The Historical Significance of Tongues in the Bible - by Keith Petersen


The mention of tongues in the Bible has raised questions amongst Christians as to the nature, importance of and use of tongues.

It is always well to recognize God’s primary thoughts in relation to understanding Scripture.  We find in Genesis 11 God’s first reference to language – “And Jehovah said, Behold, the people is one, and have all one language; and this have they begun to do. And now will they be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing.  Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”

It is readily understood from this that God, in confounding their one language, created a result which was that there were then instituted a variety of many languages – an immediate barrier that remains to this day.  This then would become a hindrance to man’s natural desire to exalt himself.  Without this barrier, God said “they will be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing.”  Man’s natural desire for exaltation apart from God was in evidence even then in the attempt to build a tower that would reach to heaven.  This natural desire, of course, persists to this day and is constantly seen in man’s attempts to exalt his place in the universe heedless of God’s authority and rights.

The word translated “language” in the Old Testament is sepheth which translates into the lip or, by implication, speech/language.  When we come to the New Testament the Greek word for tongue/language is glossa which translates as the tongue or, again, by implication, language.  Thus, we see that these two words in the Bible from two different languages (i.e., Hebrew in the OT and Greek in the NT) mean the same thing.

In the New Testament the first reference to tongues is in Mark 16 where the Lord, just before He ascended to Heaven, told the disciples “Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all the creation.  He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned.  And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues”, etc.  Various languages would be necessary to accomplish this, and lateral to this was His instructions to “do ye remain in the city till ye be clothed with power from on high” which was a reference to the advent of the Holy Spirit (see Joel 2).

The implementation of these prophecies commenced on the day of Pentecost as related in Acts 2.  There, it is recorded that there “came suddenly a sound out of heaven as of a violent impetuous blowing, and filled all the house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them parted tongues, as of fire, and it sat upon each one of them.  And they were all filled with [the] Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave to them to speak forth.”

Several points need consideration here:  (1) there was a sound out of heaven – a violent, impetuous blowing – that accompanied the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (see John 3:8) (2) it filled the house (3) parted tongues, as of fire, appeared to them and sat upon each one of them (4) they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 3:34) and (5) they began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave to them to speak forth.

It is apparent that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as recorded in this section of Acts was a unique circumstance.  It is shown in the subsequent verses in Acts 2 that “the multitude came together and were confounded, because each one heard them speaking in his own dialect.  And all were amazed and wondered, saying, Behold, are not all these who are speaking Galilaeans? and how do we hear [them] each in our own dialect in which we have been born”.

It was the work of Satan to instigate the moral fall of man in the Garden of Eden.  It was man’s independency and unabashed desire for the exaltation of “self” apart from God that led him to attempt to build the tower to Heaven as recorded in Genesis 11, and it was God’s sovereign judgment to confound man in such an attempt by implementing many languages rather than the one language that was then extant.  In the day of Pentecost then God showed His power to undo what He had implemented in Genesis 11 – a wonderful indication that God evidences in Christianity through the power of the Gospel that He “desires that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”   But, generally speaking, how can man be saved unless the gospel is preached (Romans 10:13-15)?  Thus, Isaiah 52:7 states “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that announceth glad tidings, that publisheth peace; that announceth glad tidings of good, that publisheth salvation”.  The language barrier to the publication of the Gospel was provisionally displaced on the day of Pentecost.

The consideration of today in 2017 is as to whether the original sign gifts of the early church are necessary to and generally active in the spread of the gospel throughout the world.  It is well to view again what is said as to this as recorded in Mark 16:  “And he [i.e., the Lord – Edit.] said to them, Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all the creation.  He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned.  And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they should drink any deadly thing it shall not injure them; they shall lay hands upon the infirm, and they shall be well.  The Lord therefore, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God.  And they, going forth, preached everywhere, the Lord working with [them], and confirming the word by the signs following upon [it].”  The Lord confirmed the word by the signs.

Undoubtedly Christians around the world are being saved every day - and, have been throughout this dispensation (see Acts 2:47); yet, this miracle of tongues as well the other listed signs are simply not shown by general and valid report to be an accompaniment as a real, constant and continuing result to salvation.  The purpose of the early signs was, as noted in the scripture quoted above, to be in the early church an attestation to the power of God’s word in the gospel.  There are evidently some 7 billion people in the world as this paper is written in 2017, and out of these even a conservative estimate shows 100’s of millions of true believing Christians.  If sign gifts are a necessary mandate and evidence of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, there would be substantial numbers of infirm people being healed, sudden otherwise-unaccounted-for abilities to speak foreign languages – and these universal and constant circumstances would undoubtedly be reported in the mainstream media.  But, this is not the case.

