“Our primary goal – Our driving passion – should be to know truth and then adjust our beliefs accordingly.” ~ Kay Arthur – How to Study Your Bible (1994)
To begin, let’s determine why there is a need for the Gift of Tongues and their Interpretation. We need to go back to when language was first diversified. From this, we can get an idea of how the gift operated.
The Quest for Space
~ Genesis 11:1-2
“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.”
After the flood, mankind began to multiply once again. This time, they stayed together. The entire mass of humanity traveled as one, like a migrating herd.
They found an open landscape in the land of Shinar. Since the area was so vast, they decided to stay. And they had an idea…
The Tower of Babel
~ Genesis 11:3-5
“And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Remembering what happened to their ancestors, they decided to plan. Let’s establish ourselves here. We need buildings for homes, commerce, and recreation. And a tower reaching into the heavens to keep us above any flood waters. We will not be exterminated again!
We also need to call ourselves by a name. This way we will always be one people; together, united, never to be scattered again!
Divers Kinds of Tongues
~ Genesis 11:6-9
“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
God visited man during their toil. He observed what they were doing and knew why. Once again, mankind brushed God aside and sought his own way. He would make himself a people. He would do things his own way.
And God knew mankind would accomplish his goal. Mankind was united. They were one people.
This would also bring about more evil than ever before. And this time, evil would be unrestrained because they were together in one place and united in their cause.
So God diversified their language! Suddenly, what sounded like gibberish began flowing out of their mouths. No one could understand what another one was saying. Everyone seemed to be mocking each other, babbling and speaking with divers and unknown tongues.
In the confusion, the work ceased. Over time, people who understood each other clustered together. Because they could not understand the others, groups of like tongues began to separate themselves from the others.
The majority of mankind departed from Babel and scattered over the face of the earth. Just the way God intended.
The Great Commission
When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, he gave them a prime directive.
~ Matthew 28:18-20
“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
The prime directive is to teach all nations. The Apostles spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Because of what took place at Babel, there were many unknown languages spoken in the earth. How will the Apostles accomplish the mission?
Power of the Holy Spirit
Jesus told the disciples he would send them another comforter after his ascension. The comforter was the Holy Spirit.
~ Acts 2:1-4
“And when the day of Pentecost was 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 all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
While the disciples prayed and waited for the promise, the Lord visited them. I believe the wind was the Lord breathing on them. See John 20:22 for reference.
When the tongues appeared, they began to speak. How? With other tongues or languages! And it was not at will, but it was as the Spirit gave them the ability.
Notice how the Holy Ghost appeared, cloven tongues like fire. The fire is the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the cloven tongues? When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, it appeared as a dove. Why tongues here?
The Promise of Tongues
Jesus told the disciples to spread the gospel around the world. One of the signs would be speaking in other languages (tongues).
~ Mark 16:15-17
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;”
When they traveled to areas where they did not understand the language (remember Babel?), how would they communicate? With new tongues! New because the language would be new and unknown to them, not new to mankind. The Holy Spirit would give believers the ability to speak and understand the native language.
First Account of Tongues
There are only three accounts of tongues in scripture. All of them are in Acts. All of them occurred when the Holy Ghost filled believers.
~ Acts 2:4
“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
This occurrence, which we addressed earlier, happened on the day of Pentecost. This event more than any other reveals the purpose of divers kinds of tongues and the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10, 12:28).
~ Acts 2:5-11
“And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The timing could not have been better! During this gathering, the Holy Spirit came with tongues to facilitate the spreading of the gospel to the world! How else could the message be shared with such a diverse crowd?
And because of such great diversity, the message of Jesus Christ traveled to many nations from that day. All because the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to witness in the languages of the nations present!
And note these were known languages, yet unknown tongues to the disciples… Now let's go to the next event where other tongues were spoken.
Second Account of Tongues
This event occurred in the home of the Centurion Cornelius. FYI… He is Italian (Greek).
~ Acts 10:44-46
“While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.
And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.
For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God…”
This time, the Gentiles spoke in a language that the Galileans understood. Peter and the Jews with him understood the Gentiles as they magnify God! They spoke in Aramaic and maybe Hebrew as well!
Third Account of Tongues
This time, Paul traveled to Ephesus. The disciples he encountered there had not heard the full gospel of Christ. They were baptized by John.
~ Acts 19:6
“And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”
These 12 disciples were Greek and preached, again, possibly in Aramaic or Hebrew. Now Paul was already learned in several languages. Still, the Holy Spirit gave him access to others when required.
“I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:” ~ 1 Corinthians 14:18
Paul traveled and preached to people of many languages. So he needed to speak in their tongue to be understood. How would a tongue no one could understand help him or those he spoke to?
Question… Was there ever a time when the Holy Ghost fell in the book of Acts without tongues?
Holy Spirit Given Without Tongues
While preaching and healing in the temple at Jerusalem, Peter and some other of the disciples were imprisoned and threatened. After their release, they went back to their company with the story of what happened. After praying about the situation…
~ Acts 4:31-33
“And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.”
