© 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:

Some significant facts:


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:

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


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:

[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’:

[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’.