Biblical Meaning of Speaking in Tongues

October 15, 2016

How do you speak in tongues? If you do not speak in tongues, does that mean you have not received the Holy Spirit? Perhaps there are many theories or instructions with regards to this subject. In order to understand which is the correct way, let us examine the Bible carefully.

1. When did the word “tongues” first appear?

Acts 2:1-9 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place … All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them… Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

Acts 2:4
 Or languages; also in verse 11

The first record of speaking in tongues can be found in Acts 2. Jesus Christ gave a promise to His disciples and followers that He will bestow the blessings of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. When we continue to read the subsequent verses of the chapter, we can find out that speaking in tongues actually meant speaking in other languages. At that time, Jesus’ disciples and followers who were Galileans, were speaking in other languages such that even people from other nations like Parthians, Medes and Elamites could understand. Speaking in tongues does not refer to babbling or gibberish, but speaking in other languages.

2. What was God’s will for His disciples and followers to speak in tongues (other languages)?

Jesus gave the commandment to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations.

Matthew 28:18-20 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

How could His disciples preach to all people and nations? For example, if I can only speak English and Mandarin, how can I preach to other nations who do not speak these languages? Therefore in order to complete the mission of preaching to all nations, God gave them the Holy Spirit so that they could preach to people of other nationalities.

3. Apostle Paul’s message on speaking in tongues

1 Corinthians 14:6-10, 13-15, 18-19  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? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning… For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding… I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

1 Corinthians 14:2  Or in another language; also in verses 4, 13, 14, 19, 26 and 27
1 Corinthians 14:5  Or in other languages; also in verses 6, 18, 22, 23 and 39

Apostle Paul emphasised that we should speak intelligible words, and he clarified the subject on languages. Therefore, speaking in tongues refers to speaking in a language which other people can understand.

Matthew 6:5-7 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

In conclusion, with regards to speaking in tongues, the Bible has never instructed us to babble or speak gibberish. The Bible has clearly shown us that when we receive the Holy Spirit from God, we should pray and proclaim the good news through intelligible words, so that people from other nations may also receive the message of salvation.

Speaking in tongues is one of the many common misunderstandings of Christians nowadays. Instead of blindly following the theories of other people or simply rejecting all teachings, we should always fall back on the Bible to find out the truth.