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Speaking in Tongues: Its Essence, Purposes, and Use (Part 1)

By George M. Flattery

Many pastors today are asking questions concerning the purposes and uses of speaking in tongues. They face the issues of how to integrate speaking in tongues into the lives of individuals and the entire church. No doubt many want to know how other pastors are dealing with these issues. That is very good to know, but my purpose in writing a series of articles is to examine the Scriptures about speaking in tongues.

Practical issues arise concerning the uses of speaking in tongues in connection with the baptism in the Holy Spirit, in communication in the services of the church, in times of worship, and in private prayer. As we examine the Scriptures, we observe what the writers say about such issues. I will make a summary statement in the final article. The issues include:

An early insight of the Pentecostal movement was that evidential tongues in Acts 2:4 and the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:4–10,28 are the same in essence but different in purpose and use. Most of the information about this was written by Luke in Acts and Paul in 1 Corinthians. Therefore, it is important to compare what they say. As we make this comparison, we find both similarities and differences in their emphases. Through such a study, we can discover the nature and purposes of speaking in tongues and the broad, biblical guidelines of what we should do.

With regard to essence, it is important to recognize the flexibility of the Greek words for speaking in tongues. The Greek words are laleō glōssais, and each of these words can have various meanings. According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, byWalter Bauer, the verb laleō, meaning “speak,” can refer to a person speaking or to inanimate things giving forth sounds. The noun glōssa (or glōssais, plural) may mean a physical tongue, a tongue as an organ of speech, a dialect or language, or forked flames. Similarly, the English language is very flexible.1

These words in their relevant contexts show that speaking in tongues is an exercise that involves both the Holy Spirit and believers. The Holy Spirit inspires the tongues, and people express them in various forms that they have not learned and do not understand. These words may take the forms of human languages, the language of angels, or special purpose tongues or languages. By special purpose, I mean expressions that are not humanly intelligible. Some might call this gibberish, but what the Spirit has inspired is not gibberish. Whatever sounds we utter, God understands, and they are intelligible to Him.

As we study the biblical evidence, we will report our findings in four articles. In this first article, we will study what Luke says about speaking in tongues. The second and third articles will be devoted to Paul’s writings about tongues. Much of this has to do with practical guidance for the use of tongues. The fourth article is devoted to a summary of these writings and a discussion of practical issues.

Luke in Acts

Luke explicitly mentions speaking in tongues in three cases in the Book of Acts: at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:4); at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea (10:46); and somewhere in Ephesus (19:6). We will examine these three cases to discover the nature and purposes of speaking in tongues in Luke’s writings.

The Nature of Speaking in Tongues

In the Book of Acts, there is a direct connection between speaking in tongues and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Because of this connection, the nature of tongues fits with the baptism in the Spirit as an empowerment to witness. We will examine all three cases to discover in more detail what speaking in tongues is in Acts.

First, with regard to the Day of Pentecost, the disciples received the infilling of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues (Acts 2:1–4). Apart from Mark 16:17, this is the earliest mention of speaking in tongues in the New Testament.

Luke writes: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ ” (Acts 2:4–11).

What was the nature of speaking in tongues at Pentecost? We learn from Peter that speaking in tongues was a form of prophecy (Acts 2:16–18). The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost came in fulfillment of Joel 2:28,29. In the Old Testament, prophecy was both delivering a message from God to people and from people to God in the form of praise. Therefore, we can expect similar types of communication on the Day of Pentecost. Also, given what Jesus says in Acts 1:8, we can anticipate that the empowering of the Spirit will enable us to be prophetic witnesses. Acts 2:11 clearly harmonizes with both the Old and New Testament teachings.

Most scholars hold that at Pentecost speaking in tongues took the form of miraculously speaking in the dialects of the people present. However, some maintain that a miracle of hearing occurred. The disciples uttered words unknown to them, and the people heard them speak in their own languages. Although this view is grammatically possible, the emphasis of the passage is on the miracle of speaking in other dialects unknown to the speakers but known to the hearers.

Because the term glōssais is broad and flexible, we do not have to say that the tongues at Caesarea (Acts 10:46) and Ephesus (Acts 19:6) were the same dialects (dialektoi) spoken at Pentecost. Neither do we have to conclude that the disciples spoke human languages not understood by the people present. Even though the form of the tongues may be different, we can say that they are the same in essence. The essence is that the Spirit inspired those who spoke in tongues; they did not learn or understand what they uttered; and God did understand.

As Peter preached to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, the Spirit of God fell upon them. The people were amazed because they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here, as with Pentecost, let us consider the nature of speaking in tongues. Luke writes in Acts 10:44–48: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.”

Many scholars hold that the Gentiles at Caesarea spoke in human languages, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. The only difference was that no one was present to identify the languages spoken. Robert P. Menzies, on the other hand, argues in his book Pentecost: This Story Is Our Story that the Gentiles spoke unintelligible utterances but not human languages.2 Luke does not say, but without evidence to the contrary, it appears to me that what they said was humanly unintelligible. In other words, they spoke in a form of a “special purpose” language inspired by the Spirit. In any case, we maintain that the tongues were unknown both to the speakers and to the audience.

This was the same gift given at Pentecost (Acts 11:17). God gave them the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues is the evidence of the gift of the Spirit. It appears that Peter believed that the tongues at Caesarea were sufficient evidence. At Pentecost, the disciples spoke in dialects they had not learned but that the people present understood. At the house of Cornelius, they probably spoke in a special purpose language. This language was unknown to either the speaker or the hearers. In spite of the linguistic difference, Peter said the Gentiles received the same gift, meaning the Holy Spirit.

Speaking in tongues is a way of exalting God. No doubt, the Gentiles exalted God with these unknown languages, but they also exalted God in their own language. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit evoked great praise. As we have noted, based on what Peter said in Acts 2:16–18, we can regard this as prophetic speech.

