What is Speaking in Tongues? A Biblical Analysis

by Jack Wellman on April 28, 2011 · 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.

Sources:

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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