What is Speaking in Tongues

Title: What is Speaking in Tongues

Text: Acts 2:1-13

Time: March 2, 2008

Last week I talked about the baptism and the filling of the Holy Spirit, as the topic came up in relationship with Acts 2. Today, I’d like speak on the question, “What is speaking in tongues?” Why tackle these super controversial topics? Because they come up in Acts 2. We’re studying the Book of Acts and these kind of topics pop up from time to time, especially in respect to the early Christian church. It’s impossible to ignore them, they must be faced head on, even though they generate a lot of controversy and risk causing division because of all the different views and opinions surrounding them. Last week, I hope I was helpful in making the distinction between the filling of the Holy Spirit and the baptism in the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. This week I would like to try again to make a distinction between the different types of speaking in tongues mentioned in the Bible, because just as in the case with the distinction between the baptism and the filling of the Holy Spirit, it’s important to make a distinction between the different kinds of speaking in tongues found in the Bible. I know this is very controversial. Some Christians see all speaking in tongues as all one kind of thing, while others see differences in the kinds of speaking in tongues found in the Bible. But I don’t just want to do theology or teach a point of doctrine, I’d like to also show how all of this applies to our Christian lives today. What difference does it make whether speaking in tongues is possible today as it was in the early church? If there are different kinds of speaking in tongues and these are available today, what difference does that make in the believer’s life? Starting around the beginning of last century the modern Pentecostal movement began at Azusa Street in California. From there, speaking in tongues caught fire and spread to all parts of the world. The major denomination that came out of that Pentecostal revival is called the Assemblies of God, but there are other denominations that also trace their origins to the start of the 20th century at Azusa Street. Pentecostals have been speaking in tongues for over one hundred years. Yet a more recent movement has sprung up in the last 50 years known as the Charismatic movement. It started in the late 50s and early 60s in Washington State with an Anglican priest named Dennis Bennett whose church began to practice many of the things traditional Pentecostals had been doing, except instead of the people leaving their church, as was the usual reaction to the filling of the Spirit and speaking in tongues, they remained in their own church and brought renewal to it and other main-line denominational churches. So the modern day Charismatic movement is a movement of spirit-filled Christians who remain in their own main-line denominational churches, instead of leaving to go to traditional Pentecostal churches. The result of all this has been that now many or even most people in Christianity today have heard of the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit, and also, most people have heard of speaking in tongues. There are still sharp divisions within Christianity concerning the filling and baptism of the Holy Spirit and also speaking in tongues, but it’s not as bad as it was in the past. Fundamentalist churches of all types tend to reject speaking in tongues as something that happens or should happen today, while most main-line denominational and evangelical churches now recognize the filling of the Spirit and speaking in tongues does, and in some cases, should occur in the church today. Let me see if I can explain what the Bible says about the subject of speaking in tongues, in order that we might think clearly about this and also that we might act accordingly. Let me ask, and then try to answer three questions.

First, What is speaking in tongues? Acts 2:1-12, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. . . . ‘We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” We have an explanation to the question, “What is speaking in tongues,” here in this passage: they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. So speaking in tongues is the result of being filled with the Holy Spirit; it is the Holy Spirit enabling a believer to speak in a language that he isn’t familiar with. Or you might say that the Holy Spirit inspires a believer to speak in a language he or she isn’t familiar with. The Holy Spirit excites someone to begin to speak in a different language than one that is known by the speaker. Now we all know what it’s like to study a foreign language because most of us have learned at least one other language at some time in life, maybe in school or maybe we come from a family that spoke a different language, but either way, most of us know what it’s like to speak a foreign language that we’ve learned at school or at home. But imagine speaking a foreign language that you never learned before. That would be a miracle, a supernatural sign from the God of heaven. Well, that’s what happened on the day of Pentecost with the disciples. When the Holy Spirit came and filled the room with wind and fire, their hearts were so inspired and excited by the Spirit that they opened their mouths and started speaking in languages the never learned! They didn’t know what they were saying, but the crowd of foreign Jews understood it! They said, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.” Now normally, under the Old Testament operation, this kind of spiritual inspiration was limited to the prophets and to specially anointed leaders of Israel. For example, Saul, the first king of Israel, had a similar experience when he was anointed by the prophet Samuel, who said to Saul, “The Spirit of the lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them [the prophets]; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When they arrived At Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying,” 1 Samuel 10:6-10. Just as the Spirit came upon select person in the Old Testament with power, so also in the New Testament the Spirit comes upon the disciples with power, and the result was that they spoke in tongues. What exactly is speaking in tongues? That’s a difficult question to fully answer because it involves many factors. There are psychological factors involved, spiritual factors involved, symbolic factors involved, sociological factors involved, etc. But the point is that speaking in tongues is the result of a powerful inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon an individual. And it’s the same today. There are millions upon millions of persons around the world that testify to the reality of speaking in tongues. I consider myself one of them. About 25 years ago, as a young Christian, I attended a conference on the Holy Spirit and the Reverend Dennis Bennett, the person at the center of the modern day Charismatic movement, laid hands on me and prayed for me and I believe I spoke in tongues for the first time at that point. I believe I speak in tongues on occasion, off and on, today even. But what it is exactly that I’m doing, I don’t know. It’s all sort of a mystery, yet perfectly biblical. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better definition of speaking in tongues but it just isn’t easy to define or understand. But there’s another question.

