There is a movement sweeping the churches today, which were largely confined to Pentecostal churches over 15-20 years ago. That is the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. There is a mixed feeling even of those that attend such churches as some are comfortable with it and others uncomfortable.
What does the Bible say about this topic?
The Old Testament is silent about this topic and for good reason. We will address this at the end. The first time we see the mention of tongues is Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the disciples after they had been praying for 10 days in the upper room.
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. ~ Acts 2:1-4
The word “tongue” taken from the Strong’s concordance means the tongue; by implication a language (specially, one naturally unacquired). Meaning, when the Holy Spirit was poured out the disciples began to speak in other languages which they were not fluent in before that. In the Greek, that word is spelt glōssa, which is our English word for glossary which means dialect in the English dictionary. How do we know that they were speaking just simply another language?
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 — Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. ~ Acts 2:5-11
The people that were gathered around the disciples were shocked “because that every man heard them speak in his own language.” That word language in the Greek is dialektos, which is not too hard to imagine its English conversion – dialect – the tongue or language peculiar to any people.
Even in its context, the people that were listed were all Jews but were raised in different parts of the world where they obviously spoke different languages. And at the end they were amazed because they did “hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”
Two more times do we see tongues mentioned in the book of Acts.
44 While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter ~ Acts 10:44-46
5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. ~ Acts 19:5-6
In Acts 10, Cornelius is a man from Italy and at the end Peter heard this Gentile speak in a language that he could understand. In Acts 19, the disciples of John the Baptist were rebaptised and simply began to speak in another language as well.
In both of these instances there is no clear evidence to suggest that it was a common language that everyone understood or an alien language (for lack of better words) that is what is commonly heard in the churches of today.
So we aren’t going to dwell on either of these passages that are ambiguous. They aren’t proof of anything in regards to tongues except that it was the same Greek word used.
The only other place that the New Testament talks about it the most is in the book of Corinthians. This church was obviously involved in some strife and conflict and Paul spends a whole chapter about speaking in tongues versus prophesying. In 1 Corinthians 14 we find the most comprehensive discourse detailing speaking in tongues and Paul gives some guidelines.
- If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. ~ 1 Cor. 14:27
Only two, or at the most three, should speak in tongues at the same time or in the same service.
- But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. ~ 1 Cor. 14:28
If there is a person who desires to speak in tongues, they should check first to see if there is an interpreter. And if there isn’t, they should be quiet and say nothing.
- Remember that people who prophesy are in control of their spirit and can take turns. ~ 1 Cor. 14:32 NLT
The one who speaks must be in control of what they say and understand what they are saying. They must take turns and not speak over another person.
- For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. ~ 1 Cor. 14:33
God is not the author of confusion and disorder but of peace. The church at Corinth was a hub of activity like what Singapore is today. Many people of many different nationalities. And so it must have been that many people passed through all the time speaking different languages and wanting to share something at church that weekend.
If you read the whole chapter through you will see that Paul does not prove whether it is the modern day speaking in tongues or a language. Hence this chapter cannot be proved one way of another. You can find the commentary on 1 Corinthians 14 here.
But the guidelines that are listed out above are not followed in our modern day churches of today that practice speaking in tongues. I wonder what Paul would say today if he heard our practice today in the churches. Never mind the speaking in tongues, many churches today are a marketplace where reverence, order and peace is not present. But that’s another topic for another time. Overall, Paul is appealing for intelligent communication and for things to be done in order (1 Cor. 14:9, 19).
Finally we must understand the difference between the gifts or the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit. Please read the passages below regarding the two:
4 Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. 8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9 — To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; 10 — To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: 11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. 28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? 30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? 31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-31
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. ~ Galatians 5:22-23
Notice in 1 Corinthains 14 such words as “there are diversities of operations”, “for to one…, to another…, to another…, to another…” And then at the end of the chapter Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions – Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? Etc. The answer to that is obvious, it is a resounding NO! Everyone has different spiritual gifts. Not everyone has the same gift. And one of those gifts is speaking in tongues.
So if not everyone has the same gift, then not everyone will speak in tongues. And if that is the case, the speaking in tongues cannot be a sign of whether you have the Holy Spirit living in you or not. This is what many ask in the churches of today. “Do you have the spirit?” meaning to ask if you can speak in tongues or not.
So friends, do not be dismayed if you cannot speak in tongues, that is just a gift. And really, if you look closely, this chapter also does not prove as to whether that is the alien language that is found spoken today or if it is just speaking another dialect or language such as French, German or Japanese. The only place in scripture that has clear proof what speaking in tongues is is found in Acts 2 when the disciples began to first speak. That was referring to a common language that people already knew and understood.
In Galatians 5, Paul lists out the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. This is fruit that everyone must have. Everyone should be loving, gentle, kind and patient. This is the clearest evidence as to whether you have the Holy Spirit abiding in you or not. Speaking in tongues is just a gift, not a sign/fruit that you have the Holy Spirit.
Finally, why is it that speaking in tongues (many languages) is not as prevalent today as it was in the time of the early church? Why was it such an important gift back then? It is simply because there were many people of different races and languages present and the need for the gift of tongues was needed to bring the gospel to the whole world. Today that gift is not as needed since there are Christian’s in every country that speak that local language for the most part.
Well, you might ask – “Does it really matter whether I speak in modern day tongues today or not?” Friends, it absolutely does. We have to make sure we are found following the truth. Isaiah 8:20 cautions us
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
We have to make sure we are found following Jesus and His truth because:
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. ~ John 8:32
To be a Christian is to follow Christ and what is outlined clearly in His Word. There are many deceptions out there and 1 John 4:1 warns us that there are many false prophets gone out into the world.
I want to be free. Don’t you? Free from man made traditions and teachings. Free in Christ. Free in my heart and mind, knowing that I am living the way that Jesus wants me to live.
God bless you!