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The Gift of Tongues

(What is it?)



          Spiritual gifts can be a very controversial subject.  The gift of tongues can be an even greater controversial topic.  Many times we interpret the scriptures based upon our own experience or our own presuppositions.  It is important to do our best to avoid this, especially when studying the topic of tongues.  This article will try to gain a biblical understanding of the gift of tongues.


Historical Perspective:


          It is important to distinguish that there are two types of tongues the church believes in today.  The first is that of Acts chapter 2.  In Acts chapter 2 the Apostles were given the gift of tongues, or foreign languages, to preach the Gospel.  This is the widely accepted view of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  God gave the Apostles the miraculous ability to speak foreign languages to the people at the feast.  This view is not typically disputed within the church.  The second view is the source of much controversy in the church today.

          The second view is that of speaking an unknown heavenly, or angelic, language.  The church has landed on both sides of this issue.  It will become very clear shortly that this writer believes in the first view, but not the second.  Here are some questions you might consider when studying the gift of tongues.  ("Ten Hard Questions About Tongues", Yuriy, Stasyuk). 


  1. Why did tongues as an unknown heavenly language exist before the birth of Christianity?

    • If the Holy Spirit imparted this gift on Pentecost, why did it exist before?

  2. Why do non-Christian religions practice the gift of tongues in their worship?

    • Did God copy pagan religions, or does God have something different in mind?

  3. If interpretation is mandatory (1 Cor. 14:28), why do we almost never see interpreted tongues?

  4. Why are there no examples of unknown heavenly languages throughout church history?

    • Nearly every historical example of tongues in church history is that of speaking a known foreign language.

  5. Why does the babbling language heard in modern tongues, when studied with science, have no distinguishable linguistic features?

    • There have been numerous studies of Christian and pagan tongues.  They have the exact same characteristics and cannot be categorized as a language.

  6. If tongues is a real heavenly language, why are different interpretations given for the same phrase?

    • The same studies mentioned previously tested the interpretation.  When compared with science the interpretation does not hold up.

  7. Why can people be trained to speak in tongues, apart from supernatural intervention?

  8. Why did Jesus forbid prayer with babbling/long vain repetitions (Matt. 6:7) if he was going to give it as a special gift later?

    • Jesus clearly taught not to pray with a babbling repetitive language.  The word for vain is battologeō, which means, "to stammer, use idle words, babble" (Thayer's - G945)

          These are very important questions to answer.  Without being able to answer these questions it would be hard to justify the use of tongues as an unknown heavenly language.  However, these questions alone do not pose the only problem with tongues as a heavenly language.  A good study of the scripture will demonstrate the same. 


Biblical Uses:


          The Greek word for tongues is glōssa, which literally means, "the tongue" as an organ of the body.  The secondary definition is, "a language" (Strong's Dictionary - G1100).  This word is used 50 times in the New Testament and 112 times in the Septuagint Old Testament.  The Hebrew word for tongues is lâshôn which literally means, "the tongue."  The secondary definition is, "language" (Strong's Dictionary - H3956).

          In every instance in the Septuagint Old Testament where the word glōssa is used it is referring to the physical tongue or a known language.  There is not one example of this word used to describe an unknown language or heavenly language.  In every instance in the New Testament where the word glōssa is used it is referring to the physical tongue or a known language as well.

           The only example given in the scripture of someone speaking in tongues is found in Acts chapter two.  Here the Apostles met in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1, 5).  The Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles and they began to speak in tongues (Acts 2:4).  It is clear from the text that these are known languages.  In fact, the languages are listed in Acts 2:8-11.  The only examples given in the scripture regarding the use of tongues is that of a known language.

          The only exception to this typically comes from 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14.  In this section of scripture it seems common to assume that tongues is now referring to an unknown heavenly language.  This is very unfortunate.  If Paul were speaking of a different type of tongues he would have undoubtedly explained so, but he did not.  A more thorough exegesis of this section of scripture will clearly show a different understanding.


