Many believe that the ability to speak in tongues is the real evidence of having the Holy Spirit. Is this what the Bible actually teaches?
When the Day of Pentecost of A.D. 31 came, Christ’s disciples must have been filled with anticipation, not knowing exactly what was going to happen. Christ had appeared to them several times during the 40 days after His resurrection, then told the apostles and other leaders to wait in Jerusalem “for the Promise of the Father”—the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-5).
So they were gathered together to keep the holy day when some rather unexpected events took place.
Visitors from all around the Roman Empire were in Jerusalem for the festival. Suddenly, many of them were drawn to the area where the disciples were by “a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2).
Then they saw tongues of fire seeming to dance on the heads of the disciples.
As if that weren’t enough, the disciples began speaking, yet everyone present could understand them in his or her own native language (verses 3-6)!
As the crowd grew and listened in amazement, someone said, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?” (verses 7-8).
Undoubtedly God did these miracles at that time to show everyone that what was happening was beyond human means—God Himself was directly involved with this group, the very beginning of the New Testament Church.
Is speaking in tongues the test of conversion?
Unfortunately, some religious people have taken this incident, and some later statements by the apostle Paul, to mean a Christian today should be able to speak in tongues if he or she has the Holy Spirit. And so there are churches where various individuals seem to spontaneously break out in “tongues” (sometimes called glossolalia), speaking in a manner that is completely unintelligible to the audience. Sometimes there will be someone else in the audience who will stand up to “interpret” what was said into the native language of the audience.
What is the purpose of such displays? Is this what is described in the Bible? Is this what God desires and expects of His people once they receive His Holy Spirit? We need to know the answer.
A closer look at the miracles of Acts 2
Let’s take a closer look at these miracles. God did several things to draw attention to the disciples so people would listen. Hearing the sound of a fierce wind, focused on one location, made people curious. Then seeing what looked like fire dancing on the heads of the disciples, yet not burning them, made sure the crowd’s attention was riveted. Something very odd was happening!
Then the disciples began to speak “with other tongues” (verse 4). The original Greek word for “tongues” used here is glossa. According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, it means “the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt.” It wasn’t babbling or unintelligible speech; it was literally another language that some of those present had grown up speaking.
Today, as in New Testament times, people who travel internationally on a regular basis may learn several languages. They have a native language, but they learn another language or languages in order to be able to communicate effectively when they travel.
Almost always the traveler will have the greatest level of comprehension in his or her native tongue, since nothing gets lost in translation.
So on that Day of Pentecost, God ensured that each person there from around the world was able to hear the message of “the wonderful works of God” (verse 11) in the language with which he or she was most familiar.
It seems the miracle could have been as much in the hearing as it was in the speaking—very different from what is called “speaking in tongues” today.
What about Paul’s writings?
In 1 Corinthians 14 the apostle Paul wrote quite a bit about speaking in tongues. Corinth was a cosmopolitan crossroads with people from many areas who spoke many languages, and a gift like tongues could be useful there. But it appears this gift had been misused in Corinth. Some brethren had even become vain about this ability, perhaps feeling they were more spiritual than those who couldn’t speak in tongues.
So Paul had to point the congregation in the right direction. He explained that what was important was the building up of the congregation, not showing off the gift for self-aggrandizement.
Lest his words be misunderstood, he wrote:
“Unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me” (1 Corinthians 14:9-11).
The gift of being able to speak and teach in another language was real and from God, but it was given for the purpose of helping someone who spoke another language understand the truth of God.
The evidence of having God’s Spirit should be displayed through our change of character as we begin to develop the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.Paul went on to tell them that this gift was a sign to those who didn’t believe—just as it was in Acts 2. It wasn’t a sign to the disciples, who already knew God was involved and doing some dramatic things. It was intended to capture the attention of those who didn’t yet believe (1 Corinthians 14:22).
Then Paul went on to say, “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (verse 23). God never intended it to be used by everyone or all the time. It was to reach people who spoke the other language—not those who couldn’t.
Does God still give that gift today?
What is commonly seen as “speaking in tongues” today does not fit the pattern we read of in the New Testament. Numerous linguistic studies have shown that it is not really another language at all, and there is no one listening who can understand it as his or her native language. It is generally highly emotional, and it may make the one speaking feel very good about himself, but it doesn’t fulfill the scriptural mandate of teaching and edifying the listeners. Based on all this, we conclude it is not from God.
God does not appear to be working presently in the same miraculous way He did in Acts 2. Why? Perhaps the ready availability of people who are capable of translating skillfully from one language to another negates the need for that gift now. And perhaps God is saving it for a time yet in the future when He will once again give it to some of His people, dramatically showing that it is nothing less than divine power behind the men and the message being preached.
So what should I do now?
The Holy Spirit of God is a very real and very powerful force. It is the force by which God created the heavens and the earth (Psalm 104:30), and it is the same force by which He opens our minds to His Word and empowers us to repent and change.
If you have repented, been baptized and had hands laid on you to receive God’s Spirit (Acts 8:17), then pray and ask God to use His Spirit to change your heart and mind. As you study the Scriptures, ask Him to open your understanding to the things recorded there and help you see how to apply them to your life now.
Contrary to what many believe, the ability to speak in tongues is not described in Scripture as the proof that a Christian has the Holy Spirit. The evidence of having God’s Spirit should be displayed through our change of character as we begin to develop the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Living a life of faith and developing righteous character are far more important than speaking in a foreign language.
For a concise biblical overview of how to receive and use God’s Holy Spirit, study our free booklet Change Your Life!