Of Speaking In Tongues

In Mark 16:17 Jesus speaks of speaking in new tongues. In scripture speaking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-46, 19:6; I Cor. 12:10). The Holy Spirit gives this gift by grace to some for God’s own purpose. As in all gifts, the presence or absence of this gift does not indicate any greater or lesser or advanced spirituality or spiritual maturity than someone else at least in that particular area. The circumstances under which one employs this gift does, however, indicate his or her spiritual maturity (1 Corinthians 14:20). Moreover, the absence of this gift does not mean a person does not inwardly possess, is not filled with, nor that the Holy Spirit is not upon a person. We are exhorted not to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:36-40) as there is hope that we will all grow into a greater unity of matured faith (Ephesians 4:11-15).

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A key difference between other tongues of Acts 2 and unknown tongues of 1 Corinthians 14 is that Acts 2 other tongues is Holy Spirit controlled (Acts 2:4) and the unknown tongues of 1 Corinthians 14 is human controlled (1 Corinthians 14:9, 28). If it is understandable it is Holy Spirit given. If it is not understandable then it is human given. That which is human given requires an interpretation when done publically.

It is useful to divide public tongues into two types from the hearer perspective: tongues understandable by and tongues not understandable by the hearer; the former is also called other or cloven/divided (appearance, similar to dove in Matt. 3:16) tongues or simply tongues, and the latter unknown tongues.

Although not our focus, other tongues may be divided into subtypes given the diversity of tongues that may be spoken. Regarding the speaker, these two types are unlearned languages in contrast to learned foreign languages.

Acts 2 refers entirely to other tongues as the Holy Spirit ensured the hearer understood in the hearer’s own language/tongue. I Cor. 14 speaks of both other tongues and unknown tongues. The Greek word (s) for tongue (s) used in both Acts 2 and I Cor. 14 are the same, glossa and dialektos; dialektos is also translated language in Acts 2:6. In I Cor. 14 (King James Version) no Greek word appears for the word unknown; translators insert the word unknown to emphasize where the context speaks to unknown rather than other tongues.

A key difference between other tongues of Acts 2 and unknown tongues of 1 Corinthians 14 is that Acts 2 other tongues is Holy Spirit controlled (Acts 2:4) and the unknown tongues of 1 Corinthians 14 is human controlled (1 Corinthians 14:9, 28). If it is understandable it is Holy Spirit given. If it is not understandable then it is human given. That which is human given requires an interpretation when done publically; otherwise, it is out of order.

Acts 10:46 says “For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God….” The fact that Peter and the others knew the Gentiles were magnifying God means they understood the tongues in which the Gentiles spoke. The tongue that they spoke was Peter and the others native tongue but not the Gentile native tongue. The same goes for Acts 19:6.

Acts 2:1-15 says: “And 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 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. 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…”

So then in Acts 2 other tongues is speech that people understand such that it edifies all that hear. In such a case, the speaker may not be speaking in the speaker’s native language (Acts 2:4); but, the hearer hears him in the hearer’s native language by the power of the Holy Spirit. This most likely applies to all hearers present not just some. This is what happened on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4, 6, 8) and regarding the Gentiles in Acts 10:44-47 and is also what happened in Acts 19:5-6.

In Acts 2:8-13 we find “And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?… (13) Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.”

Verse 13 says there were some others who mocked and accused the disciples of having had too much good wine. They said this not because they did not understand what was said. For one can still usually understand what a drunk man says. What he says may not make sense but he still speaks in a language you can understand. So verse 13 most likely does not mean that these others who mocked did not hear and understand what was said. What it most likely means is that they thought the behavior of the disciples was out of line. It was different than what they were familiar. Moreover, they probably thought what the disciples were saying was not in line with what the mockers thought was right to say. For they spoke of the wonderful works of God. No doubt they spoke of Jesus including his resurrection which probably was not accepted by these mockers.

Within the context of I Cor. 14, the phrase speaking in tongues does not include speaking in the language of a generally known subgroup of persons present in an assembly where this subgroup is not sufficiently familiar with the normal language used by the assembly. For example, consider a gathering of people from various nationalities with different native languages. In this case, parts of the service may be specifically spoken and directed at a specific nation/country using that specific nation/country native language. The other persons present need not understand what is being spoken; this is because all is to understand that what is being said is substantively no different than what has been said in their native language or that it is instructions specifically given for application to that subgroup. In all cases, any such speaking of non-native language in an assembly is to be precoordinated, approved, scheduled, and directed by the church leadership. It is not to be of individual initiative.

