What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues, and how does it apply to us today?
There has been a lot of confusion and debate about the gift of speaking in tongues, but you might be surprised at what the Bible actually teaches on this subject.
Our world is full of different languages and dialects. Most of us have experienced difficulty in communicating with someone of another language at some point in our life. It can even be very frustrating to try to communicate with someone who speaks a different dialect of the same language.
Have you ever thought it would be so much easier if everyone would just speak the same language? Well, the Bible says there was a time when everyone on earth spoke the same language.
“Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.”
– Genesis 11:1
The Bible also explains the origins of all of the languages on the earth. It says that people began to gather in Shinar to build a city with a tower that would reach up to heaven, and God decided to confuse their language to prevent them from finishing the tower.
“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
– Genesis 11:7-9
Josephus explains that the construction of the tower was an act of defiance against God that was ordered by Nimrod, who was leading people away from God. As a result of these events, God took action to confuse the languages of the people. He also explains that the confusion of languages was a punishment for their sin.
“When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners [in the Flood]; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another.”
– Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
These various languages were given for the express purpose of causing confusion and separation among the people. The confusion of languages was the result of pride and sin, and this confusion is referred to as “Babel”. The dictionary defines babel as “a confusion of sounds or voices, a scene of noise or confusion.”
Now, with that in mind, consider what God did in Acts chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other tongues so that everyone who was present could understand them in their own language.
“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.”
– Acts 2:4-11
This event in Acts was a complete reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel. All of the people who were present spoke different languages, but the Holy Spirit caused them all to understand what was being said in their own native tongue. The disciples were able to preach the message without the hindrance of language barriers, and the confusion caused by Babel was no longer a problem for the Gospel. This is what Paul was trying to explain when he said,
“Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers…”
– 1 Corinthians 14:22
Why are tongues a sign to unbelievers? Because it removes the confusion of languages and allows them to hear the truth unhindered. This is important because Yeshua had recently commissioned the disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. How could they teach other nations about God if they did not speak the language of the people they were teaching? This realization makes the gift of tongues vital to the Gospel message, because, without it, the disciples would not have been able to reach as many people as they did.
I believe that modern Christianity has undervalued the gift of tongues, while Charismatic Churches have completely misunderstood its purpose. I am speaking from experience, because I have been a member of both pentecostal and non-pentecostal churches, and I have had to UNLEARN a lot of things that I was taught in both of those backgrounds. Most pentecostal churches place a lot of emphasis on speaking in unknown tongues, while non-pentecostal churches ignore and often oppose the gift of tongues altogether.
A common belief among Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians is that speaking in tongues is “the evidence” of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, if speaking in tongues is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, then everyone who is baptized with the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues, but that is not what the Bible says. After describing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Paul makes a series of rhetorical questions which show us that not everyone will speak in 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?”
– 1 Corinthians 12:29-30
The answer to all of these questions is an obvious and resounding “no”. We are not all apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, and we do not all speak in tongues or interpret.
Paul also explained that gifts are given individually as they are needed.
”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.”
– 1 Corinthians 12:8-11
Notice that Paul does not say everyone receives the gift of tongues. He says, “to one is given the word of wisdom… to another different kinds of tongues” He also explains that the gifts are given individually as the Spirit wills. Therefore, you cannot claim that everyone receives the gift of tongues, when the Bible clearly says otherwise. There is not a single gift that everyone receives. They are all distributed individually as the Spirit sees use for them. Therefore, if a gift is not needed, it will not be given.
Modern Pentecostal Christians have been led to believe that the gift of speaking in tongues has to do with speaking an unknown language, however, the Bible portrays it as the supernatural ability to speak in known languages that can be interpreted and understood by others for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to all nations. This gift goes hand-in-hand with the gift of interpretation.
”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… For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints… Let all things be done decently and in order.”
– 1 Corinthians 14:27,28,33,40
When the gift of tongues is used there must always be an interpretation, or else the message is lost. Paul also cautions that only two or three people at most should be allowed to take turns speaking in tongues. These verses are often ignored by most Pentecostal churches today when multiple people speak in tongues all at once, and without any interpretation given. This type of misuse has created confusion and frustration for many sincere believers. I would argue that much of what has been labeled as “speaking in tongues” is actually just babel, because babel causes confusion. The gift of tongues was given for the purpose of making the message easier to understand, not harder.
Many people have also claimed that when they speak in tongues, they are not in control, but the spirit takes over their mouth and speaks for them. However, the Bible says that we should be “self-controlled”. The Holy Spirit does not possess us like some devil. The only Biblical examples we have of someone losing control of their own mouth is when a demon possesses the person. that is why we are told,
“do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God.”
– 1 John 4:1
Many people also like to refer to speaking in tongues as their “spiritual language”, which is a phrase the Bible never uses and sounds more like what is spoken of in New Age spirituality. Every example we have in the Bible of speaking in tongues is someone speaking in a known language that can be understood or interpreted by others present. There is not one example of someone speaking in unknown tongues that cannot be understood or interpreted.
The Bible clearly explains that tongues must be understood or interpreted, or else it is useless.
”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. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me… Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret… 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?… Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”
– 1 Corinthians 14:9-11,13,16,23
Tongues without interpretation is useless babel. It serves no purpose. The purpose of speaking in tongues is so the Gospel can be spread to all nations without the hinderance of language barriers. This gift would be extremely valuable to a missionary living in a foreign land.
The gifts of the Spirit are given for the expansion of the kingdom, and we should all desire that the Holy Spirit would empower us with the gifts that we need to spread the Gospel.
If you are not spreading the Gospel in your native language, why should the Holy Spirit give you another language?
Many people speak in tongues as a way to feel or appear more spiritual. They see it as a way to build themselves up, and to make a name for themselves spiritually. But this is the same attitude the people at the tower of Babel had, they wanted to make a name for themselves, so God confused their language, and called it Babel.
The Bible says the gifts are given to build up the Church, not the individual. If you have a spiritual gift, you should be using it to bring glory to God and expand His kingdom. If you are using the gifts for any other purpose, you are wasting your gifts. We should all desire that the Holy Spirit would empower us with the gifts we need to spread the Gospel, not to make ourselves feel more spiritual.