The gift of speaking in unknown tongues has been one of the most controversial of all the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12. It is not my desire to stir or spread controversy, so as I answer the question of what is speaking in tongues, I am reminded, so I remind you, of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13 where He says that even if he spoke with the tongues of men and angels but had not love, he would just be a clanging cymbal. So as I try to approach the question of what is speaking in tongues, please hear my heart. This is not a subject or an issue that should bring division or cause us to loose focus on the mission we all have been given. We are called to witnesses to this world by loving one another.
What is speaking in tongues?
The gift of speaking in tongues is a gift that is unique to the New Testament church. You do not find this gift in operation at all in the Old Testament. The gift of speaking in tongues is the ability to speak in a language that was previously unknown to you. It is not the talent for learning new languages but a gift of being able to speak in an unknown language by the unction of the Holy Spirit. Now many people have criticized those who have this gift because they have tried to test to see if they were known human languages that people have spoken. Sometimes this has been the case, but many times the people speaking in tongues have not spoken in a language that was currently known. However this is not a proof that the tongues are fake. As I made mention, Paul talked about speaking in the tongues of men and angels. I personally believe that many believers that have this gift speak in a heavenly language, not an earthly one.
Another distinction that needs to be made in understanding what is speaking in tongues is the distinction between praying in tongues and publicly speaking in tongues. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 14 that when he prays in tongues, his spirit is praying but his mind is unfruitful. In the same token, if you use the gift of tongues publicly then it must be interpreted otherwise people will think you are nuts! When a tongue is interpreted then it becomes the same as a prophetic word designed to be a sign to unbelievers to cause them to say that “God is truly among you”. I have seen this happen on more than one occasion that when the gift of tongues has been used publicly and it is interpreted that it has bypassed the walls of resistance placed in the heart of unbelievers and caused them to come to saving faith in Christ.
Did Jesus speak in tongues?
There is no recorded instance where Jesus publicly spoke in tongues. This gift is only recorded in the life of the early church. However there is an instance where it is at least possible that Jesus may have prayed in tongues. It is not a specific reference but there is some biblical foundation that this is indeed a possibility with this reference. In John gospel, chapter 11 we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. And in verse 38 the Bible makes a peculiar statement when it says “Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb.” The term “groaning in Himself” could be a reference to praying in tongues. In Romans 8:26 it says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings that cannot be uttered”. Paul when talking about praying in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 uses the term “Praying in the Spirit” synonymously with praying in tongues. So, it is at least possible that Jesus prayed in tongues. I would not make a hard and fast doctrine out of it but it is at least a possibility.
The gift of tongues in the early church.
The first recorded instance of speaking in tongues is found in Acts chapter 2. The Apostles and other disciples were meeting in the upper room. They were waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. There was a major experience that happened where there was the sound of strong wind, visions of tongues of fire descending upon them, and they began to speak with other tongues. This whole incident was seen not just by the Apostles but everyone who was in the vicinity saw it. They came rushing to see what had happened. The Apostles came out of the upper room and Peter finally get’s his foot out of his mouth and preaches his first sermon and 3000 unbelievers became believers in Jesus. They heard the people that were in the upper room speaking in their native languages. Somewhere close to 20 languages and dialects altogether.
The next instance of this gift being recorded is in Acts chapter 10. Peter just had a vision about not calling what God had made clean, unclean. He is preaching at a gentiles house named Cornelius. As he is preaching the gentiles start speaking in tongues. Peter sees this and gets the point. These gentiles had been saved! Something that was not believed possible before. He then says, well we might as well baptize them and all who were previously unsaved, got baptized. This time the gift was not a sign to unbelievers as much as it was a sign to Peter and the other disciples that were with Peter.
The next instance we have recorded of people speaking in tongues is during one of Paul’s missionary journeys. He runs across a group of believers in Acts chapter 19. He asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. Now obviously Paul was not talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes with salvation since they were already believers. He was talking about the empowering of the Holy Spirit also known as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They replied that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul asked what type of baptism they had. They were baptized with John’s baptism. So Paul made sure that they got it right and baptized them in the name of Jesus. Now this is important because you do not baptize unbelievers or unsaved people. After they were baptized, then Paul laid hands on them the Holy Spirit came “upon them” and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. Notice that it says upon them. They received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit not salvation.
The gift of tongues in the church today.
As much as Pentecostals would like to take credit for the gift of tongues in the church today, there have been other recorded instances of the gift of tongues in recent history. Martin Luther spoke in tongues. There were outbreaks of tongues in the revivals held by John and Charles Wesley along with others. In tomorrows post I am going to go into great detail about the proper use of the gift of tongues in the church. Suffice it to say that according to the latest statistics, those that believe in speaking in tongues as a part of the modern church, is somewhere between 400 – 600 million believers comprising 25% of the total believers worldwide. It is the fastest growing and most evangelistic of all the streams of Christianity. That does not mean that they are superior or have arrived. Trust me I know! I am part of that group and we are by no means special or perfect. However, I do believe that because we have been open to the grace of God empowering us for service, we have had a major impact on the modern world.
- What Are Spiritual Gifts?
- Are spiritual gifts for today?
- The motivation behind spiritual gifts.
- What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit?
- What is the word of wisdom?
- What is the word of knowledge?
- What is extraordinary faith?
- What is gifts of healings?
- What is the working of miracles?
- What is the gift of prophecy?
- What is discerning of spirits?
- What is the gift of tongues?
- What is the proper use of tongues in the church today?
- What is the interpretation of tongues?