The Plain Truth About ‘Speaking in Tongues’


The Plain Truth About ‘Speaking in Tongues’

Is the ability to “speak in tongues” proof that one has the gift of the Holy Spirit? Is the “Pentecost experience” being repeated today?

A little over 100 years ago, the modern Pentecostal Movement began in the American Midwest and gained popularity a short while later during the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California. The new religious movement soon spread across the country and even overseas. Today, the Pentecostal Movement claims over 500 million adherents worldwide, nearly half as many as Roman Catholicism. Pentecostal churches comprise the second most powerful denomination among all professing Christians.

Many Pentecostal groups claim that their religion is of God, and that the “latter rain” of the Holy Spirit is now falling on the souls of men. Some believe that “speaking in tongues”—i.e. the intense shouts, babbling and utterances of members of certain of their congregations—are modern demonstrations of the New Testament “gift of tongues.”

But is the presence of “speaking in tongues”—or glossolalia, as it is termed technically—evidence of God’s Holy Spirit? Or are these outlandish manifestations of emotional shouts, dancing, speaking gibberish, and fainting spells a ridiculous and dangerous counterfeit?

This question is of no small importance. Many feel such “speaking in tongues” is proof that one has the Holy Spirit, or at least evidence that one has achieved some superior level of spiritualism. Is this true? You need to know.

The Basic Doctrine

The late Herbert W. Armstrong made it plain that “the gift of ‘tongues’ spoken of in the Bible is the ability to speak of God in other languages—languages that are foreign and previously unknown to the speaker” (Tomorrow’s World, February 1972).

In other words, the gift of tongues is the God-given, miraculous ability to speak in a human language that one has not learned in any normal manner. But it is certainly not those demonstrations of emotional and indecipherable gibberish that some religious groups today call “speaking in tongues.”

Usual Teachings of This World

The 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that the “gift of tongues, also called glossolalia (from [the] Greek glossa, ‘tongue,’ and lalia, ‘talking’), [includes] utterances approximating words and speech, usually produced during states of intense religious excitement. The vocal organs of the speaker are affected, the tongue moves without the conscious control of the speaker, and unintelligible speech pours forth. According to religious interpretations of the phenomenon, the speaker is considered to be possessed by a supernatural spirit, is in conversation with divine beings, or is the channel of a divine proclamation ….

“In addition to the religious interpretations of glossolalia as a supernatural occurrence, various psychological interpretations have attempted to explain it as a natural occurrence. It has been suggested that it is a charlatan’s technique, a neurotic or psychotic symptom, a form of epilepsy, or, most commonly, a hypnotic phenomenon resulting from religious excitement.”

Often, the so-called “tongues experience” occurs at an intense, emotionally charged religious revival called a “tarry meeting,” where the “spirit” is said to be “called down” or “worked up.” Generally such “working up” consists of frenetic repeating of certain phrases like “Glory, hallelujah!” or “Sweet Jesus!” With jazzy hymn-singing and the rhythmic, ecstatic chant of these repetitious utterances, the congregation is gradually whipped into an emotional frenzy.

Suddenly one or two or more in the group are “overcome with the spirit” and begin shouting gibberish. Usually this includes waving of the arms, jumping around, shouting or even writhing on the floor. One or another of the congregation may rise to “interpret” what a speaker is saying, usually attributing to the person great praises for God and other spiritual insights.

Some groups view this experience as absolute proof one has the Spirit of God. Others allow that Christians who do not speak in tongues in this manner may have the Spirit, but that those who do speak in tongues have obtained a higher degree of the Spirit with such “inspired” speaking. Glossolalia is a greatly prized spiritual goal in all tongues-speaking circles.

Some believe that such tongues-speaking is related to the episode of the “tongues of fire” in Acts 2:3. Others believe it to be the “baptism of the Spirit” predicted by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11). Beliefs differ, too, as to whether the utterances mean anything in any language. Some believe the utterances to be the “tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Others say the languages are unknown and cannot be known. Still others believe such utterances to indeed be known foreign languages spoken today, or at least previously known languages such as ancient Hebrew.

Most all who do such speaking take the greatest pride in the fact that they “spoke in tongues”—not in what they babbled that might have been meaningful. Few, it seems, stop and ask themselves whether their “gift” agrees with the biblical definition of tongues.

