The Holy Spirit and Tongues



The Holy Spirit and Tongues

Recently I received a letter from a church member, who reported that a visitor in the local church was speaking in tongues during the church service. Speaking in tongues is a hallmark of the more than 30 Pentecostal denominations worldwide, who together with charismatic churches, traditional churches like Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches whose members speak in tongues, have a combined membership of more than 600 million members.

The disciples, after three and a half years at the feet of the greatest Teacher in the universe, were unprepared and powerless to carry on His work (Matt. 28:19). Jesus had said to them, “‘Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high’” (Luke 24:49, NKJV).1

Also, no one is equipped for gospel service unless he or she is invested with power from on high. Knowledge is not enough; activity is not sufficient. We must have the power of the Holy Spirit. “What we need is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Without this, we are no more fitted to go forth to the world than were the disciples after the crucifixion of their Lord. Jesus knew their destitution and told them to tarry in Jerusalem until they should be endowed with power from on high.”2

An important activity of the promised Holy Spirit is that He would give gifts. “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Cor. 12:7). The gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:7 to 11 are: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.

The phenomenon of speaking in tongues is commonly called glossolalia from glossa (“tongue”) and laleō (“speak”). According to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the gift of tongues “consisted in articulate, unintelligible speech issuing from Christians who, in a state of ecstasy, believed themselves to be possessed by the Spirit.”3 In this sense, glossolalia has been known in non-Christian religions in ancient and modern times. Pagan priests, witch doctors, shamans, and other religious figures have spoken in tongues on various ceremonial and religious occasions.

In recent decades, linguists have studied glossolalia to find out whether it is an actual language. The results have been rather one-sided. William Welmes, professor of African languages of UCLA, wrote: “And I must report without reservation that my sample does not sound like a language structurally. There can be no more than two contrasting vowel sounds, and a most peculiarly restricted set of consonant sounds; these combine into a very few syllable clusters which recur many times in various orders. The consonants and vowels do not all sound like English (the glossolalic native language), but the intonation patterns are so completely American English that the total effect is a bit ludicrous.”4

William J. Samarin, professor of linguistics at Toronto University, studied glossolalia extensively over five years. He assessed glossolalia to be “meaningless but phonetically structured human utterance, believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead.”5

Most charismatics, therefore, have accepted that modern glossolalia is not an ordinary human language. They believe it is a heavenly language. “Glossolalia is, indeed, a language in a different sense of the word. . . . the weight of evidence, however, suggests that although there is pattern and form, speaking in tongues is most likely not a known tongue nor a human language as the term is presently understood.”6

Was the New Testament gift of tongues the same as modern glossolalia? Scholars differ on this question. Some believe that it was simply ecstatic speech. For example, “Early Christian glossolalia was the utterance of gibberish at the compulsion of ecstatic and uncontrolled emotion—a cacophony unintelligible to all save the few who were charismatically endowed for its interpretation.”7 Others are convinced, “by speaking other languages, the believers provided the evidence that the Holy Spirit is performing a miracle.”8 While still others see both ecstatic speech and foreign languages in the New Testament.

Most scholars assume that the phenomena described in Acts 2:4 and 1 Corinthians 14:2 are significantly different from one another—that in one instance people understood it in their own regional language or dialect and in the other instance an interpreter was required. It is for that reason that many interpret glossa in 1 Corinthians 14:2 as ecstatic speech, which was also an element in Hellenistic religions and constituted a symbol of divine inspiration.9

The gift of tongues is mentioned in the Gospels once in Mark 16:17; it appears in five texts in the Book of Acts (2:4–11; 10:46; 19:6), and 20 times in 1 Corinthians 12–14 (12:10 [twice], 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5 [twice], 6, 13, 14, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 29).

The first to speak about the gift of tongues was Jesus Himself. Concerning His followers, He said, “‘In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues’” (Mark 16:17). The fulfillment of Mark 16:17 is found in Acts 2, in which the disciples spoke in new tongues. Therefore, tongues in Mark 16:17 carries the same meaning as in Acts 2. The purpose of these new tongues was the proclamation of the gospel.

The first account of speaking in tongues took place on the Day of Pentecost. “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Act 2:1–4).

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak. There was no period of apprenticeship; there was no period of being taught, and there was no time of learning; they began to speak right away “in other tongues,” i.e., in foreign languages (Acts 2:6, 8, 11). While some interpreters see ecstatic utterances in Acts 2, most scholars agree that languages are meant: “The tongues in 2:4 are best understood as ‘languages’ and should be taken in accord with Philo’s reference to understandable language as one of the three signs of God’s presence in the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.”10 John F. MacArthur confirms, “Nowhere does the Bible teach that the gift of tongues is anything other than human languages,”11 and Ellen G. White explained, “This miraculous gift was a strong evidence to the world that their commission bore the signet of Heaven. From this time forth the language of the disciples was pure, simple, and accurate, whether they spoke in their native tongue or in a foreign language.”12

Primarily, the tongues were considered evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:5, Jesus had told them they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit; at Pentecost, this baptism took place. The second purpose was to be equipped for mission. “Based on the prediction of Jesus, as recorded in Mark 16:17 and its context, the purpose of the gift of tongues was to provide the communications means for the evangelisation of the world through the proclamation of the gospel.”13 Acts 2 is the key passage in interpreting the gift of tongues in the New Testament. It is an easily understandable text.

