What Is the Bible’s View?
What Does Speaking in Tongues Signify?
PENTECOST 33 C.E. was an outstanding date in human history. On that day the Christian congregation was founded by the outpouring of God’s holy spirit upon about 120 of Jesus’ disciples assembled in an upper room in Jerusalem. The Bible relates that, as a result of this, “they all became filled with holy spirit and started to speak with different tongues.”—Acts 2:4.
This ‘speaking in tongues’ was no outflow of gibberish from persons in religious ecstasy. Foreigners present understood what was said and were astonished, asking: “How is it we are hearing, each one of us, his own language in which we were born? . . . we hear them speaking in our tongues about the magnificent things of God.”—Acts 2:8, 11.
The apostle Peter, according to Acts 2:14-21, explained that speaking in tongues on that occasion signified that God’s holy spirit had been poured out upon those Christian disciples in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32.
Millions of people throughout the earth today claim to have the ability to speak in tongues that they have not learned through study. Often this occurs in languages that cannot be identified, requiring an “inspired interpretation” by the speaker or someone else present. But at times words, phrases and even extended speech in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Chinese and other tongues have been uttered by persons normally unfamiliar with those languages.
People who have had this experience sometimes claim that it is “the initial evidence of receiving the Holy Ghost.” Thereafter, it is claimed, some persons cultivate tongues as a “gift,” while others have the experience only once. Does speaking in tongues really signify that one has God’s holy spirit?
Certainly Jesus Christ had God’s spirit; yet there is no indication that he ever spoke by a miraculous gift of tongues. (Matt. 3:16; Luke 4:16-21) And of first-century Christians, the apostle Paul wrote: “Not all speak in tongues, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:30) Instead, God’s spirit endowed them with “varieties” of miraculous powers. (1 Cor. 12:4, 11, 13) When setting forth a list of “spiritual gifts,” the apostle Paul placed tongues and their interpretation last, encouraging Christians to “keep zealously seeking the greater gifts,” especially love, which Jesus said would be the true identifying mark of his followers.—1 Cor. 12:1, 4-10, 29-31; 13:1, 8, 13; John 13:35.
Of interest, too, is the fact that miraculous gifts of God’s holy spirit were not to remain with the Christian congregation indefinitely. The Scriptures, at 1 Corinthians 13:8, state: “Whether there are gifts of prophesying, they will be done away with; whether there are tongues, they will cease.” When would they disappear?
According to Acts 8:18, God’s spirit as expressed in miraculous gifts was given “through the laying on of the hands of the apostles.” And after Pentecost each recorded case of outpouring of God’s spirit accompanied by miraculous gifts took place in the presence of one or more of the apostles of Jesus. (Acts 8:9-20; 10:44-46; 19:6) Evidently the transmitting of these God-given powers ceased with the death of the apostles; and when those who had received them died, such gifts ceased altogether from the Christian congregation.
Thus John Chrysostom, who became religious patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century C.E., observed that the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 to 14 “used to occur but now no longer take place.” At about the same time Augustine, who greatly influenced the teachings of the Western or Latin branch of Christendom, said of tongues and other spiritual gifts: “These were signs adapted to the time. . . . That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.”
But have there not been reports of speaking in tongues since the days of the apostles of Jesus Christ? Are there not many examples of this today? One should not be quick to conclude that today’s tongue speaking signifies an outpouring of holy spirit. Why not? Because it does not really resemble that of first-century Christianity. Christians at Pentecost spoke in tongues about “the magnificent things of God.” (Acts 2:11) The Expositor’s Greek Testament points out that the Greek word for “magnificent things” is used “not only of the Resurrection of the Lord . . . , but of all that the prophets had foretold, of all that Christ had done and the Holy Ghost had conferred.”
In other words, speaking in tongues among Christians originally served to edify the listeners with information about God’s purpose in connection with Jesus Christ. In harmony with this, the apostle Paul directed that all speaking in tongues be translated, “that the congregation may receive upbuilding.” (1 Cor. 14:5, 27, 28) But today’s tongue speaking, if it can be translated at all, often means simply “God is great,” “God is good,” or like expressions. On occasion even filthy speech may occur. D. A. Hayes, in his book The Gift of Tongues, relates such an experience:
“At Los Angeles not long ago a woman had the gift of tongues, and a reputable Chinaman who heard her said that she was speaking his dialect of Chinese. When he was asked to interpret what she said, he refused to do it, saying that the language was the vilest of the vile.”
Certainly God could not be responsible for “vile” speech. What, then, is behind tongue speaking that does not conform to the Biblical pattern? It is noteworthy that the apostle Paul spoke of a coming “apostasy” from true Christianity and the appearance of a class called “the man of lawlessness,” whose presence would be “according to the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs and portents and with every unrighteous deception for those who are perishing.” (2 Thess. 2:3, 9, 10) Could tongue speaking be part of an “unrighteous deception” promoted by Satan?
Interestingly, An Encyclopædia of Occultism states: “Speaking and writing in foreign tongues, or in unintelligible outpourings mistaken for such, is a very old form of psychic phenomenon.” This reference work continues:
“Instances are to be found in plenty in the annals of modern spiritualism . . . Comparatively early in the movement there are evidences of speaking and writing in Latin, Greek, French, Swiss, Spanish, and Red Indian languages. Judge Edmonds, the well-known American Spiritualist, testified to these faculties in his daughter and niece. . . . Some of these cases are well attested.”
Speaking in tongues today, therefore, does not indicate an outpouring of God’s spirit. This ability ceased as a gift from God shortly after the death of the apostles of Jesus. In view of Scriptural warnings and the fact that tongue speaking “is a very old form of psychic phenomenon,” people will do well to be cautious. Speaking in tongues today may well signify, not God’s influence, but that of “wicked spirit forces” opposed to God.—Eph. 6:12.