What does it really mean to speak in tongues? In its simplest form, speaking in tongues simply means to speak in an established and understandable language. English is a tongue, as is Spanish, French, German, and a host of other languages one might mention. To speak in tongues, in a biblical sense, is to speak a language one has never studied or learned. Let’s look at the first incidence of this kind of tongue speaking in the Bible.
Jesus prophesied concerning speaking in tongues in Mark 16:17, and Acts 2:1-11 is the first reference to men actually speaking in tongues, thus fulfilling that prophecy of Jesus Christ.
Note the connection between the words “tongues” and “language” as seen in this text.
Acts 2:4 “they began to speak with other tongues<”
Acts 2:6 “every man heard them speak in his own language”
Acts 2:8 “how hear we every man in our own tongue?” “language”- ASV, NASB, NKJV
Acts 2:11 “we do hear them speak in our tongues”
We see from this text that tongues are languages. Questions or objections to this observation include the following:
1) “There were only 12 apostles, and there are no less than 15 nations/regions listed in verses 9-11. How could they speak each language?”
2) “The men of Judea were speaking in tongues that are like those spoken among the Pentecostal groups today. It was understood by the hearers in their own language.”
We may answer question/objection #1 in the following manner:
That there are more regions listed than apostles in Acts 2 does not necessarily mean that every man did not hear his own tongue/language spoken. For instance, if there were people present at a meeting representing the following nations: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Spain, how many languages would need to be spoken to cover all six nations? Three- English, French, and Spanish. Notice that some of the nations/regions listed in Acts 2 are close to one another. It may be the case that some of these nations/regions had the same native tongue as do nations/regions today.
A second answer is that the apostles had the ability to speak in more than one foreign language. If the Holy Spirit could enable them to speak one foreign language, why not more than one? This would be consistent with the promise Jesus made to the apostles in Acts 1:4-8, where they would be able to communicate the word of God no matter where they were.
A response to question/objection #2 may be made as follows:
One must look at the text and see to whom the promise of the Holy Spirit was given.
John 14-16, Mark 16, and Acts 1 indicate the promise was given to the apostles (and later to them who believed their teaching). It was not given to anyone else. If the gift of miraculous understanding was given to the hearers of Acts 2, then why bother to cause the apostles to speak in ecstatic utterances? It would be unnecessary (and illogical) to give the gift to both.
We see from the text of Acts 2:1-11 that it was the Holy Spirit who enabled the apostles to speak in tongues. Now let’s look at how this was accomplished. This event is commonly known as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It was prophesied of in Ezekiel 11 and also in Zechariah 12-13. It was also prophesied about in Joel 2:28-32. Peter quoted this passage in Acts 2:17-21.
In Acts 1:5-8, Jesus told His apostles that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence”, and that the power that would follow would enable them to be witnesses of him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” To be able to communicate the gospel to all mankind at that time would require the ability to speak whatever language was spoken by the indigenous peoples.
There are two other specific incidents of tongue speaking which are important to this study. They occur in Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-7.
In Acts 10, we have the record of the first gospel sermon being preached to the Gentiles, specifically: Cornelius, his household, kinsmen, and near friends- vv. 24-27. Peter described the Holy Spirit baptism upon the Gentiles in Acts 10:47 & 11:17 as occurring in the same fashion as it did on the apostles in Acts 2. In Acts 2:11 and Acts 10:46, we see the action of speaking in tongues – the preaching of the word of God and an understanding of the same on the part of the audience.
In Acts 19:1-7, the twelve men who were baptized by Paul had hands laid on them by Paul enabling them to speak in tongues and prophesy. Not some incoherent babbling as is always the case today.
Finally, Paul speaks of the limited span of the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit; “Love never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Though charismatics identify “that which is perfect” as Jesus, claiming miracles were to continue until the Jesus’ second coming, the text will not allow for this interpretation. “Perfect” comes from the Greek teleios, meaning “complete” or “mature.” It appears 19 times and never refers to Jesus. In addition, it is neuter in gender, that is, it refers to neither a male nor female, but to an object without gender, here, the Scriptures. James described the New Testament of Jesus Christ as “the perfect (teleios) law of liberty” (James 1:25).
Paul wrote of the all-sufficiency of the scriptures, “For all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished unto every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Peter affirmed the all-sufficiency of the scriptures when he wrote, “According as His divine power hath given us all things that pertain unto life and godliness,” (2 Peter 1:3). The Bible is all we need today to produce faith, and to know how to live before God and our fellow men.
Modern-day tongue speaking in no way resembles what we read in the New Testament. As such, it must be rejected as inconsistent with Bible teaching