Speaking in Tongues
COPYRIGHT ©1998 - James M. Frye
All scripture quotations are taken from the Authorized King James Bible. Any deviations are not intentional. All underlines, bold and words within brackets are the author's.
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Let me begin by saying that I used to speak in what people call "tongues" today. As a new believer, I became involved in the Charismatic movement and was taught all of the modern Charismatic teachings on tongues. But as I continued to study my Bible and other materials on the subject, I soon realized that what I was doing was not the biblical gift of tongues.
What were tongues in the Bible? What was their purpose? Is the gift of tongues still in existence today? If not, then what are those who claim to speak in tongues actually doing? In an area that is often filled with much confusion and misunderstanding, it will be the purpose of this article to examine what the Bible says about this subject. What is the biblical teaching on tongues?
What Were Biblical Tongues?
Acts 2:4, 6 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
This passage tells us what tongues were. Tongues were languages. The following verses go on to list numerous groups whose languages were being spoken.
Acts 2: 9-11 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 [languages] the wonderful works of God.
The word “tongue”, then, means language. This is confirmed by many other passages of scripture.
Acts 26:14 ... I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Ezra 4:7 ... and the writing of the letter was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue.
Rev. 9:11 ... whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.
Tongues, wherever you find them in the Bible, are languages. This is important to note, for those who claim to be speaking in tongues today aren’t speaking in actual languages.
1 Cor. 14:10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification [meaning of the differing sounds & words].
One thing that makes a language a language is that each sound or word has an agreed-upon meaning. "Up" means up and never means down. "White" means white and never means giraffe. But the gibberish that is spoken by modern so-called tongues speakers isn’t a language at all.
People have taped those who claim to have the gifts of both tongues and the interpretation of tongues. What they have found without fail, when matching up the words of the speaker with the words of the interpreter, is inconsistency. One time the sound "ato" supposedly means "God", but the next time it is used to mean "pray", and the time after that "repent". This is not possible with any true language. So modern so-called tongues speakers, although they may claim to be speaking in actual languages, aren’t.
Are There Two Kinds of Tongues?
Some people will object at this point. They will say that there are two kinds of tongues in the Bible [one that was a language and another that was an ‘ecstatic utterance’ (gibberish)]. What is their proof for this? They tell us that the tongues mentioned in Acts 2 must have been different than the tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 because the tongues spoken in 1 Corinthians 14 needed to be interpreted to be understood - but the tongues spoken in Acts 2 were understood without interpretation. Does this indicate that there were two different types of tongues?
It must be pointed out that a person who spoke in tongues was supernaturally gifted by God with the ability to speak in a language that he didn’t know. The person speaking didn’t even know what he himself was saying — unless, of course, God also gave him the gift of interpretation. Then why didn’t the tongues in Acts chapter 2 need to be interpreted? A careful reading of the text will reveal why.
Acts 2:4-6 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues [languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance. 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.
You see, on the day of Pentecost there were people present (in Jerusalem) from "every nation under heaven". Numerous different tongues (languages) were being spoken so each person present was able to hear in his own language. Therefore, no interpretation was needed. But this was not the case in Corinth (1 Cor. 14). When the local Christians in Corinth gathered together and a person began to speak in a language that he didn’t know, the others in Corinth didn’t understand the language either. That language, therefore, needed to be interpreted. The tongues in 1 Cor. 14 were the same as the tongues in Acts 2. Both were languages. The Bible knows nothing of two different types of tongues.
What was the Biblical Purpose of Tongues?
1 Cor. 14:21-22 In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not:
This passage tells us the biblical purpose for tongues. "Tongues are for a sign". This was not for believers but for unbelievers (a sign to unbelieving Jews). Verse 21 is a reference to Isaiah chapter 28.
Isaiah 28:11-13 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.
This passage says that God will speak to the Jews (this people) with another tongue and with men of other tongues. Yet they will not hear, but will fall backward and be broken and snared (judgment will come).
