Studies in the Use of Tongues

Speaking in tongues is not in itself a phenomenon peculiar to Christianity or even to God, but rather it actually has been practiced by pagans with most likely no exposure to Christianity. There has been evidence of many different people groups and faith traditions having outbursts as the result of either hypnosis or hysterics directly from Satan. This observation helps us see that tongues’ speaking has existed in the past and present apart from the God of the Bible. Therefore, we can conclude that the mere fact of speaking in tongues proves nothing as to its source and origin, and that non-biblical tongues’ speaking has its source in man or Satan. However, biblical tongues’ speaking was from God. Let us look at the use of tongues in the Bible and what we know of it.


Tongues in the Bible

While there is no record of any tongues’ speaking in the Old Testament and no reference to it in the Gospels, certain people in the New Testament proved to be filled with the Holy Spirit: Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna, and Simeon. Then, when we come to Acts and the epistles we find that tongues’ speaking is confined to a very narrow period of time in the development of Christianity. That period is between Pentecost and the waiting at Corinth, which was probably approximately twenty-five to thirty years. (See Acts 2 and 19) Outside this period there is no mention of tongues anywhere in Scripture. This is an important fact when we remember that four of the great church leaders were present at Pentecost: Peter, James, John and Jude. These four leaders of the early church altogether wrote seven books of teaching for Christians, yet not one reference is made to tongues’ speaking in any of them. Even Paul wrote fourteen books of the New Testament, yet only in one of them does he mention tongues. This book, 1 Corinthians, was one of Paul’s earliest writings and was written by way of correction and proof. In most aspects of the Christian life in the Spirit, tongues’ speaking is almost altogether ignored in the New Testament. There are only five passages in the Bible dealing with tongues. First, in Mark 16:17, the gift of the Holy Spirit is mentioned and promised. Secondly, in Acts 2:10-17, the gift of the Holy Spirit is granted and given to the early church at Pentecost. Lastly, we see mention of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians 12:13-14 where Paul addresses the gift of the Holy Spirit being misused and misdirected in the church.


The Value of Signs and Gifts

Let us look for a moment at the presence of healings and miracles in the Scriptures and their connection to speaking in tongues. Signs and miracles were always connected with Israel, as we can see from the early chapters of Acts. Pentecost was primarily a sign to the Jews that Christ had risen from the dead and ascended to God’s right hand. Many of the Jews demanded for Christ to give them more and more signs in order to prove his claims. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22, “the Jews require a sign.” Yet gifts had not yet been given to the early church followers since Jesus had not yet ascended. John reports in his gospel in 7:39, “…for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” So the startling event of Pentecost, and the undisputed fact in this occurrence was that untrained men suddenly communicated the message of God in languages they had not previously known or studied, but which the heavens recognized and understood as their own! God gave His outburst of divine power to convince the Jewish nations of the authenticity of His gospel message of the resurrected Christ. This was to be the sign the Jews would need to see, hear of, and believe! The incomprehensible gibberish that we hear sometimes today would not have proved anything and would have been valueless and meaningless as a sign to the nations. So it is important to remember that these men spoke in actual languages rather than non-sensical utterances. (See Acts 2) If we look at the actual words used for “tongues” in our English translations of the original text, there are actually two words used for tongues. In Acts 2:4 and Acts 2:11, this word represents the tongue or language in which one person expresses himself. But in Acts 2:6 and Acts 2:8 another word is used that means actual dialect or language of people groups. So, at Pentecost these different groups heard the message of God in their own language or dialect, and understood it perfectly. In Acts 10, we see that the Gentiles were visited in the same way, speaking with tongues or languages. Then again in Acts 19, twelve men at Ephesus spoke in languages or “tongues” as well. The idea of unknown or ecstatic utterance seems foreign to these instances in Scripture. There are some further important conclusions regarding this observation. First, on none of these occasions is there a hint that the gift was sought or asked for by those who received it. Secondly, this gift of the Holy Spirit was given to all concerned and present without discrimination. The Spirit was given not because of maturity or spirituality, but to all followers who were present.


The Gift of Hearing?

There are some who believe that tongues’ speaking was a gift of hearing rather than of speaking. It is suggested, in light of the Acts 2:6 and Acts 2:8 statement “every man heard them speak in his own language,” that the speakers gave the message in their own Galilean language and the crowd heard it each in his own language. If this is so, why does Acts 2:4 state, “they began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance”? This theory would be a contradiction of Mark 16:17 where Jesus sends out his disciples to perform signs and miracles, saying, “they shall speak with other languages.” If this thought is carried over to the Corinthian passage mentioned previously, it also ignores the Spirit’s demand for an interpreter. So we can conclude that his gift of hearing is not probable or feasible given the texts.