Speaking in Tongues
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 2 August 2005; Revised 18 May 2016
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is derived from The New Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1981). The meaning of Greek words is derived from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957).
Many followers of Yeshua (Jesus) sincerely believe in "speaking in tongues" (formally called "glossolalia"), a phenomenon that involves praising or praying in an unknown "language" in private or public worship and characterized by broken speech experienced in religious ecstasy. The speech includes sounds or "words" that are not intelligible to bystanders and often includes continuous repetition of such sounds or "words" with no discernible structure or grammar. The term "speaking in tongues" is so associated with this definition, aided by use of "unknown" in the KJV to describe the tongues speaking (1Cor 14:2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 27), that glossolalia advocates have difficulty in discussing biblical material due to imposing this definition on the biblical passages. However, the word "unknown" was added in the KJV to clarify that the language of the speaker was not known to the rest of the congregation.
As a child I attended Pentecostal churches and meetings with relatives in which tongues speaking was a normative part of the worship. Over the years I have known many godly people who claim this experience. Therefore, my intention in writing on this subject is not to question their spiritual devotion. I will, however, discuss the claims of some tongues advocates that I believe to be in error and review the biblical facts.
Yeshua promised his disciples before his ascension that not many days afterward they would be immersed with the Holy Spirit and transformed into bold witnesses. And so they were. On the special day of Shavuot (Pentecost), that occurred 50 days after Passover when Yeshua was crucified, a great crowd brought together by the sound of a great wind (Acts 2:6) witnessed the signs of God's power, including speaking in other languages, and were instantly amazed and interested. In his sermon Peter promised the crowd that day that if they would repent and be immersed in water they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The Shavuot experience of "speaking in tongues" was repeated on few subsequent occasions, but soon became controversial, and has remained so ever since.
The diversity of human language was created as a judgment of God at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:7-9) and the miracle in Jerusalem on Shavuot portended the day when mankind will again speak with one language. Every bona fide language has structure that can be studied, reproduced and translated. Angels, too, have their own language (1Cor 13:1; 2Cor 12:4), but in their dealings with people recorded in Scripture they use human language, specifically Hebrew, for conversation.
1― "You have to speak in tongues to go to heaven."
I first heard this claim as a teenager while participating in an interdenominational ministry at the county jail. A retired missionary coordinated a worship service each Sunday in the menís section and a service in the womenís section. The missionary normally assigned those from tongues-speaking congregations to take one service and everybody else would go to the other service. One Sunday the womenís section was off limits and we were all together in the menís section. We took turns giving personal testimonies and a man with a tongues-speaking perspective told the inmates without equivocation, "if you donít speak in tongues youíre all going to hell." I was shocked at the insensitivity of such a demand and it seemed to me at the time the Holy Spirit left the service.
No verse anywhere in Scripture asserts this claim. Yeshua never commanded His disciples to "speak in tongues." The prophecy of Yeshua given in Mark 16:17 that "those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues" is a simple future tense, not a command. The prophecy of new languages is set in the context of a variety of signs that would occur with the advance of the good news of the Messiah. The "new tongues" more likely refers to a fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11 and Isaiah 66:18. Nations and people-groups that had never before known the God of Israel would praise His name. If "speaking in tongues" were a commandment for every believer then the believer would also have to produce every other sign Yeshua mentions in Mark 16:17-18. The apostles never commanded anyone to "speak in tongues," and the Body of Messiah is built on the authority of the Jewish apostles and the Hebrew prophets. Paul expressed a wish in 1 Corinthians 14:5, but a wish does not constitute divine command.
The claim that "speaking in tongues" is necessary for salvation promotes a legalism not unlike the claim of certain Pharisee believers that Gentile believers had to be circumcised to be saved. Such a requirement would constitute "another kind of good news," for which Paul had the strongest rebuke (Gal 1:8-9; cf. Matt 18:16; Rev 22:18-19). Salvation is purely an act of Godís grace, which people appropriate by trusting in the Lord Yeshua and confessing his name (John 6:29; Rom 10:9f; Eph 2:8; 1Jn 4:15). The reality is that the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it will (John 3:8) and He does not operate at the whim of man or for manís pleasure.
2― "Speaking in tongues is the definitive evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit."
