In the Bible, there is often more description of the way things are or should be than analysis of events. If we are not careful, we can easily be confused because we try to impose an order or a structure onto the scriptures that is not meant to be there.
The gift of tongues (sometimes called “glossolalia” from the Greek word meaning literally to speak in tongues) has three different applications in the New Testament and in contemporary experience. We need to be aware of these different usages in order to read the scriptures properly.
1. Sign of the Baptism in the Spirit
In Acts 2:4 we are told: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
When we receive the Baptism in the Holy Spirit (or are filled with the Holy Spirit), God releases a special spiritual language that enables us to pray to God from our spirit to God’s Spirit. This is one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11.
In Acts 10:46 (the conversion of Cornelius’ household) and in Acts 19:6 (Paul in Ephesus) there are two more descriptions of the giving of the Holy Spirit and the sign of this is speaking in tongues.
Someone might ask what is the purpose of this prayer language? There are several:
- There are times when I simply don’t know how to pray, so in tongues my spirit communicates directly with the Holy Spirit.
- There are times when my human desire might be contrary to God’s desire in a situation. How can I pray without being directed by the Holy Spirit?
- Some people claim that the Devil cannot understand glossolalia so this intimate communion with God is important in times of intense spiritual warfare.
- It is a reassurance that the Holy Spirit is still with me, even when I feel inadequate or unworthy.
This is a private, personal use of tongues.
2. Tongues as an Interpreted Miracle
In Acts 2, the disciples were speaking in languages that were, to them, unknown. Yet the gathered crowds heard them speaking in their own various languages. You can argue whether there was a miracle in the speaking or in the hearing, but in either event people heard a tongues phenomenon in which they heard people speaking familiar words.
There have been numerous accounts of people speaking in tongues in a gathering discovering that someone present was hearing a message in a human language or dialect unknown to the speaker. This kind of event is quite rare in practice. When it happens it brings deep conviction to the hearer who is usually an unbeliever.
3. Tongues as a Public Utterance
There have been times when I have experienced in an open meeting someone standing up and speaking a message in tongues. Following this, another person (or sometimes the same person) will give a message in English which is an interpretation of the glossolalia. Together the tongues and interpretation amount to a form of prophecy.
In my experience, the language of the public tongue is different to the private prayer language. It feels different inside as if the Holy Spirit is pushing something out. I have also experienced the interpretation part of the equation whereby as another person is spekaing in tongues, I an hearing the words in my head in English.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addresses the proper ordering of charismatic worship. His concern was not so much about which gifts were best, but facilitating the most helpful way of people participating so that the Holy Spirit could minister and everyone could have a turn.
Paul gives guidelines for the proper administration of this mode of speaking in tongues.
- Don’t overdo this or prophecy. Let a few people each have a turn, speaking one at a time.
- There must be an interpretation. The speaker must pray for the interpretation, and if there is no interpretation coming then there should be no more public tongues.
- People are able to speak in tongues privately to God without restriction
These three modalities of the gift of speaking in tongues are quite different in their operation and usage. We need to learn to flow in the power of the Holy Spirit in whatever way He wishes to work.