A phenomenon that has grown considerably in modern times within the Christian churches is the ability to speak in tongues. Once confined mainly to the Pentecostal churches, speaking in tongues has today become more widespread through out the Christian world. Speaking in tongues has entered the more traditional Protestant churches, and also there are tongue speaking people in the Roman Catholic Church as well.
This subject of "speaking in tongues" has caused considerable discussion and controversy within the Christian community, with some embracing the phenomenon wholeheartedly, and others strongly opposing it. Some churches emphasise this practice and teach that Christians should hope and pray for the experience of speaking in tongues. Other churches do not encourage speaking in tongues, and some even forbid it.
The tongues movement is identified by another term, and that is glossolalia, made up from two Greek words:
GLOSSA literally meaning tongue
LALIA meaning speech
When you place tongue and speech together, glossolalia, in English, means "to speak in a tongue".
The World Book Dictionary lists at least 6 different meanings for the English word 'tongue':
The word 'tongue' appears 59 times in the King James Version of the New Testament - that's according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance:
So when we come across the word 'tongue' in the New Testament, the majority of times - 53 of the 59 - it is translated from the Greek word 'glossa,' and the only way we can determine what this word 'tongue' means in the English language is to let the Bible interpret the Bible. We have to read the context to find out the meaning of the word 'tongue'.
Here are three examples:
Mark 7:32-35 Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
Here the context shows that the Greek word 'glossa' means literally the tongue - that 'movable fleshy organ of the mouth'. We have no problem in understanding, from the context of this passage, that Jesus touched the man's 'glossa'. He touched his physical tongue and he was healed.
A second example is found in the Book of Acts, where a different meaning is applied to the word 'tongue'.
Acts 2:1-3 When the Day of Pentecost had 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 the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
Here 'glossa' is translated tongue and from the context it means something shaped like a tongue. There appeared to them 'divided' or 'forked' glossa - forked tongues - of fire. The fire was in the shape of divided or forked tongues. So here is another understanding of the meaning of 'tongue', based on the context.
A third example is:
Acts 2:4-11 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 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, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.
Here the Greek word 'glossa' is translated 'tongue' and, from the context, it means languages or dialects. This is clearly shown when we read verse 11. Jews, gathered in Jerusalem from many lands, heard the wonderful works of God -- "in their own tongue - in their own 'glossa'".
Clearly from the context we can see that the 'other tongues' in verse 4 means other KNOWN languages or dialects from a wide range of countries around Jerusalem. This ability to speak in other languages or dialects was indeed a powerful experience for the founding members of this early New Testament Church of God. They were given, by a miracle, the ability to speak in other tongues, or other languages.
And being endowed with the Spirit of God, these people lost all signs of fear and timidity. They felt a power within them that gave them strong confidence and they were empowered to go and preach boldly to the people gathered in Jerusalem from many nations on that Day of Pentecost.
In Acts 2, we read that the miraculous ability to speak in tongues or foreign languages was a direct outcome of the giving of the Holy Spirit. Many people within the Christian community who speak in tongues generally agree that when the disciples received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they did speak in other languages, languages that were foreign to them, languages they had not learned.
However, those involved in this modern day phenomenon that we call the "tongues movement" - or the 'glossolalia' - say their speaking in tongues is not speaking in known languages but it takes the form of ecstatic utterances and they believe this is supported by the experience of the members in the church in Corinth as explained in 1 Corinthians 14. However, as we shall see, the speaking in tongues, which is a growing phenomenon in many of the Christian churches today, cannot be attributed to the Holy Spirit of God.
Let's take a careful look at this subject from a biblical perspective.
In Acts 2:1-4, which we read before, we have the record of the 120 faithful men and women who received the Holy Spirit in a spectacular manner on the Day of Pentecost and, as we have seen, one of the miracles provided by the Holy Spirit was the ability to speak in other tongues, or other languages. This is the first record in the New Testament of this phenomenon.
A few years after this Day of Pentecost, after the Apostle Peter had preached to a group of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word".The Bible records that the Jewish Christians heard them (that is, the Gentiles) "speak with tongues and magnify God"
Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord….
Here again is one of those unique occurrences in the early New Testament Church experience. God granted the Holy Spirit to Gentiles, prior to being baptised, and this was quite a shock to the Jewish converts, or Jewish Christians, at that time. But what was the evidence, the proof, that the Gentiles had received the Spirit of God - they spoke with tongues (glossa)? This was the same miracle that had been experienced by the original 120 on the Day of Pentecost. The evidence that Gentiles had now received the Spirit of God was without any doubt.
Some year later we find Paul teaching the disciples in Ephesus about the Holy Spirit.
Acts 19:1-6 And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? So they said to him, We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit. And he said to them, Into what then were you baptized? So they said, Into John's baptism. Then Paul said, John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.
