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What Is Speaking in Tongues?

speaking in tongues

The theological debate of speaking in tongues has been around longer than you and I have been on God’s beautiful planet that he created for us. What makes this spiritual gift from God so fascinating is all the unknowns that surround it or as the Apostle Paul calls it “mysteries by the Spirit.“ New Christians and old Christians alike usually ask the same questions when it comes to discussing speaking in tongues.

In an attempt to understand what the Bible says about speaking in tongues, I will attempt to briefly answer the reason, what happens, and what denominations speak in tongues. (As there are many different opinions on this, and I am not a theological scholar, please read this article with grace as I aim to answer surface questions that we at ChurchLeaders.com have seen people ask. Hopefully, this can give you a starting place as you search for a deeper understanding regarding the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.

What the Bible Says About Speaking in Tongues

The Greek word γλώσσαισ (glossolia) means ‘language’ and is translated into our English language as the word tongue. The gift of speaking in tongues first appears in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost when Luke cites that the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles and they began speaking in other tongues.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.

This gift from the Holy Spirit that came upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost was for the sole purpose of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in other people’s native languages they came in contact with (Acts 2:4-11). Former over-eas missionary, author, and notable speaker Paul Washer says he believes that every time speaking in tongues occurs in the book of Acts it is a “real phonetic language.” So in other words, when someone spoke in tongues they were speaking a dialect they previously did not know and the person hearing it would understand what they were saying because it would have been their native language (Acts 2:11-12).

Another place speaking in tongues can be found is in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14 where the Apostle Paul explains spiritual gifts and similarly states the purpose of tongues. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:6 that he would be no good to them speaking in tongues if they couldn’t understand it and it wasn’t filled with the gospel.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?

The type of tongues Paul is speaking of in his letter is different from the one we read about in Acts 2 where what is being spoken is a known dialect. Paul refers to this gift as “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 and he instructs the church to use restraint and caution while speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14). Describing this type of speaking in tongues, Paul says the Holy Spirit may give the gift of speaking in “different kinds of tongues” and another may have “the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10). Paul clearly states in his letter that this type of speaking of tongues must have an interpreter or it is not edifying to the body of Christ.