I have to say from the outset, that I am both an expert by experience/practice, and absolute ignoramus on this topic, which is why I have decided to write about a hot, contentious, real and active conversation in the Christian world today. Speaking in Tongues. What is it? Is it real? Is it for us today? How do you do it? Do you know you are doing it? Can you learn it? Is it a divine inspiration?
It seems to me like it is definitely a love it or hate it type thing in the Christian world. If you promote/practice it, you might be some kind of special whacky. If you deny it, you must not be reading the Bible…
I feel the urge to include a disclaimer that I am in no way intending to discredit someone’s experience in Faith, their beliefs not to be disrespectful of the practices of others. This is my experience and my knowledge of the Word, as limited as that is attempting to explain what tongues are, and are not.
So in the Bible, beginning with the Day of Pentecost in the book of Acts chapter 2, we have this amazing phenomenon where men, all Jewish, have a spiritual experience in prayer. As the Bible describes it, there was a great rushing sound of the wind that came through the house, like a reverberation or echo, if you look at the Greek definition of sound in Acts 2:2, and tongues, or if you can imagine a wisp of flame settled down upon each of them, and at that moment, they all began speaking in languages they did not know. How do we know?
Stunned and amazed, they asked, “All of these people who are speaking are Galileans, aren’t they? So how is it that each one of us hears them speaking in his own native language: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, Jewish and proselyte visitors from Rome, Cretans, and Arabs, listening to them talk in our own languages about the great deeds of God?” – Acts 2:7-11, ISV
This, of course, was to be a sign to a people who readily admit, need signs to believe! “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:” (1 Corinthians 1:22) And a powerful sign it was, after Peter’s rousing sermon to the Jews assembled, the Bible says some 3,000 people believed and were baptized into the New Testament Christian church. (Please continue to note my constant mentioning that the speakers and audience were Jews)
What we discover in this instances is that the value of the foreign language (foreign to the speaker) is to the hearer, the audience, not the speaker. That is not to say that God did not work something in the hearts of the 120 assembled in the upper room, but the true purpose was for a sign to a stiff necked Jewish people. Consider what Paul says later in his epistle…
Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? – 1 Corinthians 14:6,7, KJV
In laymen terms, if I come over tomorrow so spirit filled that I’m just babbling away in another language and it makes absolutely no sense to you, what good is that?
And yet, right before this moment, Paul seems to make a contradictory statement;
For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. – 1 Corinthians 14:2, KJV
Babble vs. Unknown Tongues
Here is where the argument begins – so let’s just agree not to argue! I spent 15 years in a Oneness Pentecostal Church, a charismatic movement that believes strongly in the everyday use of speaking in tongues, to the degree that it is believed one cannot go to heaven, be saved, unless you have spoken in tongues (amongst many other things), both during your initial receiving of the Holy Spirit, and on an on going basis throughout your Christian journey.
I heard it shouted into a microphone countless times in those years, “if you haven’t spoken in tongues in a while something is wrong with you!”, or “unless you spoke in tongues today you aren’t going to heaven!”
Yet, after many years I started wondering, and asking, is this really tongues? If we look at all the examples in Scripture where Speaking in Tongues was an event for a sign, someone understood or was given an interpretation of what was being said. Thus, something was being said. And that something had a purpose. In order to say something, you need a form of communication and in this conversation, that is a verbal and known language.
And Jesus, God himself declared this would be legit!
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; – Mark 16:17
The word tongues is defined as language. One of the Scriptures I referred to all the time in my attempt to prove the legitimacy of tongues being required for salvation, was when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about being born again;
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. – John 3:7,8 KJV
What you need to catch in this verse is when Jesus says, ‘and thou hearest the sound thereof,‘ This word sound is translated from the Greek phonos, the root of phonics, which means tongues, language.
Read literally, Jesus said there is a wind blowing, such that you’ll hear a language, something that you don’t know where it came from, or where it is going, but this will happen with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Read like this, you can make the case for everyone speaking in tongues!
But again – what is Tongues?
I can only tell you this: that hundreds of people rapidly repeating something like this for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever length of time, in prayer, is not tongues;
Oh God… e shati la so do do do do do do do do do do do do do
Mighty God come into this place… e shati la so do do do do do da da da da da da da da
You probably get the picture…I started hanging up on this thought that what I and everyone around was doing was babbling. And I’m not even denying that I and many others had a legitimate experience in the spirit, nor am I attempting to be disrespectful, – but somewhere along the way, a possibly legitimate experience morphed into a pattern, something we could just repeat on demand.
This is what, in Pentecost is called a Prayer Language.
