Understanding Speaking In Tongues (Part 1)

Speaking in tongues means that the Holy Spirit would give a believer the supernatural ability to speak a real human language that the person had never studied as a “sign” to the unbelievers and Jews of judgement against them. The positive side of this sign is that God was now using Gentiles and Jews as the church (and in every human language) to carry forth His mission in the world. Because it is a spiritual gift with a specific purpose it wasn’t given to every believer and the gift seems to have ceased because its function has already been accomplished. If a believer believes that this spiritual gift still exists, then it should only be used as according to the prescribed rules Paul gives us (1 Corinthians 14:26-33) with the emphasis being on interpretation—meaning it translated into an intelligible speech to the hearers so that it can edify the church, otherwise, no believer is permitted to use this gift. Non-languages or “gibberish” are not to be used because it goes against the very character of God who is not the author of confusion, but of peace.


  • By “tongues” we mean an “authentic foreign languages” which are existing human languages. (For example: Chinese, English)
  • By the “gift of tongues” we mean a believer miraculously speak in an authentic foreign language that was previously unknown to the speaker. (For Example: A Chinese believer can miraculously speak English.)
  • By “counterfeit or false tongues” we mean a person speaks in non-languages, gibberish or speech that isn’t made up of words or the structure of known languages. This type of “tongue” can’t be translated because is contains no cognitive information.

Tongues Are Promised (Mark 16:9-20)

  • 16:16-20 In the context of the great commission, it is recorded (although many doubt this passage was in the original, but was later added, either way, it has been accepted and is in the Bible) that Jesus told His disciples that certain “signs” will follow them that believe. In Jesus’ name they would perform the following signs: casting out devils, speaking with new tongues, protection from serpents and drinking any deadly thing (poison), and healing the sick. The purpose of these signs were to confirm the word or gospel that they were to preach to every creature (and new believers as they joined in preaching the word). There are three clarifications we need to make about this verse (two in relation to understanding tongues): (1) Baptism is not part of salvation. The way verse 16 reads can be taken that baptism is necessary to be saved, but it’s not, it is part of the great commission which is the reason for its inclusion. So the statement is true, a person who believes and is baptized will be saved, but as the verse continues is clarify “he that believeth not shall be damned”—meaning “believing” is the way we accept the gospel and are saved. Thus, baptism is just something that believers do as our proclamation of believing in Jesus and not something that must be done to be saved. Other verses also help us see this verse in this light: Ephesians 1:7; 2:8-9; 1 John 1:7; Colossians 1:20. (2) The signs were especially promised to the apostles of Jesus (Matthew 10:1; 2 Corinthians 12:12) and not to “every person who believes at all times,” but “some believers—those who believe and are given these gifts” would be able to perform these signs like the apostles. Every believer has been given different gifts (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). (3) These signs are not meant to be a test for true salvation—meaning we aren’t saved because we can or can’t perform these miracles. Only believers can truly perform these signs but not all believers will perform these signs. (4) Signs have a purpose. The purpose here is to confirm the word that was preached everywhere. After it was done, the sign ceases. Also, the signs are not to be used for other purposes or reasons apart from what the Bible describes. For example, the goal of healing someone is to cause others to believe the gospel, not the actual healing itself (otherwise no one would ever have to die, we would just continually heal people). (5) One fo the signs is “new tongues” or to miraculously speak a language that is “new to you” (you never studied it before) which we see happen in Acts 2:4.
  • Conclusion: Once the Holy Spirit came and the apostles started to fulfill the great commission, there would be signs to follow and confirm the word they preached. Speaking in tongues would be one of those signs.

The First Use Of Tongues In The Bible—Jews (Acts 2:1-11)

  • Acts 2:3-11 The twelve Apostles and about 120 disciples (Acts 1:15) on the day of Pentecost (Exodus 23:14-19) were all with one accord in one place. Then, suddenly they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Each person received divided (coven) “tongues” and they began to speak with “other tongues”—other known human languages than their mother tongue—as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. At this time, there were devout Jewish men out of every nation under heaven dwelling at Jerusalem. (This included the following: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, dwellers in Mesopotamia, Judaea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and visitors from Rome—both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretes and Arabians. This list includes as least 15 different places.) So when the believers started speaking in tongues, people started to hear this sound of probably 120 people speaking different languages and wondered what was going on. The multitude came together and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in “his own language”—this proves they were speaking real human languages. They go on to say that they even heard every man in their “own tongue, wherein we were born”—meaning they were even speaking in the very dialect of their home towns. The disciples who were speaking were “Galilaeans” and they supposedly weren’t known for being part of the intellectual class of society—which gives reason for everyone being amazed and marveling that they were speaking other languages that they obviously didn’t study.
  • The “listeners” which came from “every nation under heaven” had one similar response: they all understood. But they also had two different responses: (1) amazement—they were astounded but also “in doubt”—meaning they were perplexed not knowing exactly what they were experiencing meant. (2) mockery—others mockingly said they had too much wine to drink and were drunk. Why would they say this? The following are possible explanations: they could understand the one person who was speaking their language, but they couldn’t understand what everyone else was saying (so many people speaking different languages) and so it seemed that they were drunk because they didn’t know the other languages; because they didn’t understand, maybe they thought they were just speaking gibberish like a drunk person might do, but in reality it was another language they didn’t understand; or they understood the message they were proclaiming “the wonderful works of God” and because they didn’t like or agree with the content they claimed they were drunk—like a drunk person who just babbles about a certain topic—as a form of contempt for the message they proclaimed.
  • Conclusion: Since this is the first and most descriptive use of the gift of tongues, we should use it as foundation in our understanding of what it actually is: (1) Speaking in tongues is a work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Tongues is speaking real human languages and dialects, not gibberish. (3) The message of speaking in tongues was the wonderful works of God. (4) It fulfilled its purpose as a sign to the unbelieving Jews and confirming the word (1 Corinthians 14:21-22; Mark 16:16-20).

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