RECENTLY, my sister-in-law wrote on her Facebook page: “I’ve just come back from a convention. What a time we had. I spoke in tongues so much that I have to learn English all over again.”
Needless to say, my brother and his family go to a Pentecostal church. Indeed I have lots of friends who go to these fellowships.My cousin is a Pastor there.
As a new Christian, the first few churches I attended were all charismatic, which means they believed in speaking in ecstatic tongues, an experience often described as “glossolalia”.
I need to address some unpopular facts in this article, and I must begin by saying that although I disagree with some of the teachings of my charismatic brothers and sisters, I firmly believe that God has thousands of His children in these fellowships. I also recognise that even among charismatics there are vast differences of interpretation regarding the gift of tongues, so forgive me if I generalise at times.
The war we wage is not against people, but against error. The same truth that at times can hurt will also promise to set us free (John 8:32)!
Let’s begin with a definition. The word “tongue” in the Bible simply means “a language”. God gives all the gifts of the Spirit to fill a practical need.
What was the need for tongues? Jesus told His followers, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
This command posed a problem. How could the apostles go out preaching to all the world when they spoke only one or two languages? After all, Jesus’ disciples were very bright, even though most of them were not formally educated. In order to fulfil the great commission, He promised to give them a unique gift from the Holy Spirit.
It was a miraculous, supernatural ability to speak foreign languages they had not formerly studied or known for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. “And these signs shall follow them that believe … they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17).
The fact that Jesus said these new tongues, or languages, would be a “sign” indicates that the ability to speak them would not come as the result of normal linguistic study. Rather, it would be an instantaneous gift to fluently preach in a previously unfamiliar language.
There are only three actual examples of speaking in tongues recorded in the Bible (Acts chapters 2, 10, and 19). If we look at these three cases, we should find a clearer picture of this controversial gift.
“When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven [divided] tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 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).
Fire is a symbol for power. God sent this gift in the form of tongues of fire so they would know that He would empower their feeble tongues in the same way He strengthened Moses to go before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10-12) and touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the heavenly altar (Isaiah 6:6, 7).
Why did the Lord wait until Pentecost to bestow this gift? Acts 2:5-11 sets the scene: “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
“And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? … We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The day of Pentecost was a Jewish holy day that fell 50 days after Passover. Devoted Israelites would come from all over the Roman Empire to worship in Jerusalem. God chose this timely opportunity to bestow this gift of tongues upon the disciples so they could preach to the visiting Jews in their native languages.
At least 15 different language groups were represented in the crowd that day (Acts 2:9-11)! As a result, thousands of these visitors were converted. Then, after Pentecost, they in turn carried their new faith home to their respective countries.
From this example, it should be very clear that the gift of tongues was given to communicate the gospel in different existing languages of the world. Some have mistakenly suggested that the miracle on Pentecost was a gift to hear and understand different languages. It was not a gift of hearing given to the listeners, but rather a gift of the Spirit given to enable the believers to speak (Acts 2:4).
It is not called the gift of ears for the listeners, but the gift of tongues for the speakers. Furthermore, the sign was not ears of fire on the listeners, but tongues of fire on the ones preaching.
It is also sometimes suggested that the gift of tongues is a “heavenly language” understood only by God or those with the gift of interpretation. The Bible is clear in Acts chapter 2 that both the disciples and those listening understood what was being preached — “the wonderful works of God” (Verse 11).
Let’s look now at the second example when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. 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. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46).
Acts 10:1 tells us that Cornelius was Italian, while Peter was a Jew and spoke Aramaic. History also tells us that the servants in a Roman home could be from anywhere in the world. Because there were obvious language barriers at this meeting, Peter likely began to preach through an interpreter. But when the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his household, the Jews with Peter could understand the Gentiles speaking in languages other than their native tongues.
The record is that the Jews heard them “magnify God” in these languages. When later reporting this experience to the church leaders, Peter said, “The Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Peter here plainly tells us that Cornelius and his family received the same gift of tongues in the same way the disciples did on the day of Pentecost. In other words, they spoke languages they had not formerly known in a way that could be understood.
The third and final example of speaking in tongues is when Paul preached to 12 Ephesian disciples. Acts 19:6 records, “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”
Paul was the most educated and widely travelled of the apostles, and he spoke many languages (1 Corinthians 14:18). When the Holy Spirit came upon these 12 Ephesian men, Paul recognised that they were prophesying, or preaching, in new languages. Most likely they spoke in languages common throughout the Roman Empire, since that would be practical for spreading the Gospel. Luke does not say that they received a form of tongues different from the first two examples, so we must assume that it was the same type of gift given at Pentecost.
You’ll find that the only times the gift of tongues was associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is when people from more than one language group were gathered together, thus creating communication barriers. Notice that in Acts chapter 4 you have a repeat of the experience described in chapter 2. The place was shaken and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, but because there were no foreigners present, the gift of tongues was absent.
