Understanding Tongues

When the Holy Spirit came to the infant Church in Acts 2, there were two signs that accompanied His arrival: the sound of a mighty, rushing wind and something that looked like tongues of fire. These were unique signs that have never been repeated in the history of the Church. You would be hard-pressed to find any Christian who would claim that these signs have been repeated.

Not so the third sign, speaking in other tongues. There are charismatic/pentecostal denominations that teach “speaking in other tongues” is a normative sign that an individual has received Spirit baptism. These denominations rightfully teach “speaking in other tongues” is the only supernatural sign from Acts 2 that is seen occurring multiple times in Acts. But they go one step further.  To them, this sign continues today.  When a believer experiences Spirit baptism, the proof or evidence that such a thing has taken place is that the newly-baptized person will start speaking in tongues immediately.

Other denominations claim that all signs associated with the very early Church ceased with the death of the last Apostle, probably John. They say correctly all miraculous signs that accompanied the spread of the Gospel in New Testament times were necessary to give authority to the preaching of the Gospel since the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Today, our authority comes from the completed Word of God, hence “signs and wonders” are no longer needed. To these Churches, there is no “second blessing,” no Spirit baptism, for it is no longer needed, and a person is filled with the Spirit when they are born again and that’s it.

While no Christian denomination denies the Holy Spirit or His work in the Church and in individual believers, there seems to be two extremes in the Church today. On one side, there are denominations that pay little more than lip service to the Spirit. It’s like these “mainline” denominations really don’t know what to do with Him. On the other side, there are denominations that have created “pentecostal doctrines” in an effort to separate themselves from “those other churches” that they perceive as dead and powerless. Often, unfortunately these kinds of Churches go way overboard and their services are filled with all kinds of  strange “manifestations” of the Spirit’s presence.

Forgetting what “denominations” say, what does the Bible say?

1. Distinguishing between tongues in Acts and the Gifts of the Spirit

Speaking in tongues as the Spirit enables” is wholly a New Testament doctrine. The very first instance is found in Acts 2.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (verse 4)

We know from verse 6 that these “tongues” were known languages—that is, known by people other than those speaking. This was truly a miracle! Just imagine if you opened your mouth and suddenly started speaking in a language you had never learned. This is what happened to the 120 when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t so much a “gift of tongues,” as it was a “gift of languages.” This ability to speak different languages was given to the 120, not to pray or praise God, but for the very practical purpose of evangelism. Remember, there may have been dozens and dozens of different languages represented in Jerusalem; they had come to town from far and wide for the Feast of Pentecost. So, the Lord providentially made it possible for the greatest number of people to hear the Gospel in one day by enabling the first church congregation to speak in different languages.

This “gift of languages” is seen other times in Acts, but it is never mentioned in any of the Epistles, although “speaking in tongues” is mentioned. In Acts, we read of two more incidents where “speaking in tongues” is mentioned:

Acts 10:45—47. Here, Jewish believers who were with Peter at Cornelius’ home were amazed when these new Gentile believers were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. Again, the word translated “tongues” here means “known languages.”

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 and praising God. (Acts 10:44—46)

All who heard” the sermon Peter preached were filled with the Spirit. What is significant here is that these who heard the sermon were already believers, just as the 120 were. These Gentiles, also like the 120 Jews, were given the ability to speak in different languages. This was the first incursion of the Gospel into Gentile land, so, just like back in Jerusalem, God enabled the first Gentile evangelists to speak in languages necessary for spreading the Gospel in this new area.

Acts 19:6. This is the third and last instance of believers receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts and speaking in different languages as a result. This time, it was a group of brand new Christians in Ephesus Paul happened upon. What is interesting here is that this group of isolated Christians had never even heard of the Holy Spirit!

These Ephesians had previously repented and believed, but their knowledge was limited. They are still called “disciples,” and were God-fearing people who, when they learned more about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, gladly received the Spirit’s baptism. And, just like the 120 and the folks in Cornelius’ home, they were given the ability to speak different languages.

When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. (Acts 19:6)

Throughout Acts, it seems as though Spirit baptism is definitely an experience subsequent to salvation. In other words, based on the examples of Cornelius’ household and the Ephesian disciples, one may be a believer and not be “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” There are other examples that support the idea that Spirit baptism is a “second work of grace,” but only these three indicate that “speaking in tongues or “languages” followed the infilling of the Spirit.

Leaving Acts, the next reference to “speaking in tongues” is actually found in Romans, although that phrase is not used. Here is what Romans 8:26 says:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

This verse, coupled with what Paul would later write to the Corinthian church regarding “praying in the Spirit” is highly suggestive. These “wordless groans” occur when a believer is praying on his own, but at some point the Spirit comes on him, takes over, and prays through him. In this instance, the “groans” cannot be understood by any human being—they don’t constitute a known language, and it is not the Spirit praying for the person who is praying, it is the Spirit using the vocal abilities of the person praying. The idea of this verse is that as we pray, we may “run out of things to pray for,” and at that point the Spirit takes over, praying through us.  Another way to look at it is that when we come to the end of our resources, those of the Holy Spirit, who is within us, take over.