In Acts 10:44 to 48, Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit when they accepted Christ. As Peter explained to the apostles, “‘The Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning’” (Acts 11:15). God’s purpose with this incident was to convince the Jews that the Gentiles also received the Holy Spirit and have a part in the kingdom of God.

After Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Ephesus (Acts 19), Corinth became the fourth metropolitan city in which “speaking in tongues” was manifested in the New Testament. The church in Corinth was founded on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18:1–18). It had many problems: division (3:3), immorality (5:1), court cases among believers (6:1), marriage problems (7:1), and abuse of Lord’s Supper (11:21).

Another problem concerned spiritual gifts is that we do not know what the question was to which Paul responded. The question today is, Was “tongues” in Corinth ecstatic speech or languages? There are good arguments on both sides of the issue.

For languages speaks the fact that:

1. The New Testament knows only one gift of tongues.

2. In Acts, tongues are foreign languages; therefore, in 1 Corinthians tongues must also be foreign languages—1 Corinthians must be interpreted by Acts, not Acts by 1 Corinthians.

3. God works through human intelligence. Would the Lord who warned against babbling on like the heathen (Matt. 6:7, NEB) inspire a meaningless gibberish?

4. In 1 Corinthians 14:22, tongues are for a sign to unbelievers as at Pentecost. Therefore, tongues must be real language.

5. The gifts were given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). This rules out using a gift purely for personal gratification.

6. Tongues in Corinth were misused. In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul is criticizing the Corinthians for using their gift to speak to God and not to human beings. In verse 4, he is condemning the use of tongues to edify oneself.

7. In 1 Corinthians 14:21 and 22, Paul compares tongues with the Assyrian/Babylonian language.

8. Glossa in the Septuagint (LXX) is used 30 times as language and only twice as unintelligible speech—not ecstatic but stammering speech (Isa. 29:24, LXX 32:4).

Arguments for ecstatic speech are:

1. There are differences between Acts and 1 Corinthians. In Acts, the focus was preaching; in Corinthians, the focus was prayer and thanksgiving. In Acts, there was no interpretation, in Corinthians, there was interpretation (1 Cor. 14:13).

2. In the characteristics of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, the person speaks to God, not to other people (vss. 2, 28), no one understands him or her (vs. 2), in the spirit, the person speaks mysteries (vs. 2), not edifying himself or herself (vs. 4).

3. If glossa in Corinth was foreign language, Paul would hardly have criticized it. He would have told them to go out and use it in witnessing.

4. Questions asked support ecstatic utterances (1 Cor. 14:6, 9, 16, 23). Nevertheless, all these elements can be understood in the context of the misuse of foreign languages in the church at Corith. Instead of using their gift of tongues for missionary purposes, they used it to glorify themselves.

Concerning modern glossolalia, Ellen G. White stated, “Some of these persons have exercises which they call gifts and say that the Lord has placed them in the church. They have an unmeaning gibberish which they call the unknown tongue, which is unknown not only by man but by the Lord and all heaven.”14

We have discussed two kinds of tongues, one is the biblical gift of foreign languages, the other is an ecstatic experience, a meaningless gibberish, that can be found in ancient and contemporary religions. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that there is only one gift of tongues in the New Testament, and “It is most reasonable to conclude that the tongue-speaking throughout the New Testament is the gift of miraculously speaking unlearned foreign languages.”15



1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

2. Ellen G. White, “How to Meet a Controverted Point of Doctrine,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 76:7 (February 18, 1890), 98.

3. E. Andrews, “Tongues, Gift of,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, G. A. Buttrick, ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962), 4:671.

4. William Welmes, “Letter to the Editor,” Christianity Today 8:3 (November 8, 1963): 19, 20.

5. William J. Samarin, Tongues of Man and Angels (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 2.

6. H. Newton Malony and A. Adams Lovekin, Glossolalia. Behavioral Science Perspectives on Speaking in Tongues (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 38.

7. S. MacLean Gilmour, “Easter and Pentecost,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81:1 (March 1962), 64.

8. Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1990), 8.

9. J. P. Louw, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domain (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1:389, 90.

10. Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, F. E. Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1981), 9:271.

11. John E. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 226.

12. The Acts of the Apostles, 39.

13. Gerhard F. Hasel, Speaking in Tongues (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventist Theological Society, 1991), 74.

14. Maranatha, 154.

15. Hasel, Speaking in Tongues, 150.