For decades people have debated about the relevance, and sometimes the authenticity of speaking in unknown or various tongues. Many can testify to the blessing tongue speaking has been to them. It was a topic that separated Pentecostals from the rest of the Church in the first few decades of the 20th Century.
Since the 1960s – tongue speaking has spread throughout many denominations, although there are still some denominations who reject it. I want to briefly set the context for its use in Scripture, and then explore a number of its applications.
There are six NT passages which deal with xenolalia – known tongues or glossalia – unknown tongues. These are:
- Mark 16:17 (although this is debatable, because some of the earliest manuscripts do not contain this passage). However many manuscripts testify to its authenticity hence its inclusion in the ESV, NASB, NKJV, NLT etc
- Acts 2:4, 11 – The Day of Pentecost
- Acts 10:46 – The outpouring on the household of Cornelius
- Acts 19:6 – Paul at Ephesus as a group of 12 men are filled with the Spirit
- 1 Corinthians 12 – Various or unknown tongues are listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit
- I Corinthians 14 – Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth on the proper use of unknown tongues.
In Jesus’ last words before His ascension He promised that, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’ (Acts 1:8). In Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, the waiting believers were filled with power and became His Spirit-filled witnesses. This is known as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, they also began to speak in languages which were not their own and of which they had no previous understanding. In two other passages in Acts (10:46; 19:6), the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues.
From the accounts of the Spirit’s filling in Acts – the signs or evidence of His fullness included: a new power for ministry – overflowing joy – Spirit-inspired praise – clear prophetic utterances – various or unknown tongues – unity of purpose with their brothers and sisters in Christ – a new level of generosity willing to personally sacrifice in order to bless and help others – a compulsion to identify with Christ – and be His witnesses.
The coming of the Spirit changed everything. The church moved from a small group of believers gathered in secret to an army of Christ’s followers openly, and publically, preaching His Gospel. The Spirit’s presence continued in God’s Church – He had come to stay. His infilling was also available to each subsequent generation of believers.
Whenever God found a believer who was hungry for the Spirit’s fullness – He would fill him or her with the Spirit’s special power. This often included an anointing for Christian ministry and special service. After all, Jesus had said that ‘if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him’ (Luke 11:13).
It was at the beginning of the 20th that a fresh insight into the Baptism in the Spirit occurred – or as they preferred, rediscovered. From seemingly very humble, multicultural beginnings – God began to power out His Spirit in greater power with signs following. One of the key signs was that people filled with the Spirit began to speak in unknown tongues – what they called, ‘heavenly tongues.’ These people became extraordinary witnesses for Christ – often among the poor and ordinary people of the nation. Around the world – large numbers have been swept into God’s Kingdom in the 100 years since.
The Azusa Street Revival that began Pentecostalism in the US, spreading from there to many other nations, is still influencing Christians around the globe. This spread around the globe stayed mainly in Pentecostal movements until the 1960’s when some in the older denominations began to hunger for the Spirit’s fullness – with tongues as one of the main signs of His empowering. Since then – countless millions have experienced the baptism in the Spirit speaking in unknown tongues.
Being filled with the Spirit is a life transforming event bringing a great love for Christ, and a yearning desire to witness for Him to all who will listen. Those filled experienced a new level of love for the Bible, for sacrificial ministry, and for serving of the Lord Jesus through His church.
One of the reflections of the early Pentecostals was that there was a continual need to being or remaining filled with the Spirit. Witness, worship and a devotion to read and learn God’s word were seen as crucial to maintaining the Spirit’s fullness. Some even said, ‘one baptism – many infillings.’ Many wrote about and experienced a new level of victory in their Christian lives – a new quality and richness of spiritual life. It is the ongoing filling of the Spirit which leads to a victorious Christian life.
There was both an outward and inward aspect to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Inwardly, the invisible presence and power of the Holy Spirit came upon the believer and he or she received the Spirit’s tangible presence. Outwardly, this infusion of power led to, amongst other things: prophesying, preaching, joy, boldness, evangelism, effective outreach, signs and wonders, and speaking in tongues.
A Spiritual Language
Paul said that tongues ‘edify’ a person or personally strengthen them (1 Corinthians 14:4). Edify means to ‘build up’ or ‘charge up’- much like charging up a battery. We all need a spiritual charge. All of us at times feel spiritually drained. One of God’s ways to charge your spirit is through speaking in tongues.
