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:
7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 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.
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 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.