In all three instances, speaking in tongues was a miracle associated with the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Let's look at each of these questions.
QUESTION 1: Was every Christian who received the Holy Spirit in the early New Testament Church given the miraculous ability to speak in tongues?
The New Testament does not show that every Christian who received God's Spirit spoke in tongues. It is not recorded that Jesus ever "spoke in tongues" though I'm sure He had the power and ability to do so, but there is no record that He ever did.
What we do know is that on the Day of Pentecost, and during the years that followed, numerous conversions are mentioned with no mention that all spoke in tongues. On the Day of Pentecost, for example, some 3000 people were baptised, and "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers". That's recorded in Acts 2:40-42.
There is no indication given here of divided tongues of fire, or of the sound of rushing mighty wind, or that they spoke in tongues or other languages as did the 120 disciples earlier in the day. Yet they were now baptised members who were added to the Church. And you can only be added to the Church, the Body of Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:13 says, "For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body" - that is the Body of Christ, the Church.
On that Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2, many people were added to the Body of Christ, the Church. They were baptised, they received the Spirit of God, but there is no record that they immediately spoke in tongues, or in other languages, as did the 120 disciples who were the foundation members of the Church.
Another incident is recorded in Acts 4:23-31 where the Holy Spirit was given, accompanied by a powerful evidence of its presence, but there was no "speaking in tongues" recorded here. After Peter and John were rebuked by the Jewish leaders, the apostles needed encouragement from God. Notice the following verse in particular:
Acts 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
The place where they were was shaken - a powerful witness and encouragement - but there is no mention of tongues here. Speaking in tongues did not always accompany the work of the Holy Spirit.
What about the Apostle Paul when he was converted on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9:1-18?
Saul, who later became known as the Apostle Paul, was a zealous enemy of the Church and it was on the Road to Damascus as he was on his way to arrest the followers of Christ, that Christ struck him down and he became converted and a very zealous follower of Jesus Christ.
Note the following verses in particular:
Acts 9:17-18 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
If such an enemy came among us today, we'd be very cautious, wouldn't we? You would think that if "speaking in tongues" was a necessary sign following the gift of the Holy Spirit, this should have been Saul's experience and those present would have known without any doubt that Saul had indeed received the gift of the Holy Spirit. He was an enemy of the church and they certainly needed much assurance that he was now on their side. And speaking in tongues as happened at the first would have been a very convincing sign for Ananias and those with him.
But there is no evidence here that Saul (or Paul) immediately spoke in tongues at the time Ananias prayed for him.
The three occurrences of speaking in tongues associated with the giving of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the book of Acts were particular signs from God for three major developments in the early New Testament Church:
We must remember that there were no New Testament Scriptures available to the disciples at that time - only the Old Testament. The apostles in the early New Testament Church could not pore over and study the 27 books of the New Testament which we have today. What we read today is their experience, their history, their deeds, their lives, and their revelation from God.
Speaking in tongues was a miracle that supported the apostles as they preached the gospel and established the Church. Was every Christian who received the Holy Spirit in the early New Testament Church given the miraculous ability to speaking in tongues? The answer is clearly NO!
QUESTION 2: Are those who speak in tongues more spiritual or closer to God than those who do not?
QUESTION 3: And what role should tongue speaking have in the Church today?
We can answer both questions by examining a portion of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and in particular chapter 14. They had some unique problems in that congregation. As Paul was not able to be present personally, he wrote letters to them, providing instruction and guidance, and encouragement. One of the problems in the Corinthian Church was "speaking in tongues". Yes, it was a problem there, which Paul addressed in chapter 14, in particular.
In order to understand I Corinthians 14, we need to rehearse chapters 12 and 13 first because they lead up to and help us understand the problem Paul was addressing with the Corinthian congregation in chapter 14. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul refers to the "gifts of the Spirit".
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
Notice that the ability to speak in tongues (glossa) is one of the gifts of the Spirit. The interpretation of tongues (glossa) is also a gift from the Spirit of God.
The word 'gift' (or gifts) here comes from the Greek word charisma - from which the word 'charismatic' is derived and sometimes the "speaking in tongues" movement is called the "charismatic movement" because it has reference to the gifts (charisma) of the Holy Spirit.
But I want us to notice very specifically and very carefully what God says about these gifts. Not every Christian receives every gift. God gives to each one as He wills. Notice in particular verse 11, "But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills".
The gifts of the Spirit are given to members of the Church according to God's will, according to His timing and purpose. It is His decision.