On the day of Pentecost, after the apostles spoke in tongues, a great crowd gathered to see what was going on. The Apostle Peter then spoke to this Jewish crowd. Notice what he told them.
Acts 2:32-36 This Jesus hath God raised up, where-of we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear [tongues]. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
This same Jesus whom the Jews had crucified was now in Heaven, exalted at the right hand of God. His foes (including the Jews who had crucified him) will be made his footstool. Peter, therefore, warned them in verse 40 to "save yourselves from this untoward generation” (from the judgment to come upon it). The evidence (sign) that this judgment would come was that Jesus had "shed forth that which ye now see and hear (tongues)". Tongues were a sign to the Jews who had rejected and killed their Messiah that if they did not repent - God’s judgment would come upon them. More will be said about this in the next section.
Is the Gift of Tongues Still in Existence Today?
1 Corinthians 13:8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
This passage tells us that tongues were to cease (pass away). But when were they to cease? Tongues were to cease when their purpose had been fulfilled. We made reference in the last section to the purpose for the gift of tongues. The purpose was as a sign to the unbelieving Jews who had rejected their Messiah that God’s judgment would come upon them. Once this judgment came, the purpose for tongues would then be fulfilled and tongues would cease.
When did this happen? Again, let us look to scripture.
Matt. 22:7 But when the king [God] heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. [Jerusalem]
Luke 19:41-44 And when he was come near, he beheld the city, [Jerusalem] and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation [Rejected your Messiah].
Luke 21:20, 22, 24 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
All of these passages have reference to 70 A.D. . The Jews rejected and killed their Messiah, and God sent judgment in 70 A.D. by allowing the Roman armies to destroy Jerusalem.
Tongues were a sign to unbelieving Jews that these things would come to pass. Once this judgment came, the purpose for tongues was fulfilled and tongues ceased. This is consistent with the writings of the Early Church, for after 70 A.D., no one was any longer said to have been speaking in tongues.
[NOTE: It should also be noted that some prophetic passages have (for lack of a better term) “a dual fulfillment”. They have an earlier partial physical fulfillment which then becomes a type and symbolism of their even greater longer term spiritual fulfillment. In other words, they have a physical fulfillment to physical Israel, but then also have a spiritual fulfillment to spiritual Israel (the church). Such is the case with the two passages in Luke above.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of these things, but I wanted to make this clarification for those who understand these things. By saying that these passages have reference to the physical destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., I am not in any way discounting their spiritual fulfillment in the latter times to the church.]
What About Today’s "Tongues"?
If biblical tongues were languages, but today’s "tongues" aren’t languages, and if biblical tongues ceased in 70 A.D. but people still claim to be speaking in tongues today, what is going on? There are two explanations for modern “tongues”.
A Supernatural Explanation
Although biblical tongues were always languages, there is obviously another type of "tongues" present in the world today, but it is far from biblical. This type of "tongues" is an "ecstatic utterance" (gibberish). But where is it found? It is found, not only among Charismatics and Pentecostals, but also among those in non-Christian religions and cults. Ecstatic speech is common today among Muslims, Eskimos, Tibetan Monks (Buddhists), and even among those in the occult.
One can’t help but notice the obvious ramifications of this. If these "tongues" are the biblical gift of tongues, is God also giving this gift to those in pagan religions, cults, and the occult? No! Jesus Christ only gives spiritual gifts to believers/Christians (Eph. 4:8, 11; 1 Cor. 12:28). Therefore, since these "tongues" also exist outside of Christianity, they can’t be the biblical gift of tongues. It seems that the same spirit that is misleading those in false religions, cults and the occult is also misleading those in “Christian” churches (1 Cor. 10:20; 1 Tim. 4:1).
A Natural Explanation
As I stated in the introduction, I used to speak in what people call "tongues" today. At first I desired to speak with tongues (after being instructed that I should) and prayed that God would enable me to do so. But nothing happened. I read about the people in the Bible who spoke in tongues, and with them it just happened. In most cases, they had no idea that they were going to speak in tongues until after it had already happened.
