Speaking in Tongues
by Jeff Wehr
A Chinese laundryman visited a charismatic church in which the members were
speaking in tongues. One of the elders of the church recognized the Chinese man
and visited his laundry business the following week. When he asked the Chinese
man how he liked the church service, the man shook his head in disapproval.
The elder said, "What was wrong? I thought I heard a lady speak in
tongues that sounded like Chinese."
The Chinese man said, "She did speak in Chinese, and she was cursing God
the whole time."
This is just one of many such examples, of which I have heard, of individuals
who believed that they were praising God, but who were in fact cursing Him.
How could this be? Certainly the Holy Spirit would not lead someone to curse
God. Could the devil have a counterfeit of the Biblical speaking in tongues?
For those of you who have never heard of this phenomenon of people speaking
in an ecstatic tongue, let me take a brief moment to explain. Today between 7%
and 20% of all Christians "speak in tongues" from time to time in a
language that is not their mother tongue. The example above, of the lady who
spoke in Chinese, is exceptional because usually those who speak in
"tongues," speak in a language that linguists say has no systematic
resemblance to any human language that is spoken today. It is this most common
form of "speaking in tongues" (the nonhuman, nonintelligible language)
upon which we will focus our study.
This phenomenon of spontaneously speaking in a language that is generally
strange to humanity is of recent origin. While there were several incidents of
tongue speaking during the 1800s, the first wave of it occurred at the beginning
of the twentieth century.
It began on December 31, 1900, at Bethel College in Topeka, Kansas. When
Pastor Charles Parham laid his hands upon some of the students, they began to
speak in a form of speech that was not recognizable to anyone. One of those
young students was Miss Agnes Ozman.
Six years later, in 1906, Ozman and several other students, who had received
this experience, moved to Los Angeles and held meetings which started the
"first Pentecostal effusion."
Since then, this tongue-speaking experience has taken in over 300 million
Christians. What phenomenal growth! However, why is it happening now?
Some say it is a sign of the soon coming of Christ, and perhaps it is. Yet,
that alone does not explain or prove that it is of God, or of Satan.
We do know that this form of ecstatic speech in an unknown language is not
peculiar to Christianity--or even to religious people. This same phenomenon of
speech is found among non-Christian religions, especially in Asia and Africa.
This ecstatic speech is also found among atheists and agnostics.
Certainly it is not the Holy Spirit who is performing this phenomenon in
religions that reject Jesus as the Saviour, and through others who even deny the
existence of God, but it is happening. Research has shown that all of these
forms of ecstatic speech in Christian and non-Christian communities is
identically the same "cross-linguistically" and
Along with this gift to speak in an unknown tongue has come the gift to
interpret these ecstatic utterances. Are these interpreters accurate?
An experiment was performed in which someone speaking in an ecstatic tongue
was recorded on tape. They then replayed the tape to several different people
who claimed to have the gift to interpret these utterances. However, there was
no similarity in the several interpretations. They ranged in their
interpretation from saying that the utterances referred to a prayer for the
health of someone's children--to praising God for a recent and successful
church, fund-raising effort. It is evident from this example that the
interpreters were not accurate. So where are they getting their gift to
Of course, this phenomenon raises some very serious questions. If it is of
the Holy Spirit, why do people misinterpret what is said? After all, the Bible
says that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things. See John 14:26. If this is
of the Holy Spirit, then why is He manifesting the same gift through different
religions that teach contradictory beliefs. After all, the Bible says that the
Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. See John 16:13.
It is easy enough to see that Satan would want to join the world's religions
together through some spiritual manifestation. However, what does the Bible say
concerning the speaking in tongues or in a different language?
First of all, Jesus foretold that His disciples would speak with "new
tongues," "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." Mark 16:17-18.
The context of Jesus' words is His commission for His disciples to evangelize
the world. The speaking with "new tongues" was to enable the disciples
to speak with people who spoke other languages. The disciples would speak in a
language that was "new" to them but understood by their audience.
When Jesus trained His disciples during His three-and-one-half-year ministry,
He limited their training to reach out to the Jews living in Israel and Samaria.
However, after Jesus ascended into heaven, He desired to send His disciples to
every nation, tongue, and people. Consequently, He gifted them to speak in
"new tongues" or languages.
In Acts 2:1-13 we have recorded the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction. The
disciples and other fellow believers, 120 in number, gathered together for
prayer and consecration in preparation to receive the outpouring of the Holy
When the day of Pentecost had come, the Holy Spirit came upon every
individual, and they "began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave
them utterance." Verse 4.
