The gift of speaking in an unknown language or tongue was the initial manifestation of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. It caused so much amazement among those who witnessed it, resulting in Peter’s inspired sermon that led to the conversion of thousands. It was a sign that opened the door of the Gospel to the Jews, and launched the Gospel age in a powerful way.
However, there are problems with the manifestation of this gift of the Spirit in the Church today. Rather than inspire awe and wonder among unbelievers, speaking in tongues among Pentecostals and Charismatics has only provoked ridicule and scorn among the uninitiated, leading to disdain for believers and turning people away from the Gospel. What is the problem with the unknown tongues spoken in our churches today? Why is speaking in tongues causing the opposite effects of what the original gift did at Pentecost? We shall closely examine Scripture for a proper understanding of the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. This will help prevent abuse and counterfeiting of this gift, as well as regulate its proper use in the Church.
Speaking in unknown tongues (languages) is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church. This gift is the supernatural ability to speak in foreign languages one did not learn and cannot ordinarily speak or comprehend. For those who have this gift of the Holy Spirit, when the Spirit comes upon them, He gives them the utterance (or the ability) to speak fluently in these languages that are foreign to them. These are languages that are known and spoken among men. If anyone from the country where those languages are naturally spoken happens to be around, he or she would hear and understand the languages being spoken. The person would wonder in amazement at hearing his native language being spoken by a foreigner who has neither travelled to his country, nor learnt his language. That was what happened on the day of Pentecost!
The Acts 2:1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
The Acts 2:2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
The Acts 2:3 And there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them.
The Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The Acts 2:5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
The Acts 2:6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
The Acts 2:7 And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
The Acts 2:8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
The Acts 2:9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
The Acts 2:10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
The Acts 2:11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
The Acts 2:12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What means this?
From the account above, we understand that the tongues spoken by the disciples on the day of Pentecost, following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, were languages spoken in various parts of the world. The disciples, being Jews who were all from Galilee and had not travelled out of Israel, were heard speaking languages of many different countries, by people who were natives of those countries. The languages the disciples spoke, though unknown and unlearned by them, were known languages spoken in other parts of the world. The disciples weren’t just babbling some gibberish stuff! They weren’t just reciting some incomprehensible nonsense! They were speaking other people’s languages, and people from those regions heard and understood clearly what they spoke, even if they themselves speaking the languages didn’t understand what they were speaking. Can we see the contrast between the unknown tongues that were spoken by the disciples at Pentecost and the ones spoken in our Churches today? I’m sure it’s obvious!
Another remarkable thing about the speaking in unknown tongues among the disciples on the day of Pentecost was that the utterance to speak in unknown tongues was given to them by the Holy Spirit. They spoke in tongues, not by their own will or by the prompting of men, but by the prompting of the Holy Spirit! They spoke as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance!
The Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
What this means is that, speaking in tongues, like all other gifts of the Holy Spirit, is not under human control. The gift is controlled by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit decides when to give the utterance to speak in a foreign language, not man. Just as a prophet prophesies only as he is inspired, one speaks in a foreign tongue only as he is inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so! You don’t speak in tongues on and off at will. You don’t control the gift, nor do you determine when, where and how to speak in tongue. No man, not even your pastor, can tell you to start speaking in tongues! Only the Holy Spirit can inspire and give you the utterance to speak in an unknown tongue. You can speak in a known or learned language at will. You can utter some gibberish or make noise at will, but you cannot speak in genuine unknown tongues at will. This is because every gift of the Spirit is controlled by the Holy Spirit, and is not under the wilful control of man!
2 Peter 1:21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
That’s it! Every gift of the Spirit is activated as the Holy Spirit moves us or inspires us, not as we move ourselves. It is as the Holy Spirit gives us utterance, not as we give ourselves utterance! We do not control the Holy Spirit or the gifts he has given us. He controls and directs how his gifts are used.
1 Corinthians 12:4 Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:5 And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
1 Corinthians 12:6 And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.
Note some important points from the passage above: the Holy Spirit gives out all the different gifts, he administers all the gifts and he operates all the them! All the gifts of the Spirit come from Holy Spirit, and he administers and operates them all! The Holy Spirit decides when, how, and where to manifest any of his gifts, including the gift of speaking in an unknown tongue! Just like a prophet cannot prophesy at will until he is commanded by the Holy Spirit to do so, you cannot begin to speak in an unknown tongue at will until the Holy Spirit inspires you to do so, if you have the gift! It’s therefore unscriptural and crazy to hear pastors order their congregation to begin to speak or pray in tongues! Unless it’s a tongue you learned and were taught, you cannot begin to speak in an unknown and unlearned tongue on your own or at your pastor’s prompting! Only the Holy Spirit can give you the utterance to speak in an unknown and unlearned tongue!
