Speaking in Tongues

I have come across a number of Churches that practise ‘speaking in tongues’. I have also found some that are opposed to it. What does the Bible say about the gift of tongues?

What do the scriptures mean when "tongues" are spoken about?

"These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, in their nations." (Genesis 10v20).

"These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations." (Genesis 10v31).

"Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the great things of God?" (Acts 2v11).

"It is written in the law, By people of other tongues, and by strange lips, will I speak to this people; and neither thus will they hear me, saith the Lord." (1 Corinthians 14v21).

"After these things I saw, and lo, a great crowd, which no one could number, out of every nation and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palm branches in their hands." (Revelation 7v9).

"And it was said to me, Thou must prophesy again as to peoples and nations and tongues and many kings." (Revelation 10v11).

"And men of the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations see their body three days and a half, and they do not suffer their bodies to be put into a sepulchre." (Revelation 11v9).

These scriptures indicate that when the scriptures use the word 'tongues' it is referring to what we would call languages; usually in different geographical areas. The introduction of different languages was an act of God at the tower of Babel to thwart man's purposes in opposition to God (see Genesis 11). Prior to this everyone spoke one language.

The gift of tongues in the early church

"And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues" (Mark 16v17).

"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave to them to speak forth." (Acts 2v4).

"Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the great things of God?" (Acts 2v11).

As already referred to earlier, the coming of the Holy Spirit was marked by the ability of the apostles to preach the gospel in other tongues to many different people in their home languages. The Holy Spirit is the great unifying power in the Church and He begins by ensuring that the uneducated character of the early disciples would not hamper the spread of the gospel. He gave the ability to overcome the curse of Babel showing that God will not allow difference of language to be a barrier to His saints spreading the gospel.

"And the faithful of the circumcision were astonished, as many as came with Peter, that up on the nations also the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out: for they heard them speaking with tongues and magnifying God." (Acts 10v45-46).

At the house of Cornelius the same sign was seen and all present were able to spread the gospel to anyone regardless of language.

"And when they heard that, they were baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus. And Paul having laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. And all the men were about twelve." (Acts 19v5-7).

The disciples of John at Ephesus had the same sign evident among them.

"For to one, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; and to a different one faith, in the power of the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing in the power of the same Spirit; and to another operations of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; and to a different one kinds of tongues; and to another interpretation of tongues." (1 Corinthians 12v8-10).

And God has set certain in the assembly: first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers; then miraculous powers; then gifts of healings; helps; governments; kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all in possession of miraculous powers? have all gifts of healings? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But desire earnestly the greater gifts, and yet shew I unto you a way of more surpassing excellence." (1 Corinthians 12v28-31).

In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle makes clear that there are many gifts given to believers, including speaking with tongues and interpretation of tongues. As the Church grew it would appear that not everyone had this ability but each was given gifts which would help the Church and the spread of the gospel. Some were definitely given a gift, presumably to speak and understand other languages to ensure the gospel spread around the world to every tribe, nation and tongue. Truly the spread of the gospel is a miracle in itself!

This sign has been seen in more recent times too. One example known to me being when the Holy Spirit converted the words of a preacher in Hyde Park, London, to the home language of a passing Chinese man. The Holy Spirit's actions are always with a purpose, i.e. to the furthering of the gospel. It is clear from 1 Corinthians 13v8 that tongues have only a temporary purpose and that when we enter eternity "they will cease". We can be educated in other languages but this will have no further purpose in God's presence for all confusion will be done away with. Therefore it is abundantly clear that a lack of understanding due to languages will not exist in heaven.

What place are "tongues" to have in the Church?

"And God has set certain in the assembly: first, apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers; then miraculous powers; then gifts of healings; helps; governments; kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all in possession of miraculous powers? have all gifts of healings? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But desire earnestly the greater gifts, and yet shew I unto you a way of more surpassing excellence." (1 Corinthians 12v28-31).

So that tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe. If therefore the whole assembly come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and simple persons enter in, or unbelievers, will not they say ye are mad?" (1 Corinthians 14v22-23).

So that, brethren, desire to prophesy, and do not forbid the speaking with tongues." (1 Corinthians 14v39).

"Love never fails; but whether prophecies, they shall be done away; or tongues, they shall cease; or knowledge, it shall be done away." (1 Corinthians 13v8).

"For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints." (1 Corinthians 14v33).