The speaking in an "other tongue" did not come by man's own
efforts, but it was a gift the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the followers of Christ
when they were gathered together. "Jews, devout men, out of every nation
under heaven. . . . And they were all amazed and marvelled . . . because that
every man heard them speak in his own language." Verses 5, 7, 6.
Notice that the gift of the Holy Spirit to speak in a foreign and known human
language was bestowed upon believers--not upon unbelievers. The purpose of the
gift was to give unbelievers an opportunity to hear the gospel in their own
language. Consequently, the gift itself would serve as a sign to unbelievers
that the message they heard was from Heaven.
The result of Jesus' followers receiving the gift to speak in a different
language was the conversion of "three thousand" precious souls to
Christ in one day. Verse 41.
There were also present those who scoffed and mocked the disciples by
suggesting that the disciples were drunk. See verse 13. They heard the gospel in
their own language, thereby signifying that the gift bestowed upon the disciples
was a definite sign that the message had the signet of Heaven. Yet, they
rejected the message and the messengers.
The next example of "speaking in tongues" is found in Acts chapter
10. In this passage, the apostle Peter has an opportunity to teach Gentile
believers in Caesarea. The Holy Spirit "fell on all them which heard the
word. . . . For they heard them speak with tongues." Verse 44, 46.
On this occasion as well, the Holy Spirit came upon the believers--both Jew
and Gentile Christians. The Holy Spirit "fell" upon them suddenly,
representing that it was a special endowment from Heaven and not from man. The
purpose of the gift was the communication of what God had accomplished through
His Son Jesus.
Again we find this gift employed in a large metropolis where many different
peoples and languages were represented. When Peter gave his report on the events
of Caesarea, he said, "The Holy Ghost fell on them [in Caesarea], as on us
at the beginning [in Jerusalem at Pentecost]." Acts 11:15. Of course, what
happened in Jerusalem was that every man heard the gospel in his mother
It is important to note that Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, did not
need to explain the manifestation of "speaking in tongues" in
Caesarea. Why? Because he, the author, had already defined the gift in Acts
chapter 2. Peter himself confirms that it was the identical manifestation of the
Holy Spirit as experienced at Pentecost.
In Acts chapter 19 we see this gift exercised in another major city--Ephesus.
Here the apostle Paul met with some believers who had no knowledge of the work
of the Holy Spirit. Because these disciples in Ephesus were baptized with John's
baptism, Paul instructed them about the true baptism "in the name of the
Lord Jesus." Verse 5.
Paul then baptized them in the name of Jesus and laid his hands upon them,
and "the Holy Ghost came on them." Verse 6.
This practice of the laying on of hands is often represented with the
reception of the Holy Spirit, and as a sign that those involved were called to
evangelize the world. Of course, the laying on of hands is not necessary for
someone to receive the Holy Spirit. See Acts 2:1-4; 9:10-18; 10:46-48. Nor does
everyone "speak in tongues" because he received the laying on of
hands. See Acts 2:41; 8:38-39; 9:18; 16:15, 33. It was simply a practice in
those days as they dedicated themselves to receive God's Spirit, to accept Jesus
as Lord, and to fulfill the gospel commission.
Greek scholars tell us that the Greek form of the verb "to speak"
in this passage is in the imperfect tense, indicating that the gift was bestowed
for continuous and prolonged use. The believers in Jerusalem and Caesarea also
received the same permanent gift to proclaim the gospel far and near.
Commenting on these verses, Sister White wrote, "Thus they were
qualified to labor as missionaries in Ephesus and its vicinity, and also to go
forth to proclaim the gospel in Asia Minor." Review and Herald,
August 31, 1911.
1 Corinthians 12-14
Now the passages that have generated the greatest amount of confusion and
controversy are those found in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14. Some have
suggested that Acts chapters 2, 10, and 19 do indeed describe speaking in a
foreign language known to man, but that the gift represented in Corinthians is
different. They argue that this form of ecstatic tongues is an angelic language
used for personal prayer and the edification of the church.
However, when we study the terminology found in all of these passages from
Mark 16:17 to Acts chapters 2, 10, and 19, we find that the Greek word for
"tongue" is the same. In fact, the verb "to speak" in
tongues is the same in all of these accounts. Consequently, there is only one
gift of tongues.
