words is paramount is undeniably shown in 1 Corinthians 14:11, where Paul states that not knowing the meaning reduces the speaker to a “barbarian”. It is impossible to reconcile that statement with the idea the tongues are any kind of private language.

A few verses later, in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, Paul says that the tongues were a sign to those who did not believe. What Paul is essentially saying here is this: let’s say that I speak only English and you speak only Russian. If I suddenly begin to speak to you with an unintelligible non-language babble, is that going to be a sign that you should believe in God? Or would it more likely be a sign if suddenly I began to preach the gospel in perfect Russian when you knew conclusively that I did not speak Russian? Only one of those two instances are likely to make you believe the utterance came from God.

God had a purpose in the use on tongues. Both 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 and Acts 2:5-22 show that the primary purpose was to be a sign for unbelievers that their message was from God.  Secondly, edifying the church was stated as the purpose of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. 1 Peter 4:11 says the gift is to be used to “speak as the oracles of God” .  Nothing in any of these passages shows that the gift was for private purposes. In fact, the opposite is stated in 1 Corinthians 13:5 (“seeketh not her own”) and 1 Corinthians 14:4 (“edifieth himself”).

Can the same be said about what passes for “tongues” in today’s charismatic churches?