What Does The Bible Say About Speaking In Tongues
I have always been fascinated by what happens when a group of Christians gather for worship. It is amazing how much spiritual energy flows through them. What really strikes me about these events are their spontaneity and diversity. There is no script or program. They just flow from heart to heart in an outpouring of praise and thanksgiving to our Creator. And it’s not only at church where this kind of thing occurs. I’ve seen it on cruise ships, in airplanes, in stadiums, hotels, conferences, and other places where people gathered together with common purpose. When we get together, we don’t do so because there is some sort of agenda. We come together for one reason – to glorify God.
One of the most interesting phenomena about speaking in tongues is its spontaneity. Most of us think of it as being spoken spontaneously without any conscious effort on our part. However, the Bible depicts it as something that can occur when God gives someone the ability to speak in languages known to only others. This is why Paul says, “And not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the ones who… do the will of my Father Who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)
So if you want to understand what the Bible has to say about speaking in tongues, let’s start at the beginning.
Tongue-speaking was first mentioned in Genesis 4:14. God said to Cain, “If you prefer not to eat of the fruit of the ground [i.e., if you’re not hungry] then… may your life be shortened!” This statement seems like a curse, so many scholars believe that Cain spoke in tongues (glossolalia) when he replied, “… But as for me, I would rather die than not possess it [the forbidden fruit].” (Gen 4:13)
In Exodus 20:19 Moses saw two angels conversing in unknown tongues. Later in chapter 15, verse 33, Jesus mentions speaking in tongues during his earthly ministry. He says that Peter could hear him talking in foreign languages. Some claim that since Jesus spoke in tongues, they must too.
However, Jesus never used the word “tongues” to describe his experience, nor did he tell anyone else that they had received such a gift. His disciples heard sounds coming out of his mouth, which sounded like words. For example, Mark recalls hearing “the sound of thunder,” while Luke states that the voice was “like a trumpet blast.” Neither man claims to have understood the meaning of those sounds.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the “spirit of God speaks within us” (1 Cor 2:16), indicating that he believed that the Holy Spirit spoke through believers. Yet neither Paul nor his companions ever claimed to understand the messages they received.
There are three explanations for this apparent discrepancy between the biblical accounts. First, the men might have thought that the sounds they heard were unintelligible gibberish. Second, the sounds may have simply meant nothing to them. Third, perhaps the men didn’t actually receive the gift of tongues, but only the ability to interpret another person’s words.
Some suggest that the apostles later learned Greek and began using this skill to translate the unknown tongue utterances they had previously experienced. However, there is no evidence that this happened. If anything, the opposite appears true, because after the resurrection, the women went to the tomb alone, yet none of them reported having seen Jesus.
Another explanation suggests that the apostles, like everyone else, had the gift of prophecy, but that they chose not to exercise it until Christ returned. Perhaps they wanted to wait until they knew more about the timing of the end of the world. However, this view doesn’t explain why they waited nearly 50 years before publicly claiming that they had visions of things to come. Also, there is no indication in scripture that the disciples knew that Jesus would return in their lifetime.
A third possible explanation comes from Charles Wesley, founder of Methodism. He suggested that the original apostles received the gift of glossolalia, but that over time, the practice became associated exclusively with demonic possession. Therefore, they stopped practicing it themselves and instead preached in familiar English. Others eventually took up the mantle and spread the message worldwide.
Many modern Christian churches teach that the gift of tongues ceased with the death of the last apostle, John. However, there are several scriptures which indicate otherwise. One passage says that the gifts of healing and working miracles had already passed away when the Apostle James died (Gal 1:6). Another indicates that the same is true for the gift of distinguishing spirits (1 Jn 4:1-2). So either the gift of tongues was still active among the early church, or the authors of Scripture misunderstood the phenomenon.
We know that the Apostles performed healings throughout Judea and Galilee, so it makes sense that they would perform similar feats elsewhere. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that the entire church would lie to cover up the fact that they were continuing to use the gift of tongues.
So does the Bible support the idea that Christians today continue to have the power to speak in tongues? Yes and No.
Yes, inasmuch as the Bible teaches that God gave the gift of tongues to His servants for edification. That means that God wants His children to enjoy this special blessing, but He expects them to give glory back to Him. Therefore, tongues should be done in private prayer, unless the spirit moves someone to sing or dance.
No, in as much as speaking in tongues is not a sign of salvation, it cannot bring salvation. Nor is it a prerequisite for receiving eternal life.
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