I received this question after discussing Acts 2:1-11 this past Sunday:
On the day of Penetcost, thousands from many nations heard the Apostles speak in their own language. How does that relate to people who speak in tongues today in certain denominations? Is there a heavenly prayer language that some believers are given that allow them to communicate with God and Satan cannot understand what they’re saying?
To begin, let me say that I find no Biblical or historical evidence that speaking in tongues is not possible today. Hard cessationists, in my opinion, are basing their beliefs on questionable Biblical inference in part, and on their own experience (or lack of experience of tongues) most of all. However, the same is true of the other side of the argument. Many are raised in traditions where speaking in tongues is the norm, and is even considered a “higher” Christian experience than conversion alone. Again, their church experiences have the largest influence on why they believe as they do.
When we come to the Bible, “speaking in tongues” is addressed in only two books: Acts and 1 Corinthians. Some include Mark 16:17, but almost nobody, including me, believes Mark 16:9-20 is authentic. Many who want to find Biblical warrant for heavenly languages, snake handling, baptismal regeneration, and healing ministries hold on to this passage as authentic, some a little dishonestly.
The Greek word for “tongues,” glōssa, can mean simply the organ of the tongue, a specific language, a particular manner of speaking, or it can refer to a purposefully obscure manner of speaking that requires explanation. In the Bible, it can also mean to speak an existing, known language by someone who does not themselves know that language.
In the book of Acts, we have the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2) where the phenomenon happens for the first time. Very clearly here, the “tongues” refer to the existing languages of the people of the nations present. It would probably be better to translate the word “language” here. Note that this happens in Jerusalem, in Judea.
In Acts 10:46, when the Holy Spirit is given to Gentiles who were Jewish proselytes, the Apostles and those with them hear them speak in tongues and exalt God. Since the Jews hear them and know that what they are saying is magnifying God, this would appear to be Gentiles speaking Aramaic so that the Apostles understand them. This happens in Caesarea, which is in Samaria.
In Acts 19:6, when some Ephesian proselytes hear the Good News of Jesus, the Spirit falls on them and they speak in tongues and prophesy. This happens in Ephesus, outside of Israel. While this does not expound the tongues, I do not see any reason to assign to the phenomenon any difference from the first two times tongues are spoken. This is done in Asia Minor.
What we have here is the undoing of the Babel curse, first in Jerusalem of Judea, then in Samaria, then to the Gentile nations. This is the program laid out in Acts 1:8.
The only other place in the New Testament that speaking in tongues is addressed is in 1 Corinthians (12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; fifteen times in chapter 14). Paul was writing to a congregation that had a lot wrong. Much of what he writes is in response to a letter they wrote to him. He addresses issues of church discipline, sexual sin, secular legal action, marriage, celibacy, eating food offered to idols, using our Christian freedom, head coverings, and abuses of the Lord’s Supper.
Then, in 12:1, Paul turns his attention to spiritual gifts. He begins by contrasting the gifting of the Holy Spirit to the mute idols of pagan worship. The gifts of the Spirit are used by God to quite literally communicate to His people through His people. This is done in a variety of ways, some of which Paul lists in 12:4-10. The majority of the gifts here are about communication: utterances of wisdom, utterances of knowledge, prophecy, the distinguishing between (true and false) spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Paul’s focus is the communication of God’s truth and love to each other.
Paul then explains how each and every gift is important. We and our gifts are all vital to the proper function of the church. Yet Paul does place priority on some gifts. There is a pecking order:
Then in chapter 13, Paul speaks about why we use these gifts. We are to use them out of mutual love (which the Corinthians were not). He says that prophecy, knowledge, faith, and tongues (all gifts listed in 12:4-11) are useless if not used out of love. And he begins with tongues. And when he says “even if I speak in the tongues of men and angels,” he is not saying there are angelic languages that men are gifted to speak or interpret. He is using a rhetorical device similar to what he says in Galatians 1:8. He is using absurdity to make his point. Even if angels preach a false Gospel, don’t believe it. Even if I speak in angelic languages, if not done out of love, it is useless. 1 Corinthians no more proves angelic languages than Galatians proves angels preach the Gospel.