The only important factor that Peter asserts as common to the Shavuot experience in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4) and the anointing of the Holy Spirit at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-46) is that their hearts were purified by faith (Acts 15:9). If one has the gift of speaking in other languages, but does not have a pure heart, he is not filled with the Spirit. King Saul is sometimes held up as an example of speaking in tongues, and yet he did so while naked (1Sam 19:23-24). He also was an ungodly man who had a psychotic episode just before his spiritual ecstasy. King Saul was no better spiritually for his ecstatic experience.
Paul plainly asserted that not all believers possessed the gift to speak in other languages (1Cor 12:30). Luke's accounts of Peter's visit to Samaria and Paulís immersion with the Spirit make no mention of "speaking in tongues" (Acts 8:17; 9:17-18). In addition, accounts of subsequent "re-fillings" of the Spirit do not mention "speaking in tongues" (Acts 4:8, 31; 13:9). Insisting that the opposite of common experience of the early disciples be the norm inappropriately gives more authority to a private opinion than warranted.
The Greek word glōssa, "tongue," occurs 52 times in the apostolic writings with one of three meanings: (1) one time as a flame-like portent (Acts 2:3); (2) 15 times for the organ of the tongue, emphasizing the capacity for speech (Mark 7:33, 35; Luke 1:64; 16:24; Acts 2:26; Rom 3:13; 14:11; 1Cor 14:9; Jas 1:26; 3:5, 6, 8; 1Pet 3:10; 1Jn 3:18; Rev 16:10); and (3) 16 times for a language spoken by a particular people group or nation (Acts 2:4, 11; 10:46 (cf. 11:15); 1Cor 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; Php 2:11; Rev 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). There are another 16 times the word occurs in passages where the meaning is often taken as the broken speech of people in religious ecstasy (Mark 16:17; Acts 19:6; 1Cor 14:2, 4, 5, 6, 13, 14, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39).
Even in the controversial passages the context offers evidence that glōssa means a known human language. Bible versions contribute to misunderstanding by translating glōssa as "tongue" when the meaning is "language." There are times when a literal translation can be too literal and misconstrue the idiomatic use of a word. The word "glossolalia" used by many does not exist in the Greek New Testament. Some passages typically interpreted as glossolalia need to be considered.
Acts 2:4, 11
That glōssa means an ordinary language is emphasized in verses 6 and 8 with the Greek word dialektos, which refers to the language or dialect of a region or people-group, whether verbal or written. When Shavuot occurred the 120 Jewish disciples who had gathered at the temple for worship were filled with the Holy Spirit and communicated in languages that they had not learned or did not customarily use. Many Jews at the time were tri-lingual, speaking Hebrew among themselves, Greek in conducting business with Gentiles in the Diaspora and Aramaic in conducting business in the East. Luke reports that those in the crowd nearby heard the message of God in their own language. Since virtually all the hearers were Jews, the language may refer to Hebrew or the dialect of the region of their origin. The listing of Roman provinces that follow in Acts 2:9-11 may favor the latter option.
Those who were filled with the Spirit at Shavuot also experienced wind and fire from God. If speaking in "tongues," or other languages, was a requirement for successive generations of believers to be filled with the Spirit, then it would also be reasonable to expect that the wind and fire be repeated as well. Yeshua said on one occasion that people should believe just because of the miracles he performed (John 10:38). The converse would be true. The fact that God has not repeated the miracles of wind and fire illustrates the unique and unrepeatable nature of that special Shavuot. Yeshua died once for all. Similarly, the Holy Spirit was given once in miraculous power to fulfill the word of the prophets to usher in the age of the New Covenant.
At the house of Cornelius the Holy Spirit enabled the Gentiles who responded to Peter's good news of salvation to speak in another language when they repented and received God's forgiveness. That glōssa means ordinary language is emphasized by three specific references. First, Peter "heard" them, which implies that he understood what they were saying. Second, they were praising God, which implies familiarity to Peter. Third, Peter specifically says in verse 47 that this "speaking with languages" was the same as his experience on Shavuot (cf. Acts 11:15). The plural use of glōssa in verse 46 likely means, then, that the group gathered in the house of Cornelius (10:24; 11:14) was international in scope with various languages represented. When the relatives, friends and servants broke out in joyous praise, each in his own language, Peter miraculously understood them. Peter stood in awe of the mighty work of God.
At the so-called Ephesian Pentecost Paul witnessed men being filled with the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the original Pentecost. That the plural of glōssa means "languages" is emphasized by the presence of prophesying, which everywhere in Scripture is communicating in a known language, whether forth-telling or foretelling. In the context this divine enablement made the evangelism of the multi-cultural Asia (19:8-10) possible. There is no indication from the context that Paul did not understand what the Spirit-filled men were saying and the entire event should be interpreted as replicating the miracle at the house of Cornelius.
