God has blessed me with an assignment to carry His message about the spiritual gifts of tongues and interpretation of tongues.
As I’ve walked out that assignment, I’ve run into a lot of misconceptions about speaking in tongues. Perhaps the most common misconception people have is that speaking in tongues only refers to speaking in earthly languages that are not known to the tongue speaker, but that can be understood by others who speak that same earthly language.
Well-meaning people will even often say things like, “Biblical tongues is speaking in a foreign language.” They then go on to state that any tongue speaking which does not involve an identifiable earthly language is somehow ‘anti-biblical.’ That argument is completely contrary to the Bible. Please afford me the opportunity, and I’ll do my best to explain.
New Languages, Not Earthly Languages
The first mention of tongues in the New Testament is a statement by Jesus found in Mark 16:17:
“And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues.” (Mark 16:17 NIV)
All the major Bible translations translate this word as ‘new.’ Jesus did not say, “Those who follow me will speak in earthly languages that are unknown to them.” Instead, He said we would speak in ‘new’ languages.
What Actually Happened at Pentecost?
Secondly, this argument about speaking known foreign languages most often stems from the account at Pentecost. However, to my knowledge, there is no verse in the Bible which says that the disciples spoke in earthly languages. Here is what the Bible actually says:
“When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.” (Acts 2:6 NIV)
“Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:8 NIV)
A careful reading of the account at Pentecost reveals that many people in the crowd were able to ‘hear’ in their own language. The Bible never says that the disciples were speaking in the languages of those people. And in fact, there is evidence to the contrary given in verse 13:
“Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” (Acts 2:13 NIV)
Ask yourself this question: Why would anyone mock someone and accuse them of being drunk, just for speaking a foreign language? Does that make any sense at all?
A Likely Scenario
I would like to humbly submit for your consideration the following scenario. The Holy Spirit fell on the disciples at Pentecost. They immediately began speaking in tongues, and the manifestation of that looked and sounded exactly the same as it does today. Some in the crowd were given a miraculous sign in that they were able to ‘hear’ in their own language.
However, others only heard what sounded to them like babble. Nonsense. Gibberish. Therefore, they responded by mocking the disciples, attacking their character, and making slanderous accusations against them.
Yet Peter patiently and lovingly explained to them that what they were witnessing was actually an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Some received his message, and others did not.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41 NIV)
Let’s move beyond Pentecost and see what else the Bible can reveal to us about this topic.
“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.” (1 Corinthians 14:2 NIV)
This Scripture completely refutes the idea that tongues can only refer to the speaking of known, earthly languages. This says that “no one” understands the tongue speaker, and that they “utter mysteries.” If literally “no one” understands them, then they aren’t speaking an earthly language.
Paul clearly describes a private, devotional use of tongues:
“Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:4 NIV)
Is that passage talking about speaking in an identifiable earthly language so that other human beings will see a miraculous sign? No, it is not. Paul is clearly speaking about a spiritual gift that allows a person to communicate with God directly through the spirit, bypassing their own understanding, and building themselves up spiritually in the process:
“Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
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 14:16-19 NIV)
Here, Paul refers to speaking in a tongue as “praising God in the Spirit” and even clearly states that when this happens, no one else knows what is being said. In fact, verse 5 of that same chapter makes clear that a second spiritual gift is required in order to know what is being spoken.
Can We Please Stop Saying This?
So again, there is a major misconception out there, and it gets repeated often. The misconception being that the only valid manifestation of tongues is the speaking of an earthly language that will be naturally understood by someone who happens to speak that same language. If that were the case, why would the church need a second spiritual gift to receive interpretations of messages given in a tongue?
Paul does go on to acknowledge that tongues can be a miraculous sign to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22), just as it was at Pentecost. It certainly could be that the disciples actually did speak in foreign languages that day. Modern believers testify to similar experiences. But clearly that is not the primary use or manifestation of this gift, as it is relatively rare. Paul himself seems to practice speaking in tongues daily, as indicated by his statement in verse 18: “I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you.”
There is no indication that Paul ever spoke in an earthly language that he did not know. There is no indication from Paul that he ever personally saw a miraculous sign associated with his tongue speaking. But he did value the gift highly, and indicated that it was an important part of his spiritual life.