Questions And Answers About Speaking In Tongues: Part One

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

Several of the individuals that I have studied with and baptized into Christ have come from backgrounds of charismatic churches where a phenomenon called “speaking in tongues” occurs.

Since the Bible talks much about this topic, it is good and appropriate to carefully study the Scriptures regarding this matter (Acts 17:11). 

By studying the Word of God and heeding the teachings of the Apostles, we will be able to accurately discern between truth and error (1 John 4:6).

After all, much of what is practiced in the religious world in the name of Christ is actually of the devil; for the Apostle Paul reminds us that Satan transforms himself into an angel of light and that we should therefore not be surprised that his ministers appear as ministers of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

In this series of articles, we will learn that the Bible teaching regarding speaking in tongues is quite different from what is practiced in many charismatic churches today.

We will also notice the disturbing connection between the modern day definitions of “speaking in tongues” and ancient forms of paganism and witchcraft.

Question: What is the usual definition of “speaking in tongues” according to many modern day believers?  

Answer: Often, sincere disciples teach that “speaking in tongues” is a phenomenon of emotional ecstasy where a person begins to speak in unintelligible gibberish as a supposed manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

To understand the modern denominational concept of “speaking in tongues,” consider the following:

““The next day when I was in my room praying, I could tell that a heavenly language was bubbling up inside me. I opened my mouth and the words spilled out. Ilia skiridan tola do skantama. Or something like that. I had no clue what I was saying. It sounded like gibberish. Yet when I prayed in tongues I felt close to God.” (J. Lee Grady, The Holy Spirit Is Not for Sale (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2010), 184.).

““You never know what a tongue is going to sound like. I had an acquaintance who sounded like ‘rub- a- dubdub’ when he spoke in tongues, but he got a great blessing out of doing it.” (Dennis Bennett, How to Pray for the Release of the Holy Spirit (Alachua, FL: Bridge- Logos, 2008), 106.)

According to charismatic Pentecostalism, “speaking in tongues” is speaking in a gibberish and is supposed to be a sign of salvation and of the filling of the Holy Spirit. Our denominational friends teach that when the Bible talks about “speaking in tongues,” it is referencing this phenomenon of speaking in gibberish.

Question: What exactly does the Bible mean when it refers to a person ‘speaking in tongues?’  

Answer: When the Bible talks about a person speaking in tongues, it has reference to a miraculous gift which God gave to some in the first century church. With this gift, a person would be able to speak fluently in the language of another nation without having studied that language. We must be clear: the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in these foreign languages, not speaking in gibberish that no one could understand.

Several Scriptures bear out these facts:

Acts 2:4-13-And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, EACH IN OUR OWN LANGUAGE in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in OUR OWN TONGUES the wonderful works of God.” 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” 13 Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”

This passage is pretty clear that speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in foreign languages without previous study.

Please notice that the hearers were able to understand in their own languages what the Apostles were communicating in “tongues.” 

Speaking in tongues amounted to speaking in foreign languages which the speakers had not previously studied.

Again, we see the same in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

While discussing the Corinthian’s misuse of their miraculous gifts (including the gift of tongues), he tells us:

1 Corinthians 14:20-21-Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature. 21 In the law it is written: “WITH MEN OF OTHER TONGUES AND OTHER LIPS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE; AND YET, FOR ALL THAT, THEY WILL NOT HEAR ME,” says the Lord.

Paul (quoting from he Old Testament Book of Isaiah 28:11-12) describes how the Lord prophesied about the day in which the miraculous gifts would be available to mankind.

In quoting from this passage, Paul makes a clear connection between the “speaking in tongues” that was taking place within the church assemblies of the Corinthians and languages of other nations. 

Clearly, speaking in tongues amounted to speaking foreign languages, not to speaking gibberish.

Further, it is helpful to realize that when the word “tongues” is used throughout the New Testament, it is in the context of discernible speech and the languages of particular languages.

Even the Greek word glossa usually is translated as language! 