We see Paul in action at Ephesus in Acts 19:1–6. Some scholars think that Luke told a version of the story that fit his views. However, I believe he recorded what actually happened. It simply demonstrates that Paul understood the importance of receiving the infilling of the Spirit in the manner described in Acts.

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘John’s baptism,’ they replied. Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:1–6).

Paul observed that the experience of the disciples with regard to the Spirit was deficient. In verse 2, he asked an experiential question. The disciples could not give an affirmative answer, so Paul prayed for them. When Paul prayed for them (verse 6), they began to speak with tongues and prophesy. As noted above, speaking in tongues in Acts is a form of prophecy. Yet the disciples undoubtedly prophesied in their own language as well.

As in Caesarea, the disciples uttered sounds or words that were apparently unintelligible to them or the people present. Again, some scholars hold that they spoke in human languages unlearned by the speakers and not known by the hearers. As far as the term “speaking in tongues” is concerned, any form of tongue or language not known to the speaker can be included, but it seems to me that they spoke a Spirit-inspired “special purpose” language. We might call this an ad hoc language.

The Purposes of Speaking in Tongues

What are the purposes of speaking in tongues at Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Ephesus? All three of these instances are linked to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The purposes of speaking in tongues reflect the purpose of the baptism in the Spirit. Jesus emphasized the empowerment to witness (Acts 1:8).

Speaking in tongues was a way to communicate with God and exalt Him. Unlike Paul, Luke does not mention praying, singing, or blessing in tongues in an ongoing way. However, it is clear that in all three instances mentioned above, the disciples communicated with God through speaking in tongues. At Pentecost, they communicated with people as well. We can communicate in our own language, but speaking in tongues provides another way that is very uplifting to the human soul.

Witnessing is another purpose of speaking in tongues. Luke highlighted this in his report on Pentecost. Some scholars hold that the disciples in Acts 2:11 were praising God for His mighty deeds. Others emphasize that the disciples were proclaiming the mighty deeds of God to the people. They may have done both. In any case, the end result was a strong witness to the people. At Pentecost, over 3,000 people received the Word and became a part of the Church (Acts 2:41).

At Caesarea and Ephesus, the disciples spoke in tongues, but the people present did not understand them. Therefore, the tongues were not a direct witness in the sense of presenting the gospel. However, the baptism in the Holy Spirit was an experiential testimony. Also, the disciples were empowered to witness to others in a language that all understood. The disciples witnessed by exalting God at Caesarea and prophesying at Ephesus. Unlike Paul, Luke does not write about tongues with interpretation.

Speaking in tongues was a sign that the disciples had received the Holy Spirit as a gift. At Pentecost, the crowd was bewildered (Acts 2:6). Yet the disciples had no doubt that the Spirit had come (Acts 2:16). The Spirit, as Peter made clear, came upon them in fulfillment of Joel 2:28–32. Given the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament, and the prophecies concerning the Spirit, the disciples at Pentecost understood the importance of this fulfillment.

The purpose of speaking in tongues as a sign became even more evident at Caesarea. Because Peter was breaking new ground in taking the gospel to the Gentiles, the Church needed strong evidence that all God’s gifts were available to everyone. In Acts 10:47, Peter declared: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”

In his book What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit, Stanley M. Horton says: “The evidence that convinced them was they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.”3

From this we can conclude that anyone who genuinely speaks in tongues and exalts God has received the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

When Paul prayed for the disciples at Ephesus, “they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). Again, Acts presents speaking in tongues as a form of prophecy. Thus, it appears that the disciples prophesied both by speaking in tongues and also by prophesying in their own language. As far as we know, the tongues were unintelligible to both the speakers and the hearers. Nevertheless, the tongues provided a sign of the presence of the Spirit.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit attested to the fact that God had accepted the Gentiles at Caesarea. This attestation was essential in breaking the Gentile barrier. We may wonder why God would choose something as seemingly fragile as speaking in tongues to attest to their standing, but God uses what He chooses.

At Ephesus, the assurance of the presence of the Spirit stands out. Here we see Paul in action in a setting different from the local church setting he addressed in Corinth. When Paul observed that the disciples at Ephesus were deficient in their experience, he asked them an experiential question: Could they testify that upon (or after) believing they had received the Spirit? When they spoke in tongues and prophesied, this evidence assured the disciples of the validity of their personal experience with God.

Conclusion

In the Book of Acts, Luke presents the essence of speaking in tongues as utterances inspired by the Spirit that are unknown to the speaker. At Pentecost, the disciples spoke in languages they did not know, but the people present understood them. At Caesarea and Ephesus, perhaps neither the disciples nor the people present understood the words spoken in tongues. It’s likely that they spoke in a special purpose language.

The purposes and uses of speaking in tongues in Acts include communicating with God; witnessing to people present; providing a sign to believers that they had received the Holy Spirit; attestation of the ministries of the disciples; and assurance of the presence and power of God. The emphasis is on the Holy Spirit as the gift, not on the spiritual gifts given by the Spirit.

At Ephesus, Paul in action accepted the approach of Luke. Paul’s writings address many of our questions. In the second and third articles in this series, we will study what Paul writes about speaking in tongues. He deals with very practical issues that affect our approach to tongues in the lives of believers and in the church.

GEORGE M. FLATTERY, Ed.D., former president and current chancellor of Global University, Springfield, Missouri. An educator, administrator, and innovator, Flattery founded Network211, a ministry that uses technology as a tool of the gospel.

Notes

1. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, fourth revised and augmented edition, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 161,464.

2. Robert P. Menzies, Pentecost: This Story Is Our Story (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 2013), 70.

3. Stanley M. Horton, What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit, (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976), 156.

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