What is Speaking in Tongues? A Biblical Analysis

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

Many years ago I visited a church while out of town.  At the time I was unaware that it was a charismatic church.  When the church services started, it was quite clear that they believed in the gift of tongues.  I was urged to speak in tongues and to “give it up” to the Spirit.  I needed to speak in tongues to be “baptized with the Holy Ghost.“  As I prayed over this and pondered whether I should try and speak in tongues, nothing happened.  I even contemplated faking it.  I felt somewhat ostracized because I actually never did speak in tongues.  I was praying at the time that, “God, if you want me to speak in tongues, please enable me by the Spirit to do so.“  Nothing ever came out and I felt completely inadequate compared to the other believers who were speaking in tongues that I didn’t understand.  There were several speaking at the same time as they were dancing and jumping up and down. To me, it was a little frightening and confusing.

The tongues I heard that night were completely unintelligible and it was an exercise in futility for me to try and understand what was being said.  And no one was interpreting the tongues either which made it even worse.  The whole assembly, minus me, was in a near frenzy and they were completely lost in their actions.

I can remember reading about tongues in Old Testament times where foreign tongues were not a good sign for Israel at all (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 539).  Foreign tongues were usually a warning to the nation.  When I looked at the New Testament, what I found was that tongues are not a babbling of words, but that of a known language.  This language was intelligible to those who spoke that language and understood by them.

Speaking in Tongues in the New Testament

The first place that speaking in tongues occur in the New Testament was in Acts 2:1-4: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”  The word tongues has a literal translation in the Greek of “languages”.  This means that the tongues that were being spoken were those of a known language.  The tongues were words with specific meaning and not just babbling.  This is clarified in Acts 2:7-11, “Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

So those who heard these tongues or languages were languages that were known and that the believers may not have known how to speak.  That was a miracle but the miracle was not for the believers benefit but were a sign for the unbelievers (I Cor. 14:22).  These verses were a sign that God used to signify that the Gentiles were receiving salvation to those who did not believe (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 382).

So clearly, speaking in tongues in the New Testament church were tongues of known languages and not unknown languages or unintelligible sounds.  Since many in Judea were bilingual and some even trilingual, it’s not really that surprising that there were many languages being spoken (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 357).  They were praising God in different tongues or languages to give evidence for unbelievers that God was at work in more ethnic groups than just the Jews. This validated the fulfillment of Joel chapter two to the Jews as well (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 408).

Speaking in Tongues and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Acts 10:44-46 also has a reference to tongues: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues (literally, languages) and praising God.”  Notice that the Holy Spirit was poured out and they were not baptized into the Holy Spirit or received a baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers and not what some charismatic churches claim as the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  Nowhere in the New Testament is it written that they spoke in tongues and were baptized in the Holy Spirit.  For believers, the receiving of the Holy Spirit is a one time event and it is not a sign of being filled up by the Spirit or being baptized into the Holy Spirit.  It is precisely for the reason of validating God’s acceptance of the Gentiles to the Jews and this acceptance by God for all people was at a specific time in history (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 408).

Tongues: A Sign for Unbelievers

Biblical scholars agree that in Acts 19:1-7 and elsewhere that these verses clearly indicate that tongues were intended “to overcome unbelief” (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 409).  They were specifically for unbelievers and to validate Paul’s message and to overcome the listener’s unbelief (Walvoord and Zuck 1984, 408, 409).

Even at the risk of offending some, this reminds me of snake handlers.  Some churches take one text out of context and make it a pretext and sadly, the worship is more centered on the gift of tongues or the handling of snakes than it is with Christ being the center of worship.  Jesus Christ should always be the center of all worship services and never any gift since Paul tells us not to exalt in any gifts of the Spirit since they come from God anyway.

Taking Text out of Context

Here is a personal note on the gift of tongues and the twisting of scriptures.  Sadly, many denominations or churches do not take problematic scriptures and place them against all  the scriptures relating to a particular subject to discover the proper context to see whether it is biblically sound or not.  This is what is meant by “rightly dividing the Word of God” (II Tim 2:15) and “scripture is of no private interpretation” (II Pet. 1:2). A sound principle is that if there is a problematic scripture or verse; take all the other scriptures that relate to this subject and place them all against the one scripture or scriptures to bring clarity to the subject.  If we still can not decide its meaning, then this might be God’s prerogative alone to know about and we have no business trying to inject or infer meaning when God is not clear on the subject.  If God has not plainly revealed its meaning in scripture or it is not clarified by other scripture, then this is not revelation from God intended for us and should not be taken as such.  Revelation from men is highly questionable and not like the inerrant Word which is infallible.   If God had wanted us to fully understand it, He would have revealed it. Some things that are not clear must be for Him alone to know and we have no business trying to decode such enigmatic scriptures into a meaning that we were never intended to know in the first place.

It is apparent that there is sufficient evidence about tongues that they are clearly a sign for unbelievers, Jews or otherwise.  They are also a sign that God is at work.  The earliest church historians never mention that speaking in tongues continued to occur in the church after all the apostles were gone.  Speaking in tongues is a rather recent movement in the 19th century.  I speak Spanish and I feel that some people are gifted at learning other languages.  My former pastor picked up several African languages at the time he was on mission trips.  He had a gift for it.  But it was a known language.  I can speak in “other” tongues, like English, Spanish, and even some Greek but what sounds like gibberish to those who don’t know them, it is a known language.  But these are known languages and I am not just “letting myself go”.

