What is speaking in tongues? Is it demonic? What does it look like? What is its purpose? Some people are against it because they don’t understand it but it is in the bible and listed as one of the gifts of the spirit. There is a debate about whether or not it is just a supernatural translation of foreign languages or a purely spiritual language that must be interpreted by the spirit for an assembly when spoken in public. One question is, why would there be a separate gift of interpretation if it was just the ability to speak any language?
These are the gifts of the spirit:
1 Corinthians 12: (NLT) 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. 8 To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. 9 The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. 10 He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages,[in various tongues] while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. 11 It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.
The initiation of speaking in tongues:
In Acts 2:5-24, the disciples were given the holy spirit and started speaking in tongues. There were many people in the crowd in Jerusalem from other countries who spoke various languages and were there for Pentecost. These people were amazed, but there were skeptics in the crowd (in verse 13) who were saying that the people speaking in tongues were drunk. Then Peter corrected the skeptics and pointed to Joel 2:28-32 as evidence of a fulfilled prophecy of the holy spirit.
These skeptics said they sounded drunk, despite the fact others could clearly hear these “Galilean Jews”, speaking in the languages of various ethnic groups from the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa. What happened? How can one person hear drunk babbling and another hear the gospel in their own language? At first one may think that the people speaking in tongues were each speaking different languages on their own, i.e. one person speaking Greek, another Ethiopian, another Arabic, etc. But the skeptics thought they were all drunk, which means they probably heard random babbling from all of them.
Even if someone only spoke one language, they would be aware of the existence of other languages, especially in the Levant, which is right in the middle of Eurasia. So people living there would have been used to others speaking foreign languages. Therefore, it seems illogical for these people to conclude that all these people were drunk because they were speaking another language. Wouldn’t a person just assume that the orator is simply speaking to one group of people that share that language since they are speaking a foreign language?
So why did they think the people were babbling drunkards? What if it wasn’t one spirit-filled person each speaking a foreign language, but rather all of them were babbling in the natural and only those whom God opened the ears of through the spirit heard the gospel in their own language? Meaning that only the people who heard the interpretation were amazed, and the people who called them drunk couldn’t hear because their ears were closed spiritually?
Jeremiah 5:21 says, “the hard-hearted people have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear”, which Jesus quoted in Mark 8:18 when talking about the hard hearts of the Jews in his day. Paul also mentions the hard hearts of the 1st century Jews in 1 Corinthians 2:9, when quoting Isaiah 64:4. Here Paul talks about the Spirit’s ability to reveal once hidden truths. This sounds like either the special knowledge or the word wisdom gift in 1 Cor 12:8
1 Cor 2:6 Yet when I am among mature believers, I do speak with words of wisdom, but not the kind of wisdom that belongs to this world or to the rulers of this world, who are soon forgotten. 7 No, the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. 8 But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord. 9 That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”[Isa 64:4]
10 But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. 11 No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12 And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. 13 When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. 14 But people who aren’t spiritual[g] can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. 15 Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others.
So there was a supernatural reunification of languages through the holy spirit for those who had “ears to hear” (Matt 13:9-17, Isa 6:9-10). In other words, this was a reverse of the Tower of Babel incident from Genesis 11.
If a modern person traveled back in time to that location and recorded it with their phone, it would just sound like babbling. But if that time traveler (let’s assume an English speaker), was a believer and filled with spirit, I think the spirit would have allowed them to personally hear the gospel in their language, despite the fact modern English wasn’t developed yet. This seems like speaking in tongues is not just about translation but also involves “babbling” like a drunkard in the natural which is then interpreted supernaturally into a language that everyone can understand.
Paul’s usage of this gift:
Sometimes people quote 1 Cor 14:33 which says that “God is not the author of confusion” as a scripture against tongues, but this is the same chapter in which Paul endorses it so the confusion is not related to the act of praying in the spirit its related to how it is done in the assembly.
1 Cor 14:18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. 19 But in a church meeting, I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.
1 Cor 14:27 No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. 28 But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately. 29 Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said. 30 But if someone is prophesying and another person receives a revelation from the Lord, the one who is speaking must stop. 31 In this way, all who prophesy will have a turn to speak, one after the other, so that everyone will learn and be encouraged. 32 Remember that people who prophesy are in control of their spirit and can take turns. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the meetings of God’s holy people
In 1 Corinthians 11-14, Paul addresses the problem of disorganization in worship gatherings. Some people would get up and start praying in tongues while others are prophesying, all in the middle of a sermon or discussion. Paul asked for an order in service. This is why today we have an “order of service” in modern churches. Usually something like pre-service prayer, then praise and worship, then the sermon then benediction, offering, etc all in some order. His point was that the holy spirit doesn’t take control of people and force them to do something, the holy spirit leaves control in the hands of the person so they must wait their turn and not talk over each other. This way everyone can speak, the message is delivered and new believers aren’t confused or driven away. The ultimate message is that if we are operating in love, we will follow an orderly structure so that people can receive the gospel.
Ephesians 6:18 says to pray in the spirit at all times. Romans 8:26 says, “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words”.
However according to 1 Corinthians 14:1-19 when assembled together (as a congregation) there must be the interpretation of tongues for the edification of the church. In verse 5 Paul says he wishes all of the believers at Corinth could speak tongues but more importantly, he wishes they had the gift of prophesying for the edification of the whole assembly because speaking in tongues without interpretation is not fruitful for a congregation. This is summed up in verses 18-19.
The conclusion I get is that praying in the spirit for personal prayer time is fine because we are praying for God’s perfect will without interference from the limitations of our error-prone minds (Rom 8:26, Ep 6:18). However when in a church (assembly) setting there must be an interpretation of the language of the people assembled so that they can hear God speaking through the speaker prophetically. Speaking in tongues is one gift of the spirit and it must be paired with interpretation, in an assembly for it to have value. This is often how prophecy is given in the new covenant. It must be interpreted so that the prophecy is given can be understood, for the edification, and exhortation of the comfort of the people hearing (1 Cor 14:3).
Different people have a different view on this and some see it as just supernatural translation, and others it is a unique new non-human language, while others don’t do it at all because they believe it is bad even though it is a gift of the spirit. To each their own. Here is one important aspect of it, denying speaking in tongues and calling it “the devil’s language” is heresy according to Paul just read what he wrote at the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 14 (v37-40).
1 Cor 14:37 If you claim to be a prophet or think you are spiritual, you should recognize that what I am saying is a command from the Lord himself. 38 But if you do not recognize this, you yourself will not be recognized. 39 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.
He says that tongues are not to be forbidden but they must be done in order. In addition, he says anyone that calls themselves a prophet and denies his prescription on how to use the gifts of the spirit like speaking in tongues and prophecy in this chapter is to be unrecognized. So Paul discredits people that reject the gift of speaking in tongues as false teachers.
My personal theory is that the original pre-Babel language was a combination of all languages and that Acts 2 was a reverse of Genesis 11. So it is possible that speaking in tongues can be both a heavenly language and yet translatable to all earthly languages because they were all fractured from one original language at Babel rather than brand new languages. Learn more about this here.