Tongue Speaking: What was It?

There are two ordinary Bible usages for the word “tongue.”  (1) The word “tongue” in the Bible is at times used to refer to the body part within our mouth which helps us to speak (Luke 1:62).  (2) It is also at times refers to human languages.  The Douay Bible reads in Genesis 11:1, 7 – “And the earth was of one tongue, and of the same speech … come ye therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  In speaking of the great exile of old, Isaiah says, “For with stammering lips and another tongue with he speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:11) or listen to Revelation 5:9 – “Thou… has redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.”  Here again the reference is to human languages.  This is an example of a figure of speech known as ‘Metonomy of the cause’ where the cause (human tongue) is put for the effect (human speech).

There is, of course, a third usage and that is of miraculous tongues (or speech).  The question is what was this?  Did it resemble what people refer to as “Pentecostal tongue speaking” today?

Usage in Mark and Acts

In Mark 16:17-ff the promise is given, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”  The reference is clearly to the miraculous.

The word “new” does not come from the word which means “new in time.”  But, the word of… origin means according to Vines – “new of that which is unaccustomed or unused…”

The next passage of significance is Acts 2.  Acts 2:4 reads, “And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”  What kind of language was this?

Remember there were present that day people from various places, and that Acts 2:6 says, “…every man heard them speak in his own tongue,” and that Acts 2:11 has the people saying, “…we do hear them speak in our own tongues…”  This certainly sounds very different from the unintelligible utterances of the charismatic groups today.

Some have understood that the miracle was upon the hearer’s ears.  But consider this: (1) Christ said they would speak in new tongues (plural) – cf. Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4.  (2) If the miracle occurred upon the hearers then the miracle occurred on those who did not have the spirit in a miraculous way, and not in the apostles who did have the spirit.

The next occurrence to study is Acts 10 and 11, Cornelius’ house.  In Acts 10:46 it says that Peter and his company, “…heard them speak with tongues…”  Is there anything in context which suggest that this occurrence was similar to the gibberish spoken today by various Pentecostal groups?  Absolutely not.

In fact, the event here was very much like the one on Pentecost (Acts 11:15, 17).  What happened on Pentecost?  Acts 2:6 says, “We do hear them speak in our tongues…”

The next case of miraculous “tongue speaking” is in Acts 19.  Acts 19:6 says, “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came upon them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”  The nature of the tongue speaking is not described for us here.  But get this: (1) All three accounts looked at (Acts 2, 10-11, 19) occur in the same book (the book of Acts) which was written to the same man (Theophilus); (2) Miraculous tongue speaking described in Acts 2 was the miraculous speaking of human languages.  Acts 10 and 11 tied itself back to Acts 2.  With such before us, we must conclude that Acts 19 is speaking of the same for the nature of tongue speaking has already been described.

From the book of Acts it is impossible to draw the picture of unintelligible ecstatic utterances.  Instead we have the words, “every man heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6) and “we do hear them speak in our tongues” (Acts 2:11).

Now that we have determined that the miraculous tongue speaking found in the historical record of Acts  was that miraculous ability to speak in foreign, human languages, which the speaker was (without miraculous aid) unaccustomed.  Before we look to see if the same holds true in the book of 1 Corinthians, we should observe how drastically different the teachings of 1 Corinthians are in comparison with the practice of tongue speaking today.

Observations from 1 Corinthians

First, not all first century believers spoke  with miraculous tongues (1 Cor. 12:28-30; 14:5).  This is important to understand because some have taught that unless you speak in tongues, you are not of God.  Such simply is not true.

Second, first century tongue speaking was controllable.  I mean by this that the Holy Spirit did not so overwhelm the speaker that he could not control his own tongue (1 Cor. 14:27-30; Also see 2 Tim. 1:6).  “The spirits of the prophet are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32).

Third, the Bible plainly teaches that not all are to speak in tongues at the same time.  Watch the words of 1 Corinthians 14:27-33 (NASB), “If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn … And let two or three prophets speak, and let others pass judgment (discern-ASV).  But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one … for God is not a God of confusion but of peace as in all the churches of the saints.”  Not everybody was to speak at once.

Fourth, if tongue speaking could not be done in such a way that those present could understand, then it wasn’t to be done.  Listen to 1 Corinthians 14:28, “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church.”

Imagine for a moment that I could speak in Swahili and you could not.  Imagine that I stood in the pulpit Sunday morning an preached in Swahili.  Would you profit from it?  Listen to 1 Corinthians 14:13-16, 19, “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.  For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.  What is it then?  I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.  Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at the giving of thanks, seeing he understand not what thou sayest?… Yet, in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”  The Bible is clear – if it couldn’t be interpreted, then it wasn’t to be spoken.

