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© Rosemary Bardsley 2007


The word commonly translated ‘tongues’ is the normal word for languages – glossa.

Because ‘speaking in tongues’ has come to mean something other than speaking in languages, this study will use the term ‘speaking in languages’ as this is its clear meaning in the four passages in which it is referred to in the New Testament.

Because there are many current perceptions and assumptions about ‘speaking in tongues’ that cannot be supported by the Bible, this study takes the trouble to identify just what the Bible actually reports and teaches about speaking in languages, in order that this can be placed side by side with current perceptions, and a reasonable assessment made of contemporary ‘tongues’.


Speaking in languages in Acts

There are only three reports of speaking in languages in Acts. These are:

[1] Acts 2:1-13

It is not totally clear from the text how many people were involved. From the context it is possible to conclude that only the twelve apostles [the faithful 11 plus Matthias] were involved in this unusual phenomenon – those who heard them asked ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?’ [2:7] and Peter ‘stood up with the eleven’ [ 2:14 ]. At most, 120 people were involved [ 1:15 ]. All who spoke in languages were Jews, and those who heard them were Jews.

On this occasion it is beyond any doubt that the languages spoken were known human languages. People present recognized their own languages, even their specific dialects.

Not one of those who spoke in languages on this occasion is ever reported to have spoken in languages again.

[2] Acts 10:44 -48

Those involved in speaking in languages in Acts 10 are Cornelius and his household. Again, a limited number of people. These people were Gentiles. Jewish Christians, including an apostle, were present. There is nothing to indicate that Peter and his companions joined with the Cornelius household in speaking in languages.

Although the text does not state that the languages were recognized, the comment in 10:46 indicates that what they were saying was recognized as praising God. This is further validated by Peter’s comments on this in 11:15 and 15:8 where Peter states that what happened to Cornelius and his household was identical to what happened to himself and the other apostles in Acts 2. In Acts 2 the content of the spoken languages was ‘the wonders of God’ [ 2:11 ].

[3] Acts 19:1-7

‘About twelve men in all’ spoke in languages. These were disciples of John the Baptist who had just heard about and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. At least one Jewish Christian, who was also an apostle, was present. There is no comment about what was said.

[There is another occasion, in which it is possible that people spoke in languages, but it is not stated that they did. In Acts 8:14-17 Samaritan believers were baptized by the Holy Spirit. It is clear that this reception of the Holy Spirit was evident to those looking on. Whether this observable evidence included speaking in languages is not stated. Jewish believers who were also apostles were present.]

Summary :

These three reports [Acts 2,10 and 19] are the only references to speaking in languages in Acts.

There are no commands to speak in languages. The ability to speak in languages is not called a ‘gift’ or a ‘spiritual gift’. There are no commands to seek the ‘gift’ of languages. There are no instructions relating to the way this ability should be used.

The common factors in these three reports are:

      • Only a small number of people were involved.
      • It occurred in a public context not a private, personal context.
      • There is no record that the people involved ever spoke in languages again, or expected to do so.
      • Jewish Christians who were also apostles were present.
      • Its occurrence gave clear evidence that the people involved had been baptised with the Holy Spirit which indicated that they had been accepted by God into his people.
      • Each group is from a people or social group from which, prior to the occasion in question, no one had received the Holy Spirit.

Some significant facts:

      • Peter was astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles [ 10:45 ]. He clearly did not expect this to happen, and the only reason he and his companions were convinced it had happened was that ‘they heard them speaking in tongues’ [ 10:46 ].
      • Peter, reporting this to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who were criticizing him for eating with the Gentiles, said ‘As I began to speak the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning’ [11:15]. Notice that Peter did not say ‘as he comes on all who believe’. He had to refer right back to what happened on the Day of Pentecost.
      • Similarly, reporting to the church Council in Jerusalem, Peter states ‘God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us’ [Acts 15:8]. He did not say, ‘just as he does to everyone’ when they believe. He had to again refer right back to the apostles’ reception of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
      • It is also clear in these reports that Peter considered this physically evident demonstration of the reception of the Holy Spirit as God’s affirmation of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Gospel and the church on the sole basis of faith in Jesus Christ. Note ‘God … showed that he accepted them’ by this evidence.
      • This evidence was not reported in relation to the majority of conversions mentioned in Acts. Thousands of Jews were converted on the day of Pentecost and promised both forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but it is not reported that any of them spoke in languages, nor were they promised that they would speak in languages. Once each people group [Jew – Acts 2, (Samaritan – Acts 8), Gentile – Acts 10, disciples of John the Baptist – Acts 19] had by this means been clearly affirmed by God for inclusion in the gospel, there are no further reports of anyone speaking languages in Acts, either initially at conversion with its accompanying reception of the Spirit, or in the on-going Christian life.
      • There is no report of speaking in languages, or any expectation of speaking in languages, as part of the normal Christian life and worship.