The Acts 10:44 While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.
The Acts 10:45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Acts 10:46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter,
The Acts 10:47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?
The Acts 10:48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.
From the account above of the conversion of the first Gentiles to the Christian faith, we see again the manifestation of the gift of speaking in unknown tongues upon receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Again, we see the unknown tongue spoken as the gift of the Holy Spirit being a language known and understood by other people whose language it is. To the one inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak in an unknown tongue, the language is unknown. However, the language spoken is known and understood by people whose native tongue it is. Here, we see the Gentiles (probably Romans) who did not know the Hebrew language, being inspired by the Holy Spirit to praise God in Hebrew, a language they neither knew nor had been taught before. The Jewish believers heard the Gentiles who didn’t know the Hebrew language speaking and praising God in Hebrew, and they recalled and remembered their own experience on the day of Pentecost. On that day, they spoke in Gentile languages they had never learned or known, under the influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And, Jews who lived in those Gentile nations heard and understood them as they praised God in their native languages. Now, the reverse was taking place here in the house of Cornelius: Gentiles were speaking an unknown Hebrew tongue under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and Jews present heard and understood what they were saying! Imagine the wonder and amazement of those Jewish believers present! They knew this had to be God! That’s what speaking in unknown tongue is supposed to do: inspire holy amazement and awe, and draw people to God! It is not the stupid repetition of some unintelligent babblings not known or understood anywhere in the world! It is not ranting like a toddler and jabbering some confused jargons. When speaking in an unknown tongue under the influence of the Holy Spirit, people speak known and recognized foreign languages that are known and spoken by people in other parts of the world, though unknown and unlearned by the speaker.
The Acts 19:1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,
The Acts 19:2 He said to them, Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed? And they said to him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.
The Acts 19:3 And he said to them, To what then were you baptized? And they said, To John’s baptism.
The Acts 19:4 Then said Paul, John truly baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
The Acts 19:5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The Acts 19:6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied.
The Acts 19:7 And all the men were about twelve.
The next recorded instance of speaking in tongues was as shown above in the 19th chapter of the book of Acts. Here again, after the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the people spoke in tongues, and also prophesied. We see speaking in tongues consistently linked with the Holy Spirit who gives the utterance. When the Spirit anoints people, he activates his gifts as he wills. No where in Scripture do we see people jumping up on their own to speak in tongues, or being commanded by Pastors to do so. It is always when the Holy Spirit comes upon people that the utterance to speak in unknown tongues is given. To speak in an unknown tongue is not under the willful control of man!
Pentecostals and Charismatics are of the opinion that every believer who is baptised with the Holy Spirit must speak in an unknown tongue as the evidence of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. They thus judge Christians who don’t speak in unknown tongues as destitute of the Spirit. Now, what’s the position of Scripture on this matter? Does every believer have to speak in unknown tongues after they have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit? From the scriptures above, we learnt that we do not control the gifts of the Spirit. We have also seen that it is the Holy Spirit that gives the utterance to speak in an unknown tongue, not man. Who speaks in an unknown tongue is therefore up to the Holy Spirit and not dependent on any man. The Spirit gives his gifts as he chooses! If he inspires everyone to speak in unknown tongues, fine. However, let’s look at Scripture to see if every believer is endowed with the gift of speaking in unknown tongues.
1 Corinthians 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
1 Corinthians 12:28 And God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
1 Corinthians 12:29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
1 Corinthians 12:30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
It is obvious from the Scriptures above that not all believers are expected to have the gift of speaking in unknown tongues, just as not all believers are apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, etc. Not everyone is expected to speak in unknown tongues! The Holy Spirit decides who to give what gift. If he hasn’t given you the gift of speaking in an unknown tongue, don’t force yourself or allow others to force you to speak some nonsense in the name of unknown tongues. Don’t impersonate speaking in tongues or any of the gifts of the Spirit! God gives his gifts as he wills.