As an aside to this, if there is any question as to whether a believing Christian could yet today or at any point through this dispensation under the power of the Holy Spirit speak in another language (whether newly saved or converted for some period of time), or could heal an infirm person or could cast out a demon, etc. – the answer is “They could, as all this falls under what God has set in the assembly (1 Corinthians 12:28).  Thus, we cannot arbitrarily decide that any particular power as given by God cannot yet be displayed.  However, intelligently, we can recognize that the sign gifts of the early Church were simply that – sign gifts of the time – and in subsequent years through the spread of Christianity (Romans 10:17,18) they have essentially, much like an unneeded umbilical cord after birth, become largely unnecessary.

In areas of Christianity it is held that if a Christian does not speak in a tongue they cannot then be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  However, it is necessary to consider as to the circumstances related to tongues in the early Church.  Clearly, at Pentecose the gospel was being preached – it says “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the great things of God”.  Peter then elucidated to them that the long-standing prophecies of Joel were being fulfilled in an historically unique pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and he continued by preaching the gospel to them to the effect that they needed to “Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

In addition to this, if it is thought that a speaking in tongues is a necessary validation of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, it is only logical and honest to also consider the blowing and the parted tongues of fire each time the blessed Holy Spirit takes up residence in a Christian – since all these occurrences accompanied and were linked to each other.

It is also of note that the language in this section of Acts 2 specifies that they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  This is of interest since Scripture only uses this phraseology in a few places in the New Testament – and not at all in the Old Testament.  It evidently denotes a special activity through the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, this phrase as is used here in Acts 2:4 is used in relation to John the Baptist in Luke 1:15, to Elizabeth his mother in Luke 1:41, to Zacharias his father in Luke 1:67, and, in relation to the apostles and disciples at various times and in respect of special circumstances in Acts 4:8, 4:31, 9:17, 13:9 and 13:52.

There is other, similar language, “full of the Holy Spirit”, and used, again, only in the New Testament.  It is used of the Lord in Luke 4:1 and in several places in the Acts (6:3, 6:5, 7:55 and 11:24) – in each instance denoting a spirituality which was remarkably evident.  For example what was needed in Acts 6 was a spiritual man for service, and Stephen was selected as being full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom as well as being full of faith.  Were the others – true believing Christians as they were – not possessing faith and not indwelt by the Holy Spirit?  They clearly had faith and the Holy Spirit; but, the allusion in these sections is to something heightened.  It is clear that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is not always presented in scripture to the effect that the individual is “filled”.  Thus, it says of the apostle John in Revelation 1 that he “became in [the] Spirit on the Lord's day” – a clear testimony to the reality that this esteemed brother, no less than an apostle, experienced a circumstance under the hand of the Holy Spirit that is marked as being something heightened.

These realities as noted in the last few paragraphs are being emphasized in this paper since the speaking in other languages on Pentecost is directly linked with being filled with the Holy Spirit – “And they were all filled with [the] Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave to them to speak forth.  Thus, it must be noted that this was clearly a special circumstance.

Subsequent to the day of Pentecost, when we come to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12 we find that “there are distinctions of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are distinctions of services, and the same Lord; and there are distinctions of operations, but the same God who operates all things in all” and, further on, “For to one, by the Spirit, is given [the] word of wisdom; and to another [the] word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; and to a different one faith, in [the power of] the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing in [the power of] the same Spirit; and to another operations of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; and to a different one kinds of tongues; and to another interpretation of tongues.  But all these things operates the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each in particular according as he pleases.”

This is instructive since it clearly defines that the Holy Spirit divides to each certain abilities – “according as He pleases.”  Thus, tongues is not a universal Christian gift, nor is healing, nor are miracles, etc.  The apostle finishes in this section of scripture by saying, “Are] all apostles? [are] all prophets? [are] all teachers? [are] all [in possession of] miraculous powers? have all gifts of healings? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?”  So, if any thinks to disqualify another true believing Christian as being such because they cannot perform a miracle, or don’t speak in tongues – and thus don’t have the Holy Spirit – this section immediately shows that notion to be gravely erroneous.

We’ve clearly shown from scripture in all the foregoing that the day of Pentecost was a unique day as introducing a moment in time in which God fulfilled a prophecy and poured out the Holy Spirit – the immediate result of which was that the gospel was then preached in foreign languages as noted in that section.  It introduced the advent of “another Comforter” into a scene from which the Lord had departed.  As a result of this momentous occurrence, God set gifts into the assembly as shown in 1 Corinthians 12.  It is stated that this took place so as to combat a prior bondage to “dumb idols” (verse 2) and also to set out the way in which God intends the body of Christ to operate under the hand of the Holy Spirit.