Two, What does it mean to speak in tongues publicly? Acts 2:4, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” And 1 Corinthians 14:27-28, “If anyone speaks in a tongues, 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 God.” Here we see two kinds of public speaking in tongues mentioned in the New Testament. First, we see in Acts 2:4, speaking in tongues used for evangelism outreach; it’s goal is to convert the unbeliever. The disciples were praying when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit filled them with such a powerful inspiration and empowering that they began to speak in the languages of the foreign visitors to Jerusalem. The visitors heard the disciples declare the glory of God in their own different languages. That was for the purpose of evangelism. We can imagine how great this kind of speaking in tongues would be on the missions field, and I’m sure it has been practiced on the mission field, although it’s hard to know when and how often. Also, the Holy Spirit might also inspire missionaries to learn a foreign language supernaturally fast instead of taking the normal time to learn a new language. That could be a form of speaking in tongues, where God supplies certain words and phrases that the missionary never learned, or wouldn’t have had time to learn, in order to communicate the gospel on a foreign missions field. That’s one kind of public speaking in tongues. The other kind is for the purpose of discipleship and edification of the believers in the church. In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul explains the proper use of prophecy and speaking in tongues within the context of the local Christian church. It’s interesting because Paul seems to act as if it were perfectly normal for a church to have these charismatic issues to deal with, whereas today, even in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, these kinds of spiritual and supernatural activities are somewhat rare, or at least not as common as the Corinthian church had them. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians is that unless there is someone who can interpret what is being said by someone speaking in tongues out loud in public, that the person should keep quiet. Or in other words, just because a person in the church feels inspired to speak in tongues doesn’t mean that he or she should be permitted. Only if someone in the church also has the gift of interpretation of languages should the tongues speaker be allowed to continue. The reason being, if nobody knows what is being said because nobody understands the language, then it’s a waste of time for everybody to sit through it in the church. But if someone thinks they can make out the language or if they can understand something of what is being said in tongues, then they should give the proper interpretation for the benefit of the church. This kind of public speaking in tongues is for the purpose of discipleship or edification of the believers of the church. It isn’t for evangelism, like of the day of Pentecost, it’s for the purpose of discipleship, for the people of the church. Now some of you have seen this kind of thing happening in a church. I’ve seen it a number of times where a person will stand up and start speaking in tongues, then someone else will stand and claim to give the spiritual interpretation of the tongue. The question arises, “How do we know if it’s really speaking in tongues and if the interpretation given is really the true interpretation?” That’s a big unknown, and that’s why a lot of churches, probably most churches, stay away for this kind of thing; there are just too many unknowns involved. But it is in the Bible, and so we must deal with it and if it is something that we can apply today, then we should do so. But there’s more.