Speaking of the etymology of this word we are told:

“glossa (1100), is used of (1) the “tongues . . . like as of fire” which appeared at Pentecost; (2) “the tongue,” as an organ of speech, e.g., Mark 7:33 ; Rom. 3:13 ; 14:11 ; 1 Cor. 14:9 ; Phil. 2:11 ; Jas. 1:26 ; 3:5 , 6 , 8 ; 1 Pet. 3:10 ; 1 John 3:18 ; Rev. 16:10 ; (3) (a) “a language,” coupled with phule , “a tribe,” laos , “a people,” ethnos , “a nation,” seven times in the Apocalypse, 5:9 ; 7:9 ; 10:11 ; 11:9 ; 13:7 ; 14:6 ; 17:15 ; (b) “the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt”; in Acts 2:4–13 the circumstances are recorded from the viewpoint of the hearers;”. (W.E. Vine, W.E. Vine’s New Testament Word Pictures, Matthew-Acts, 45472-45479 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)

The other words used in the context of glossa are very helpful in helping us to understand the definition of this word. 

For example, carefully study the connection of “tongue” (or “languages”) with tribes and nations in Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; and 17;15. The word “tongues” (languages) is used in connection with definition national and ethnic connotations, showing us that the understanding of the word “tongues” was that of a foreign language. 

Speaking of the close connection between “tongues” and “dialects,” one scholar of New Testament Greek has written:

“Tongue   The Greek word here is the same as what is found in verse 6—dialectos, the common Greek word for “language.” So it definitely should be translated “language” here. In the Greek we have glōssais, “tongues,” in verses 4 and 11, and dialectō, “language,” in verses 6 and 8. This proves conclusively that the speak ing in tongues (v. 4) was not ecstatic utterance but speaking in known, intelligent languages of that day (see v. 11).” (Ralph Earl, Word Meanings In The New Testament, 4107 (Kindle Edition); Kansas City, Kansas; Beacon Hill Press).

There can be no doubt that the Scriptures teach the gift of tongues was the miraculous ability of some in the first century church to speak foreign languages fluently without previous study.

The gift of tongues was NOT speaking gibberish in an ecstasy.

Question: What did the second century Christians believe regarding the identification of the gift of tongues with foreign languages or with gibberish?

Answer: The early church fathers understood that the gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages which the speaker had not studied.

Several quotations from the church fathers may be provided regarding this, but only a few will be presented here.

“Cyril of Jerusalem-“John and the other apostles spoke all the tongues of various nations, for the thronging of multitudes of strangers from all parts is not something new in Jerusalem, but this was true in apostolic times. What teacher can be found so proficient as to teach people in a moment what they have not learned? So many years are required through grammar and other arts merely to speak Greek well; and all do not speak it equally well. The rhetorician may succeed in speaking it well, the grammarian sometimes less well; and one who is skilled in grammar is ignorant of philosophical studies. But the Spirit taught them at once many languages, which they do not know in a whole lifetime. This is truly lofty wisdom. This is divine power. What a contrast between their long ignorance in the past and this sudden, comprehensive, varied and unaccustomed use of languages. The multitude of those listening was confounded; it was a second confusion, in contrast to the first evil confusion at Babylon. In that former confusion of tongues there was a division of purpose, for the intention was impious. Here there was a restoration and union of minds, since the object of their zeal was righteous. Through what occasioned the fall came the recovery”. (Catechetical Lecture 17.16-17. [FC 64:106-7*.].

Chrysostom-“And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then [at Pentecost] the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians , 35.1. Cited in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers (NPNF) , First Series, 12:209.)

Augustine-“In the first days the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers, and they spoke in tongues that they hadn’t learned, as the Spirit gave them to speak. These signs were appropriate for the time. For it was necessary that the Holy Spirit be signified thus in all tongues, because the gospel of God was going to traverse all tongues throughout the earth. That was the sign that was given, and it passed.” (Augustine, Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John , 6.10. Cited in Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John , trans. Boniface Ramsey (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2008), 97.).

This testimony could be greatly multiplied. Please notice that the early church fathers understood from the Scriptures that the gift of tongues was the ability of a hearer to speak in foreign languages which he had not studied, and was not to be confused with gibberish.

It is also interesting to notice that Augustine (as well as other church fathers) discussed how the miraculous gifts of tongues (along with other miraculous gifts) had ceased by their time.