I finally came across a booklet written by a popular Charismatic teacher which taught me how to speak in "tongues" (so called). That is exactly what the booklet did. These tongues weren’t a supernatural gift from God. It was something that could be learned. I was coached to begin speaking nonsensical syllables and let my tongue go. The booklet said that God would take over and control what I spoke. I think that I was suspicious all along that I might be the one doing it - not God - but I had been conditioned to believe that I needed to do this in order to be "spiritual". Now looking back, I see how unscriptural all of this was. No one in the Bible was ever coached or taught how to speak in tongues. As I said before, it just happened to them. They didn’t expect, seek, or do anything.
Biblical Restrictions on Tongues
Even the use of true biblical tongues was restricted in the Bible.
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 [one at a time]; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church ...
This passage places the following restrictions for the use of tongues in the church:
1. No more than three may speak.
2. Only one may speak at a time (by course).
3. Tongues must be interpreted or not spoken at all.
Every one of these restrictions is broken on a regular basis in many Charismatic churches. In the one I used to go to, people (more than three) would stand in a circle at the front of the church building. Then they would all speak in "tongues" (gibberish) at the same time (not one at a time), and in most cases nothing was interpreted. This was clearly a violation of all three of the above restrictions.
Even in the case of Biblical tongues, such chaos was forbidden.
1 Corinthians 14:23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?
1 Corinthians 14:19 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.
There are many verses that are misinterpreted by teachers within the Charismatic Movement today. In this section we will look at a few of them.
Praying in the Spirit
Jude 1:20 But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost,
The common Charismatic interpretation of this verse says that praying in the Holy Ghost (praying in the Spirit) refers to speaking in tongues. The Bible also tells us to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). If "praying in the Spirit" means to pray in tongues, then to "walk in the spirit" would mean to “walk in tongues”. How silly.
To walk in the Spirit means to walk "according to the Spirit’s leading”. To pray in the Spirit then, means to pray "according to the Spirit’s leading". The Holy Spirit will prompt us to pray for certain things. When we follow that prompting, we are “praying in the Spirit". This verse has nothing to do with speaking (or praying) in tongues.
Tongues of Angels
1 Corinthians 13:1 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.
The common Charismatic interpretation of this verse says that tongues is a heavenly prayer language spoken by angels”. We need to make a distinction between the word "tongue" and the word "tongues". When the word tongue (singular) is used, it is a reference to a single language. When the word tongues (plural) is used, it refers to more than one language. So, we must remember to define our terms properly according to the Bible.
Tongue = one language.
Tongues = more than one language.
To say, "Tongues is a heavenly prayer language" is nonsense. To use proper English, we would have to say, "Tongues are heavenly prayer languages." But no one says that tongues are prayer languages (plural). They (misunderstanding the terms) use the word tongues as if it were the same as the word tongue. This results in a twisting of scripture.
This passage says "tongues" (plural), not "tongue" (singular). It says "tongues of men and of angels". There are tongues (plural) of men and there are tongues (plural) of angels. This passage doesn’t say that angels speak in "a tongue" (one language). It says that angels speak in "tongues" (more than one language). This passage then, isn’t saying that angels speak in a heavenly language.
What, then, is this passage saying? It is saying that if a person were able to speak with all the tongues (languages) that a man might be able to speak with (some men know over a dozen), and even with all the tongues (languages) that angels are able to speak with (they undoubtedly know thousands), but if they don’t have charity (love), they are just making a lot of noise. This verse is making the point that love is far more important than speaking in tongues (languages).
No Man Understandeth
1 Cor. 14:2 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.
1 Cor. 14:14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.
The common Charismatic interpretation of these verses is that “speaking in tongues is a private prayer language”. It is further stated that the tongues spoken of here could not be languages, for no man was able to understand them.
For starters, such a statement once again misuses of the word “tongues” (plural) as if it were the same as the word “tongue” (singular) - which distinction we explained in our last point. Secondly, such a teaching requires that both of the above verses be twisted contrary to their clear meaning. Notice the word “unknown” in both passages. Paul isn’t saying that tongues are a private prayer language that can’t be understood. Paul is pointing out the futility of speaking in a language that is “unknown” to the hearers.