Speaking in languages in Corinth

Apart from these three occasions in Acts, the only other references to speaking in languages in the New Testament are in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14, where Paul found it necessary to give extended teaching about speaking in languages because of the self-focused misuse of this gift in the Corinthian church.

In these chapters we find the following clear facts:

[1] Speaking in languages is included only in the three lists of spiritual gifts that Paul gives in these chapters [ 12:10 , 28,30]. [Note: it does not occur in the three gift-lists in other New Testament letters.]

[2] The gift of speaking in languages was not given to every believer [ 12:10 ,30]. It, like other gifts, was given as the Holy Spirit determined [ 12:11 ].

[3] Paul includes the gift of speaking in languages in a group of gifts rated as less important than the teaching gifts [ 12:27 -28], and extols the superiority of messages spoken in the common language over and above speaking in another language [14:2-5,19].

[4] A message spoken in another language does not edify those present [14:2-5, 9, 11,17] nor can anyone identify with or affirm that message [ 14:16 ]. It is actually useless [14:7-11].

[5] This gift must therefore not be used unless someone is present who has the gift of interpretation [14:5,13, 27-28].

[6] It was possible for an individual person to have both the gift of languages and the gift of interpretation of languages [14:5,13]. In fact Paul commands those who have the gift of languages to pray that they may also be able to interpret, so that the church will benefit.

[7] When Paul mentions that speaking in a language [without interpretation] edifies the speaker he did not thereby express approval of use of uninterpreted languages, but rather was pointing out that this was contrary to the purpose that the gifts were given, that is, the edification of the church.

[8] Interpretation of the language changes the message from something useless to something with a similar impact to messages spoken in the common language [14:5-6].

[9] The purpose of the gift of languages [where there is no interpretation] was not directed at believers, but at unbelievers, particularly unbelieving Jews, as a sign/indication of God’s judgment [ 14:20 -23]. The significance of these verses is serious – that to hear someone speaking in languages (uninterpreted) is an extreme expression of God’s judgment on those who have rejected his word; that judgment is this - that they hear the word of God spoken, but cannot understand it, a concept of judgment that occurs in a number of places in the Scripture. [See the Analytical Study on Corinthians for a more comprehensive explanation.]

[10] No more than 2 or 3 persons should speak in other languages [ 14:27 ] in a church meeting.

[11] The gift of languages was not permanent [13:8]. [Please read the Analytical Study on Corinthians for extended study on this passage.]

[12] There is no indication that speaking in languages occurred as a private devotional exercise or that Paul encouraged such a practice. Paul’s clear expectation is that it is carried on in the context of the church, with interpretation, because the whole purpose of all of the gifts is the benefit of others, the benefit of the body of Christ, the church, not oneself [12:7 etc]. All of the gifts, including the gift of languages, are simply pointless exercised in isolation. [This corporate purpose of the gifts is also evident in the other gift passages.]

[13] Paul expressed his preference to engage both his mind and his spirit [speaking in a known language] over just engaging his spirit alone [speaking in an unknown language] [ 14:13 -15].

[14] In his contemporary situation, when the gift of languages was still present, Paul instructed the Corinthians not to forbid the exercise of this gift [ 14:39 ].