When we come to 1 Corinthians 14 we are informed by the apostle Paul as to the misuse of, and a necessary order and understanding as to the use of, tongues.  The Corinthians were most evidently using this sign gift as a childish toy – Paul says “Brethren, be not children in [your] minds …. but in [your] minds be grown [men]” and then “ So that tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers …. If therefore the whole assembly come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and simple [persons] enter in, or unbelievers, will not they say ye are mad?”

Paul’s language is distinct – tongues are for a sign to unbelievers; but, prophecy “edifies the assembly.”  If someone had something to speak in another language – they were only to speak thus if either they or another could interpret.  If not, “let him be silent in [the] assembly.”  Furthermore, “If any one speak with a tongue, [let it be] two, or at the most three, and separately.”  He thus concludes, “For God is not [a God] of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints.”

If we bring the doctrine of scripture to apply to the question of the use of tongues today what do we find to be a present reality as to this in various sectors of Christendom?  First, some evidently hold that any Christian who claims to actually be such and to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit must prove this by speaking in tongues.  What has been set out earlier in this paper readily disproves this.  Second, if it is to be held that “speaking in the tongues of men and of angels” is simply current Christian practice (i.e., setting aside for the moment any dispute as to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit) – what is shown by reliable record today to actually be the practice in recent years in various congregations? 

According to scripture, it must be only two or three – and, separately – and only if there is interpretation.  What, however, is found typically amongst those who claim these tongues as a necessary, integral part of worship?  It is a sobering reality that even a quick foray into public media to ascertain the answer to this question can result in reading as to or viewing online congregations in which great disorder – under the guise of Spirit-filled worship – can prevail.  Men and women can be seen standing, clapping, swaying and uttering nonsensical babble.  Some are even clearly seen to be in at least some stage of a trance.  Such scenes of pandemonium attest to a complete contradiction of divine teaching on tongues – and order/disorder in God's House – as so specifically set out in the Bible.

Is this of God?  Do these practices agree with the teachings of a God of order who has set out specific instructions for any evidence and use of tongues – as well as common order – in an assembly?  We can say, “No – clearly not.”  It is full - and sorrowful - evidence of the natural mind of man independent from the governance of the Spirit of God engaging in activity purportedly in accord with Scripture but avowedly totally contrary to the teaching of the same Scripture.  Such activity is presumed to be acceptable by some as representing a certain facet of Christian fellowship and worship since those engaged in it are (largely) believing Christians; however, as with King David in 2 Samuel 6 we see that “David and all the house of Israel played before Jehovah on all manner of [instruments made of] cypress wood, with harps, and with lutes, and with tambours, and with sistra, and with cymbals”; but, the anger of the Lord was present and He smote Uzzah.  David subsequently said, “Jehovah our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order.”  Christians might substitute natural activity and fleshly fervency for spirituality; but, it is only as adhering to divine principles that we can be pleasing to God.

Does God set out precepts in Scripture to be ignored?  Can any willingly violate divine principles and feel casual as to such violation?  The Lord clearly says “If ye love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15).  Notice the “If” – we are to prove our love by keeping His commandments and, note, this includes all His commandments; not, the ones we think we would like to keep.

Who is it that endlessly strives to defeat God’s words?  Who came to Eve in the Garden of Eden and questioned, “Is it even so, that God has said ….?”.  What can be said, in this respect, as to this unscriptural activity in God’s house?  Is the Holy Spirit leading Christians to deny His own teaching as set out in the Bible?  Of course not.  Who, then, has suggested such a divergence from Scripture, and has suggested – as in the Garden of Eden – that it is acceptable to ignore God’s word?  Sorrowfully and with grave concern it can be stated that it is undoubtedly that ancient serpent. 

Why would true Christians become involved in – and, even remain in – such conditions of plain contradiction to the Word of God?  Is it a delusion to think that God is pleased by such outlandish and unscriptural activity in His house?  It absolutely must be defined as a delusion.  Why would any persist in such activity?  The simple answer to this is to answer the following question:  Why do any Christians engage in activity that is not agreeable to God?  The answer always remains the same:  “self” likes it and the mind of the flesh is clearly governing in such instances.

What is the antidote?  The answer to this is, also, always the same:  fidelity to the Lord and to His Word.  The Lord says, “He that has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me” (John 14:21) and John writes later in his 1st epistle “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous.”

This is simple truth – may it be so everywhere among God’s people.  Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve …. but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.”