Moreover, I remember women in prayer would just be wailing in a high pitched moan, and then it was almost as if their tongue just started flopping up and down in their mouth or throat, making this strange hypnotic, gutteral sound that would fade down or crescendo up depending on the moment. And again, with no disrespect intended I would stop and listen and ask my God, are you hearing this because it doesn’t sound like a tongue, or language to me…
Now Isaiah prophesied many years earlier, in Chapter 28 that God would speak through his people in the manner of tongues, and some would use that Scripture to say what I just described as babbling, was Biblical…and tongues…
For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. – Isaiah 28:11 KJV
Yet, here again, Isaiah was careful to say and another tongue. Another language, a distinguishable, intelligible, known to someone verbal method of communication. I can put e shati la so do do do do do da da da da da da da da into a language search engine and nothing comes up known to man.
This leads us to understand that while Speaking in Tongues is real, and I even believe still for us today, it is not random concoctions of syllables and sounds that one discovers and puts together while groaning in prayer. It will be an actual language that is somehow interpreted, just as Paul outlined the order of Tongues and Interpretations in his teachings.
Tongues in the Church
Remember me saying earlier “(Please continue to note my constant mentioning that the speakers and audience were Jews)”?
Paul made it very clear in his epistle, 1 Corinthians 14 that the acts of speaking in tongues were for a sign to the unbeliever. The New Testament church, believe it or not, started out for, and only to, the Jew.
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. – Matthew 10:5.6 KJV
But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. – Matthew 15:24, KJV
Paul declared “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” 1 Corinthians 14:22
You see, in Acts 2, when the initial event of Speaking in Tongues occurred, the audience was a large crowd of Jews, dispersed and returning to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Jesus came for the Jews, the Apostles were sent to the Jews, and the audience in Acts 2, was, you guessed it…Jews!
Jews did not believe in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah they were waiting for. Don’t believe me? They crucified him! The Jews needed a sign, something to stir the city and God, infinitely wise, chose the best time, when they were all gathered back to the mother city of the Judaic faith to make this event happen.
When it did happen, they marveled because they heard the disciples speaking in the language of the country they were from! They heard them speaking a language, not a babble…
Furthermore, in Acts 10 when the transition from Jew to Gentile began, and God called Peter to Cornelius’ home, they had another tongues event, that was defined by being intelligible.
“For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” – Acts 10:42
And again, in Acts 19 when Paul found a band of disciples of John, and having converted them into the entire church of Christ, he laid hands upon the disciples, and they spoke in tongues – yet here was a moment where they prophesied – and for a prophecy to be a prophecy, it must be delivered in an intelligible language.
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. – Acts 19:6 KJV
And lastly, even Paul speaks of a time when tongues will cease, at a future date when perfection comes, but until that time he made it clear that not ALL will have the gift of tongues or interpretations; as separate gifts of the Spirit.
To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: – 1 Corinthians 12:10 KJV
Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? – 1 Corinthians 12:30 KJV
Of course, vs. 30 is a rhetorical question, one in which the answer is plain and known – which is no – no not all have the gifts of healing, no, not all speak with tongues, and not all do interpret.
But there is a very important distinction here about Tongues in the Church – Paul said that there will be one with diverse tongues – and another to interpret those tongues. The interpreter will either know the tongues being spoken, or God will give them supernaturally the interpretation, but by virtue of there being an interpretation, it is a true language, a verbal communication, not babbled syllables and sounds.
If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? – 1 Corinthians 14:23 KJV
I can tell you from experience, this is the Pentecostal church experience by definition.
When you enter into a prayer meaning, people (men) will be walking around chanting e shati so dadadadadadadada and women will be in pews wailing and stammering (women aren’t allowed to walk the isles during prayer, it’s a man thing), to the point that a visitor will be bewildered, wondering ‘what in the world is going on around here?’
Again, this is not a disrespect thing – it’s a real look at what tongues are, and what are tongues not. We don’t further the kingdom of Christ by the setting of roadblocks of oddities and circus style performances that leave guests bewildered and questioning the sanity of the congregation.
Furthermore, we are seemingly opposing clear Scripture when we do it, as Paul made clear, coming together in a big speaking in tongues rally will simply baffle the unbeliever. While tongues are a sign to the unbeliever, that is a holy event, accompanied by an interpretation or supernatural understanding of the message being spoken through the one speaking in diverse tongues, not the chanting of a whole church body.
So I truly hope that helps us see the clear Scriptural way tongues applies to the Church today. Paul said it is real, Jesus declared his believers would do it, but he warned against false use, abuse and oddities created by the wresting of what God intended to be a sign to them that do not believe – yet.
God bless, and speak the truth in love!