Question: Does the fact that some on Pentecost thought that the Apostles were drunk (Acts 2:13) suggest that the “tongues” were not truly foreign languages but were instead incoherent speech?

Answer: The reaction of the crowd on Pentecost of Acts 2 shows that the tongues being spoken were foreign languages. Further, the claim that the Apostles were drunk does not discredit the fact that speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in foreign languages; indeed, when we understand the context of the city of Jerusalem in the first century on the Day of Pentecost, the “tongues” being foreign languages makes much sense.

First, please notice that the people on Pentecost identify the “tongues” as being languages which the Apostles spoke which were the real languages in which the hearers had “been born” (Acts 2:8, 11).

The texts here (as well as in other previously cited passages) make it clear that tongue-speaking was the ability to speak in foreign languages.

Second, witnessing several foreign languages being spoken at once can be quite disconcerting and it is understandable how some could think that the Apostles were here drunk! Consider a modern day example.

Some years ago, I was blessed to visit New York City. My friends wanted to go to Macy’s Department Store, and once there they decided to take a restroom break.

As I was standing outside with the baby Elijah, a Chinese man walked out of the restroom behind a tall African-American gentleman. The Chinese man started saying, “Sir, what you have said was not funny!” The African American turned around and started cussing at the smaller Chinese man, and before I knew it, several Chinese men and several African American men were gathered around each other.

The Chinese started yelling in Chinese (I think), and the African Americans started yelling-well, let’s just it was a lower form of English than I (being a Christian) am not going to repeat.

More bystanders gathered around, there was a lot of yelling and videotaping, and it got worse by the second. I said, “Let’s go Elijah,” and as we walked away, the screaming got louder and people started gathering.

Now, how would I describe that scene today? The only word that comes to mind is CHAOS. And those were just TWO languages!

(Fortunately, the police responded and there were no injuries as far as I know, and I learned the dangers of restroom breaks in Macy’s Department Store, which is another reason I will probably never go back to New York City in my lifetime).

Now, you can see the chaos that resulted from just two human languages in a pretty good sized department store.

Imagine being in a huge city like Jerusalem, with huge mobs of thousands of people from several different nations all speaking foreign languages.

Then all of a sudden a group of men get up and begin speaking in all of those languages. They are yelling and preaching, and (while you might hear one or two languages that make sense), just about everything is CHAOS.

I could see how the people thought the Apostles were drunk when they were speaking in all of these other languages.

But look deeper.

Please notice that the ones who were making the claim that the Apostles were drunk were not exactly sincere seekers of truth;
instead, Luke points out that they were MOCKING.

These were scoffers, not sincere seekers of the truth!

So, the sincere seekers of truth were clearly able to understand that the Apostles were speaking in foreign languages; indeed, they were able to understand the Message of God in their own languages in which they were born!

In contrast, those who were in this chaotic city filled with all of these foreigners and who were not interested in truth but who were instead mocking God’s work here said that the Apostles were drunk.

On this close examination, it makes perfect sense why these were saying that the Apostles were drunk: not because the Apostles were speaking gibberish, but because the accusers were not interested in the truth and wanted merely to mock and scoff what God was doing.

Conclusion

We add it all together, and what do we have? The evidence of Scripture and of secular history reveals that speaking in tongues was the miraculous ability of some in the first century church to speak in foreign languages without heaving previously studied them.

The gift of tongues was not speaking in gibberish, as is practiced in many religious circles today.

In our next article, we will consider more questions about the subject of speaking in tongues.

Right now, I would like to share with you the fact that this miraculous ability was one of the many evidences that God bestowed upon some in the first century church to confirm and prove that the Word delivered by the Apostles was truly His Word.

The God of Heaven loves you so much that He has given ample evidence so that you can have certainly of faith (Luke 1:1-4). The Son of God died for your sins on the Cross of Calvary (1 Timothy 2:6). He was buried, and three days later, He arose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). 

Will you not today believe in Him (Acts 16:31), repent of your sins (Luke 13:3), confess your faith in Him (1 Timothy 6:12), and be baptized into Him for the remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38)?

If you are an erring child of God, why not today repent of the sin in your life and pray to the Lord to be forgiven (1 John 1:9)?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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