Three, what does it mean to speak in tongues privately? 1 Corinthians 14:2, 4, 14-15, 18-19, 28, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. . . . He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself. . . . 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 mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. . . . I thank my 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. . . . If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” In all of these passages from 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul explains the difference between speaking in tongues in public and speaking in tongues in private. But what is private speaking in tongues? It’s very similar to public speaking in tongues but it isn’t directed to anyone other than God. It isn’t for the purpose of evangelism like in Acts 2 and most of the accounts of tongues in the Book of Acts. It isn’t for the purpose of building up the church with interpretation like Paul explains also, but it’s for the purpose of building up the spiritual condition of the believer. In fact, the Apostle Paul talks about praying in tongues, so it’s a kind of prayer language in an unknown tongue. He also says that it’s possible to sing in tongues in worship to God privately. I’ve been in Pentecostal churches and charismatic churches where during the praise and worship time everyone starts singing in tongues, speaking in tongues with a melody. In a way, it’s beautiful to listen to, but according to Paul if someone speaks in tongues in public it should be accompanied with interpretation, so strictly speaking these churches might be violating Paul’s instructions. Paul also claims that he speaks in tongues more than the Corinthians. What does Paul mean by that? It must be that he spoke in his own private prayer language a lot in his own private devotion time. That would be an example of private speaking in tongues. That must be what Paul means because we don’t hear of any accounts where Paul is speaking in tongues or unknown languages on the missions field. We know he spoke 3 or 4 different languages, such as Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, probably Latin, but there is no place where it says Paul spoke in public tongues for evangelism or discipleship purposes. So he’s probably referring to his own private speaking in tongues prayer language. I think today, this is what most people who claim to speak in tongues are doing. I know for myself, when I speak in tongues, that’s what I’m doing. I’m speaking in some unknown language, I don’t now literally what I’m saying, but I’m praying to God and praising God in this private language. Again, how do I know that I’m really speaking in tongues as the Bible describes it? I don’t know 100% if it’s what they did in the New Testament, but I think it is, and it’s the testimony of millions of others like me that it is, so I think I’m on pretty safe grounds in believing that it really is speaking in tongues as the Bible describes it.

Ok, let’s say that millions of people today, millions of people in this country and around the world of all branches of Christianity really are speaking in tongues, what is the benefit of speaking in tongues? Why do it? It’s so strange and kind of weird. Why speak in tongues? I believe speaking in tongues is a good thing exactly for the reason the Apostle Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” So one of the benefits of speaking in tongues might be to enable someone to speak to God better, or in other words, to better pray to God. If you stop and think about it, when we pray we use language, in our case English. Now some languages are better than others at expressing different kinds of idea or concepts. If the only language you had to express yourself was Indian smoke sign language, you’d have a hard to communicating to God in that language everything that was on your heart. But if you used a sophisticated language such as modern English, you could better express your thoughts and feelings to God. But what if you could speak your mind and heart to God in an unknown language and transcend all the limitations of even a sophisticated language like English? That would help wouldn’t it? Well, maybe that’s partly what private speaking in tongues is like. If it helps a person pray better to God then it’s a good thing. Now does that mean that everyone must or should speak in tongues, either public or private. To begin with, not many people will ever have occasion or opportunity to speak in tongues publicly anyway. They won’t be on the mission field, neither will they usually be in a church that practices speaking in tongues and interpretation. Even if one did get a message from God in tongues in the church, there probably wouldn’t be anyone there to give its interpretation, so this would be rare. Now in respect to private speaking in tongues, even this is not essential or even necessary for a believer. Some people do just fine expressing themselves to God in their natural language, they don’t seem to need any help in expressing themselves more fully. We shouldn’t expect everyone or even most people to speak in tongues. If they feel they would like to speak in tongues or that it would help them pray to God or praise God and they have a desire to speak in tongues, then they should pray and ask God if it’s His will to permit them to do so. That’s how I started speaking in tongues. I first heard about it and I got curious about it. Then I started learning more about it and its benefits. I started to desire this for myself, or at least I wanted to know if it were possible for me to speak in tongues and if it would help me in my Christian life. So then I started learning as much as I could about it, and eventually found myself at a charismatic conference where they were praying for people to speak in tongues. I raised my hand to see if I could receive it, and I believe I did. How important is speaking in tongues for me today? It’s not something that I do every day, but I see it as a tool in my spiritual toolbox that I can reach in and get out any time I think I need something more to help me pray to God and praise God.


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