But why does Paul single out the gift of tongues to make his point? Because the Christians in Corinth had an unhealthy obsession with the gift. This is evident by what Paul addresses next in chapter 14. Clearly, the Corinthians desired the gift of tongues above the others. But Paul would rather they prophesy (speak forth the revealed Word of God – 14:1), because this is done for mutual upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (14:3), whereas the one who speaks in tongues that others cannot understand helps no one but himself (14:2, 4). It is clear that some of the Corinthian Christians were speaking in tongues that nobody understood. This is why Paul does not forbid tongues, but only if there is no one who can interpret for everyone else (v. 5). This is about communication.
He expands on this notion in the following verses. He again places things like prophecy and teaching above tongues. And he makes it clear in 14:10-11 that these “tongues” are known languages of the world. The gift is meant to bring people from other nations and languages together, but misusing the gift actually separates people (14:11). When Paul says God is not a God of confusion in 14:33, I think he has the Babel incident and its reversal in mind.
Note also that the person speaking in tongues does not necessarily himself/herself understand the language being spoken (14:13-14). And once again, Paul explains that the other gifts of communication are more important than the gift of tongues within the church (14:18-19), because the gift of tongues is meant to be used as an evangelical tool for outsiders (14:22). This can hardly be the case if the tongues are not languages known to others. In addition, tongues are only to be used in the church if there is an interpreter who understands the foreign language (whether supernaturally or not) and can interpret for the church (14:27-33).
All of this taken together, in my opinion, means that tongues is a spiritual gift that allows someone to speak a known language they do not themselves know. The gift is intended to expand the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth by calling all nations back to the one true God. I see nothing in the Bible – and relatively little in history before a hundred years ago – that would point to tongues being anything other than this.
So what is the modern-day phenomenon of tongues as we understand it in America? I can’t say. I do, however, know that there are those who have come out of the charismatic movement who say, simply, that it is all being faked. By some because they want to build themselves up in the eyes of others (see 1 Cor 14:4); by others because they have been taught that speaking in tongues means you have achieved a higher spiritual reality and they genuinely want a closer relationship with God and don’t want to be looked down upon by others who have that.
Others attribute it to demonic activity. Others to a psychological “group-think” kind of phenomenon. I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that basing our doctrine on experience and felt needs is extremely dangerous if we can’t find Biblical warrant to confirm it.
On the other hand, there are reports of speaking in tongues, healings, and other miracles being done in largely unreached areas of the world, like places in Africa and Asia. People are coming to faith through these miracles. I see no reason to doubt these reports, because that is how these miracles are used in the Bible. God is still using such gifts to call the nations back. But even in the Bible, outside of Jesus Himself, these gifts (tongues, healing, etc.) are momentary and given situationally. I see no reason to believe that has changed.
As far as a heavenly prayer language, many will point to Romans 8:26-27 as evidence that such a language exists. I don’t see how the context of Romans allows for that. 1 Corinthians 14:2 is also used, but based on the above, that is also out of context. And there are those (including those who have come out of the charismatic movement) that believe this “heavenly prayer language” claim is a loophole to get around what Paul says in 1 Corinthians – that only two or three should speak in tongues, and even then only if there is an interpreter. If one or two (or fifty) are praying to God, then they are not using tongues for the church, so they can do it without interpretation being offered; it is between them and God. But such a gift fails to meet the purposes laid out in the Bible: love for others and the building up of the church.
And there are smarter, more sanctified, more loving Christians than I am who claim to pray in a heavenly language or to speak in unknown tongues. The difference between them and me is the experience of it. I have had nothing close to these experiences. They have. But we need to let the tie-breaker go to the Bible in such cases. Even our interpretation of our own experiences need to be held up to the scrutiny of the Bible. I am willing to be shown any errors in my view. But I would need to hear a consistent and Biblical case made for such things before I can consider changing my view. I have yet to read or hear one. It all tends to come back to experience.