1 Corinthians 12:27-30 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.
All the gifts of the Spirit are given by God for the Work of the Church, and so the members can be edified. Do all speak in tongues? Obviously not! But Paul ends his instruction in chapter 12 by saying to the Corinthians, "and yet I show you a more excellent way". This more excellent way is revealed in chapter 13.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Godly love is the "more excellent way". Then the Apostle Paul goes on in this chapter 13 to define godly love. Without godly love we are as nothing, no matter how many tongues we may speak.
Now with this background in mind, we come to the first verse of chapter 14 and here is clearly defined IN TWO WORDS the problem that had arisen in the Church at Corinth.
I Corinthians 14:1
Paul says, "Pursue love" - pursue godly love
Godly love should have been their main focus, but they sought the gift of speaking in tongues, thinking it was more important.
Perhaps we can understand just a little why the Corinthian members were pursuing the gift of speaking in tongues.
Corinth was the commercial centre of Greece. A large amount of commerce from Rome and surrounding countries passed through Greece. Consequently many different nationalities, with differing languages, differing tongues, and different dialects, arrived in Corinth on the ships. And Corinth itself became a city of different nationalities, and different languages. So the gift of speaking in different tongues or languages was eagerly sought by the members in Corinth so they could preach the Gospel to people from many countries around. This was an admirable desire but many in Corinth sought the ability to speak in languages, other than one's own, because it brought them instant recognition.
Speaking in tongues had become a status symbol, and those who spoke in other languages began to feel superior to their fellow brethren who could not. They began to abuse this gift and use it for the wrong purposes. They were childish in the use of tongues. Like little children with a new toy, they wanted to show off.
Paul wrote to them it doesn't matter how many tongues, or languages, you can speak, if you do not have godly love, you are nothing. Paul wrote that tongues will cease, but godly love endures forever. He was writing to the members at Corinth to get their priorities right.
Paul did not condemn, or counsel them against receiving the gift of speaking in tongues, but he showed them that the better way was to PURSUE LOVE - PURSUE GODLY LOVE. Then he goes on throughout chapter 14 to instruct the members in Corinth how to correctly use the gift of speaking in tongues, the gift of speaking in other languages, especially in the Church.
The members in the Church in Corinth were meeting together as they should but some confusion was occurring because many were eager to show off their gifts to the other members - some had a revelation, some had a teaching they wanted to impart, some had the gift of speaking in tongues or other languages. And instead of the meeting being conducted in a manner that was pleasing to God - decently and in order - there was a confusion of voices and probably some jostling among the members as to who was going to be heard first. Paul said that this lacked maturity and, indeed, was not respectful towards God.
1 Corinthians 14:26-33 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
1 Corinthians 14:40 Let all things be done decently and in order.
1 Corinthians 14:19 Yet in the Church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
In the Corinthian church, members were speaking in other languages and the others there could not understand them. Paul said this is futile. It does not edify the Church. It results in confusion. Therefore, before anyone speaks in a tongue or a language, there must be someone there who can interpret so the Church understands what is being said.
Let me give you a modern day example.
At the General Conference of Elders in Cincinnati USA over 400 Elders and wives attend from around the world. Now most can speak and understand English, but others from various nations cannot. The addresses and messages are given in English and for those who cannot speak or understand the English language, translators are provided. The translators sit in soundproof booths and those who do not understand English have earphones and hear the translation of the English into their own language, and so they were edified. Imagine how they would feel without that translation into their own language. They would have felt very much left out and frustrated in not knowing what was being said.
In the days of the early New Testament church they did not have the technology that we have today -- microphones, sound equipment and earphones -- so when a person in the church wanted to pass on a message but in a different language, Paul said there must also be an interpreter present so the whole church knows what is being said. Otherwise the church is not edified, the members are frustrated because they can't understand, and the member speaking in a different language is frustrated because his or her message is not being understood.
So confusion abounded. Paul instructed them, "before anyone speaks in a tongue or language, there must be one who can interpret what is being said so that the church is edified and so that all things are done decently and in order".
1 Corinthians 14:22 Therefore tongues [glossa] are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers [to those outside the Church].
This is an extremely important point of understanding.
Paul is explaining that the gift of speaking in tongues, or the gift of speaking in other languages, is so the Gospel may be preached effectively to the unbelievers - like on the Day of Pentecost when the Jews from surrounding countries who were in Jerusalem heard the message about Jesus of Nazareth in their own tongue, in their own language.
They understood the message, and thousands responded.
The gift of speaking in tongues is NOT for glorifying oneself in the Church, or primarily for the benefit of the church itself. Its primary purpose is for preaching the Gospel to the unconverted.
In those days they didn't have the means of mass communication that we have today - radio, television, computers and the Internet. Today it is a different age, and we are not limited in our ability to preach the Gospel in the same way as they were in the early New Testament times. In those days this technology was not available so God gave the disciples a very special miraculous gift - the ability to speak in other languages in order that the Gospel may be preached to the unconverted. Paul said tongues are for a sign, not to the Church, that is, those who believe, but tongues are for the purpose of preaching the Gospel to the unbelievers or the unconverted.