Fifth, It’s the content not the tongues themselves which is the important (1 Cor. 14:6-9).  Paul wrote, “Now brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?”  (1 Cor. 14:6).

Sixth, tongue speaking (or any speaking) which is not understood does not edify.  Listen to 1 Corinthians 14:9, “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?  For ye shall speak to the air.”

Seventh, far from impressing the unbeliever, the manner in which many Pentecostals speak is confusing.  Listen, “If therefore the whole church be come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say the ye are mad?” (1 Cor.  14:23)

Usage in 1 Corinthians

Now we turn our attention to the New Testament epistle of 1 Corinthians.  Are there reasons to conclude that miraculous tongue speaking mentioned therein is the same?

The first chapter to look at is 1 Corinthians 12.  Three times is tongue speaking mentioned – 1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30.  Look carefully.  Is there anything in these verses which demands that this is not a reference to the miraculous ability to speak in other human languages?  No!  In fact,  look at the words “kinds”  (v. 10), and “diversities” (v. 28).  In the original they are the same.  Thayer says the word means “the aggregate of many individuals of the same nature, kind, sort, species.”  Kind of sounds like human languages, doesn’t it?  (Especially since the historical record of Acts has already mentioned such).

The second chapter that we’ll consider is 1 Corinthians 14.  The subject is found throughout this chapter.  The tongue speaking of this chapter involves word (1 Cor. 14:19).  But what kind of words?  I believe that 1 Corinthians 14:21 helps answer this question.  Verse 21 quotes from Isaiah 28:11 where languages are in view.  The point of Isaiah 28 is that instead of listening to God’s plain words, they chose to have God speak to them in a foreign human language, that they did not understand.  Even so, the Corinthians were turning from plain speech to listen to foreign human languages that they did not understand.  Nothing here indicates that this was anything other than foreign human languages.

Is there anything in the words “unknown” which demands that this is speaking of ecstatic utterances?  Richard Black has written concerning the word “unknown”: “The ‘unknown’ of unknown tongues in the King James Version being italicized publicizes that the term is not in the original … unknown tongues does not mean ecstatic utterances… but means a language unknown by study to the speaker.”1  Wayne Jackson paraphrased 1 Cor. 14:2 this way: “He that speaks in a foreign language (if his audience is of a different language and no translator is present) speak not unto men, but unto God; for no man (of this alien audience) understands; but in the spirit he speaks mysteries (things which are hidden from the audience because of no interpreter).”2 There is nothing in this word “unknown” which warrants the idea of modern-day tongue speaking.

There is much in this chapter that sounds like human languages.  (1) verse 21 quotes from Isaiah 28 which is speaking of foreign human languages; (2) verse 19 indicates tongue speaking involves words [Vine’s indicates this means “the expression of thought” – not just strange emissions of sound]; (3) verse 11 uses the term “barbarian” – such refers to human languages (Acts 28:1-2).

What about 1 Corinthians 13:1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal?”  It seems to me that this is language of hyperbole, given for emphasis sake.  Similar language appears in Galatians 1:8.  Brother Wayne Jackson wrote: “Paul neither literally expects angelic perversion of the gospel, nor his speaking in angelic tongues; he is simply stressing a point.”3  Moreover, some have suggested that the “tongues of angels” refer to the source.  Manna is referred to as angel’s food, not because angels at the food, but due to the source (cf. Psalm 78:25).

Historic records (such as Acts) describe what happened primarily for those not there.  The book of 1 Corinthians however, is a letter written to people who possessed this gift.  Such did not need to be described to them.  There seems no good reason however to conclude that both books aren’t speaking of the same.  In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 provides reasons to believe that such is the case.      Whatever the case, let us remember: (1) The standard of Final judgment is not emotions  but God’s word (John 12:48, etc.).  (2) It‘s the message that’s important (1 Corinthians 14:28).  If a message differs from God’s already revealed truth it is to be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).  (3) Tongue speaking has ceased (clear from proper study of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13).

Another thing, somebody tell me how unintelligible, incoherent words prove anything?  How would you know  whether or not the “words” were being faked?  And with such a wide range of religious groups speaking with ecstatic utterances (the Mormon’s, some Catholics, various ‘holiness’ groups, the Quakers, some Muslims, and even Pagan groups), which are you to believe if tongue speaking (ecstatic) be a sign?  They all teach different doctrines; the Mormons for instance even have their own books!


1.  “Studies in 1 Corinthians” The First Denton Lectureship, c. 1982, page 197

2.  Tract – “Speaking in Tongues,” Wayne Jackson (Haun Publishing, Pasadena TX)

3. ibid

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
This entry was posted in Miracles, Pentecostalism, Tongue, Word Study and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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