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Questions about Speaking in Tongues

February 6, 2016

There are many definitions of what this is depending on the denomination. To some degree we agree on what is was in the beginning of the Church, but we disagree on what it is now, or if such a gift is even available.

So what was it at that time?

Acts 2

What does “tongues” mean exactly?

Tongues is used in the passage in two different contexts. The Greek word can mean “tongue”, but also “language”. In the first context, it’s talking about the shape that the flames took, and so the meaning in indeed “tongue”. In the second context, they are speaking in different tongues, meaning “languages”. I think the fact that this miracle is called “speaking in tongues” can often give us the wrong idea, but the translators are (understandably) reluctant to translate the same word 2 different ways.

Later when the other Jews ask how it is that they hear in their own language, a different word is used which means “dialect” (and the Greek word sounds very similar). This probably points to the degree of accuracy and precision, not only that they spoke a different language, but that they also sounded like they were from a specific place.

Did the speakers themselves know what they were saying?

Probably not. They were speaking as the Spirit directed them, but as they did not know the target languages it’s doubtful they knew what the words meant. By the same token they were not able to say whatever they wanted, but only what the Spirit told them.

Is this human languages or something else?

It seems quite clear that we are talking about normal, human languages in Acts 2, because other people listening understood what they were saying. Acts adds the extra detail that the crowd there recognized that the speakers were Galileans and should have no way of knowing these languages.

Is the miracle that several people heard the same person say something different?

This idea usually arises from the idea that this miracle was only performed by the 12 apostles. Since there are more that 12 nationalities mentioned we might get the idea of some miraculous hearing. However, it says that the whole house was filled with the sound like wind, and that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. As a Pentecostal website pointed out to me, if you go back to Acts 1:15 you will see that there were 120 people staying in that house. Now with 120 speakers and about 16 nations mentioned, there is no need to assume that one speaker was understood by different listeners. This also helps explain why someone might mockingly say “they are drunk”, because no matter who they are, they will not understand the majority of the 120 speakers.

What other details are here?

Two things happened in Acts 2 in close connection with this speaking in different languages which are not specifically mentioned anywhere else in the Bible in connection with this miracle.

1) There was a loud sound. This may have been the sound that drew the attentions of some other Jews in the area (the other possibility being that the sound was the sound of everyone speaking).

2) There was fire above the heads of the speakers. The loud noise could just be announcing the coming of the Holy Spirit in general, but the fire seems directly related to this miracle since it was actually in the shape of tongues. However, since these two things are not mentioned later in connection with speaking the different languages, it does not seem to be a required part of the miracle.

Was Peter’s speech in tongues?

There’s no reason to come to this conclusion. His speech is recorded in Greek, a language that everyone there understood, and no one suggested that he himself was drunk.

What was the purpose of this miracle?

In Peter’s speech starting around Acts 2:16, he says that Joel said that this was going to happen. While Joel doesn’t actually call it a sign and doesn’t specifically mention speaking in tongues Joel does say that this kind of thing was going to happen along with the “pouring” of the Spirit. Interestingly enough, this was going to happen in the “last days”, which means we have been in the “last days” for quite some time.

Would these special things, including speaking in tongues, continue on forever?

It’s hard to say from Acts 2. These special things seem to be connected to the “pouring” of the spirit. Is the “pouring” over or not? Perhaps we can say, though, that this is not a mark of the “indwelling” of the Spirit, but instead the “pouring”, which could indeed end up the same thing anyway. In addition, if the speaking in tongues was due to the “pouring” that would also mean that the “pouring” continued several years later, when we all agree that the gift was still around. In any case, I don’t think Acts 2 can be used to say that speaking in tongues would stop at some point.

Act 10 & 11 – Cornelius

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God…

How many people were doing this this time?

There’s no exact number. Go back to 10:27 and you will see that there are many in the house. It looks like everyone except Peter and the Jews that came with him were not included in this occurrence of speaking in tongues.

What else can we learn about the details of this gift?

Maybe nothing, but along with speaking in tongues, we have exalting God. Was this two different things or the same thing? In other words, were they exalting God in other languages? Hard to tell, but just from this passage I’m leaning to 2 separate acts.

Did anyone understand what they were saying?

Unclear. It doesn’t seem that we have an audience that is from several different places. We have Peter & some men from Joppa, and Cornelius’ group that is referred to as the “Italian cohort”. But since the audience was Peter & Jews from Joppa, then they would be the ones we are wondering about. Some of them could have been speaking Aramaic or Hebrew (or whatever language they spoke in Joppa)

Was this exactly the same thing as on the day of Pentecost?

This question is answered specifically when Peter recounts the story in Chapter 11.

11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.

The Greek word “hosper” translated here as “just as” could more accurately be translated as “exactly like” (Strong’s Concordance). Whatever was said about these gifts in Chapter 2 should also apply here. Specifically, we continue to have no indication that we are talking about anything but ordinary human languages.

1 Cor 12-14

Far as I can tell these 3 chapters all go together and the topic is Spiritual Gifts. It says there are many kinds of gifts, and that there are many members to the body and just because we don’t all have the same gifts as the person next to us doesn’t mean we don’t fit in.