Contrasting the message of Corinthians 12 – 14 and contemporary Christian practice :

When we look at what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 we become aware of a range of differences between these chapters and perceptions of speaking in languages in contemporary Christianity:

[1] Several of Paul’s commands and perceptions about speaking in languages are not affirmed by contemporary Charismatic, and some non-charismatic, understanding:

      • Whereas Paul affirms that not everyone speaks in languages, some groups within contemporary Christianity insist that ‘speaking in tongues’ is the initial evidence either of conversion or of being baptized by the Spirit. They regard people without this gift either as unconverted, or as not having received the baptism of the Spirit.
      • Whereas Paul sees speaking in languages as something done in the church and for the benefit of church [if interpreted], some contemporary Christians understand it to have a personal, devotional purpose and impact. It is commonly practiced in private to enhance one’s prayer life, to enhance one’s relationship with God, etc. It has down-graded from being a gift given for the edification of the church to something engaged in as a private, personal spiritual experience.
      • Whereas Paul denies strongly and repeatedly that uninterpreted languages have any benefit for the church, some contemporary charismatic practice places great emphasis and importance on corporate speaking in [uninterpreted] languages, encouraging and even manipulating the congregation to sing, pray, speak in ‘tongues’ en masse, without any expectation of interpretation. The ‘tongues’ themselves have become the focus, whereas in Paul’s perception it was the truth-message contained in the language, and interpreted into the common language, that was important.
      • Whereas Paul clearly understood speaking in languages to contain a God-given message, some contemporary charismatic practice views it more as a spiritual experience.
      • Whereas Paul understands the languages spoken as human languages capable of interpretation/translation, contemporary ‘tongues’ are not necessarily considered by those engaging in them to be human languages or even real languages at all. [In fact, independent linguists, researching the ‘tongues’ spoken in both charismatic and pagan religious practice, affirm that both bear similarity to the unformed pre-language spoken by infants not yet able to speak coherently.]
      • Whereas Paul ranks speaking in languages in the least significant group of spiritual gifts, some contemporary Christians, like the Corinthians whom Paul rebuked, tend to give it great significance, sometimes over and above teaching gifts.
      • Whereas Paul sees uninterpreted languages as God’s judgment on unbelieving (Jews), contemporary charismatic practice views speaking in ‘tongues’ [which are usually uninterpreted] as a highly desirable experience for believers.
      • Whereas Paul anticipated that the gift of languages would cease, contemporary Christianity has to a large extent persuaded itself that the gift of languages continued throughout the history of the church and was intended by God to continue.

[2] In addition, four of Paul’s instructions are commonly blatantly disregarded today:

      • The requirement that speaking in languages must be accompanied by interpretation.
      • The requirement that not more than 2 or 3 messages in languages should be given.
      • That only one person at a time is to speak in languages.
      • His command that the gift of proclaiming the word of God should be preferred above ‘tongues’.

It is obvious that what is said about ‘tongues’ today, and the use of ‘tongues’ today, is different from what we find in the biblical evidence and the biblical teaching. This should at the very least cause Christians involved in tongues today, or uncertain what to think of contemporary tongues, to ask serious questions about the validity of contemporary perceptions and practice.

For further understanding please look at theTopical Study on Spiritual Gifts and the Analytical Studies of Acts and Corinthians.

Important Additional Note:

There are three other Bible passages commonly used today to affirm the validity of speaking in languages, and also to redefine the meaning and use of this gift. Taken in context they do not refer to speaking in languages. Such an interpretation is imported into these texts, not derived from these texts. These are:

[1] Romans 8:26: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.’

This is not a reference to speaking in languages or tongues for the following reasons:

      • When he says “in the same way” Paul is likening what the Holy Spirit does to (1) what the whole of creation is doing [verse 22], and (2) what we ourselves are doing [verse 23]. He groans. Each of these – the creation, us, the Holy Spirit – engages in this groaning in a present continuous sense, that is, all the time. Like the constant agony of creation, like the constancy of our suffering and anguish, so is this groaning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. The text is not referring to times when we open our mouths and speak, or about verbal communication at all. It is referring to an on-going ministry of the Holy Spirit, a continuum of agonized intercession that is in place every moment of our lives.
      • Paul specifically says that the intercessory groanings of the Spirit are alaletos – that is, they are not spoken. They are not expressed. They are incapable of being uttered. It is not just that they ‘cannot’ be expressed in words, but that they are not expressed in any form of speech at all. Here the Holy Spirit is doing something that does not involve the use of the human organs of verbal expression. But to say that Paul is referring to ‘speaking in languages’ is to say that something is being expressed verbally with the physical human tongue.
      • Paul states that it is the Holy Spirit who is groaning. Yet the biblical understanding of speaking in languages is not that it is God speaking through the individual human’s speech organs, but that it is the individual person speaking, with personal control over that speaking.
      • In verse 27 Paul, explaining his meaning in verse 26, states that ‘the Spirit intercedes for the saints’. This again identifies the ‘groaner’ as the Holy Spirit, not believers. If it were us speaking in languages, then it would be us interceding for ourselves, which robs the passage of its power, its meaning, and its comfort. This verse also indicates that whereas we do not know how to pray, so intense is our suffering, so complex are our difficulties, yet the Holy Spirit knows exactly how to intercede on our behalf – that is, he intercedes for us ‘according to the will of God’.