Because the gift of tongues had become a permanent gift for those who
received it, Paul gave some rules for the exercising of the gift during church.
Apparently, many of the Corinthian believers were (1) causing commotion because
several were speaking in tongues at the same time, (2) there was no one present
who understood what they were saying, and (3) to the nonbelievers, who were
watching, it seemed awkward, disorderly, and confusing. See 1 Corinthians 14:23.
When one considers that the purpose of "speaking in tongues" was to
reach unbelievers, it was disastrous when many of the Corinthian believers were
misappropriating the gift. The gift was to be a sign to unbelievers that God had
a message of salvation for them personally. See 1 Corinthians 14:21-22.
First, Paul counsels them to speak in order, and then let only one interpret.
See 1 Corinthians 14:27. The word for "interpret" means to
"translate"--as from one known language to another. Consequently, one
man would speak in an intelligible foreign language and then another man would
translate it into the local language.
Second, if there is no one to interpret, let the one who speaks in tongues
keep silent. See 1 Corinthians 14:28. The gift of tongues was given to
communicate truth. If a believer speaks in German, but there are no unbelievers
who understand German, then another believer who understands German should
translate the message in a language that the others can understand, otherwise,
the message is aimless and unintelligible to all. Paul testified that he would
rather speak five words that people could understand than ten thousand words
that no one could understand. See 1 Corinthians 14:18-19.
However, some have misunderstood the words of Paul when he said, "Though
I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become
as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." 1 Corinthians 13:1. The Greek
conditional clause used in this passage indicates that Paul is speaking
hypothetically. In other words, we know that man does not speak in the language
of angels, but even if he could, it would profit him nothing if he had not the
love of God in his heart.
Then in another place Paul says, "For he that speaketh in an unknown
tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him;
howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries." 1 Corinthians 14:2. The
believer who speaks "in the spirit" is speaking by the Holy Spirit.
What is he speaking? He "speaketh mysteries"? Does God inspire men to
speak about odd and secret things? No. Believers are the "stewards of the
mysteries of God." 1 Corinthians 4:1. His servants speak about the
"mystery of godliness." 1 Timothy 3:16. We are to make known the
mystery of God. We are to declare the truth about God that has been previously
misunderstood. This truth is revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Paul
said, "And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my
mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel." Ephesians 6:19.
But why does it say that "no man understandeth him"? The problem in
Corinth was that nobody present could understand him. He spoke in an
intelligible language, but there was no one present who could understand that
particular language. Consequently, he was not speaking unto men. As Paul said,
"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 into the air." 1
In summary, let it be understood that (1) Jesus predicted the need and the
endowment of this special gift to speak in a foreign and "new tongue,"
so that the gospel could be preached throughout the world. (2) The very
manifestation of this gift was to be a "sign" to unbelievers that the
message they were hearing was from Heaven. (3) The gift of tongues is not some
ecstatic and unintelligible tongue, but it is indeed a known human language. The
purpose of the gift was to communicate the gospel to the world's billions who
have spoken thousands of different languages and dialects. (4) There is indeed a
counterfeit to the Biblical speaking in tongues. It has taken the world by
storm. Satan will use this counterfeit manifestation to communicate error. He
endeavors to work upon the senses and the lower nature of man, namely, man's
appetite, passions, and desires. This is to keep man from settling into the
truth with his higher nature, namely, man's intellect, reason, and conscience.
So often Satan has found success by playing upon the emotions of man and his
senses, thereby bypassing his intellect, reason, and conscience. However, God's
people must be intelligent upon that which is written in the Word of God. They
must choose to do right, because it is right and because right doing is pleasing
to God. They must allow their conscience to be wooed only by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that
proceedeth out of the mouth of God." Matthew 4:4. Yet, so many are
unsatisfied with the plain words of Scripture. They have a false salvational
security because of this spiritual manifestation of tongues. Yet, those who
shall make up the kingdom of God must live by faith. Day by day, moment
by moment, they must walk with their Lord and Saviour. They must hunger and
thirst for righteousness. See Matthew 5:6.
In summary, none of us are saved because we speak in tongues. Speaking in
tongues is not even evidence that someone is saved. Many non-Christians and
atheists speak in the same ecstatic and unintelligible tongue. Jesus warned the
religious world, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not
believe." John 4:48. We are not to put our faith in the signs and wonders.
They will increase as time draws to a close. We are to trust in the promises of
God and prepare to live with our Maker and Redeemer forever and ever.