What is speaking and interpreting tongues?

Last updated on September 30, 2021

Speaking and interpreting tongues

Let’s first have a look at what the Bible teaches about speaking in tongues. The first time it is mentioned, is in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit is poured out and all present are filled with the Spirit and start speaking in other tongues or languages (Acts 2:4 and 2:11). The Jews who gathered together to celebrate Pentecost hear these Spirit-filled people declare the wonders of God in their own tongues.

In Acts 10:46, speaking in tongues is mentioned again. Now the scene is the Gentile household of Cornelius. While Peter was preaching the Good News to these people, the Holy Spirit came on them and they started praising God.

Then, in Acts 19:1-7, in Ephesus, Paul met with some disciples there who did not know about the Holy Spirit at all. After explaining the Gospel more fully and baptizing them in the name of Jesus, Paul then placed his hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit and they started speaking in tongues and prophesying.

Scholars about speaking in tongues

Scholars are not sure whether the speaking in tongues in Acts 2 was the same phenomenon as what happened to the believers at Cornelius’s house and to the disciples at Ephesus. It seems clear that in Acts 2 they spoke in foreign languages that they had not previously learned. Whether this is also the case in Acts 10 and Acts 19, is not entirely clear. But it is clear that in all three cases, speaking in tongues is preceded by the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is accompanied by the proclamation of the Good News, and the people who speak in tongues are glorifying God. And to those present it was clear that these people spoke in tongues, otherwise they would not have recorded these events in this way.

1 Corinthians 14

The apostle Paul mentions “speaking in tongues” as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 12:28-31; 14:1). The purpose of this gift is to praise God in the Spirit and to be built up (1 Corinthians 14:4). However, the gift of speaking in tongues is not the greatest gift, since it does not build up others, unless someone interprets.

Speaking in tongues in church services

Paul gives extensive teaching as to how the gift of speaking in tongues is to be used in the church. He is clearly talking about the context of the worship service. Paul wanted the worship services to be edifying and to be for the benefit of the church. This includes that everything in the service is done in an orderly fashion to the glory of God. In 1 Corinthians 14:27, Paul admonishes believers that when they speak in tongues, not more than three people should do so and not at the same time, but taking turns. And, there should be an interpreter.
1 Corinthians 14:28: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” Why? Because over and over again, Paul stresses that all must be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26). What takes place must make sense to everybody, even to outsiders, so that each person can see that “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25). Otherwise, things could get out of control quickly and the focus might shift away from glorifying God and edifying believers, to the exercise of gifts in itself. So, if you do not understand what is being said, and if no one is around to interpret, you cannot know whether or not that person is really speaking in tongues (see also 1 Corinthians 14:9-11).

Is it still happening today?

Is speaking in tongues today still happening in the same way as it is described in the Bible? Is it to the glory of God and of value to the church, building it up and edifying it? If the answers to these questions are negative, then the gift of speaking in tongues is not really being exercised. But if it is, praise God for how He chooses to bring glory to His name.

Reade also “How can I experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit?

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