What is Speaking in Tongues? Is it Biblical and Relevant Today?
- Bethany Verrett Writer
- 2020 3 Jun
The question of spiritual gifts is one that sparks excitement, debate, and questions. Being invited to use unique gifts in building God’s kingdom is an exciting prospect. Certain gifts seem easy to understand: teaching, encouragement, and hospitality are accessible. Others seem foreign, maybe even scary to some people because they seem supernatural.
Speaking in tongues is such a gift. It causes controversy among believers, with different groups seeming to make different claims about the ability. What is the goal and the purpose of it? Can people still speak in tongues today? Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is Biblical, but needs to be understood.
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What Is Speaking in Tongues?Slide 1 of 7
Depending on who is asked, and what that person’s denomination is, the definition of speaking in tongues changes. There is debate as to the nature of the languages spoken. There are earthly languages, natural languages that people of nations and tribes speak. Some believe there are also heavenly languages, not from earth, directly from the Holy Spirit. There are generally three categories of thought on the gift of speaking in tongues.
Glossolalists believe that speaking in tongues is a charismatic gift of the Holy Spirit that is either as an earthly language - previously learned or not - or an unknown, heavenly language. Some people, especially in apostolic and Pentecostal churches, believe in a personal prayer language. Typically, if someone receives a message in church in tongues, there will be an interpreter. Some denominations hold it is primarily for spreading the Gospel, but others believe it can be used for prayer and for prophecy as well.
Cessationists take a more dispensational view, meaning they believe that speaking in tongues was a gift for an allotted period of church history, and is no longer given. They believe the gift was only for the age of the Apostles in the early church where the Holy Spirit empowered select individuals to speak in an earthly language they did not know previously in order to spread the Gospel. Generally, cessationists do not believe in heavenly languages. They explain any contemporary claim of speaking in tongues as self-induced, a learned behavior, or fraud.
Another theory is that the gift of speaking in tongues is real, and still exists, but it is to share the Gospel exclusively with a Jewish audience who speak another earthly language. In this scenario, the Holy Spirit would temporarily empower someone to speak in a language unknown to them in response to the presence of a group of Jews who speak that specific language. An interpreter would be empowered as well to be available for others present.
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Where Do We See Speaking in Tongues in the Bible?Slide 2 of 7
There are multiple references to the gift of glossolalia in the Bible. Most scholars believe it is found exclusively in the New Testament, but that is not universally accepted.
The first time the gift of tongues appeared historically was at the event known as Pentecost. Recorded in Acts 2, a group of believers were gathered together after the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit fell upon them in the form of a flame, indwelling in them. After this event, they could speak in foreign languages to those gathered in Jerusalem for a holy day.
Besides the account of this first time, other passages of the Bible illustrate when and how, as well as specific instances of, speaking in tongues. One comes from the Lord Jesus, and the others are accounts in the Book of Acts of the Spirit falling on groups of people and empowering them with that spiritual gift.
Mark 16:15-18 “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Acts 10:44-46b “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
Acts 19:4-7 “And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.”
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Paul Addresses the Church on TonguesSlide 3 of 7
There are also verses in the Bible that address speaking in tongues in discussion about gifts in general, found in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 12:4-11 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
1 Corinthians 13:1 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
1 Corinthians 14 goes into great detail about the nature of speaking in tongues, as well as its relationship with the gift of prophecy. It contains a warning against the speaker using the gift for self-glorification, but to be humble. There is also encouragement about the goodness of these gifts, and that it is okay to ask the Lord for them, if it is His will.
Here, Paul stresses the importance of the gift of interpretation, closely related with the gift of speaking in tongues. The interpreter is empowered by the Spirit of God to understand the foreign, or heavenly, language being spoken, and translates it for the crowd. Paul says of this position, “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up ... so with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Corinthians 14:5-6). If someone is blessed with the gift of tongues, then there needs to be someone to help the church understand it.
There are a few verses that some argue allude to speaking in tongues. A handful of them are in the Old Testament. These are part of on-going debate and consensus, that tends to align with what the denomination or minister believes about speaking in tongues as a whole. These verses include:
Isaiah 28:11-12 “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, ‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose.’”