Within the context of I Cor. 14, the phrase speaking in tongues includes but is not limited to praying and singing in tongues (verse 15).

Unknown tongue is speech in the spirit known to God but not to the hearer. Indeed, “For he that speaks in an unknown tongue speaks not unto men, but unto God: for no man understands him; howbeit in the spirit (Contextually here, spirit does not refer to Holy Spirit, at least not totally so, in light of I Cor. 14:14-15, 28 which says such acts are controllable by humans.) he speaks mysteries (I Cor. 14:2, 14).” Clearly, I Cor. 14 says that the tongues spoken in Acts 2 were not unknown tongues as defined here by Paul.

He that speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself (I Cor. 14:4-6). The scripture teaches that if a person speaks in public in an unknown tongue then he should pray that he or someone else will interpret (I Cor. 14:13-14, 27; I Cor. 12:10) by the Holy Spirit; it is reasonable to conclude that God will reveal the presence of the interpreter. But if there be no interpretation, he should speak only to himself and God, either silently to himself and God in public, or privately somewhere else (I Cor. 14:28). To avoid confusion, this interpretation (I Cor. 14:5,27) should occur in close proximity time-wise to spoken words. Paul saying the person should speak silently and/or privately affirms the unknown tongue source is primarily or totally the person’s spirit rather than the Holy Spirit; it is therefore controllable by the person.

I Cor. 14:12-17 speaks expressly about avoiding improperly publically praying (and singing) in an unknown tongue. Indeed, it says if you publically pray in an unknown tongue how can the hearer of your prayer say Amen?

“For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”

Here Paul says it is always good to give thanks; but he emphasizes that in public it is better to do so in a manner that others understand and can say Amen, etc.

We are exhorted not to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:36-40) as there is hope that we will all grow into a greater unity of matured faith (Ephesians 4:11-15).

We recognize people are at different levels of spiritual maturity in different areas. All should be encouraged to avoid childish malice and show the greater love for church order (1 Cor 14:1, 40), spiritual maturity and adulthood (1 Cor 14:20) by controlling improper speaking in tongues. That all may report that God is in you of a truth (1 Cor 14:21-25). Some speak in unknown tongues publically in praying and praising God; even then, interpretation should be present. Some say such unknown speech represent going higher in the Lord; but, biblically, they are going lower into childish immaturity.

Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Cor 14:26); tongues of any kind should not be excessively disruptive to the worship service.

Individuals should remember that tongues are a sign to exhort the unbeliever to believe (1 Cor 14:21-25); belief requires understanding what is heard. All should be reminded at the appropriate time that if there be no interpretation they should learn to control themselves until they are in private. We should show patience until they grow to a greater level of spiritual maturity and control issuing such personal prayer/praise publically using unknown tongues without proper interpretation.

We should respect those who repent from speaking in an unknown or any tongue publically without interpretation; it shows their love for God, his truth, and his church. Indeed Paul says he could speak in many tongues but when in the church he with humility speaks in a language understandable by those present (1 Cor 14:5-6, 18-19).

The gift of tongues is one of many gifts the Holy Spirit gives (I Cor. 12). The presence of any gift is personal evidence and perhaps public evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Each person and church leader should privately and publically recognize the importance of and seek the Holy Spirit to be within, upon, and around. Make this a part of prayer life.

Hear the words of Jesus in Luke: “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you…If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke 11:9-13).”

There is no single biblical formula or sequence of events (Acts 8, 10, 19) regarding the new birth by the Spirit (John 3:1-10, Rom. 8:1-11). Despite Acts 8:12-17, 19:1-7, it is unreasonable to conclude that God would leave English speaking believers (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) who have never spoken in tongues, a large number of years without the Holy Ghost.

Speaking in Tongues is Not a Necessary Evidence of Having the Holy Spirit! Indeed, speaking in tongues is only necessary when such people are involved with non-English speaking individuals, with which most never do.

To God Be the Glory



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