Tongues in 1 Corinthians:


          The passage in question starts in 1 Corinthians chapter 12.  Here Paul brings up the topic of "spiritual gifts" (1 Cor. 12:1).  In chapter 12 Paul speaks of the church body and how God has arranged the use of His gifts as a whole.  There is a purpose and plan for the church and the use of these gifts.  Paul states, "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal" (1 Cor. 12:7).  The gifts of the spirit are designed to profit all members of the church.  These gifts are not to be used privately, but rather publically so all can benefit.  Using tongues as a private prayer language contradicts what Paul is here saying.  The rest of the chapter explains how these gifts are used to benefit the body of Christ.  These gifts are used corporately to benefit the whole body, not individually to benefit the individual.  This is made more clear later in chapter 14, but first, we will look at chapter 13.

           In chapter 13 Paul compares all the gifts to something far greater, that is, love (1 Cor. 13:1).  The word for love here is agapē, which means, "keeping the commandments" (1 John 5:3).  Paul's point is that the use of these gifts, if you don't keep God's commandments, is meaningless.  For more on the definition of love please read my article, The Love of God.  The point to chapter 13 is that these spiritual gifts take a clear second place to love.  After all, people will know who follow the Messiah by their love, or, keeping the commandments (John 13:35).  The proof that we follow the Messiah is that we keep His commandments, not whether or not we speak in tongues.  Paul made it clear that not every believer will speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:28-30).

          Unfortunately, the first verse of chapter 13 is commonly used to teach that tongues are a heavenly language.  This is very unfortunate because the context is not that of tongues, but of love.  Paul said, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1).  This verse is used to say that tongues is an angelic language of heaven, but is this the point Paul is making?  First, throughout scripture whenever we see the interaction between angels and man the message is clear and concise.  What scriptural evidence is their to suggest that angels speak differently?  They clearly speak in a way that the message recipient can understand.  Second, the truth is, Paul is using what we call today a hyperbole.  A hyperbole is exaggerating something so much to emphasize a point.  Paul is saying if he speaks with the tongues of men, or even of angels, but without love it is pointless.  Paul uses hyperboles quite often.  In Galatians 1:8, Paul says, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."  This is clearly a hyperbole.  Paul is not saying an angel from heaven might contradict the gospel.  He mentions this to emphasize his point.  Even if an angel did contradict the gospel, we should not believe him.  Paul also was not saying that we should speak in angelic languages.  He mentioned this to emphasize a point.  That is, no matter how impressive your speaking in tongues is, love is greater.

          Chapter 14 is where most of the confusion on the gift of tongues begins.  The problem with most interpretations of chapter 14 is the entire chapter is not taken into consideration.  In fact, to have a complete understanding you need to consider the entire chapters of 12, 13, and 14.  Unless you study these chapters as a whole, it will be difficult to fully understand the gift of tongues.  Likewise, unless you study the use of tongues in the Old Testament you will likely lack a full understanding of the gift of tongues as well.  Here is a look at the often misunderstood 1 Corinthians chapter 14.

          The first thing to be aware of is the use of the word "unknown" in the King James Bible.  This word is in italics, which means it was added and not part of the translations.  Keep this in mind throughout this part of the study.  I will remove this word when I quote for clarity sake.  Paul starts with the statement, "Follow after charity (love), and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:1).  As stated in chapter 13, the most important thing is that we love, or, keep the commandments, but it is good to desire spiritual gifts.  The gift to be sought out the most is prophesy.  Why?  because, "For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries" (1 Cor. 14:2).  Many try to use verse two as evidence of a prayer language we use to speak only to God.  However, this is not the point.  The reason those who speak in a tongue are only speaking to God is given within the verse.  They are speaking to God only because "no man understands."  Paul is not saying there is a special prayer language for you to speak to God.  The point to these three chapters is edification, and there is no edification without understanding.
          Paul continues, "But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.  I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying"  (1 Cor. 14:3-5).  Those who speak in tongues, and cannot interpret, edify only themselves.  The Greek word for interpret is diermēneuō, which means, "to explain thoroughly; by implication to translate" (Strong's Dictionary - G1329).  This word should probably be to translate.  Keep in mind, you can speak a foreign language with understanding, yet still not be able to interpret or translate.  This does not mean that you can speak in a tongue without understanding.  Neither does this mean you can edify yourself by speaking an unknown language that you don't understand yourself.  When you speak in tongues you do understand the language.  This understanding will edify yourself, but those who do not understand will not be edified.  If you can speak the language you have understanding, but you just may not be able to translate for others.  There are many articles explaining the very difficult task of translating from one language to the next.  It takes time after learning a second language to be able to translate or interpret that language to other people because not all words or concepts simply translate from one language into another.

