After accomplishing His mission on earth in living a perfect life, dying as a ransom for the human race, and conquering death, Jesus was about to return to His Father in Heaven. On earth He would leave a group of disciples who had accepted Him as the Messiah and to these He gave a special work to do in advancing His kingdom. While He would be ministering on their behalf before the Father in heaven, His followers were to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” Mark 16:15. Considering their small number and the hugeness of the task, such a work would be almost impossible by mere human strength. Thus before ascending back to heaven Christ promises a special power to accompany His servants. He says “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” Acts 1:8. In addition, special signs were to accompany them as they would preach the gospel, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues” Mark 16:15.
In modern day Christianity there is a practice that has gained fame amongst believers; that of speaking or praying in ecstatic utterances which have no clear meaning. This is now termed “speaking in tongues” and many even believe that the ultimate evidence that one has received the Holy Spirit is to start babbling in unintelligible sounds, which are supposed to be the “language of heaven”. What does the Bible teach about the gift of tongues? Why did God give the gift of tongues? Could there be pagan practices that have infiltrated the Church today and could Christians be obliviously participating in dark séances under the guise of a heavenly gift? Let’s examine these vital questions and search for answers from God’s Word.
In the Bible the word “tongue” simply means language, just like English, Ndebele, Shona, Hebrew are languages. For example we are told of the “tongue of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4) which was the language spoken by the ancient Babylonians, and we are also told of the “Hebrew tongue” (John 5:2) which simply means the Hebrew language. Secondly, when God gives gifts to the church it is always to fulfill a practical need. “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” Ephesians 4:8-12. So what was the purpose of the gift of tongues? How was it to edify the church? As we noted earlier, Christ gave the Great Commission to His church to go and preach the gospel to all nations. This presented a particular challenge; the disciples, though bright and intelligent, could only speak one or two languages at most, so how could they preach to all nations, with the great language diversity existing at that time? To meet this need, God would give His servants a unique gift to enable them to fulfill the Great Commission. They would receive a miraculous, supernatural ability to speak foreign languages they had not studied before or known, for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. This was the gift of tongues!
It is interesting to note that in all instances in Scripture where the gift of tongues was bestowed it was when people from more than one language group were gathered together, creating a communication barrier.
In the Scriptures we have three actual instances where the gift of tongues is exhibited (Acts 2, 10 and 19). As we examine these passages we will gain a clearer view of this commonly misunderstood and controversial gift. The first instance is in Acts 2. “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. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:1-4. In the Bible, fire symbolizes power, thus in giving the gift of tongues in the form of fire, God is showing them that He is empowering their weak tongues so they can witness for Him, similar to what happened to Isaiah whose lips He touched with the coal from heavenly altar and from there he went on God’s mission (Isaiah 6:6, 7).
But why did God wait until the day of Pentecost to bestow the gift of tongues? Let’s see the picture from Acts 2:5-11. “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.” Acts 2:5-11. Pentecost was a Jewish feast that occurred 50 days after the Passover. At this time devout Jews from all over the Roman Empire would gather to worship at Jerusalem. God selected this timeous opportunity to bestow the gift of tongues upon the disciples to enable them to preach to the visiting Jews in their native languages. About 15 language groups were represented in that crowd. After hearing God’s Word, thousands of these visiting Jews were converted (Acts 2:41) and after Pentecost, they in turn carried their new faith to their respective countries.
This instance shows clearly that the gift of tongues was given to enable disciples to communicate the gospel to different nations in the existing languages of the world. It also shows that the gift of tongues was not some kind of “heavenly language” that could only be understood by God or those with the gift of interpretation. The Bible shows clearly in Acts 2 that the disciples and the listeners both understood what was being preached—“the wonderful works of God” (verse 2)
The second instance is in Acts 10, here the apostle Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household. “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.” Acts 10:44-46. Cornelius was Italian while Peter was a Jew who spoke Aramaic (see Acts 10:1). According to custom of the times, servants in a Roman home could come from anywhere in the world. Due to the existing language barrier in this scenario, it is most likely that Peter began to preach to the audience through an interpreter. However, later the Holy Spirit fell upon the members of Cornelius’ household, and the Jews with Peter could hear these Gentiles speaking in languages other than their native tongues. Later, when Peter was reporting on this incident to the church leaders, He says “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.” Acts 11:15. In other words the same gift of tongues that the disciples received at Pentecost was the same received by the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house. In other words, they spoke understandably in languages that they had not previously known.
