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What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues? – Part 1


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This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues?

Speaking in Tongues Defined

Speaking in tongues defined

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.   (Acts 2:4, NET)

Speaking with (or in) tongues is “the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without it having been learnt.” The Greek word underlying this phrase is “glossa”, which means a tongue, either as the organ of the body or as a language. Hence, a modern theological term for speaking in tongues is “glossolalia”. Some modern translations render the KJV phrase “speak with other tongues” as “speak in foreign tongues” (Moffat), “speak in foreign languages” (Good speed), and “speak in different languages” (Phillips).

The New Testament contains four passages that indisputably describe speaking in tongues: Acts 2, Acts 10:44-47, Acts 19:6, and I Corinthians 12:10. In each case, those who spoke in tongues did so by the power of God’s Spirit, “…as the Spirit enabled them…” (Acts 2:4, NET).

Speaking in tongues is not gibberish or merely an unintelligible, ecstatic utterance without objective meaning. Those who speak in tongues speak in genuine languages, even though the speakers themselves do not understand what they say. Many times observers recognize these languages (Acts 2:5-12). The languages can be either human or angelic in nature (I Corinthians 13:1). Speaking in tongues is not an accidental, irrelevant, unimportant, or rare phenomenon; it is a gift from God and a significant part of God’s plan for the New Testament church.

OT reference to tongues

OT reference to tongues

For with mocking lips and a foreign tongue he will speak to these people.    (Isaiah 28:11-12, NET) Isaiah foretold the role of tongues in the church:

For with mocking lips and a foreign tongue he will speak to these people. In the past he said to them, “This is where security can be found. Provide security for the one who is exhausted! This is where rest can be found.” But they refused to listen. (Isaiah 28:11-12, NET)

The rest and refreshing is the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 3:19), and Isaiah predicted that stammering lips and foreign languages would accompany it. Some assert that Isaiah referred merely to an invasion of Israel by foreigners, but this argument ignores several important points:

  1. Isaiah associated tongues with rest and refreshing, not invasion.
  2. Peter’s words further link this refreshing with the Holy Spirit.
  3. Paul applied Isaiah’s words to speaking in tongues:

It is written in the law:

By people with strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, yet not even in this way will they listen to me,” says the Lord. So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.  (1 Corinthians 14:21-22, NET)

4. Paul used the passage in Isaiah to teach that God has chosen speaking in tongues as a sign in the New Testament church to encourage unbelievers to believe His Word. If Isaiah 28:11-12 does refer to a foreign invasion of Israel, then it has an immediate fulfillment (Assyrian invasion) and a distant fulfillment (tongues in the New Testament church). Double fulfillment of prophecy or typology is such a common occurrence in the Bible that it is known as the “law of double reference.” At any rate, on the authority of Peter and Paul Isaiah 28:11-12 does have a valid application to speaking in tongues in the New Testament church.

The Day of Pentecost

PentecostThe initial fulfillment of the prophecies concerning tongues occurred on the Day of Pentecost. On this occasion 120 Jewish Disciples of Christ were baptized with the Spirit and spoke in tongues, including the apostles, the brothers of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, and a number of women:

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.   (Acts 2:1-4, NET)

The supernatural sound filled the room, signifying that the Spirit had come to that place to manifest Himself in a special way and to do a special work. The tongues like fire settled on each individual, signifying that the Spirit was ready to baptize and fill each person.

And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them.  (Acts 2:3, NET)

After this, they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:4 teaches that the miracle took place as the Spirit moved on the speakers, not on the hearers. They began to speak in tongues only after the Spirit had entered, so speaking in tongues was the unique sign that each person had been baptized or filled with the Spirit.

The sound of wind and the tongues like fire never appear again in Scripture. Apparently they accompanied the founding of the New Testament church and the first outpouring of the Spirit much as lightning, thunder, and fire had accompanied the giving of the Law in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:16-19). Once God demonstrated that His Spirit was freely available to all, there was no need to emphasize it again in this fashion. Unlike the sound and the fire, however, speaking in tongues does reoccur a number of times in the Bible. Since it is the only sign particularly associated with an individual Spirit baptism (the others are signs of the availability of the Spirit), speaking in tongues has a lasting importance and function that the other signs do not.

Jews from many nations were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. When the 120 received the Spirit and began to speak in tongues, many of these visitors began to gather, with fourteen foreign lands being represented (Acts 2:5-11). These foreign Jews began to hear the various languages of their native countries and marveled that uneducated Galileans could speak all these foreign tongues.

Some people assert that God performed this miracle so the foreigners could hear the gospel preached to them, but a short time later Peter delivered a sermon to all of them in one language. This was probably Aramaic, the native language of all Jews at that time, or possibly Greek, the international language of commerce. At any rate, the audience did not need the miracle of tongues to bring them the gospel message.

Instead, God used tongues as a miraculous sign to show them He had bestowed His Spirit. Peter used their questions and comments about tongues to open his sermon, and he immediately told them this was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:14-21). Later in his sermon, Peter said,

So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear.  (Acts 2:33, NET)

The audience had just seen and heard people speaking in tongues, so Peter emphasized it as the evidence of the promised Holy Ghost.

Cornelius Spoke in Tongues

Cornelius and his familyWe find the next explicit record of speaking in tongues in the story of the first Gentiles to receive the Spirit: While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said,  (Acts 10:44-46, NET)

The Jewish Christians with Peter did not expect these Gentiles to receive the Holy Ghost immediately, because Jews traditionally believed one first had to convert to Judaism in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Despite this strong preconception, the Jews with Peter were forced to admit that Cornelius and his household had indeed received the Spirit, for they heard them speak with tongues. As The Pulpit Commentary states,

This was the incontrovertible evidence of their reception of the Holy Ghost. There is no mention of either a sound like wind or tongues like fire; speaking in tongues alone was the conclusive evidence.