Acts 4:31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.”
The purpose for the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not to mutter or babble unintelligible sounds, but rather to have power for preaching. This is why Jesus said, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Of the 14 New Testament books written by Paul, 1 Corinthians is the only one in which he deals with the subject of tongues. The Corinthian church obviously had a specific, temporary problem because Paul’s second letter to Corinth never even mentions tongues.
The ancient city of Corinth was famous for its two international seaports. Because the Corinthian church was a melting pot of many different nationalities, its services often became chaotic and confusing. Evidently some of the members would pray, testify, or preach in languages unknown to the others present. This is why Paul commanded that if they spoke in a tongue unknown to the majority, they should remain silent unless there was someone there to interpret or translate (1 Corinthians 14:28).
In other words, it’s not polite to speak in a language that your audience cannot understand. Listen to these plain statements from the apostle: “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?
“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air …. Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue …
“If any man speaks in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:6-9, 19, 27, 28).
It is truly amazing that some people take this passage and use it as an excuse to babble during services! The consistent message of Paul throughout Scripture is the very opposite.
In 1 Timothy 6:20, he specifically mentions, “avoiding profane and vain babblings.” And in 2 Timothy 2:16, Paul repeats that counsel: “But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.”
In other words, the very purpose for the gift of speech is to communicate your thoughts. If those present do not understand your communication, then keep silent.
Many of my charismatic friends would agree that the tongues spoken in the book of Acts were normal languages of the world. But they quickly add that there is a second gift-a heavenly prayer language. This gift, they say, is to express the Spirit’s “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). The purpose, they say, is so the devil cannot understand our prayers. But nowhere are we taught to hide our prayers from the devil. He trembles when he hears Christians pray!
This doctrine of a prayer language is based mainly upon 1 Corinthians 14:14 where Paul says, “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” They interpret this to mean that when Paul prayed in the Spirit, he used a “heavenly tongue” and did not himself know what he was praying. This theory raises an important question. How would the supplicant ever know if his prayer was answered?
I believe that all the gifts of the Spirit, including the true gift of tongues, are needed and available to the church today. But the Scriptures teach that some of the gifts are more important than others and that we should focus on the most important ones. “But covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31).
In fact, when the Bible lists spiritual gifts, tongues is usually found at the bottom of the list. “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” (1 Corinthians 12:28). “Greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5).
Yet some charismatic preachers have turned the list upside down and made the gift of tongues the primary emphasis of their preaching. They would have us think that a Christian who does not speak in tongues is a second-class citizen. But Paul makes it clear that different gifts are given to different people, and no one is expected to have all the gifts.
He asks in 1 Corinthians 12:29, 30: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” The answer is obviously NO! Then how come we have whole congregations speaking in tongues?
The Bible says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22, 23). But these same preachers would have us believe that the fruit of the Spirit is tongues or that every person who is filled with the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues. Yet out of more than 50 examples in the Bible where God filled His people with the Spirit, only three times is tongues connected with the experience.
Furthermore, Jesus is our example. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, yet He never spoke in tongues. John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15), but there is no record that he spoke in tongues, either.
Of the 27 books in the New Testament, only three make any reference at all to the gift of tongues. There are about 39 Bible authors. Of the 39, only three-Luke, Paul, and Mark mention the subject of tongues. In other words, we should put the emphasis where God puts the emphasis.
The genuine gift of tongues is a powerful tool for the proclamation of the gospel. But remember, the devil has a counterfeit for every truth of God.
Glossolalia is the word often used to describe the popular experience found in most charismatic churches. It is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as: “fabricated and non-meaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes.”
Contrast that with the same dictionary’s definition for a language: “The use by human beings of voice sounds, and often written symbols representing these sounds, in organized combinations and patterns in order to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.”
By any definition, the disjointed sounds of glossolalia are not a language.
The concept that a person who is “slain in the spirit” should fall to the ground and wallow and mutter is an insult to the Holy Ghost. The reason God gives us His Spirit is to restore in us His image, not to rob us of all dignity and self-control! On mount Carmel, the pagan prophets of Baal jumped on the altar and shouted and moaned. They prophesied and cut themselves. By contrast, Elijah quietly knelt and prayed a simple prayer (1 Kings 18:17-46).
“For God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). If God is not responsible, then who is? The idea that we lose control when we receive the Spirit is not consistent with Scripture. “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32).
Here’s another case in point. After Jesus saved a berserk, demon-possessed man by the sea, the healed man was seen “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind” (Luke 8:35). The invitation of God is “come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18). He wants us to use our heads.
Some of you reading this article are no doubt thinking: “How dare you say these things? I have spoken in tongues for years and know it is from God!” As Christians, we should never base our conclusions on how we feel. After all, the devil can certainly make us feel good. Rather, we must base our beliefs upon the sure Word of God.
Now let’s get something straight. There are some basic requirements for receiving this most precious gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15, 16, 17).
“And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).