The third and final scenario is in Acts 19, where Paul preached to 12 Ephesian disciples. “And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” Acts 19:6. Paul was the most educated of the apostles and he spoke a number of languages (see 1 Corinthians 14:18). After the Holy Spirit had come upon these men, Paul realized that they prophesied or preached, in new languages. Most probably they spoke in the languages of the Roman Empire as this would enable the spreading of the Gospel.
It is interesting to note that in all instances in Scripture where the gift of tongues was bestowed it was when people from more than one language group were gathered together, creating a communication barrier. In Acts 4 we have a repeat of the experience mentioned in Acts 2, the place was shaken and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, however since no foreigners were present, tongues were not given. Acts 4:31 has this to say “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 reason for the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not for Christians to start babbling in meaningless sounds but rather to preach the Word of God with power.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with the subject of tongues; in this he was addressing a problem that had affected the church there. Corinth was a meeting point of different nationalities and cultures, having two international seaports. Due to the prevalent language differences, the church services at Corinth evidently became disorderly and confusing. It is clear that some members would pray or preach in languages not known to others. The apostle Paul thus commanded that if someone spoke in a tongue unknown to the majority, he/she should remain silent unless there is someone to translate or interpret (see 1 Corinthians 14:28). His plain counsel is as follows “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air….But 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….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.” 1 Corinthians 14:6-9, 27,28. The consistent message here is that they should avoid disorderliness and speak in understood languages for the edification of the church. He then counsels “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” 1 Corinthians 14:33. It is very surprising that Christians today use this passage to encourage just the opposite, to promote chaos and babbling in meaningless utterances.
Note also that it was not every Christian who had the gift of tongues in the New Testament times. In 1 Corinthians 12:30, Paul asks the rhetoric question, “Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:30. The obvious answer being, No. Contrary to the idea that ‘speaking in tongues’ should characterise everyone who has the Holy Spirit, we have examples in the Bible of people who were described as “full of the Spirit” but never exercised the gift of tongues. John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:14) but he never spoke in tongues. Jesus and Stephen were also “full of the Holy Ghost”(Luke 4:1, Acts 7:55), but again did not exercise the gift of tongues.
Some have suggested that tongues are a “heavenly language” which cannot be understood by the Devil and other people. They say tongues express the Holy Spirit’s “groanings which cannot be uttered” Romans 8:26. But nowhere in Scripture are we told to hide our prayers from the Devil. A text often quoted to support this teaching is 1 Corinthians 14:14 where Paul says “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” 1 Corinthians 14:14. Proponents of this view interpret the text to mean that when Paul prayed in the Spirit, he did so in a “heavenly tongue” and he himself did not understand his words. But the question then comes, how would he know that his prayer had been answered if he didn’t know what he had prayed for in the first place? So what does this text really mean?
Consistent with the context, a paraphrase of what Paul means would be “If I pray in a language, I might be praying in the spirit, but my thoughts would be unfruitful to those listening.” Notice what he says in the next verses, (he continues to insist that if we pray loud, we should pray in a way that others understand or else keep quiet). “What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 1 Corinthians 14:15,16. It is clear from this text that the one who is having a challenge with understanding is the one who is listening, not the one who is praying. If you have ever prayed with someone who prayed in a language unknown to you, you will easily relate to what Paul is saying, it is difficult to say ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer because you won’t know what you will be consenting to.
Again we see from 1 Corinthians 14, that the purpose of the gift tongues, or foreign languages, was to communicate the gospel, thus edifying the church. Others have retorted that Paul said “he spoke in the tongues of angels”, but is that true? No, Paul said “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” 1 Corinthians 13:1. A look at context will show that Paul by saying ‘though’ he meant something like ‘even if’. For example in the next verse he says “though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge”, Paul did not have all knowledge. I verse 3 he says “though I give my body to be burned”, Paul was not burned, he was beheaded. Thus it is clear that when he says ‘though’, he means ‘even if’.
The word of God warns us that in the last days the Devil will work cunningly to mislead and deceive many. John, in vision hears the solemn warning “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” Revelation 12:12. He will work in subtle ways making that which is false to appear as true. We are told; “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light…his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness”2 Corinthians 11:15. The modern day “speaking in tongues” as we see it in charismatic movements is a counterfeit of the true gift of tongues and does not have foundation in Scripture but rather in pagan rituals.
God’s call to His people today is to come out of the confusion of these religious systems. In vision, John hears the solemn call “And he cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen…Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” Revelation 18:2,4. It is important to note that a key feature in ancient Babylon at the tower of Babel was the confusion of tongues (Genesis 11:7-9) that came as a curse when humans united in rebellion against God. At Pentecost, the curse was reversed so that the gospel could be spread to all nations.