What Is Speaking in Tongues?

God started His Church with a miracle of speaking in tongues. Later Paul corrected errors about this subject. What do tongues mean for us today?

Several remarkable miracles occurred on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31. First there was a sound from heaven “as of a rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (verse 3). 

Speaking in tongues Acts 2

Then, according to Acts 2:4, the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” So, what was this speaking in tongues? What exactly occurred? The Greek word for “tongues” is glossa. As it is used in Acts 2:4, glossa refers to “the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1997, “Tongue (-s)”).

“In Acts 2:4-13, the circumstances are recorded from the viewpoint of the hearers; to those in whose language the utterances were made it appeared as a supernatural phenomenon” (ibid.). Verse 8 demonstrates how miraculous this was: “And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?”

So, the miracle that day simply meant that every member of the audience—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Romans, Cretans and Arabs, etc.—heard the apostles speaking in his or her own native language “the wonderful works of God,” regardless of what language the apostles spoke.

Speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14

So, the miracle that day simply meant that every member of the audience heard the apostles speaking in his or her own native language “the wonderful works of God,” regardless of what language the apostles spoke.Many years after this event took place in Jerusalem, some of the members in Corinth had been given the gift to speak in different tongues (languages). However, instead of using the gift to benefit and serve others, they became proud of it. The apostle Paul then wrote 1 Corinthians 14 to address this problem. In verse 9, Paul reminded them: “Unless you utter by the tongue [here glossa refers simply to the organ of speech] words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken?”

Later, in verses 27 and 28, Paul gave this instruction: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church.”

So the language spoken in church has to be of value to the hearers. To illustrate the point, an English-speaking audience would not benefit from someone speaking French, unless they also knew the French language or there was an interpreter.

Applying Paul’s instructions about speaking in tongues today

Therefore, members of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association (sponsors of this website), do not speak at church in unintelligible “languages” that no one else understands or benefits from. However, some ministers and members do speak in different known languages such as in French and Spanish, and there are translators as well.

The gift of “speaking in tongues” (languages) is not the criterion that proves whether one has the Holy Spirit. There are other spiritual gifts, such as the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge (1 Corinthians 12:8), that come through God’s Holy Spirit. Also, the fruit—the result of having God’s Spirit—is that one will display love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in his or her life (Galatians 5:22-23).

About the Author

John Foster

John Foster

John Foster grew up in the Chicago, Illinois, area and began attending the Church of God with his parents in 1958.

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