          Paul continues by saying, "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?  For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Cor. 14:7-8).  Paul now compares the use of instruments to that of language.  If you make a sound that is unknown or uncertain, the sound will not be understood.  How would the soldier know to prepare for battle if he did not understand the trumpet sound alerting him to do so.  "So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.  There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me" (1 Cor. 14:9-11).  Here Paul clearly is speaking of known languages.  The word for "voices" is phōnē, which literally means, "a sound, or tone, voice, or speach" (Strong's Dictionary G5456).  This word can be used of any sound made to communicate.  It is most often translated as "voice."  The context here is of any sound used to communicate.  This is clear evidence that Paul is speaking of known languages.  If this was a language that only God knows and we do not have understanding of, this word could not be used.  This is why when you don't understand the meaning of the language you become as a foreigner (barbarian).
          The point to all this so far is the edifying of the church.  "Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church" (1 Cor. 14:12).  This was the point to chapter 12.  The spiritual gifts have a purpose.  They are designed to benefit the whole congregation (1 Cor. 12:7).  Which is why Paul says, "wherefore let him that speaketh in a tongue pray that he may interpret" (1 Cor. 14:13).  Without the interpretation the only one that benefits, or is edified, is the one speaking the tongue.  "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14).  Keep in mind, the Greek word for spirit is pneuma, which means, "a current of air, that is, breath" (Strong's Dictionary - G4151).  Praying in the spirit means praying with breath, or out loud.  John Gill says this about verse 14, "I pray with my breath vocally; or else with affection and devotion, understanding what I say myself, and so am edified; or rather with the gift of the Spirit bestowed on me."  This refers to praying out loud in public.  The one who prays has understanding, but his understanding is unfruitful.  That is, not understood by others.  John Gill continues saying, "what I say with understanding to myself is unprofitable to others, not being understood by them."  Paul's conclusion, "What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (1 Cor. 14:15).  When you pray or sing in public, be sure to do so with understanding.  If you don't, "how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?" (1 Cor. 14:16-17).  This is clearly speaking of praying out loud in public.  This is not a private prayer language.
          "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Cor. 14:18-19).  Paul speaks more languages than the people of the Corinthian church.  After all, Paul was a Pharisee and was well educated (Phil. 3:4-6).  He could speak many foreign languages, but he is saying that he would rather speak a language all could understand than to speak many words that are not understood.  The point again is understanding.  Which is why they are to "be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men" (1 Cor. 14:20).  Their understanding should be mature and their sinfulness should be naive.

          The next few verses solidify the exact context of what Paul is speaking of.  "In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:21).  Paul quotes Is. 28:11 to verify what these tongues are really about.  If you read Isaiah chapter 28 you will see that this chapter is about God's judgment.  How does God judge?  One way is with foreign languages.  This we know from the curse of the law.  The curses are listed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.  In Deuteronomy 28:49 it says, "The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand."  The context of tongues in the New Testament is that of a warning of judgment.  God is warning the unbelieving Jews that their rejection of the Messiah will not be forgotten.  This is confirmed in the very next verse.  "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 Cor. 14:22).  The tongues in the New Testament are foreign languages designed to be a sign to unbelieving Jews that judgment is coming because of their rejection of the Messiah.  This might be referring to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  This was a common theme throughout the Old Testament.  Many times God warned Israel through foreign languages in the land.  Here are some examples to look up (Is. 28:11, Jer. 5:15, Is. 33:19,  Jer. 4:16, Is. 5:26).  God clearly warns nations with foreign languages from afar.