The Spirit-filled Gentiles also “magnified God,” meaning they praised God, either in tongues or in their own language. If the latter, it was a consequence of receiving the Spirit but certainly not the miraculous sign that convinced skeptical Jews.

Peter reported these events to the church in Jerusalem, saying, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Speaking in tongues is the only sign that both Acts 2 and Acts 10 have in common, but it alone was enough to convince Peter that the Gentiles had received the Pentecostal experience.

The Ephesians Spoke in Tongues

The disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus also spoke in tongues when they received the Spirit:

and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy.  (Acts 19:6, NET)

This account demonstrates that the baptism of the Spirit with tongues is for all believers. The tongues in Acts 2 and 10 perhaps could be explained away as one-time signs for the Jews and Gentiles respectively, but Acts 19 has no precedent-setting value other than to establish this experience as the norm for the New Testament church. The only purpose tongues accomplished in this setting was to be a sign to these individual believers that they had received the same experience already given to others. This use of tongues is just as valid and as needed today. Whatever reasons God had for giving the Ephesians the sign of tongues, those reasons still exist today.

These Ephesians also “prophesied” after they received the Spirit. Prophecy is “the speaking forth of the mind and counsel of God” or “the forth-telling of the will of God.” According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, one definition of the verb to prophesy is to “speak under inspiration.” This can mean the gift of prophecy in which God speaks a direct message through human lips (I Corinthians 12:10), or it can mean any anointed preaching, praising, and testifying (I Corinthians 11:4-5; Revelation 19:10). Just as the 120 on Pentecost told of the wonderful works of God as they spoke in tongues (Acts 2:11), so these Ephesians apparently prophesied as they spoke in tongues. Possibly, the Spirit anointed these men to speak words in their own language after they had spoken in tongues. At any rate, prophecy resulted from the Spirit baptism but was not a sign such as tongues, because of these facts:

  1. Tongues preceded prophecy, so tongues was the initial sign.
  2. No other account of Spirit baptism mentions prophecy, so it is not a uniform sign.
  3. Tongues is readily identifiable as a supernatural, miraculous sign while prophecy is not, especially with respect to a non-believing observer.

The Samaritans Spoke in Tongues

The account in Acts 8 of the Samaritans who received the Holy Ghost does not explicitly mention speaking in tongues; it gives no description of signs of their Spirit baptism. Despite the lack of detailed description, some tangible sign was present. The Spirit baptism was an objectively observable phenomenon that both believers and nonbelievers immediately recognized as supernatural. It is logical to assume that this sign was speaking in tongues.

  1. Despite the miracles, joy, belief, and water baptism, everyone knew the Samaritans had not yet received the Spirit. Philip, Peter, and John all expected a particular sign and knew the Samaritans did not have the Spirit due to the absence of the sign.
  2. Everyone knew the Samaritans received the Spirit at the moment Peter and John laid hands on them. There must have been a definite sign for everyone to perceive this with such certainty. Moreover, this sign was more than an emotional feeling, a confession of faith, or water baptism, since those had occurred earlier. Neither were they looking for a manifestation of any miracle or any spiritual gift, because healing and casting out of spirits had already occurred.
  3. There must have been a definite, supernatural sign for Simon the Magician to be impressed enough to desire it. Simon apparently wanted to buy and use this miracle in his magical shows; he desired the power to lay hands on people and have the miraculous sign manifest itself. Again the sign was much more than an expression of joy, a confession of faith, or praise to God, all of which could be counterfeited with ease and none of which would impress a magician or his skeptical audience. Moreover, this sign impressed Simon in a way that all the other miracles had not.

The Pulpit Commentary acknowledges the existence of a sign: “There are signs of an impartation of the Spirit by the apostles which we do not appear to understand fully, because it differs from any impartation of the Spirit with which we have experience.” It continues, with respect to Acts 8.” These points assume that the indications of the Spirit’s coming on the disciples were such as we find at Pentecost. There was some gift of tongues, or preaching, or praying – some outward sign which all could realize.”Ofcourse, in the Pentecostal account only tongues served as the outward sign of the Spirit baptism itself. Neither preaching or praying is a possibility, since neither is a unique, miraculous sign and since the Samaritans had already observed both.

When we compare the Samaritans’ experience with the other accounts, it is obvious that the accompanying miraculous sign was speaking in tongues. Indeed, Hoekema, who does not even believe speaking in tongues is available for the church today, comes to the same conclusion. He states, “Though we are not told in so many words that the Samaritans spoke with tongues… there must have been some public evidence of their having received the Spirit. We may therefore agree with our Pentecostal friends at that point that the Samaritans probably did speak with tongues.”

Paul Spoke in Tongues

Paul spoke in tonguesActs 9 indicates that Paul received the Spirit but it gives no description of this event. As a result, the passage does not mention speaking in tongues. Paul, however, spoke in tongues frequently, for he later said, I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you,  (1 Corinthians 14:18, NET) Since he taught that speaking in tongues came by the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:8-10), it is consistent to assume that he first spoke in tongues when he received the Spirit, just as everyone else did.

Like the Ephesian account, Paul’s witness demonstrates that tongues was not just a one-time, unrepeatable event in the Early Church. Paul, a Jew, spoke in tongues long after the Jews at Pentecost did, and he continued to do so in his devotion and ministry.

An article by Rev. Dr. William Chelliah.
The President of Assemblies of God Bible College – Sri Lanka
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