One of the gifts of the Spirit, in 1 Corinthians 12, is the ability to speak in unknown or in various tongues. Thus, the gift of speaking in unknown or various tongues is different from the tongues that sometimes accompany the Baptism in the Spirit. In fact, it may be the case that if a person speaks in tongues at their Spirit Baptism – this may be the only time that person will speak in tongues; it is a sign of the baptism in the Spirit – not of the reception of the gift of tongues.
I want to suggest that there are seven different applications of speaking in tongues, apart from those seen as an initial evidence of Spirit baptism. It is important to remember that tongues can appear foolish to non-believers in a worship service, they are not foolish in themselves, just are not what people expect in church. Therefore we need to say a few words so that those people who are not used to them know what is happening in a corporate setting, and do not feel that they have entered a confused or unbiblical community.
1. Message in tongues (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28). A number of commentators would point out that since tongues are spoken to God from our spirit, under the Holy Spirit’s anointing, then the interpretation should also point to God, or reveal something about God, or be a prayer to God.
This should be followed by an interpretation of the message given in the person’s own language. This interpretation should also be God glorifying and perhaps point towards Christ. Prophesy is normally man-ward, given from God to a community, church, man or woman to make clear His word; it sometimes can be a predictive prophesy about some future event or happening.
2. Thanksgiving/Blessing in tongues which can be closely related to singing in tongues – (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:16), but is often not done as singing. This can be a particularly pure form of praise as it removes self-consciousness or praise that is intended to reflect well on the one giving the praise. Sadly, even our praise can be tainted by human weakness and vanity.
3. Singing in tongues – something Paul did himself (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15b). If one has ever heard a person truly singing in the Spirit – it is a beautiful experience; it is both uplifting and sacred. God is said to sing over His people. Have you ever thought that the Holy Spirit also sings in and through you…Hallelujah.
4. Personal prayer in tongues – this may be praying about circumstances which are too complicated, or difficult, or big for our normal language with its limited vocabulary. Prayer in unknown or various tongues may include interceding for others, situations where we need God to breakthrough for us, or for our village, town, county or nation (cf. Romans 8:26-27; 1 Corinthians 14:14-15a). Jackie Pullinger said that the thing that added much power and grace to her ministry was deliberately setting aside 15 minutes a day to pray in tongues. It is something she has practiced with great dedication for many years.
5. Personal edifying tongues – I already have alluded to this above. When we feel exhausted or depleted spiritually, when we need building up – praying in tongues can make such a difference (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:4).
6. When someone speaks in unknown tongues it can be a sign to unbelievers. This may happen during a corporate gathering which includes praying, singing and thanksgiving in tongues, possibly also a message in tongues (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:21-22). The key proviso is that the unknown tongue or tongues should not happen in a way which suggests that the gathered body of Christ is in disorder or out of control – in a state of confusion (14:23). If it is done in a way that suggests confusion or a lack of control then it can make the non-believer think that the Church is mad and worldly minded.
7. I believe that praying in tongues as a group of people is something that can be really effective. It should happen in a designated prayer meeting when we people are earnestly praying – not so much in a Sunday morning gathering when non-believers may be present.
Father, our spirits are most directly built up by time spent in Your presence in prayer and worship. We pray for any who do not yet have the experience of the Holy Spirit I have written about above. We ask that You will create a hunger in many so they themselves will then hunger and thirst for Your Spirit’s fullness asking You to fill them.
Lord, You only give the Spirit to Your children – to those intent on honouring the name of Christ. As You will fill them with Your Spirit – we pray for an outpouring of Kingdom growth. We also pray signs will accompany the Spirit’s fullness one, or more of the following: a new power for ministry – overflowing joy – Spirit-inspired praise – clear prophetic utterances – various or unknown tongues – unity of purpose with their brothers and sisters in Christ – a new level of generosity willing to personally sacrifice in order to bless and help others – a compulsion to identify with Christ – and be His witnesses.
Your Spirit’s presence changes lives. I pray that each day I will live continually filled with Your Spirit. As we are Christ’s Spirit-filled witnesses in our homes, schools, workplaces, marketplaces, online, during leisure, and in our communities – we pray for many souls to be saved. Give us souls, Lord. In Jesus’ name and for His glory. Amen