Is “speaking in tongues” the sign the the Holy Spirit in us?

Starting around 12:27 Paul says that God gave these special abilities, and then starting in verse 29 starts asking questions of the form “all are not ____, are they?” meaning that the answer is clearly no. Near the end of verse 30 it asks “All do not speak in tongues, do they?” When we put this in the context of the rest of chapter 12 I think it’s clear that, even though speaking in tongues could be A sign of The Holy Spirit, it is certainly not THE sign. Not every Christian speaks in tongues (or any other gift you might want to mention.)

If we receive the Holy Spirit does that come with at least one special spiritual gift every time?

At the beginning of Romans Paul makes this statement:

Romans 1:11

11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established;

But these people clearly already have the Holy Spirit if you look at Chapter 8 where Paul writes such things as in verse 16

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,

So Indwelling of the Holy Spirit does not equal spiritual gift. Paul could give this, and presumably all of the apostles. This is one of the main arguments for why there are no more spiritual gifts today… because there are no Apostles around to give them. Additional support comes from Acts 8:9-24, which is the story of Simon the sorcerer. Peter lays his hands on baptised believers and they received the Holy Spirit. Simon wants to be able to do this and tries to buy this ability..

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit does nothing… for example Romans 8:26 tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, not to mention the testimony already seen in verse 16. But this is not the kind of thing that would be a sign to others like tongues or healing would be.

Is there any indication of languages that are not human?

The only possible reference (Bible wide) is 1 Cor 13:1

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…”

But it has to be asked if Paul used this as a kind of hyperbole. In any case I don’t see that the gift would move from human languages only on Pentecost to only angelic languages today.

A later statement in 1 Cor 14:2 further muddies the waters:

one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.”

This (and other statements like it) sounds like some kind of unknown non-human language that we are talking about here, but you must consider the place this letter is written to – Corinth, where there is not a great number languages that people speak. Again consider that at Pentecost, the reason why many people understood is because they had come there from many different places (presumably for the Jewish Pentecost).

Reading a few more verses in, lack of language diversity looks like the reason why no one would understand what they are saying there, and why they would need someone to interpret.

Did these people in Corinth know what they were saying?

Nope 1 Cor 14:13

13 Therefore let him who speaks in another language pray that he may interpret.

This and other statements like it indicate that the speaker is unable to translate anything into his own language. He needs an additional gift to do that. Looking at just this verse the question becomes “can someone understand something and be completely unable to relate it in their native language?”

What was the purpose of speaking in tongues?

Another reason comes up in 1 Cor 14:21


…which is a quote from Isaiah 28:11. God said ahead of time that this would happen. Can you imagine people suddenly speak a foreign language and people refuse to believe? Some of this happened back in Acts 2. It strengthens the faith of some, and hardens the unbelief of others.

Is there any indication that this sort of this will stop?

There is one possible passage starting around 1 Cor 13:8

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages (tongues), they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love.

Will these special gifts stop? Yes. When will it happen? “when the complete has come” another possible translation is “when the perfect has come”. Okay, so far so good. Now the big question is: when is the “complete”? There are two main schools of thought. One is the completion of the Bible and the other is the end of time. which one is it? It’s not clear enough for me to decide, and to be honest, people usually decide this one based on whether they think the Speaking in Tongues that they see today is fake or not.

(please notice that this is not the perfect “one” in Greek, but the perfect “thing” because the word is neuter rather than masculine. So we can’t immediately point to Jesus here. To bad that would have made things a lot simpler.)

Edit: I realized later that the word used for “gift” in these chapters is neuter and so, if this doesn’t just mean “the perfect thing”, it could also mean “the perfect [gift]”. I can’t imagine any other possibilities because there are no other neuter words around.


Speaking in tongues is (primarily) human languages that someone else somewhere will understand regardless of their faith.

The speaker does not know what he is saying (apart from the gift of interpretation).

Speaking in tongues is A sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit not THE sign.

Having Holy Spirit does not equal spiritual gift.

The gifts will go away (when the prefect comes)

So you must ask yourself:

Does Speaking in Tongues practised today look like what we see in the New Testament?

Would a group of people from the right place in the world understand?

Would two different people with the gift of Interpretation give the same translation?

Do Churches with Speaking in Tongues follow the rules set down in 1 Cor 14 ( vs 27&28 says you can only have 3 speakers in one meeting)?

Let’s take a final look at some explanations of what Speaking in tongues is today:

it is an everlasting sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Maybe, but it was never the only one

It is something that some Christians will be able to do until the return

Possibly but we need proof. Otherwise there is no way to tell the difference between someone faking it and the real thing.( someone speaking in tongues on youtube would prove things very quickly one way or another.)

It had a temporary purpose, and now it is gone.

This could still be a sign to the Jews, but other ideas such as a need to speak foreign languages to spread the gospel are not found in the NT.

It still exists today but works a little differently.

It was never different in the NT, and there is no indication of changing the way it works, only of this gift passing away.


From → Purely Religious

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