Romans 8:26 “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
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Why Did People in the Bible Speak in Tongues?Slide 4 of 7
One of the key aspects to understanding this gift is when it is given. Whether Jew or Gentile, the gift did not manifest until after the profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah, and salvation. Spiritual gifts are associated with and attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit of God, no one is speaking in tongues. Other important aspects include that Jews and Gentiles received the gift, and that it was used both in church assemblies and outside of them.
At Pentecost, this gift appeared for the first time, and the members of the church immediately went out and began to spread the Gospel to the international crowds gathered in Jerusalem. It was so strange to the people hearing this group of Galilean Jews speaking in their own languages, some people thought they were drunk at nine in the morning.
Peter clarified, and stated, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,’” explaining how this manifestation of the Holy Spirit fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Also important, the close tie Peter makes with glossalalia and prophetic gifts aligns with Paul’s connection between the two gifts in 1 Corinthians 14.
The most important reason people spoke in tongues was to fulfill the Great Commission, to glorify God by spreading the Gospel, and obey the leadings of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, the gift should bring others to Christ and to build up the church. He wrote, “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers … When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:22, 26).
The individual speaking in tongues and the interpreter, as well as anyone speaking prophecy, should be glorifying God, and not themselves.
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How Should We Respond as Modern Believers?Slide 5 of 7
In modern cultures, many look around and feel they do not see Christians speaking in tongues, and doubt its existence. Others insist that anyone with the Holy Spirit can and should be able to speak a heavenly prayer language.
When assessing these claims, it is important to hold them up against the Bible, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1a). Striving to ensure that a claim is in line with Scripture, especially with the words of Jesus Christ, is important.
When examining if every believer must be able to speak in tongues, Paul does appear to address this notion. Going back to 1 Corinthians 12, Paul wrote:
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body ... If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 17-20).
In other words, Paul asserts here that God’s Spirit gives different people different spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church. There may be some churches where the Spirit gifts all of them with tongues and interpretation, but not every believer around the world may have the same experience.
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Is This Gift Just Less Visible Now?Slide 6 of 7
A factor in why the gift of speaking in earthly tongues may be less visible, especially in first world countries, is because of the rise of national languages. In Jerusalem at Pentecost, thousands of people speaking many languages were gathered in one place. In many first world countries, many speak the same language.
After the stoning of Stephen, documented in Acts 7, many believers scattered abroad to nations where they may not speak the language. The Spirit supernaturally empowered the early church to spread the Gospel, though many of them may not have had the education of, or time to learn, another group of languages.
Today, most countries have some sort of national language, or if a missionary travels to another country, that missionary will learn the most common language of that area. There are many resources for sharing the Gospel in another language. While there may still be a need for the gift of tongues, the context and need may be different enough from the days of the early church that it manifests less frequently, and perhaps differently.
Finally, in a very secular and science-minded culture, miracles may not have the desired impact. Jesus addresses the relationship between faith and miracles several times. When asked by an official to heal his son, Jesus responded, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48). Jesus emphasized the official had to have faith before the miracle - which Jesus did perform. He could not have faith on the condition that God performed one.
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Measure it to ScriptureSlide 7 of 7
In Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth the Bible records, “And he could do no mighty work there ... and he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5a-6). Jesus performed miracles that matched the faith of the group or individual. Miracles like prophecy or speaking in tongues may be limited due to the unbelief of the secular society, and the reluctance of Christians to step out in faith to use such a gift.
Ultimately, God uses His people when and how He wants – if they are open to being used by Him. Just because someone can or cannot speak in tongues does not indicate salvation. This gift can genuinely come from the Holy Spirit, but some of it will depend on the denomination or church background of the individual. If it happens, measure it up to the standards of Scripture. Is there an interpreter? Does it glorify God? Does it spread the Gospel? If prophetic, does the prophecy align with the Bible? Prayer for God’s guidance, because His wisdom and Holy Spirit will reveal the truth.
Barnett, Donald Lee, and McGregor, Jeffrey. Speaking in Other Tongues A Scholarly Defense. Burien: Community Chapel Publications, 1986.
Cartledge, Mark. Charismatic Glossolalia An Empirical-Theological Study. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Cone, Steve. Theology from the Great Tradition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Keener, Craig. Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
MacArthur, John. Strange Fire The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Schreiner, Thomas. Spiritual Gifts What They Are and Why They Matter. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018.
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