The context of this passage has to do with edification. If someone is speaking in a language that is “unknown” to the hearers, how is that edifying? That person is left speaking to the only one who could possibly understand what he is saying - God. That is why Paul forbade speaking in tongues without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:28).
Groanings Which Cannot be Uttered
Rom. 8:26 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.
The common Charismatic interpretation of this verse says that since we often don’t know what to pray for, we should speak in tongues and the Holy Spirit will pray “through us” the very thing that needs to be prayed.
Is that what this verse is talking about? No it’s not. This passage says that the Holy Spirit will pray FOR us not through us. The verse further states that what is being prayed are "Groanings which cannot be utterered” (spoken). Since tongues are uttered (spoken) they can’t be what this verse is referring to.
What then is this verse saying? Exactly what it says - since we don’t always know what to pray, the Holy Spirit prays FOR us. His groanings cannot be uttered.
1 Cor. 14:4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
The common Charismatic interpretation of this verse is that tongues is a private prayer language which strengthens and edifies the believer. [Once again notice the misuse of the word “tongues” (plural).]
It is interesting to note that 1 Corinthians 14 was written to rebuke the Corinthians for their misuse of the gifts, especially tongues. Many of the Corinthians were trying to take center stage and show themselves as being “spiritual”. Paul rebukes them for this and tells them that this is not edifying for others in the church (1 Cor. 14:12, 26). By trying to flaunt their gifts, they were selfishly "edifying" (building up & exalting) themselves rather than others in the church. This verse isn’t a commendation. It’s a rebuke.
Speaking with New Tongues
Mark 16:17-20 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
This is another passage that is commonly misinterpreted by Charismatics today. They tell us that these signs (including tongues) will follow “all believers”. But, 1 Cor. 12:29-30 makes it clear that not all believers would speak in tongues or perform healings. So we know that this can’t be the correct interpretation of the passage.
Secondly, this passage not only lists tongues as one of the signs, but also the ability to drink poison and not be affected by it. Few who claim this passage as proof that they possess the gift of tongues today, would also be willing to claim that they can drink poison and not be affected by it. But consistency in their interpretation would require it.
Since the Charismatic interpretation of this passage is obviously wrong, what then is this passage saying? Verses 17-19 speak of the signs that would be taking place in the early days of the church as the gospel went forth during the days of the apostles. Verse 20 speaks of these events in the past tense - they went (past tense) forth and this did happen. People did speak with tongues (Acts 2:4), the apostles and those whom they commissioned did cast out evil spirits (Acts 5:16, 8:7), and Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and suffered no harm (Acts 28:3). But by the time we come to the writing of the book of Hebrews these signs are once again spoken of as having taken place in the past.
Heb. 2:3-4 How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?
Here the "confirmation", previously spoken of in Mark, is once again said to have already taken place in the past. If these things were still happening, the passage would have said "is being confirmed". But, since these signs were no longer taking place, it says "was confirmed". The time for these signs had already passed. Mark gives us a description of how the gospel went forth in the early days of the church under the ministry of the apostles. But it is Matthew who tells us how the gospel is to go forth until the end of the world.
Matt. 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.
There is no reference to signs or miracles here, and there is no reference to this going forth of the gospel as being past. This is the way the gospel was, and is, to go forth unto the end of the world.
Many people claim to speak in tongues today, but these "tongues" have nothing to do with the biblical gift of tongues.
Biblical tongues were languages — modern tongues are not.
Biblical tongues were a sign to unbelieving Jews — modern tongues are not.
Biblical tongues ceased in 70 A.D. — the modern tongues movement did not begin until 1900.
Biblical tongues were a supernatural gift that came upon people unexpectedly — modern tongues are often a learned behavior. Even unbelievers can learn to do it.
Biblical tongues were found only within Christianity — modern tongues are also found in pagan religions, cults, and the occult.
What will you believe? Will you believe what the Bible says about tongues?