Speaking in tongues
Written by Reg Wright
A phenomenon that has grown considerably in modern times within the Christian churches is the ability to speak in tongues. The subject of "speaking in tongues" has caused considerable discussion and controversy within the Christian community, with some embracing the phenomenon whole-heartedly, and others strongly opposing it. Some churches emphasise this practice and teach that Christians should hope and pray for the experience of speaking in tongues. Other churches do not encourage speaking in tongues, and some even forbid it.
What does the Bible say about this subject of "speaking in tongues?"
The tongues movement is identified by another term, and that is glossolalia, made up from two Greek words:
GLOSSA literally meaning tongue
LALIA meaning speech
When you place tongue and speech together in the English language, glossolalia means "to speak in a tongue."
The World Book Dictionary lists at least 6 different meanings for the English word "tongue." There are three which are related to speech and language:
1) tongue can be used for "power of speech." When someone is silent we may say: Have you lost your tongue?
2) tongue can be used in a "way of speaking." For example, a flattering tongue, meaning flattering words that are spoken.
3) tongue can mean "the language of a people or nationality." For example: His native tongue is Japanese.
In the Bible the word "tongue" appears 59 times in the King James Version of the New Testament – that's according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance:
· 53 of those 59 times the word "tongue" is translated from the Greek word glossa.
· 4 times the word "tongue" is translated from the Greek hebraisti -- meaning the Hebrew tongue or language.
· Once the word "tongue" is translated from the Greek dialektos -- meaning a mode of discourse, dialect, language, tongue.
· Once the word "tongue" is translated from the Greek heterglossos -- meaning other tongued, a foreigner, a man of another tongue.
So when we come across the word "tongue" in the New Testament the majority of times – 53 of the 59 – it is translated from the Greek word glossa and the only way we can determine what this word 'tongue' means in the English language is to let the Bible interpret the Bible. We have to read the context to find out the meaning of the word "tongue."
An example of the context providing the meaning of "tongue" is found in ACTS 2:4: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (emphasis added).
Here the word "tongues" is translated from the Greek word glossa and, from the context, it means languages or dialects. This is clearly shown when we read verse 11 of this chapter. Jews, gathered in Jerusalem from many lands, heard the wonderful works of God -- "in their own tongue" -- in their own glossa.
This meaning is confirmed by verses 6 – 8 of Acts chapter 4.
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?"
Clearly from the context we can see that the "other tongues" in verse 4 means other KNOWN languages or dialects from a wide range of countries around Jerusalem. This ability to speak in other languages or dialects was indeed a powerful experience for the founding members of this early New Testament Church of God. They were given, by a miracle, the ability to speak in other tongues, or other languages.
This miraculous ability to speak in tongues or foreign languages was a direct outcome of the giving of the Holy Spirit. Many people within the Christian community who speak in tongues generally agree that, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they did speak in other languages, languages that were foreign to them, languages they had not learned.
However, some involved in this modern day phenomenon called the "tongues movement" – or the 'glossolalia' – say their speaking in tongues is not speaking in known languages but it takes the form of ecstatic utterances. They believe this is supported by the experience of the members in the church in Corinth as explained in I Corinthians chapter 14.
The 'speaking in tongues' movement in many modern Christian churches today is clearly different to the speaking in other languages as experienced by the members of the church in Corinth and this modern day phenomenon cannot be attributed to the work of Holy Spirit of God. The Apostle John has exhorted those who claim to follow Christ in 1 John 4:1 to "...test the spirits to see whether they are of God."
Often the spirit behind the speaking in tongues of modern Christians is one of pride and self-promotion. It was the same in the Corinthian church. God has inspired the recording of their circumstances as a lesson to us.
In the Corinthian church speaking in tongues had become a status symbol, and those who spoke in other languages began to feel superior to their fellow brethren who could not. They began to abuse this gift and use it for the wrong purposes. They were childish in the use of tongues. Like little children with a new toy they wanted to show off.
The Apostle Paul wrote to them saying it doesn't matter how many tongues, or languages, you can speak, if you do not have Godly love, you are nothing. Paul wrote that tongues will cease, but Godly love endures forever. He was writing to the members at Corinth to get their priorities right.
Paul did not condemn or counsel them against receiving the gift of speaking in tongues, but he showed them that the better way was to PURSUE LOVE – PURSUE GODLY LOVE. Then he goes on throughout chapter 14 to instruct the members in Corinth how to correctly use the gift of speaking in tongues, the gift of speaking in other languages, to edify others, especially those in the Church.
If we allow the Bible to interpret the Bible, from the evidence in the Book of Acts and in I Corinthians chapter 14, the "tongues" spoken by the disciples of that time were different languages, and this ability to speak in other languages was a miraculous gift provided by God through the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish His will -- that of preaching the Gospel -- and the giving of this gift is according to His timing and His purpose.
Scripture tells us that we, too, need to undergo a transformation - a change, with God's help, from "the old man" to "the new man," a human being "renewed in knowledge" and "created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Colossians 3:9-10; Ephesians 4:22-24). In this lesson we discuss this remarkable change, made possible by the transforming power of God's Spirit.
Almost 2,000 years ago, a miraculous, momentous event occurred—the New Testament Church was founded on the Feast of Pentecost. What made this event so astounding—and Acts 2 records that the circumstances of that day were truly dramatic—was the giving of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus Christ, just as He had promised.
About the Author
Reg Wright is a retired United Church of God Elder and serves as the Personal Correspondent for the Church – answering questions from our readers and viewers on the Bible and Christian living.