1 Corinthians 12:10, 28, 30
Speaking in other languages is listed in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of several gifts of the Holy Spirit, but Paul clearly treats it as the least of the gifts (1Cor 12:28). That glōssa is an ordinary language is affirmed by the reference to the gift of interpretation (translation) of glōssa in verses 10 and 30. Of interest is that both Paul and Peter exclude any mention of the gift of languages and interpretation of languages when they list spiritual gifts elsewhere (Rom 12:6-9; 1Pet 4:10-11).
1 Corinthians 13:1, 8
That glōssa is an ordinary language is affirmed by the distinction made between the glōssa of humans and angels. Paul is not saying that the physiology of angels is different than humans, but that angels speak a language that would not be understood by humans. He also does not imply that humans can speak the language of angels, since he is making a rhetorical comparison between the use of language and love. In verse 8 the only language that would likely cease is human. In heaven all no doubt speak the same language.
1 Corinthians 14:2 al.
"Untranslated languages" is the focus of glōssa in this chapter because that is the nature of the dysfunctional worship at Corinth. Paulís exposition to the members of the congregation in Corinth is not only instructional but confrontational, because the multi-lingual nature of their worship had become a problem rather than a blessing. In fact, Paul's sarcastic tone and severe restrictions on the practice of speaking with different languages in a worship service contradicts the high spiritual evaluation generally made of glossolalia.
That glōssa is an ordinary language is affirmed by the reference to the necessity of interpretation. In addition, the translation "speaks (or speaking) in tongues" in verses 5, 6, 18, 23, 39, is misleading since there is no preposition "in" (or any preposition for that matter) that precedes the plural glōssais, and glōssais is in the dative case, making it a direct object. Thus, the translation should be "with languages" (as in the CEV, HCSB, HNV and NCV). The plural number of the noun indicates many or different, thus emphasizing the chaotic nature of Corinthian worship.
Paul's insistence on interpretation is based on synagogue practice. One of the persons who assisted in conducting Shabbat services was an interpreter, known as the meturgan. This person was skilled in languages and he stood by the one reading the Torah to translate into Aramaic or Greek the Hebrew that was being read or spoken. The use of an interpreter goes back to the time of Ezra (Neh 8:8), when the interpreter was said to have explained the meaning, although in that context the term did not mean translating into another language. It is from this concept that we understand Yeshua's words, "What you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops" (Matt 10:27). This phrase was easily understood by those who were familiar with the Jewish system of study in which the teacher would literally speak the message in the interpreterís ear, who would then shout it out to others, both inside the classroom and out. This rule indicates that the languages being spoken were translatable, not a mystery "tongue" unknown to everyone including the speaker.
With the authority of Yeshua Paul commanded that "tongues" speaking must be limited to two or three, but if there was no meturgan then such speaking is prohibited (1Cor 14:13, 27-18). The person is to speak to himself (i.e., in his mind), not aloud. The apparent reason is that the untranslated "tongues" speaking only benefits the speaker (1Cor 14:4), so it is of limited value in serving the whole body. The requirement for an interpreter implies that any unknown "words" that cannot be translated do not come from God.
Paulís reference to speaking in more glōssa (1Cor 14:18) than those in Corinth likewise refers to known human languages. Paul probably spoke at least four languages Ė Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin, and may well have been familiar with some regional dialects. While Paul expressed a wish that everyone could speak in more than one language (1Cor 14:5), he much preferred to hear only five words spoken in a language everyone could understand than ten thousand words in a language unknown to the congregation (1Cor 14:19). Paul especially encouraged believers to seek the greatest gifts of the Spirit (1Cor 14:1). It is not logical or biblical to assert that the least gift can be a condition of salvation or the singular guarantee of being filled with the Spirit. (For further information see my Notes on 1 Corinthians 14).
Revelation 5:9 al.
In Revelation glōssa only appears in a grouping of demographic labels, which make it clear that different languages are being emphasized and not glossolalia.
