The Gift of Tongues

Posted in Living by Scriptural Principles

The gift of tongues is a hotly debated topic in Christian circles today. This two part article will look at God's Biblical use of tongues, and man's modern use of tongues.

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?

Man’s Modern Use of Tongues

On the previous page, we showed that God’s gift of tongues was in known languages to hearers who understood the message, which was of the gospel or prophecy. How is it that modern churches take these same scriptures to teach that all true Christians must speak in tongues that no one can understand?

When the modern day Charismatic Movement began at the beginning of the twentieth century, the founder, Charles Parham, understood the gift of tongues to be actual languages used for evangelic purposes. He believed that the Holy Spirit was giving his followers the ability to speak in actual languages. Only after going off into foreign countries to spread the gospel did they have to admit that in not one single instance were they actually able to communicate with foreigners.  

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. Instead, the “gift of tongues” was said to continue, despite it not being in line with the examples in scripture. William Samarin, a linguistics professor from the University of Toronto, spent years visiting various charismatic groups in several countries, tape recording their tongues in order to analyze them scientifically. He stated that not one of the examples he gathered had any indication that it was a legitimate system of communication. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion also concludes that speaking in tongues is “not a human language” and “cannot be interpreted or studied” as such. Similarly, the Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion also states that it is “not a language”.

To overcome this conundrum, modern charismatic teachers claim that each person is given their own unique spiritual language.  Does the Bible teach a second type of tongues by every believer? Below we look at some of the texts used to justify this belief.

Some would point to 1 Corinthians 13:1, which mentions “tongues of angels.” What are tongues of angels? In every instance where an angel communicates in Scripture, it is in a known language, conveying an understandable message to the intended recipient. In fact, the Greek word for “angel” (Strong’s G32  “aggelos”) is often translated as “messenger”. Never do we see an angel/messenger speak an unintelligible series of non-language vocalizations. But more importantly, in this passage, Paul is actually using a hypothetical example. This passage is not saying that humans can and should speak in an unknown angelic language. He is saying that “if I were to speak in a tongue of angels…” but had not love, it would mean nothing. This passage is in no way encouraging speaking in tongues; instead it is encouraging an attitude of love over one of personal gratification when using this gift.

Another passage used by modern charismatics is 1 Corinthians 14:1-3, especially verse two referring to speaking to God. The context of this passage is not an endorsement or recommendation of a non-language verbalization, but rather showing how prophecy was a greater gift.  Paul is saying that an uninterpreted language benefitted no one, except perhaps God, because no human could understand it. This single passage was not intended by Paul as a mandate for believers to unleash an unintelligible string of non-language noise as a way to speak directly to God.

Some claim that Paul himself spoke of using a private prayer language in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, but that is stretching what he actually says. He claims that he has spoken with tongues more than the Corinthians had. But nowhere does he claim it was done in private between him and God. More likely, it was during his journeys through other countries as he was growing Messianic churches. It is adding to Scripture to claim otherwise. Nor should we interpret this as any type of bragging or pride on his part, given that his whole purpose in this section of the book was to emphasize the necessity of love for others, the opposite of bragging and pride.

Paul was also clear to limit the use of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:26-28, and never taught or advocated that it should be done by an entire congregation simultaneously. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14:40 says exactly the opposite. Paul specifically states just a few verses earlier that God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33.)

Although often quoted in the context of the gift of tongues, Romans 8:26 is not germane to this topic. It speaks of the Spirit (not us) making groaning which cannot be uttered. It is clear that the groaning mentioned here is from the Spirit, not from us, and that this groaning is not spoken.

Modern charismatic churches teach that speaking in tongues is the true evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Yet Paul teaches that, while all of the people he was addressing in his letter had been baptized into one body and one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), just a few verses later he confirms that not all of them spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-30). Rather different members had different gifts. No one gift was claimed to be a litmus test of having received the Holy Spirit.

Where do we see non-language vocalizations now? Sorry to be blunt, but aside from charismatic churches, we only see it in pagan circles and insane asylums. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, under the entry of Glossolalia on page 349, lists “chants of voodoo witch doctors, African animists, and the Tibetan Buddhist Monks, the prayers of Hindu holy men, and the basic primeval sounds produced by others” as examples of glossolalia. The encyclopedia goes on to list the phenomenon as occurring in “known psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis or as the consequence of neurological disorders.”  Other sources also trace the practice back to ancient Greek mystery religions, and paganism from Eskimos, Tibet, and China.

There is not one single verse in Scripture that plainly describes what we see happening in modern charismatic circles. In his book Strange Fire, John MacArthur states, “In short, the glossolalia practiced by today’s charismatics is a counterfeit that by every measure falls short of the gift of tongues described in the New Testament.” He concludes that “there is no biblical warrant for such unintelligible babble. It is a false spiritual high with no sanctifying value. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a dire warning of the spiritual dangers that can be introduced by this unbiblical practice.”