Bible Questions Series

What Does the Bible Say About Speaking in Tongues?

author /
Zachary Nilsson
What Does the Bible Say About Speaking in Tongues?

Experience v. Scripture

This is another highly contested topic. After doing my research, I Iearned a few things. There are a handful of different perspectives on the gift of tongues. Each view is interesting. However, we must understand what the bible says before we can draw any conclusions.  

There are the cessationists who believe that gifts like healing, speaking in tongues, and prophecy are no longer present in the modern church. So those guys don't believe speaking in tongues happens today.  They contend that those gifts were meant for the Apostolic ministry for Jesus' disciples.    

The continuationists believe all of these gifts are still present in the modern church, including healing, prophecy, and tongues. 

Cessacionist v. Continuationist is an argument all unto itself, so we'll save that for another day.

"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues *γλωσσα Greek pronounced: Glossa (where we get glossary) translated to tongues or languages as the Spirit enabled them." - Acts 2:4

"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”' - Acts 2:5-11

The verses above from the book of Acts are very important. It appears the disciples started speaking in tongues immediately after the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. This verse also describes the disciples speaking known languages. Languages that the people around them spoke and were able to understand. It also may be important to know that the witnesses were doubly shocked that Galileans possessed this ability. Galileans were usually known as uneducated, unsophisticated, and spoke with a recognizable accent. 

In our first examples, we can ascertain a few things: the disciples spoke in tongues after the Holy Spirit came, they spoke in known languages, and there were people present to interpret what they were saying.  There is no mention of heavenly or angelic language. 

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." - 1 Corinthians 13:1

The above verse is also very important for understanding this gift.  Here Paul is explaining to the Corinthian church that if he doesn't have love, none of the gifts matter.  It is here we see the first and only writing about tongues of angels. Here is another split in church theology. 

In the charismatic mainline churches tongues of angels is believed to be an actual utterance that people filled with the Holy Spirit can speak. You may have heard such things during afterglow (prayer meeting in charismatic churches) services or prayer meetings.  This is often conflated with 'groanings,' mentioned here:

"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 through wordless groans." - Romans 8:26

One explanation is that we become so filled with the Spirit that we're overflowing and have no words to express ourselves. The Greek word for groaning is Stegamos meaning: groan or sigh. 

During my research, I saw videos of church sanctuaries filled with people babbling incoherently and rocking back and forth. Sometimes people would stand and 'interpret,' the babbling indicating it was a language to be interpreted and not groaning during prayer. 

While considering the 'groaning,' prayer we must remember what Jesus said about praying in secret and being long-winded and repetitive during our prayers.


“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." - Matthew 6:5-8
Another interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:1 is that Paul was using hyperbole to make a point.  Said another way: "It doesn't matter if you're so eloquent you sound like an angel when you speak, if you don't have love it means nothing." He wasn't actually citing an actual angelic language that can be learned or spoken by humans.  Finally, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives us a beautiful articulation of how we should think about spiritual gifts:
"Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church..." - 1 Corinthians 14:1-4
Paul is pretty clear above. Speaking in tongues is for self-edification. I think that note speaks for itself.  He continues:
"I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified..." - 1 Corinthians 14:5
Here Paul makes another point on the edification of the church. Speaking in tongues can be good for the church if it is interpreted. 
"Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing< with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people." -  1 Corinthians 14:6-29

In sum, we can glean some very important directives and understanding from above:


1. Tongues should be interpreted (a known language to be interpreted)

2. Tongues that no one can understand only edifies the self, not the church.

3. What good is it if no one can understand you?

4. The gift of tongues are for non-believers no those who already believe

5. We cannot derive a doctrine of angelic language from 1 Corinthians 13

6. Speaking in tongues is not salvific (meaning you must do this to be saved)!


1 comment

  • Melissa -

    Great, thorough dive into what the Bible says about speaking in tongues! I appreciate the biblical approach, and sources shown above, to support your thoughts!

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