As I mentioned before, verse 22 is a crucial verse in understanding this chapter 14.
Please bear with me as I give you a personal example.
Some years ago now another minister and I had the opportunity to travel to the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. On the border of Sarawak and Borneo we had the privilege of meeting with a married couple who had corresponded with the Church for some time and we found them well grounded in the truth and it was a great privilege indeed to baptise this couple. This couple belonged to the Iban tribe in Borneo. They were both schoolteachers and spoke English very well. This couple wanted to show us their home village in Borneo so we walked across the border and into the jungle of Borneo. It took us about two hours walking in the jungle before we reached their home village. Most of the adults were away at the time tending their rice paddies, but we sat down crossed legged with an elderly grandmother. She made us a cup of tea and we gave her a small gift of money. This elderly grandmother did not understand a word of English and we did not understand a word of her dialect. So we had to rely upon the couple who brought us there to interpret.
Now let us get the picture here. There are the five of us in a small tribal village in the jungle of Borneo - there is the elderly grandmother from the Iban tribe, there is the couple who brought us there, and the other minister and myself. If ever there was a time that the gift of speaking in tongues, or different languages, would have been nice to have, it was at this particular time. But we were not given that gift. Why? Because it was not God's time to bring understanding of salvation to this elderly grandmother, or to this village. That time is for another age. We were simply visiting the village out of respect for the couple that we had baptised.
But let us assume that we did have the gift of speaking in ecstatic utterances, as is displayed by the charismatic movement today, and we began to speak to this elderly grandmother in this way. Would she have understood anything? No, she probably would have been very puzzled - so would the couple that brought us there.
However, if it had been God's time to bring the knowledge of salvation to this elderly grandmother and to that village, and God did give us the gift of speaking in their tribal language, what a different result it would have been. What a wonderful gift it would have been to be able to converse with this elderly grandmother in her own dialect and help her understand the great plan and purpose God has in store for her.
You see, the gifts of God's Spirit are logical, have purpose, and are given by God according to His timing, and according to His will.
So remember, when reading 1 Corinthians 14, tongues (languages) are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers (to those outside the Church). And the gift is given according to His timing and His will.
Are those who speak in tongues more spiritual or closer to God than those who do not? And what role should tongue speaking have in the Church today?
Clearly those who are given the gift of speaking in tongues or other languages are indeed blessed with the wonderful opportunity of preaching the Gospel to those who are without, those out side the Church. But this does not mean those to whom the gift has been given are more spiritual than Christians who do not have this gift. Christians who speak in tongues are not more spiritual than other Christians. If those who speak in tongues don't have godly love, they are useless noisemakers - though they may speak in human or angelic languages. The gift of tongues should not be considered a special mark of spirituality. It, like the other gifts of the Spirit, is given as God decides. No one, no matter what gifts he or she has, has any reason to be proud or to look down on other Christians.
We looked at three basic questions which frequently arise:
Was every Christian who received the Holy Spirit in the early New Testament Church given the miraculous ability of speaking in tongues?
An examination of the Book of Acts and I Corinthians 12 shows that not all Christian who were made a part of the Body of Christ, the Church, in those days, spoke in tongues, or other languages.
Are those who speak in tongues more spiritual or closer to God than those who do not?
Christians who speak in tongues are not more spiritual than other Christians. If those who speak in tongues don't have godly love, they are useless noisemakers. The gift of tongues should not be considered a special mark of spirituality. It, like the other gifts of the Spirit, is given as God decides.
And what role should tongue speaking have in the Church today?
The apostle Paul did not forbid tongue speaking but he clearly limited its role in the meetings of the Church. The Corinthian experience with tongue speaking was an isolated problem, and Paul dealt with it in a tactful, instructive manner. As Paul said, "Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelievers".
If we allow the Bible to interpret the Bible, from the evidence in the Book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians 14, the "tongues" spoken by the disciples of that time were different languages, and that the ability to speak in other languages was a gift from God in order to accomplish His will in preaching the Gospel to the unconverted.
If the gift of speaking in tongues was so that the unconverted could understand, then it follows the gift is the ability to speak in other languages -- not unintelligent sounds brought on by a highly emotional state of mind, which would not be understood by the unconverted.
The gift of speaking in tongues, or the gift of speaking in other languages, is a miracle provided by God through the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish His will, -- that of preaching the Gospel to the unbelievers -- and the giving of this gift is according to His timing and His purpose.
When facing crises and tragedy we should seek encouragement from the Bible, regardless of the scale or circumstances of the disaster.