Let us “prove all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and see what the Holy Bible reveals about the tongues question.

The Bible Teaching

The place to begin is in Acts 2. The first 21 verses of this chapter form the crux of the Bible doctrine of tongues. Here, written nearly 2,000 years ago, is a record of the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a multitude.

Prior to the day of Pentecost, a.d. 31, and shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus Christ promised the original 12 disciples—who later became apostles—that they would receive miraculous spiritual strength after the Holy Spirit had come into their minds following His resurrection (John 14:16-17, 26; Acts 1:8-9).

While Christ was with His disciples in the flesh, He was their actual, physical “Comforter.” For about three and a half years, the Holy Spirit had been dwelling with the disciples in the person of Christ. Jesus told them that after His death and ascension they would receive “another Comforter”—the gift of the Holy Spirit; and it would dwell within them even as it had been evident in Him.

Notice that the receipt of this Holy Spirit was conditional upon the disciples’ obedience. Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4 show us that they were instructed to wait (or “tarry,” as it states in the King James Version) in Jerusalem until the appointed time. (The word tarry comes from the Middle English tarien, meaning “wait.” It does not imply a “tarry meeting” or modern “revival.”) The disciples would not have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit had they ignored or disregarded this specific command. After all, God gives His Spirit only to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32).

The day God established for this special bestowing of His Spirit was on His annual festival of Pentecost—also known as the feast of weeks or feast of firstfruits—which was observed 50 days after the day on which Christ was resurrected. The word pentekoste is a Greek word meaning “50th [day],” or “count fifty.” Leviticus 23:15-21 tells us that Pentecost is an annual holy day which true Christians are commanded to observe every year in the late spring. Strangely, and significantly, the modern Pentecostal groups of this world do not even keep this biblically commanded day!

After Christ’s ascension, Acts 2:1 shows that 120 of His own disciples were faithfully and harmoniously gathered “in one accord” at church services in Jerusalem, as they had been directed, on that day of Pentecost in a.d. 31. Also assembled in Jerusalem on that special holy day, besides the disciples, were other devout men—Jews from all over the Roman Empire. Some were Parthians, some Medes and Elamites; others were from Mesopotamia, Rome and Arabia. Though they were not yet disciples of Christ’s, all of them understood that if they had not obeyed Jesus’ specific command to meet there in Jerusalem on that particular day, they would not have been eligible to receive the Spirit of God.

Pentecost, A.D. 31

At last, when the day of Pentecost had “fully come,” something truly amazing happened. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit arrived with a great display of power! (Acts 2:2-4, 8, 11).

With a loud sound, as of a mighty windstorm, the Spirit of God entered the room wherein the disciples were seated! It also came with the appearance of divided tongues of fire!

Have you ever seen anything even remotely like this in your life? I certainly haven’t. Yet, in this instance, this supernatural event happened—so says your Bible!

Imagine the excitement that ensued. Word of this momentous experience must have spread over the city. A multitude of Jews, amazed, came hurrying to the place. They wondered, for something mind-dazzling began to happen: God’s Spirit filled all 120 of Jesus’ disciples and enabled every one of the Jews—though they hailed from many different regions and spoke diverse dialects—to understand what was said! (Acts 2:6).

Every man, woman and child who came near heard the disciples speak in his or her own language! Those of the Parthian dialect heard the disciples, all of them, speak the Parthian language. The Medes, on the other hand, heard the same disciples speak the language of the Medes. Of course, what the disciples were saying was actually “all Greek” to those who had traveled in from Greece!

Then Peter, the chief apostle, stood and delivered a sermon (Acts 2:14-21). Again, the tongues he spoke in were known languages of the day that were clearly understood by those listening. The listeners marveled because Peter, to their ears, seemed to be speaking in their native, local dialects, although he obviously hadn’t learned all these languages by going to school or through some other normal method of study.

Obviously, Peter was not speaking incomprehensible, meaningless clack. He did not work up the crowd with rhythmically chanted, vain repetitions (Matthew 6:7). Further, we see no descriptions of wildly gyrating bodies, waving hands or people rolling around on the ground.