In Romans 12, Paul lists a series of spiritual gifts, including:

  • The ability to prophecy;
  • The ability to serve others;
  • The ability to teach;
  • The ability to encourage others;
  • The gift of giving generously;
  • The gift of leadership;
  • The gift of mercy.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists a few more spiritual gifts:

  • A message of wisdom;
  • A message of knowledge;
  • (Gift of) faith;
  • Gifts of healing;
  • The ability to work use miraculous powers;
  • The ability to prophecy;
  • The ability to discern between different kinds of spirits;
  • The ability to speak in tongues;
  • The ability to interpret tongues.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there other Gifts of the Spirit mentioned, including these in Ephesians 4:

  • The gift of being an evangelist;
  • The gift of being a prophet;
  • The gift of apostleship;
  • The gift of the teacher/pastor.

With regards to Ephesians 4, it is clear that some of these gifts (offices in the church, really) have ceased to exist:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19, 20)

So we might say that the apostle and the prophet as offices in the Church were foundational ministries that we have built upon, and are no longer needed. This does not mean that the spiritual gift of prophecy does not exist, merely that there are no prophets or apostles in the church today (Christian cable channels notwithstanding).

So you see, then, that the spiritual gift of tongues is just one of many spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church of Paul’s day was obsessed with this one single gift to the exclusion of all the others, which is why he spent considerable time teaching them about the Gifts of the Spirit. It’s no different with the modern Church, where entire denominations have been founded on “the gift of tongues.” Why not found a denomination on the gift of encouragement? Or the gift of generosity? Why tongues? Paul teaches that all the Gifts of the Spirit are equal; none is better than another. Yet, the “gift of tongues” is the one that we hear most about, the one that is the most obvious to notice, and, as in the case of the Corinthian church, the one that is abused the most.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, the so-called “love chapter,” is really about how to use the Gifts of the Spirit in the best way: in love. Paul begins:

If I speak in the tongues (known languages) of men or of angels (gift of tongues–unknown languages), but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith (gift of faith) that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess (gift of generous giving) to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (verses 1—3)

When Christians engage in any abuse of any spiritual gift, they are not using that gift in love. The Gifts of the Spirit are given to Christians for the express purpose of building up the Church; they are to be used to bless the Body of Christ. Spiritual one-up-manship has no place in the Church because that takes the focus off Christ puts it on the one exercising his particular gift or gifts. This is probably why “the gift of tongues” is so abused and stressed so much; it’s hard to miss somebody in the congregation going off and babbling unintelligibly.

There is, then a clear distinction between the “tongues” of Acts and the “gift of tongues” elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts, it was a the ability to speak foreign languages that fell on believers, so that they could engage in effective evangelism. This most remarkable ability accompanied an additional infilling of the Holy Spirit, because we know that a person is already filled with the Spirit when they initially believe.

In Paul’s teaching, we discover that there are numerous Gifts of the Spirit given to believers that enable them to engage in ministry to the Body of Christ beyond their normal talents. The “gift of tongues” is just one the many spiritual gifts believers may receive when they experience an additional infilling of the Spirit, subsequent to their initial infilling at conversion.

Also, since we haven’t heard of mass groups of English-speaking Christians breaking out in Mandarin Chinese after a prayer meeting, we can conclude that the “tongues,” the ability to speak foreign languages, of Acts 2 has gone the way of the Old Testament prophet and the New Testament apostle. It was a foundational ability that was needed only in the beginning but not now.

2. The gift of tongues

So is “speaking in tongues” a “normative sign” that a believer has been baptized in the Holy Spirit? Not according to the “tongues” of Acts. Those “tongues” were foreign languages, not “the language of the Spirit.” Since all the Gifts of the Spirit are equal, then we must conclude that the “normative sign” that one has had a deeper experience with the Holy Spirit—if indeed a sign accompanies that—must be the manifestation of any of the Gifts of the Spirit, including but not limited to tongues. What, then, is this “gift of tongues,” outside of Acts, all about?

The answer to that question is found is not in denominational literature, but the Word of God, specifically 1 Corinthians 14. This chapter was written to a large but troubled church. It was full of members who were full of the Holy Spirit, but desperately in need of learning how to use those gifts properly. After listing “the gift of tongues” along with all the other Gifts of the Spirit in chapter 12, Paul, in chapter 13, first teaches the Corinthians that they must exercise all the gifts (he uses only the gifts of tongues, prophecy, faith, and giving as examples) in love. You may think it odd that Christians would have to be told that, but the admonition to love one another was given numerous time by Jesus and John. The implication is that Christians may find it difficult to love one another. Given the destructive behavior many pastors see in their congregations, it becomes obvious that even genuine believers, from time to time, will engage in behavior that brings harm to a brother or sister, and what better way to do that than using their spiritual gift to make them feel inferior? For that reason, Paul warns his Corinthian friends that no one gift is superior to another, that all are needed in the Church, and Spiritual gifts should be used in love.