This time, the Holy Ghost fell fresh on the believers and filled everyone present. This emboldened them because they knew God was with them in what they were doing. Yet, note what is absent… no one spoke in tongues! Because everyone present spoke the same language, they not did need to speak with other tongues.
This is actually proof that speaking in tongues is not required as evidence of someone being filled. The real evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one's life is the Fruit of the Spirit! See Galatians 5:22. In fact, read Galatians 5:1-26 in its entirety.
What Paul Says About Tongues
In this part, we will look at 1 Corinthians 14.
~ 1 Corinthians 14:1-4
“Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.”
Paul saw how men wanted to do the works of God. They desired the gifts so they could do great exploits. They wanted to, among other things, speak with tongues, and impart the Holy Ghost. Read about Simon in Acts 8:9-24.
But Paul knew that speaking in a tongue unknown to the listeners would not help anyone except the speaker. Anything spoken would be a mystery to them. Only God would be able to understand what was spoken. Let me remind you that this was only possible when the Holy Spirit gave the ability (Acts 2:4).
Speaking in other languages not native to them was a powerful witness of the presence and power of Holy Ghost. Men wanted to exploit this ability. Can you see this being a possibility?
Tongues that Edify
~ 1 Corinthians 14:5-6, 9, 12
“I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.
Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?
So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.
Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.”
Paul reiterates his desire for everyone to be filled and speak with tongues. But only if it provides edification to the hearers. The most powerful witness is when what is spoken can be understood by all.
The Holy Spirit makes it easy to speak with other tongues. But how will that further the mission of preaching the gospel if no one can understand the words spoken? Be more zealous of the gifts that help the church learn and grow. And we can only do that by speaking in a tongue everyone can understand.
~ 1 Corinthians 14:13-17, 19
“Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.
For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.
What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?
For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.
Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”
If someone is given utterance in a language no one present can understand, Paul said to pray that person can also interpret. Because without the interpretation, not even the person speaking can be helped by what was said!
So Paul said he will, or would rather pray and sing, being led by the spirit, in the language everyone present can understand. Otherwise, no one can give thanks to God if there is no understanding.
Tongues as a Sign
Here is the verse that speaks of tongues being a sign to the unbeliever, not for the believer’s edification!
~ 1 Corinthians 14:22
“Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.”
For the unbeliever, tongues are a sign of the works of the Holy Ghost. If you can preach in a language you never learned through the power of the Holy Ghost, this is a sign of the power of God to the world.
Among the believers, declaring (prophesying) that Jesus is the Lord and has come in the flesh and the fruit born of a converted and righteous life is evidence.
“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:3
Tongues in Public
Paul knew there would be confusion surrounding tongues. He provided instructions so things would be done decently and in order.
~ 1 Corinthians 14:27-28
“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.
But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”
Paul makes it very clear here. If there is no one to interpret, speak to God and yourself. Speaking in another language out loud without interpretation provides no edification. So if there are unknown tongues, there should be two or three speaking the same words as witnesses and one should interpret.
Let me mention this here. What about the Spirit praying for our infirmities? Well, what does the verse actually say?
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” ~ Romans 8:26
This is not about speaking in tongues. If we are ill, unless we are a physician, we don't know what to pray for specifically. But the Holy Spirit does. He will pray for us.
The Holy Spirit is speaking directly to God. We are not the ones doing the groaning. He is the one interceding for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Tongues of Angels
What about when Paul mentions speaking with the tongue of men and angels? Wouldn't the language of the angels be unknown to us? We cannot understand the language of angels unless the Holy Spirit enables us. But is that what Paul was saying?
~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling 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, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
Paul did not say he actually does any of the things he mentions! The phrase ‘Though I speak' in the text can be a bit misleading. Paul is really saying ‘Even if I speak'. Let's look at the context and see if this makes sense.
Did Paul understand all mysteries and have all knowledge? Only God is omniscient (all knowing). Did he have all faith?
So Paul was simply stating, even if he did all of the aforementioned things, yet never demonstrate the God kind of love, he is nothing and gains nothing from these abilities.
The need for tongues
God would rather for mankind to have obeyed Him and mankind remain unified in speech. If all the earth was still of one tongue and one speech, there would be no concerns of communication gaps. There would be no need for interpreters.
No need for tongues as a gift…
A term often used in to describe unknown tongues in religion is ‘Glossolalia‘. Most dictionaries describe this as ‘unintelligible speech'. This might be because no one has been able to decipher any known language from it. What’s important for our study is to know that Glossolalia not a biblical, but a man-made term.
What is biblical is the term ‘glossa’ which is Greek for ‘language’, specifically one unnaturally acquired. Glossolalia comes from this word.
This was not easy to compose. This article addresses the events of the early church. Tongues are only given when needed to communication with people of other languages. Are the tongues we speak the tongues spoken on the day of Pentecost? Or is it something that crept in unawares posing as authentic?
If tongues can only be spoken when the Spirit gives utterance, what is the origin of tongues spoken on demand, or when people are instructed to? As far as a heavenly language, where is that specifically in the Bible?
If you have lingering questions, contact me and I will do my best to answer them.
I hope this article has been helpful to you understanding. Thank you for visiting and God bless!