Concerning this utterly unique and amazing account of the gift of tongues, Mr. Armstrong concluded that “the miracle was in the hearing as well as the speaking” (ibid., emphasis mine).

Other Biblical Accounts

Besides the account in Acts 2, other instances of speaking in tongues are recorded in the Bible. One such time was on the occasion of the first outpouring of God’s Spirit to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48). The account is brief, but verse 46 clearly states that those listening heard those speaking in tongues “magnify God.” In telling the apostles of it, Peter said, “The Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning,” and, “God gave them the like gift as He did unto us” (Acts 11:15, 17).

On this occasion, the Gentiles received the power of the Holy Spirit by the ceremony of baptism and the laying on of hands by an ordained minister—in the same manner God gives the Holy Spirit to His begotten saints today. Peter did not say that the Holy Spirit came unto them with the same manifestations as it did on Pentecost in a.d. 31.

The gift of God’s Spirit to the Gentiles did not come suddenly from heaven, as the sound of a mighty wind, appearing as cloven tongues of fire. Aside from being filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues, the nature of which is not here described, there is no similarity between these two experiences. The only reasonable conclusion is that these tongues again were known languages of the day.

In one other recorded case, men spoke with tongues upon being filled with the Holy Spirit. That was after Paul had baptized the Ephesian believers and laid his hands on them (Acts 19:1-6). Again, these tongues were known languages of the day; there is nothing to indicate the other accompanying manifestations as upon the original day of Pentecost.

Some modern tongues-speakers quote Matthew 3:11, contending that glossolalia is evidence of the “baptism of the Spirit.” John the Baptist’s reference to the baptism of the Holy Spirit however, does not refer to tongues as some separate baptism in addition to one’s initial receipt of the Holy Spirit. It is, instead, a reference to that very act of receiving God’s Spirit after repentance, which baptizes us into the true Church of God (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The Gift of Tongues

The book of 1 Corinthians has much to say about the subject of tongues. The gift is mentioned in verses 1 and 10 of 1 Corinthians 12, but verses 27-31 are the most critical.

In verse 28, Paul lists the governmental offices of the church, including the ranks of apostle and prophet. Then, beginning in verse 29, through a series of rhetorical questions, Paul decidedly proves that not all have the gift of tongues (or any of a number of other gifts for that matter). Clearly, having the gift of tongues cannot be the only proof one has God’s Spirit. Nor is it proof of superior righteousness, for verse 31, along with 1 Corinthians 13, declares absolutely that love is a greater gift of the Spirit than speaking in tongues! 1 Corinthians 13:1 says that even if one has the power to speak in the “tongues of … angels,” he is spiritually worthless unless he has love.

It is important to note that these verses do not imply that the Corinthians spoke in angelic language. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, Paul lists a number of incredible feats, all of them beyond human capability (i.e., moving mountains with faith, and understanding every single mystery of life). He wanted the Corinthians to see that even if they could do certain things far beyond their normal abilities, it still wouldn’t make them righteous unless they were filled with and expressing godlylove—which is an unselfish, outgoing concern for others (agape in the Greek). It is clear that Paul spoke of the tongues of angels also as something beyond the Corinthians’ natural abilities, just like moving mountains.

Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians is devoted entirely to the tongues topic. Numerous verses defeat the arguments of modern tongues-speakers, proving that Paul wrote these words to downplay and control the gift of tongues, not to exalt it.

Verse 1 encourages normal, inspired preaching over the gift of tongues. The following verses stress that the purpose of speaking in tongues is to edify and benefit the audience, not the speaker. This, of course, is vastly different from modern tarry meetings and revivals, where the one who speaks in tongues is in the limelight while the rest of the congregation just sits back and watches the strange goings-on. These modern acts of glossolalia are generally more like freakish circus sideshows than a proper church service. No real educating takes place.

Verses 10-17 stress the need for the audience to understand the words, and thus make plain that the words should be capable of being understood. Paul is clearly writing of common human languages of the day.

Verse 23 makes the same point a different way. Paul warns against speaking in a language the audience doesn’t understand, saying that to do so would make one who is an unbeliever or unlearned think the believers were crazy. It wouldn’t make sense for a minister of God to speak Spanish to an audience if they didn’t understand the Spanish language!

The remaining verses clear up any modern misunderstandings on this question.