          The conclusion is simple, if the whole church comes together, and everyone speaks in foreign languages, those who are outside the church will think you are crazy (1 Cor. 14:23).  But if everyone prophesies, those who are outside will be convicted of all and will praise God (1 Cor. 14:24-25).  If someone has a psalm, a doctrine, a tongue, a revelation, or an interpretation, "all things [should] be done unto edifying" (1 Cor. 14:26).  Again, the purpose is edification, or understanding.  If anyone speaks in a tongue (foreign language), let it be done only by two or three at the most, but always with an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27).  "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God" (1 Cor. 14:28).  Tongues should never be spoken in the church without an interpreter. 
          "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.  If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.  For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.  And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.  For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:29-33).  God is a God of order.  The prophets should only speak two or three at a time.  The others are to judge what is spoken.  Those who have something to say are to wait until a time is open.  Why?  Because the spirit (breath) of the prophets are subject to the prophets.  Women are also to keep quiet and learn from their husbands at home (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

          Paul then challenges them by saying, "What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?  If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.  But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant" (1 Cor. 14:36-38).  Paul says this is commanded from the LORD.  He concludes with a harsh statement, "But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant."  The ISV puts it this way, "But if anyone ignores this, he should be ignored."  Paul tells the Corinthians that if anyone ignores this teaching they are to be ignored by the church.  Anyone who speaks in tongues without an interpreter or used in a private prayer language should be ignored.  At least, what they are saying should be ignored.  Paul concludes with, "Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.  Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:39-40).  He concludes how he began in chapter 12, the gifts of the spirit have a purpose and an order.  The church should not deviate from this.

So what is going on today?


          The tongues used in churches today do not meet the biblical standards for speaking in tongues.  This use of tongues is what scientists call glossolalia.  Glossolalia has been studied by scientists for years.  "Thorough research and investigation of this phenomenon leads to a theory that glossolalia is a natural phenomenon of 'free vocalization.' It is true that those who practice glossolalia experience a meaningful and emotional experience, however, this is not evidence of a supernatural language, because other forms of non-language vocalizations, such as crying or laughing, also produce powerful emotional and meaningful experiences, yet are still very natural."  ("Ten Hard Questions About Tongues", Yuriy, Stasyuk).

          Today, Christians commonly use an incorrect form of tongues that the Bible does not support.  This does not mean one is not a true believer if they practice this form of tongues, but when someone realizes they are doing something contrary to Biblical Tongues, they should probably avoid such practice.  Some have stated that this form of tongues is demonic.  This is not the opinion of this writer.  Although pagan religions, witchcraft, satanism and the such practice this form of tongues, I believe those Christians who practice such fall in the category of a "natural phenomenon of free vocalization."




          It is very unfortunate that the church today has abandoned the God given order of His gifts.  Instead of accepting the plain and simple understanding, which supports an orderly church service, we have accepted an unorganized, illogical replacement.  With a more thorough study of the relevant scriptures it becomes clear that every example of tongues is that of a known language or the physical tongue itself.  The modern babbling that we call tongues today is not from the scriptures.

          In fact, the Jewish community has always rejected this form of tongues.  I would like to finish this article with a quote from a Jewish Rabbi.  In an article titled, "Jewish Gibberish?  Babble On!", Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman answered the question, What do Jewish people think of tongues? by saying, "While there seems to be references to speaking in tongues in Christian sources (although many are forced interpretations or outright additions not found in the ancient Greek version), there is no reference to speaking in tongues anywhere in Tanach, the Jewish Bible.  There are only some remotely similar, but markedly different, instances.  For one, recall the well-known story of the Tower of Babel, where the peopleís tongues were confused such that people spoke languages that others didnít understand.  However, this is not comparable because each spoke an actual language, not unintelligible sounds, where it was the speaker who understood and the listeners who did not.  Also, far from expressing spiritual enlightenment, their 'babel-ing' was a punishment for brazenly challenging G-d, which resulted in discord and dispersal.  So to answer the question: Does Judaism accept gibberish?  Babel on!"


By Steve Siefken

  Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth

not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 KJV