[2] Ephesians 6:18: ‘pray in the Spirit on all occasions’. Some contemporary interpretations of this command see it as a reference to ‘praying in tongues’ or using ‘prayer language’ – praying to God in an unknown language, either human, angelic or otherwise. [Note that some also distinguish between this kind of private ‘prayer language’ and the speaking in languages which Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians.]

In the Greek text this verse reads:

‘With all prayers and requests, praying in every occasion in the Spirit, and into all watchfulness, [wakefulness, vigilance], in all perseverance and supplication, on behalf of all the saints, and for me …’

The following facts drawn from the verse work against understanding Paul’s command as a command to engage in a ‘prayer language’:

      • The praying he commands is to be done on ‘every occasion’. It is not limited to private prayer sessions.
      • The praying he commands includes every kind of ‘prayer’ and ‘request’. Its content and meaning is not hidden in some unknown and unknowable ‘prayer language’. Rather its content is specific prayers and specific requests.
      • The praying he commands is to be done with total watchfulness and vigilance, with total perseverance, and with total entreaty. Such total commitment of the body, soul and mind demands an alertness and an involvement of the body, soul and mind. It is not a spiritual exercise in which the human body, soul and mind are transcended by some action of the Spirit, but is a command to be personally obeyed in terms of personal commitment of all of one’s faculties to the exercise of prayer.
      • The praying he commands has a specific concern. It is not an undefined and undefinable praying in the Spirit as a personal spiritual exercise that draws one closer to God, or whatever, in which one has no idea what one is praying. Rather it is ‘on behalf of all the saints’ and, at the time of Paul’s writing, ‘for me’. And that ‘for me’ had a well defined focus – the bold proclamation of the gospel. Clearly we are here commanded to specific, well-defined prayer in which not only our mouth, but also our minds and our wills are engaged.

[3] Jude 20: ‘pray in the Holy Spirit’. In context, and taking the meaning of the Greek text, this reads ‘But you, dear friends, building yourselves up in your most holy faith, praying in the Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love’ [20,21].

The command is not in the phrase ‘pray in the Spirit’, but in the ‘keep yourselves’. Praying in the Spirit is one of the means by which we keep ourselves in God’s love. If ‘praying in the Spirit’ means ‘speaking in tongues’ such a means of keeping ourselves in God’s love is not affirmed anywhere else in the Scripture, indeed it is contrary to the Scripture. Jude himself affirms a few verses later that it is God who keeps us from falling [verse 24] and greets his readers with the reminder that they are ‘kept by Jesus Christ’ [verse 1]. Whatever ‘praying in the Spirit’ is in verse 20 it is certainly not praying in tongues.

By its very nature, in biblical terms, prayer is seeking the Lord, prayer is entering into the presence of God, prayer is communing with God. The only legitimate way of praying is ‘in the Spirit’. The opposite of ‘in the Spirit’ is ‘in the flesh’ – approaching God on our own two feet, dependent on our own performance for our acceptance with him, hoping that we, in ourselves, have done enough to earn, merit and deserve his love. But when we pray ‘in the Spirit’ we come to God only and wholly on the basis of our union with Christ put into effect through the action of the Spirit, and confirmed by the indwelling of that same Spirit. This prayer, in which we enter the presence of God always and only in and through the Spirit, by whose ministry we are united to Christ, and are thus assured of God’s guaranteed love and acceptance, is prayer ‘in the Spirit’.