What is speaking in tongues?
Speaking in tongues was a known language designed to gain attention and to warn of coming judgment. There are only two books of the Bible that address “speaking in tongues” with a third that references that tongues will occur. This subject has created great confusion in the church and divided many believers, contrary to God’s desire. The subject matter of speaking in tongues occurs in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians. Isaiah prophesied about speaking in tongues in Isaiah 28.
The first time speaking in tongues is mentioned in Scripture is Isaiah prophesies of that speaking in tongues is a warning that judgment is coming. It is prophesied in Isaiah 28:1-11 and records in the context of Israel’s downward spiral and judgment to come,
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, Whose glorious beauty is a fading flower Which is at the head of the verdant valleys, To those who are overcome with wine!
2 Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, Like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, Like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, Who will bring them down to the earth with His hand.
3 The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, Will be trampled underfoot;
4 And the glorious beauty is a fading flower Which is at the head of the verdant valley, Like the first fruit before the summer, Which an observer sees; He eats it up while it is still in his hand.
5 In that day the LORD of hosts will be For a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty To the remnant of His people,
6 For a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, And for strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.
7 But they also have erred through wine, And through intoxicating drink are out of the way; The priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, They are swallowed up by wine, They are out of the way through intoxicating drink; They err in vision, they stumble in judgment.
8 For all tables are full of vomit and filth; No place is clean.
9 “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts?
10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little.”
11 For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people,
12 To whom He said, “This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest,” And, “This is the refreshing”; Yet they would not hear. (Is. 28:1-12)
Isaiah rebuked Israel for their emotional revolt of the soul toward God and that the glory of Israel was fading – a fading flower (28:1). They once were greatly blessed, but because of their rebellion and lack of trust in the Lord, God would bring judgment of hail, storm and flooding disasters (28:2). The drunkards of Ephraim refers to their occupation with this world rather than worshiping the Lord (28:3; cf. Eph. 5:18). Justice was coming on Israel in judgment, but that was not what God wanted (28:6). But because of their wickedness God would drive them out of the land of Israel. Because of their drunken occupation with this world, their lives were a mess – tables full of vomit – and they no longer thought divine viewpoint (28:8). Isaiah asked who he could teach, because everyone lacked the ability to comprehend (28:9). They acted like children, so the prophet made a drunken like statement that God will only provide basic truth, because they were spiritual babes (28:10). The point is in 28:11, “For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people.” When you look at someone who purportedly speaks in tongue, it looks like they are stammering in syllables that do not make sense. Actually, when you go to another country today and you hear a foreign language, it looks and sounds like – “stammering lips.” At the judgment, Israel would be forced to rest (28:12), because she would be destroyed as a nation. Unfortunately, Israel would reject the prophecy.
God pronounced that prior to the judgment, there would be stammering lips. That is, when Israel hears stammering lips, they better prepare for God’s judgment. There will be a rest that comes, but not the rest they would want. When the stammering lips come, there will be nothing the Jews can do, because the judgment IS coming.
This passage of Scripture in Isaiah was quoted in 1 Corinthians 14:21. Paul writes,
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
21 In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. (1 Cor. 14:20-21)
What is the subject Paul is discussing in 1 Corinthians 14? Paul is discussing tongues and prophesying. Tongues was a spiritual gift God used to warn Israel that judgment was coming (Is. 28), but God also used tongues as a means of communicating truth, until the Scripture, or the Canon, was complete.
Let’s turn to the first occurrence of tongues in Scripture. The passage is found in Acts 2. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Day of First Fruits, the Day of Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples and they spoke in tongues. The context was Jewish men and families came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast. of First Fruits. These were Jewish families who spoke a variety of languages, yet they came to worship together. Luke records in Acts 2,
2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.
7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?
8“And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?
9“Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10“Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 “Cretans and Arabs– we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.“ (Acts 2:2-11)
Tongues were known languages spoken by individuals who were not trained in those languages, but understandable by those who already understood that language. It was a sign that caught the attention of people,
12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” (Acts 2:12)
They knew something special happened and they asked the right question, “Whatever could this mean?” but they did not go back to the prophet Isaiah to understand judgment was coming. God had their attention specifically, so that they would listen to the gospel presentation by Peter,
21 And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.‘ (Acts 2:21)
The two-fold purpose was to get their attention so they would listen to the gospel and secondly serve as a warning that judgment was coming.
The secondtime speaking in tongues is mentioned is in Acts 10. Let’s look at that passage,
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.
45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered,
47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:44-47)
Note that again, they spoke in known languages, because it follows the precedent of Acts 2, for the purpose of magnifying God. The tongues were in a Gentile language, so the Gentiles would be drawn to the message of hope, the message of the gospel.
The third time speaking in tongues is mentioned is in Acts 19. Luke records in Acts 19:1-6,
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples
2 he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
4 Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
6 And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. (Acts 19:1-6)
Again, they spoke in known languages rather than stuttering gibberish.
Paul’s discussion on tongues is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This article was not designed to address more than “What is tongues?” so I’ll leave a discussion of that for another article.
In conclusion, speaking in tongues refers to known languages used to gain attention to two things. First, tongues was used to gain attention of people in order to listen to the gospel message. Secondly, speaking in tongues was designed as a warning to Israel that they would soon be judged. That judgment came 40 years after the speaking in tongues first occurred. That 40 years is not a coincidence. It is a number of judgment, but also of grace. Israel had 40 years to respond and join the body of Christ before the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.