The place of 'tongues' in the Church is explained in detail in 1 Corinthians 14. Corinth was a major trading city in central Greece. It was known for being a major staging post for many merchants and therefore it was a very cosmopolitan city. A great many people from many different places passed through it and in the process brought their languages with them. In the middle of this hubbub of peoples was the growing Church in Corinth. All of these languages threatened to introduce confusion into the church meetings and so Paul addresses this in his letter explaining that God is a God of peace and not of disorder and chaos.

He begins chapter 14 re-iterating that prophesying (making known the mind and word of God) was to be the thing they should value. Prophesying makes nothing of the prophet and everything of God and His message. It edifies and encourages the church (v3) whereas a man who speaks with a tongue, unknown by anyone present can only speak to God as no-one else present will know what he is saying. Paul is quick to say that anyone speaking with another tongue should not be disregarded as useless; he would have everyone to speak in different languages (v4) but someone with a word of prophecy is more valuable than someone who speaks in a tongue unless there is someone who can interpret for them. He goes on to say that if he came and spoke with tongues there would be nothing of value to the saints (v6-9). There are many different voices and all of them are viable languages with distinctive sounds but if no-one knows what they mean (the power of the sound: v11) the person speaking them will be thought of as a barbarian. 'Barbarian' was a term used by Romans and Greeks for anyone of uncivilised origin outside of their empires and not speaking Greek or Latin. Therefore, Paul urged the Corinthians to desire things that edify others, not introduce confusion (v12). If someone speaks in a language which is unknown to the brethren they should pray that the Spirit will give them the ability to interpret, just as He did for the apostles at Pentecost (v13).

So a man with an unknown tongue can pray and sing in his spirit but if he were to do so aloud, anyone who was uneducated and didn't understand could hardly say "Amen" not knowing if what was said was right or not (v16). If someone is educated and able to speak in different languages they should not seek to show off in the church meeting because it will be of no use spiritually to anyone who is unlearned (v18-19). Paul could speak with tongues more than all in Corinth, he says. He had come from a highly educated background and travelled to many countries (see Galatians 2), therefore had he wished to and felt it would be valuable he would have spoken in different tongues but he wouldn't because he would rather speak five words which could be understood than many words which made no sense to the hearers (v19).

So Paul says they should be mature and consider what is valuable to their Christian brethren (v20). Speaking in other tongues was to be a sign to unbelievers and a means for spreading the gospel as at Pentecost, but it is prophecy and words from God that was to be for believers (v22). Therefore, if the whole assembly in Corinth was to be gathered together, speaking in different languages; a simple, uneducated person coming in off the street would say that they were all mad and would claim they were speaking gibberish (v23). But if everyone gave prophetic words from God, teaching and edifying the Church in words that were understood by most, if not all, they would come in and be convicted that God was indeed amongst them leading the uneducated man to give homage to God (v24-25).

Everything, therefore, was to be done in an orderly way for the spiritual profit of the believers (v26). Whatever each person had to bring, whether it was a prayer, a hymn/psalm to sing or some revelation or teaching from God it should be able to edify the Christians gathered there. It would only be useful if people spoke one at a time, separately, and not all at once (v27). Also, if anyone did speak with a different language they were to speak separately. If there was no-one to interpret, i.e. no-one who could understand their language, then they were to remain silent and speak to God alone (v27-28). This clearly shows that tongues are not to be used unless someone is known who can interpret. There is no ground in scripture for speaking in tongues first and hoping that someone will be able to miraculously interpret. The implication from this chapter is that the person knows whether there is an interpreter first and then knows whether to speak or remain silent.

Paul recommended that only two or three should speak (give a word) at any church gathering and that the others should judge what they say to ensure that what was said was truly from God (v30). If someone else had a revelation then, he said, you be silent and let them speak (v30). No-one should be trying to make much of themselves by claiming to have something to say but all should be looking for what was of God. The whole proceedings therefore would be orderly and without confusion; he reminds them that God is a god of order not disorder (v31-33).

Finally, after bidding women to be silent in the church, Paul says that if anyone felt they were able to teach in the assembly (perhaps there were some who thought a lot of themselves) they were to recognise that this was God's commandment (v37). They were not to forbid foreigners from prophesying and teaching unless there was no-one to interpret for them, i.e. they were now not to condemn those speaking with other tongues but were to ensure that everything was done in a manner which was "decently and in order".

It is good to test every spirit. If something is of the Holy Spirit it will involve self-control, it won’t bring glory to the person with the gift but rather make much of Christ and it will be for the benefit of everyone. Everything must be tested by scripture. If something doesn’t stand when scrutinised by the scriptures then you can be sure that it is not of God.

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