That brings us to 1 Corinthians 14. Here is what Paul teaches about the spiritual gift of “tongues” in that chapter:

  • For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (verse 2) This reminds us of what Paul wrote to the Romans; of how the Holy Spirit prays through us with groanings that cannot be understood by human beings. In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul basically admonishes the people with that gift to pray in tongues away from other people because when they speak in tongues it does nothing for anybody else—that is, praying in tongues for all to hear is not a loving way to exercise that gift. Why? Because it is useless to the one who hears and it draws his attention to the one speaking in tongues.
  • Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? (verse 6) Paul in verse 18, Paul will tell his friends that he speaks in tongues often; but here he says that if he comes simply speaking to them in tongues, like during a sermon or during a worship service for example, then he’s wasting his time. They can’t understand him, so he then says it’s better to use another gift or speak the Word of God in a language all can understand. The words “some revelation” could refer to a teaching one gives during a sermon or Bible lesson. “Knowledge” and “prophecy” more than likely refer to those particular spiritual gifts.
  • So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. (verses 12, 13) Notice what Paul says here and what he does not say. The Corinthians were excited about using their spiritual gifts, but Paul wanted them to become expert at using the ones that built up the greatest number of people in the Church. He obviously can’t be referring to tongues, because he just taught them that tongues are of no benefit to anybody in the church save the one speaking in them. Verse 13 is like a caveat, it does not provide a new use for tongues. Should a person get carried away and break out in tongues during a service, the genie is out of the bottle. What is to be done? Scores of people have heard something they shouldn’t have heard and they have no idea what was said. In that case, Paul suggested the best course of action would be for that person to correct his mistake by asking God to give him the interpretation of what he had just prayed to God so that everybody who heard him could be blessed just as he himself had been blessed. Paul is not encouraging the public display of tongues, he is simply giving advice in case it happened.

Here is way the gift of tongues should never be used during a worship service:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (verses 22—25)

Breaking that down, we notice:

  • The gift of tongues exercised in public does nothing for other Christians, but will most certainly confuse an unbeliever who hears it and will make the one speaking in tongues look like they are out of their mind. So, there is no way to use the gift of tongues in public in a way that is helpful to anybody, saint or sinner. Why? Because the spiritual gift of tongues is only good for the one exercising it.
  • But if another gift of the Spirit is being exercised, like the gift of prophecy, which is exercised in a known language, then that same sinner, instead of being confused, will actually be convicted of sin in their life and realize that God is among the congregation.

The key for Paul is that when Christians get together, they need to have an orderly service. Remember, the Corinthians were excited about using their spiritual gifts, so they needed verses 26—40 in the worst way. Most churches today have the opposite problem; they are devoid of any manifestations of the Spirit, good or bad. Given that, these verses sound like Paul is giving guidelines for how to have a pentecostal church service: two or three people should speak in tongues, somebody should interpret, anybody with the gift of prophecy should stand up and give their message, but again only two or three of them, and so on. But, instead of looking at these verses as patterns for pentecostal services, what if we look at them as “what to do if things get out of hand”? If Spirit-filled believers get carried away and start exercising their gifts improperly, the leader of the service shouldn’t shut it down, compounding an already uncomfortable situation, he should calmly take control of the service and reign in those who are carried away in their Spiritual gifts.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (verses 39, 40)

We never want to “quench the Spirit,” but people need to be taught how to use their particular gift or gifts in the right way so as to minister to the most number of believers in the most effective, God-glorifying way.


Based on the preponderance of Biblical evidence, there is an encounter with the Holy Spirit Christians may look forward to that is subsequent to their initial encounter with Him at their conversion. This second encounter, often referred to as “the Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is a second infilling of the Spirit, at which time a believer is given the ability to exercise certain gifts given him by the Spirit. All but one of these gifts are for the encouragement of the Body of Christ. The gift of tongues is a spiritual gift given to a believer for his benefit only, so that he may pray in the Spirit, or so that the Spirit may pray through him.

The “gift of tongues” as one of the Gifts of the Spirit is not to be confused with “speaking in tongues” that we see in the book of Acts. There, the “tongues” represented known languages and were for the benefit of those who heard the Gospel in their own language.

To conclude this study, let me quote the great Apostle:

Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:31a)

Our churches today are just as desperate as the Corinthian church was, except our desperation is for more of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps when we get to the end of our resources and realize we need something (Someone) more, then we will be visited by Him in a dynamic way.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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