Other Manifestations of Tongues-Speaking
In apostolic times unintelligible ecstatic utterances were part of pagan religious worship. Yeshua alluded to this practice when he cautioned his disciples, "when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words" (Matt 6:7). It would be only natural that upon hearing of the Shavuot accounts the believers in Corinth, who spoke in "tongues" as pagans, would emphasize this practice as good. However, the Corinthian believers still continued idolatrous practices they should have abandoned when they accepted Yeshua (1Cor 10:14). Even though they spoke in "tongues," Paul called them carnal, not spiritual (1Cor 3:1). If they werenít spiritual, then their speaking "in tongues" could not have been an evidence of the immersion of the Holy Spirit.
"Speaking in tongues" may be self-induced. Many people desiring to be blessed with the gift of tongues (and perhaps being accepted by other believers) have mimicked what they believe is the divine language theyíve heard in services. On one occasion when I attended a meeting of a tongues-speaking organization I observed a counselor advising a seeker to simply repeat certain "words" and "it will come to you." I put "words" in quote marks because language has form and structure and there is no proof that the sounds being suggested or uttered were part of any language.
Someone once wrote a parody of speaking in tongues as "shoulda bawtahonda buttabawt ayamaha." When I first heard this parody spoken rapidly it sounded exactly like what I have heard on occasion in Pentecostal services. This parody means "Should have bought a Honda but I bought a Yamaha." It is humorous, but it makes an excellent point. "Tongues-speaking" can be simple imitation without any divine enablement. The disciples on Shavuot did not produce the "other languages" themselves. If speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift, then only the Holy Spirit can give it. Attempting to imitate or reproduce what has not been given is fraudulent at least and blasphemy at worst (cf. Acts 8:18-23; 2Cor 11:14; Eph 4:30).
Speaking in tongues may be induced by another person. It has been demonstrated that a crowd can by influenced or hypnotized to perform some act suggested by a leader. I once attended a session at a large conference sponsored by a tongues-speaking organization and witnessed this scene. The leader called the crowd to a time of prayer. There was an organ at the front and the leader pointed to the organist and at the same time said, "let us pray in the Spirit." People at once began to speak in tongues, ironically, in tune with the note being played on the organ. In a few minutes the leader signaled the organist and the note ceased, as did the tongues speaking. There was no "interpretation" and the tongues speaking had no obvious connection to the content of the rest of the service.
Speaking in tongues may be induced by demons. Paulís experience with the girl possessed by a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16-18) is a good illustration. The girl seemed to be proclaiming a good message, but she was doing it by occultic means. However, Paul commanded the unclean spirit to leave her. Just as in that case, spiritistic speaking in tongues occurs primarily to those who have had prior contact with the occult or even a mediumistic heritage and have never been delivered of it. John tells believers, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1Jn 4:1). I recommend Kurt Koch, Occult ABC, and Demonology: Past and Present, for more information and case histories of occultic and spiritistic speaking in tongues.
Someone may ask, "donít you believe that God could give the gift of speaking in tongues, even as a personal prayer language? Didnít Paul say not to forbid speaking in tongues (1Cor 14:39)?" Yes, one may have a genuine experience of being touched by the Holy Spirit and be enabled to give glorious praise beyond normal experience (cf. Rom 8:26). Some individuals might have such a close communion with the Holy Spirit as to speak in a manner someone else would regard as "mysterious" (1Cor 14:2). Anything is possible with the Holy Spirit, including spiritual ecstasy, because the Spirit works as He wills, not as we will (1Cor 12:11). Such a manifestation of the Spirit would be intended as a vehicle for exalting God in an intense and intimate experience with the Holy Spirit. So what a person does silently is between him and God.
Paulís decree against banning the expression of "tongues" speaking in public worship should be honored in all congregations, subject, of course, to his rules. However, attempts to imitate this gift would be a severe offense to God, comparable to idolatry. Paul's instruction does not give approval to mimicked gibberish. Moreover, no so-called "speaking in tongues" should be tolerated that relies on receiving the gift by any means other than the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, that violates Yeshuaís prohibition against uttering nonsense "words" in vain repetition (Matt 6:7), that disobeys the clear apostolic command regarding interpretation and order in worship, and that fails to produce the fruit of the Spirit and holiness of heart and life. Any claim to spiritual inspiration for uninterpreted glossolalia in a worship service, puts the offender at odds with Spirit-inspired Scripture.
All genuine gifts of the Spirit build up the Body of Yeshua, so I do not wish to limit the Holy Spirit in what He may want to do in my congregation or in me. May the Holy Spirit have the freedom in our congregations to empower disciples for service and inspire worship that exalts our great God.
Copyright © 2005-2016 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.