What are ‘tongues’ in the Bible?
Almost immediately in the Book of Acts we see the issue of speaking in tongues surfaces. There are two, possibly three, different kinds of tongues spoken in the New Testament. First, what we see in Acts 2:6-7 is speaking in known languages that can be understood by native speakers of those languages. Next, there are unknown languages that require an interpreter for the congregation to understand them (1 Corinthians 14:27). A possible third kind of speaking in tongues is unknown, private speaking in tongues. This kind may be alluded to in Romans 8:23 or 1 Corinthians 13.1.
How do ‘tongues’ operate in the Book of Acts?
Acts 1:8 says the gospel will spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. When people speak in tongues in the Book of Acts, it is after the gospel has been proclaimed according to the Acts 1:8 “outline” and to those who have some basic understanding of the biblical God. It seems, then, that speaking in tongues in Acts is an authentication of the gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit an event of legitimization for those who already have a foundation of truth, but need to understand the rest of the story revealed in Jesus.
Let’s trace the progression. Jews on pilgrimage in Jerusalem (which is in Judea) speak in known tongues (Acts 2:6-7). Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile speaks in tongues in Samaria (Acts 10:46). Finally, some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus (the ends of the earth) speak in tongues after hearing of Jesus (Acts 19:6). In the latter two instances, it is unclear whether these are known or unknown languages, but unknown seems most likely since both parties are interacting with a common language prior to the Holy Spirit falling upon the new believers.
How were ‘tongues’ exercised in the early church?
While speaking in tongues (the first time known tongues, the second two times are uncertain) in Acts is specifically connected to the spread of the gospel in the first century, it is also clear that tongues-speaking in the early church was present, if not prevalent. We should note that the early church rarely gathered in large settings like our Sunday morning worship services. Pentecost may have been something like that, but it was an event that authenticated the gospel publicly. Generally, the gatherings were smaller home settings where the early church gathered. Let’s look at how Paul instructs an early church on how to use the gifts of tongues and interpretation.
Paul gives extensive instruction to the Corinthian church, dealing with their abuse of spiritual gifts, particularly publicly speaking in unknown tongues (1 Corinthians 12-14). Although he spends time correcting them, Paul does not deny speaking in unknown tongues; he just tells them to do it properly. Let’s look at the instruction that Paul gives for how unknown tongues should operate in Corinth.
1. Every believer has a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7).
2. We are expected to use our gifts to build each other up (1 Corinthians 12:14-26).
3. Not every believer has the same gift (1 Corinthians 12:29-31), which means not everyone will speak in tongues (known, unknown – public or private).
4. Speaking in tongues (known and unknown) and their interpretation are each spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:10).
5. Speaking in unknown tongues is of benefit to the person speaking and not to others (1 Corinthians 14:2-5).
6. Speaking in unknown tongues can be for the benefit of others if there is an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:13-19).
7. If there are unknown tongues speakers in a meeting, only two or three may speak in a given meeting. The speaking must be done in turn and interpreted for the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:27).
8. If there is no interpreter, the speaker must remain silent (1 Corinthians 14:28).
This is a sensitive, challenging issue that many godly brothers and sisters disagree upon. If you’re wrestling with these issues, I encourage you to be respectful with those who disagree as they are your brothers and sisters in Christ trying to honor Him, just as you are.
If you’d like to study more, here are some helpful resources across the spectrum on this issue.
Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, edited by Wayne Grudem is four different perspectives on the issues of tongues and sign gifts respectfully interacting with each other.