What is Speaking in Tongues According to the Bible?

This post may contain affiliate links that I earn a small commission from at no cost to you. Please see my disclosure page for information.

The concept of tongues can be quite confusing today, with some churches presenting the belief that a person saying things that most present can’t understand is the Biblical concept of speaking in tongues. Other churches teach there is no such thing as speaking in tongues, and still others teach other variations of the concept. So what does the Bible actually say about it?

To my knowledge there is nothing in Judaism to support the concept of speaking in tongues, which means for Christianity, it has to be a New Testament concept. The first recorded reference in the Bible to speaking in tongues confirms this as it is in Acts 2 with the specific reference to tongues being in Acts 2:4.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:4

While the Old Testament does not refer to speaking in tongues, it does refer to something similar where speech changes in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel:

Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. – Genesis 11:7-8

So here in Genesis there is also an example of God changing people’s speech and language. There is a key difference though, did you notice it?

In the Genesis 11 instance, God confused their language so that people did not understand each other. The Bible does not indicate that each person thought they were speaking gibberish or that they didn’t understand what they themselves were saying, so it seems likely they felt they were speaking normally. Language was confused though, so others weren’t understanding what they said and similarly they weren’t understanding what others said because they were actually speaking different languages. Languages that contributed to the spread of people over the earth and most likely the founding of different cultural groups.

In Acts 2 though, it indicates that the disciples were speaking in “other tongues”. Continue through Acts 2 we see that there were a lot of foreign language speakers in Jerusalem at the time, and their response to what they heard is recorded in Acts 2:6-11.

And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” – Acts 2:6-11

Did you notice that “everyone heard them speak in his own language” and “in our own tongues“?

The point here is that tongues are synonymous for languages, and each person heard in their own language what the disciples were preaching.

This is a distinct difference to the Genesis 11 account where people could not understand each other. Instead, everyone can understand what the disciples are saying. Further in Acts 2 we see Peter took the opportunity to present a moving sermon that resulted in 3000 baptisms (Acts 2:41) of people that heard and understood him in their native tongue.

It’s an interesting difference. In one case, the language was confused and drove people apart, in another it was unconfused and brought them together.

To me, this indicates that the Biblical concept of speaking in tongues is clarity whereby every person hearing can understand what is being spoken in the language that will be clearest to them.

A confused language that no one or almost no one understands according to the Biblical description however is not speaking in tongues.

2 thoughts on “What is Speaking in Tongues According to the Bible?”

  1. Acts 2: 1-4 Describes what happens when a person receives the Holy Spirit within.
    1) The 120 people were praying to receive the Holy Spirit. This means that each person had a repentant heart. (the word repentant means to about face. In context it means prepared to start over anew living one’s life God’s way. In Greek repentance does not mean to dwell on the past) Acts 2:38.
    2-3) As the people prayed in their language each person received the Spirit within. This was known because all of a sudden (like as of fire [verb not noun] as quick as a flash, as fast as grease lightening, in context: like the roaring flames jumping from tree to tree in a bush fire.) they all began to pray in cloven (a different) language.
    4) This verse sums up what happened. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to pray in the Spiritual language, as the Spirit enabled them to.

    At this time other people recognised the languages spoken and were amazed.
    The fact that the languages were recognisable, was not to communicate to the multitude, but rather to get their attention- they marvelled!
    When a person prays in tongues (prays in or by the Spirit) they are praying the wonderful works of God- praise in other words. When I pray in the Spirit I start by saying something like praise your name, Hallelujah glory to God, victory in Jesus etc. Usually, I only get one or two words in before the Spirit changes my language. When I pray my mind often wanders as I think about life. The Holy Spirit praying my thought in intercession to God. As Romans 8 says: praying in groanings (complaints, requests) in words that cannot be uttered (in words that I can’t express myself). Often one does not even know how they are really feeling, let alone put the feelings into words.
    When I pray it is like a Spiritual hug from God.
    Speaking in tongues is not an optional gift, it is mandatory. It is God’s confirmation, His signature on the contract that the new Christian has with Him. It is Gods promise (v:39) of that which can be seen and heard (v:33) to as many as God shall call.
    A person can’t ask God for the gift of tongues. So, if you have asked and nothing has happened, I am not surprised. One only speaks in tongues for the first time when God is satisfied with a person’s repentance. Read Acts chapter 8: 4-25. The people believed and were baptised but had not yet received the Holy Spirit. When they did receive , Simon a professional con artist of magic was convinced by what he saw. Although not written, He saw people being prayed for and then receive the Spirit with the sign of speaking in tongues, just as on the Day of Pentecost.
    If just accepting God into our heart (that is like a filthy rag) was all that is required, then I for one would have been mistaken. I grew up an atheist. At the age of sixteen I sought the Holy Spirit for a month and a half and still did not speak in tongues. I thought I was repenting. One day I realised that I was telling God to prove Himself and then I would follow. My repentance though I realised was far from satisfactory. At that moment I was sincere for the first time in my prayer. I was willing to follow God if, if He was real and loved me. Then without warning I found it difficult to say the words that I was trying to say and then I heard myself praying in a different language. I stopped and thought wow!
    Not coming from a churchy background, it took me about ten years before I realised that being Spirit filled is all about growing in a relationship with God. I have now been a Christian for forty years.

    Reply
    • Hi Simon,
      Thanks for taking the time to write such a lengthy response. I am not going to argue with your personal experience as only you and God know the truth of that.

      I’ve grown in my views on tongues since I first wrote this article and while I no longer believe it to be something that is clearly understood by everyone around in every situation, however, I thought your interpretation of Acts 2 seemed very contradictory to other parts of the Bible that talk about spiritual gifts. I’ll run through why I thought this.