I have been told that I have never been “filled by the Holy Spirit” or been “truly baptized into the Holy Spirit” unless I have spoken in tongues.   That is not biblical nor should someone feel less “spiritual” if they don’t speak in tongues.   By the way, tongues are the last gift mentioned of all the gifts of the Spirit and love is over and above all other things.  In my humble opinion, charismatic’s too often take it to the extreme and belittle those who do not speak in tongues and incorrectly associate their not being filled with the Spirit when this is actually a one-time event at the moment a believer receives the Holy Spirit at conversion.  You can not have any more of the Holy Spirit, nor can you have any less of Him.  You either have the Holy Spirit or you don’t.


1.       John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, trans., The Bible Knowledge Commentary – New Testament.  (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C Cook, Publisher, 1984).

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly September 26, 2016 at 8:02 am

I would like to say that I agree that certain churches do push the speaking in tongues much to much, when in fact speaking in tongues is real, yet it is not for every believer. It is spoken in GOD’s word that only when there is an interpreter of tongues should it spoken in public because it will just sound like clanging symbol’s and causes confusion, GOD is not a GOD of confusion(which is why I have a hard time excepting ‘bible versions’). Mainly it is to be used in private prayer, it lifts you into the throne room with Jesus at GOD’s right hand and it confuses the demons because they cannot understand it, in places of public it should not be the main focus, hence a rare occasion not the norm. The Bible also states that it will come to an end along with wisdom and knowledge but not love, love is for eternity. I believe the end is when Christ returns for His church. I believe every believer is equipped with all the gifts of the Spirit, it takes walking closely with Christ to access them, but if you don’t believe in the gifts you will not possess any, or they will be weak or used not for the kingdom. I did a study on the gifts, I do not have my notes with me nor can I site all the spots in the word of GOD off the top of my head. My study consisted of searching out all named gifts and places in GOD’s word that referenced them, using 3 ‘bible versions’,defining them with a concordance, each word, and using a dictionary to define them. I collect dictionaries so I used multiple ones to seek the most definition I could get. These are real, how can we accept the gift of service or ministry but not tongues or miracles? churches that use tongues like popcorn are in danger. we are not to glorify the gifts, the gifts are to glorify GOD.


Scott McMurtrie October 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

I to have attended wonderful Pentecostal Churches in my life, I know tongues is a real gift and that it is from God. Though I personally have never had the gift though I asked for it many many times. I did in FACT receive the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, though never had the tongues , why??? ask God Also though we are noyt to rely on feelings, my experience I was alone in my quiet room lying flat on my back, asking Jesus into my life, I fell asleep praising God/Jesus, when I awake I remembered Pat Robertson 700 CLUB suggested asking for Baptism of the Holy Spirit afterwards, after asking Jesus into our lives

So I asked while I was repeating I love you Jesus over and over may I receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, from the top of my head it felt like a drill in the top of my skull and then a hot heat powerfully swept through me remaining in my chest a hot feeling that remained with me for 2 days, I went to the closest Church, that morning, happened to ne a main line Church Baptist, I was so full of the Holy Spirit I was almost passing out I felt, it was beautiful and scary at the same time on the third day I crashed from this euphoria, for sure a person could not stay in that state

So I have asked for Toungues many many times, have been at the altar with ministers saying stuff like its there just let it out etc

So yes I dont have it, but I dont ridicule those that have this Godly gift…For the Author to say he considered faking it, well that speaks poorly of you I am afraid, that you even considered that

I like this site, but those of us that have never had the gift of toungues should not be so quick to slam it


Jack Wellman October 4, 2016 at 10:19 am

Friend, no one is ridiculing anyone who believes in speaking in tongues. Can you show me where we have done that sir? The Apostle Paul said that not all will speak in tongues. I can live with that. Rather, the greatest use of tongues that any of us can use it for is to rescue the perishing. What is more valuable than a human soul?


Scott McMurtrie October 4, 2016 at 3:39 pm

My take on the combined comments from all posts was that it was twisting Scripture etc to believe that tongues was for today. I acknowledged that I never personally had the gift, though have repeatedly asked for it , actually and still do from time to time.

Perhaps my take on the criticism , that you say was not there, is from the overall reading I do on the subject from all around me. An example would be the good people that put out the Our Daily Bread , you know the daily Mark De Haun (sp)

I really like the people, but I asked for a booklet they had about , Speaking in Tongues, thinking it would be positive, but it was just a hit job that spoke about how it was not Biblical for today (I paraphrase)

Another recent example would be… God Is Just a Prayer away Radio program, I listen to the program but was disappointed to see them slamming the gift of tongues as well, and again as I state I dont have the gift, but many friends do

I obviously offended you with my post, my apologies I did see “the twisting of Scripture reference” maybe read to fast and got the wrong impression, if that was the case my apologies.

I actually had bookmarked the site just prior to reading that, another subject here that I appreciated the answer, so sorry if I got the wrong impression.

Normally a search on the internet for speaking in tongues usually has comments from people that dont have the gift, feeling negative about it, so I was getting that feeling as I read here perhaps to fast.

I gave 2 examples that call it not Biblical, for sure I disagree, though I personally dont have the gift.


Jack Wellman October 4, 2016 at 4:05 pm

Thank you. Well said my friend. I am glad you came by. The day we fail to learn from others we have failed ourselves, and so I say, Thank you mr. McMurtrie.


Ary October 6, 2016 at 12:24 am

Does it mean that the deeper our relationship with God becomes, the easier it will be to feel the Holy Spirit at work? I’ve only recently asked for baptism of the Holy Spirit and had a preacher pray over me for it. I haven’t experience any significant manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The most pronounce effect I’ve experience is uncontrolled tremors in my limbs e.g. during praise and worship. I’m not sure if there more to it than just the flesh reacting to the presence of God.


martin cooke October 17, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Interesting article my experience of charasmatics and those who talk in tongues was all disapointing and very shocking appeared the fruit of the spirit sadly missing out of control rabble if you ask me ive seen their trail of messed up lives, then thay want your money,


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