Can Christians “Speak in Tongues” Today?

By Wayne Jackson

“Would you explain the ‘speaking in tongues,’ as this practice took place in the early church? What was the nature of those ‘tongues’?”

Literally speaking, the “tongue” is an organ of taste and speech within the mouth (cf. Lk. 16:24). By metaphorical (figurative) extension, however, the term is used commonly in literature for a human language (see Rev. 5:9; 7:9, etc.). Herodotus, for example, used the expressions “language of Pelasgi” and “the tongue spoken by Pelasgi” interchangeably (History 1.57). The Bible student, therefore, must interpret the term “tongue” (when used of human speech) in this light, unless there is contextual evidence to demand that the word is being employed in some unusual sense.

Shortly before his ascension back into heaven, Christ promised his disciples that one of the gifts that would accompany believers, confirming the validity of their messages, would be the ability to speak with “new tongues” (Mk. 16:17). The term “new” (Grk. kainos) signifies a fresh mode of speaking, not a new language previously unknown to the human family (see: “New,” W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). As D. Edmond Heibert observed, “this can mean only languages not before known to the speakers” (The Gospel of Mark, Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University, 1994, p. 485).

In the New Testament, the gift of “tongues” was one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 12:8-11).

There are two major views within the community of “Christendom” relative to the nature of these “tongues.”

The “Pentecostals,” or “charismatics,” contend that the gift of tongues constituted a type of “heavenly language,” a series of unintelligible sounds that are unrelated to normal human speech.

By way of contrast, others argue, with much greater force, that the gift of a “tongue” was simply the divinely imposed ability to communicate the gospel of Christ in a human language that the speaker had not been taught by the ordinary education process.

The “human language” view is supported overwhelmingly by the biblical evidence. This may be demonstrated by a consideration of the following points:

Acts 2

On the day of Pentecost, the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” was identified decisively as the supernatural employment of human languages. Note how “tongues” and “language” are used interchangeably in the opening section of Acts 2.

“And when the day of Pentecost was now come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound was heard, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speaking in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying, Behold, are not all these that speak Galileans? And how hear we, every man in our own language wherein we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God” (bold emphasis added).

If we let the Bible explain itself, unquestionably the “tongues” of this text are ordinary human languages. The apostles were supernaturally endowed with the ability to speak these languages, though they had never known them before.

The Corinthian Context

It is sometimes claimed, though, that whereas the “tongues” of Acts 2 were ordinary human languages, elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14) “tongues” were ecstatic utterances, that is, mysterious sounds, unknown to anyone except to the speaker and God. The evidence, however, from the Corinthian context demonstrates otherwise. Consider the following points with reference to the data in 1 Corinthians 14.

The “tongue” of this context was a gift that provided edification (v. 4) and instruction (v. 19). Mere inarticulate sounds do not.

In a church assembly composed of various nationalities, a Christian was forbidden to use his tongue-gift before an alien audience, unless someone was present who could “interpret.” (vv. 5, 13, 27-28). The Greek word for interpret is diermeneuo, which normally means to translate from one language to another (see Cesla Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA, 1994, Vol I, p. 312). Compare Acts 9:36, where the name “Tabitha” is translated as "Dorcus"—the former being an Aramaic name, the latter the Greek version.

Paul says that if one speaks in a “tongue,” and others do not understand the language, the speaker would sound like a “barbarian” (v. 11). This term signifies a one who speaks a “foreign tongue” (F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 166; see also Acts 28:2). This is another indication that human languages are in view.

The expression “strange tongues” (v. 21), is taken from Isaiah 28:11, where the reference is to the language of the Assyrians (a nation that would invade Israel). This use by Paul further demonstrates the nature of “tongues” in the Corinthian context.

Paul gave instructions regulating one who possessed the gift of a “tongue.” If those within the church assembly did not understand the particular “tongue” he was able to speak, he either must use an interpreter, i.e., translator (see above), if one was available, or else he was to remain silent (vv. 27-28). Those who claim to “speak in tongues” today jabber on — irrespective of the composition of the audience. Their practice does not conform to the New Testament standard.

Conclusion

As we conclude, we must emphasize this fact. The Scriptures teach that the gift of “tongues” was to cease with completion of the New Testament canon (1 Cor. 13:8ff). As W.E. Vine wrote: “With the completion of Apostolic testimony and the completion of the Scriptures of truth (‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ Jude 3, RV), ‘that which is perfect’ had come, and the temporary gifts were done away” (Commentary on First Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1951, p. 184). (Elsewhere on this web site we have provided a detailed study of this context in 1st Corinthians; see: ""Miracles"").

Finally, there is this very telling point. Those who profess to speak in tongues today reveal a woeful inconsistency. In their mission training schools, they must teach their missionaries to speak in the “tongues” of those nations they seek to evangelize. This practice demolishes their contention of being in possession of the miraculous gift of tongues, such as that exhibited on the day of Pentecost.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.