      You said:
      “Acts 2: 1-4 Describes what happens when a person receives the Holy Spirit within.”

      This leads into the assertion you made:

      “Speaking in tongues is not an optional gift, it is mandatory. It is God’s confirmation, His signature on the contract that the new Christian has with Him. It is Gods promise (v:39) of that which can be seen and heard (v:33) to as many as God shall call.”

      However, v39 does not say what you are suggesting, it says:

      Acts 2:38-39:
      38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
      39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

      Peter does not say people will receive the gift of tongues but that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says in multiple books that there are different kinds of gifts of the Holy Spirit, tongues is just one of them, and not everyone will receive every spiritual gift, 1 Corinthians 12 spells it out: the Spirit distributes them (vs 4) just as he determines (vs 11).

      1 Corinthians 12:4-11
      4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.
      5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
      6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
      7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
      8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,
      9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,
      10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.
      11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

      This is emphasised in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30:
      27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
      28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
      29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
      30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

      So to suggest that tongues is mandatory to show that you have a repentant heart and have thus received the Spirit doesn’t make sense with the Bible and is transgressing Paul’s warnings in Romans 14:13-23 whereby such a teaching is putting a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of another child of God and could cause them to turn away from Christ simply because they have received a different gift to you.

      We each have a specific role in the body of Christ and the gifts we receive are specific to the role that we play.

      Both the lists in 1 Corinthians put tongues last, but 1 Corinthians 12:28 actually specifies a level of priority for each gift with tongues last in the list of importance and apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping and guiding all more important than tongues.

      This does make sense as 1 Corinthians 12:7 says each gift is given for the common good. Contextually it is talking about the body of Christ and the contribution each person and their gifts makes to that body. So the common good, for the body of Christ would be to grow the church and build up those within the church. All of the gifts mentioned in these passages and others like Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 contribute to the common good of the body of Christ. Speaking in tongues, at least to me, seems the least beneficial to the common good of the body of Christ except in one scenario:

      Acts 2:6 makes it clear “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.”

      Each one heard their own language being spoken.

      It’s impossible to connect with people that can’t understand you, so tongues that cannot be understood by anyone would defeat the purpose of the spiritual gift, speaking with no-one understanding doesn’t serve the common good of the body.

      1 Corinthians 12 does include interpretation of tongues as a gift also, which certainly does allow for speaking and only being understood by a select few.

      1 Corinthians 14 builds on this.

      1 Corinthians 14:1-5
      1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
      2 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.
      3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
      4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.
      5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

      1 Corinthians 14:2 agrees that tongues may not be understandable. However, 14:4 says tongues comes with the risk of edifying yourself rather than the church unless someone can interpret (14:5), which is probably why Paul had earlier put it last in the list of importance in 1 Corinthians 12 and says in 14:1 to desire the gift of prophecy more than other gifts.

      1 Corinthians 14:5 wishes that everyone received the gift of tongues, but that prophesy is more preferable. Why wish this if it were mandatory that everyone received the gift of tongues?

      1 Corinthians 14:5 also says that the gift of tongues is only of value to the edification of the church if it can be interpreted.

      1 Corinthians 14:6-25 then goes into extensive detail on when, how, and for whom tongues is for.

      14:6 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?

      14:9 Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.

      14:10-11 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.

      14:13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.
      14:14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
      14:15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
      14:16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?
      14:17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

      14:19 in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

      14:21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

      14:22-25
      22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.
      23 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?
      24 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,
      25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

      These passages make it pretty clear. Tongues are a sign for unbelievers, not believers, and they only serve as a sign when the tongues are understandable or at least interpretable.

      1 Corinthians 14:27-28 emphasises the importance of interpretation
      27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.
      28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

      So if the tongues are not in the form of being understandable by all around them like those in Acts 2, then someone MUST interpret or the speaker should keep quiet. Why? Because if it’s not understandable, it doesn’t edify the church and it doesn’t reach unbelievers.

      Your reading between the lines in Acts 8:4-25 is reasonable, however, speaking in tongues is not the only sign of receiving the Holy Spirit and Paul makes it clear that tongues will not reach unbelievers unless it is intelligible or interpretable, so while Simon the Sorcerer may have seen some of the people speak in tongues, he likely witnessed other signs too, at the very least, the gift of interpretation, but Pauls letter to the Corinthians suggests the gift of prophecy would be a better tool to reach Simon, and also something that would be of far more value to him as a magician to the point that he would be willing to offer money to receive it, so I’d suggest that he witnessed multiple spiritual gifts but that it was the gift of prophecy that he really wanted. Any magician could make up a language and claim tongues, but to be able to prophesy and have those prophecies be completely accurate, that would be something of substantial value! For that matter, the gifts of healing and performing miracles would also be a perfect fit and fare more valuable to a magician than tongues.

      Remember, Simon believed and was baptised (Acts 8:14), but he was not truly converted and was still a captive to his old ways of sin (Acts 8:21, 23).

      I agree with you 100% though, being Spirit-filled is all about growing in your relationship with God! It’s a constant process and we can only continue to grow in our relationship by spending time with God and allowing the Holy Spirit to work on us.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts!

      Reply

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Who Am I?

Matt in Noumea

Matt works sort-of full time running his digital marketing business, TerraMedia. In his spare time though, he loves to travel with his wife, so they usually end up doing a lot of it.
Home is Australia, and while they don’t spend all their time travelling the world, Matt and his wife like to take the time to really explore and get to know a place, even if that means spending a lot longer there than normal tourists might.

You can read more about Matt and his story HERE.

Popular Posts

Need some inspiration on where to go next? Check out these popular posts!

Currently reading

en_AUEnglish (Australia)
Subscribe Now For The Latest Updates