Verse 27 limits the number who may speak in tongues at any one time to two or three who must take turns. (This is what must have occurred on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-11.) It demands calm order in the service—all things being done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), in a godly manner and with proper decorum—which is the very opposite of the emotionally charged atmosphere of a tarry meeting.

Verse 31 says that tongues should be used one by one in turn—not at the same time in devilish confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). God is not the author of confusion and disorder.

Verse 32 states that the one who speaks in tongues is in control of his faculties at all times. This is the very opposite of certain Pentecostals, who give themselves over to tongues-speaking and are for a while controlled by the phenomenon, so much so that they may not remember or even know what they said “while under the influence”!

Finally, verse 34 states that women are forbidden to preach in the church at all. Such is not the case today as many “tongues-speakers” are women.

In summary, we’ve looked at the commonly accepted beliefs about modern “speaking in tongues,” examined the pertinent Bible verses and extracted the key points. Obviously, modern tongues and biblical tongues are not only different, they are in fact opposite.

The biblical gift of tongues is given for instruction; the modern display of “tongues” is enacted for display and vainglory. One is at a preaching service where people are to be edified by the content of the speech; the other at an emotional tarry meeting. One is vocal only; the other is linked with wild physical movement and uncontrolled shouts. One is considered a lesser gift; the other a badge of “righteousness” to brag about. The Bible tongues are real languages; modern tongues are not. One is always under control; the other is worked up to uncontrolled frenzy. One is done in turn by two or three men at the most; the other usually degenerates to disorderly confusion.

What About Today?

Have you ever wondered why God ever gave the gift of tongues, and whether the genuine gift still exists today?

Evidently the gift of tongues was given for the same reasons as other miraculous manifestations in early Church history. It was to call attention to the initial outpouring of God’s power, to attract attention to the gospel message—not to the speaker—and to aid in the spreading of the gospel in a part of the world peppered with people who spoke many different languages (Acts 2:5).

Despite claims to the contrary, people today are not seen to speak miraculously in languages they did not learn through formal instruction. However, the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32, cited by Peter in Acts 2:16-21, may indicate God’s servants will again exercise that gift at a future time of God’s own choosing.

Key Verses

The main Bible verses about this subject of tongues are contained in a few easily remembered sections of Scripture. Acts 2:1-21 shows the first outpouring of tongues occurred on the day of Pentecost. Acts 10:44-48 describes the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentile Christians.

1 Corinthians 12 contains various scattered statements about tongues, while chapter 14 records the Apostle Paul’s instructions about and limitations regarding tongues.

Undoubtedly people can be led astray from the truth if they allow their own thoughts and emotions and evil spiritual influences to dictate their beliefs, rather than God’s precious word. Though these modern “tongues-speakers” may be sincere, they are sincerely deceived.

As Mr. Armstrong wrote, “We have no word of condemnation for these ‘Pentecostal’ people, as they call themselves, because they are unable to repeat the same accompanying manifestations as described for the day of Pentecost in a.d. 31” (ibid.). Modern tongues-speakers are utterly incapable of reproducing the incredible miracles which occurred that day. At best, all they can do is pretend to imitate, or counterfeit, the gift of tongues.

From the beginning, Satan, the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), has blinded most of mankind to God’s truth. The devil has led many astray through counterfeit spiritual experiences. In fact, Satan has deceived the entire world (Revelation 12:9). But true Christians are told to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the true litmus test. God’s word is the standard by which we should judge all things (John 17:17). “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:19-20). The “law” and “the testimony” are the Old and New Testaments—the Bible!

Those who search for deeper spiritual experiences by trying to “call down another Pentecost” or “work up the spirit” in their tarry meetings today are simply deceived by Satan.

God’s “very elect” Philadelphian Christians are not naive or gullible, nor can they be deceived (Matthew 24:24). They understand that Satan the devil has been cast down to this Earth (Revelation 12:10). They are fully aware that Christ has thrust them, as sheep among wolves, into society’s wilderness of religious confusion (Luke 10:3). They are not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Corinthians 2:11; Ephesians 6:10-18), and are wise enough to discern that the “tongues” experience witnessed on the day of Pentecost, a.d. 31, is not being repeated today.

How about you?

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