1 Corinthians 12:7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit with.
1 Corinthians 12:8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
1 Corinthians 12:9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
1 Corinthians 12:10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
1 Corinthians 12:11 But all these works that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
God alone determines who gets what gift of the Spirit. To one he gives the gift of prophecy, to another he gives the gift of speaking in tongues, to another the gift of interpretation of tongues, etc. Not every member of the body of Christ has the gift of speaking in unknown tongues, just like not all believers are apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, etc. The Holy Spirit divides his gifts among believers as he wills. So, don’t expect every believer that is Spirit-filled to speak in unknown tongues, because not all believers have the gift of speaking in tongues!
Some people claim that speaking in tongues is the prayer language of the Spirit, and that to pray in the Spirit, one must pray in tongues. This group of people also believe that prayers said in tongues are more effective than those prayed with our understanding, as speaking in tongues confuses the devil and makes him unaware of our prayer points so that he can’t block or interfere with them. Let us look at Scripture to understand what praying in the Spirit is, since not all believers have the gift of speaking in tongues.
Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Romans 8:27 And he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
From the passage above, we see that the Holy Spirit prays within the believer with groans that cannot be uttered in words. The Holy Spirit does not pray in languages of men. He is God. He speaks to the Father on our behalf without communicating in words. Deep calls unto deep. The Father who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Holy Spirit is saying, without verbal communication. So, if the Holy Spirit does not need to speak in words in his intercession for us, what then is praying in the Holy Spirit? And why do we need to pray in the Holy Spirit?
To pray in the Holy Spirit, just like to walk or live in the Spirit, is to be united in prayer with the Spirit. It means to be led and guided by the Spirit in prayer. It means not to pray in the energies of the flesh, but to rely on the strength and power of the Holy Spirit in prayer. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit as we pray, he ignites the fire of prayer in us, strengthens us as we pray and leads us to pray according to the will of God. As we pray in the Spirit, he helps our infirmities, and groans within us wordlessly. But the Father understands his groans.
The purpose of praying in the Holy Spirit is not to confuse Satan with an unknown tongue, for Satan understands all the tongues of men and of angels. There is no prayer said in any language that Satan does not understand. Rather, praying in the Holy Spirit enables us to pray according to the will of God, for the Holy Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And, only prayers that are in accordance with the will of God will receive answers from God. That’s the advantage of praying in the Holy Spirit. Praying in the Holy Spirit simply enables us to pray in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit, rather than praying carnally, without the leadership and help of the Holy Spirit. We get built up and strengthened thereby.
Jude 1:20 But you, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost,
Praying in the Holy Spirit also ensures that we pray prayers that are guaranteed to be answered since the Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God:
1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he hears us:
1 John 5:15 And if we know that he hear us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
Next, we come to the issue of coordinating the speaking of unknown tongues during Church meetings. How should unknown tongues be spoken in the Church when believers gather together? Let us turn to the Apostolic writings to find out how speaking in unknown tongues is to be done in the Church.
1 Corinthians 14:2 For he that speaks in an unknown tongue speaks not to men, but to God: for no man understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.
1 Corinthians 14:4 He that speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself; but he that prophesies edifies the church.
1 Corinthians 14:5 I would that you all spoke with tongues but rather that you prophesied: for greater is he that prophesies than he that speaks with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.
From the passage above, we understand that speaking in a tongue that no one else understands is as good as speaking to God who alone understands all languages. One can pray and praise God in a foreign unknown language, when inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so, as it happened on the day of Pentecost and at Cornelius’ house (Acts 2:11; Acts 10:46). However, unless the foreign tongue is interpreted so that others can understand what the Holy Spirit is inspiring the speaker to say, the listeners will not benefit. Whatever the speaker of an unknown tongue speaks remains a mystery, unless interpreted. In such a case, only the speaker will be edified or strengthened. The rest of the church, not understanding what was said, will not benefit.
1 Corinthians 14:13 Why let him that speaks in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.
1 Corinthians 14:14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
1 Corinthians 14:15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
1 Corinthians 14:16 Else when you shall bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupies the room of the unlearned say Amen at your giving of thanks, seeing he understands not what you say?
1 Corinthians 14:17 For you truly give thanks well, but the other is not edified.
When you are inspired by the Holy Spirit to pray in an unknown language, your spirit is praying but your understanding is unfruitful. You are praying alright, but you do not understand what you’re praying about, because you’re speaking a language you don’t understand. Praying in an unknown tongue is equivalent to praying with your spirit. However, it is not the same as praying in the Holy Spirit, which is praying as led, energised and supported by the Holy Spirit, and does not have to be in an unknown tongue. Every believer filled with the Holy Spirit can pray in the Holy Spirit, even without the gift of speaking in an unknown tongue. Because praying in an unknown tongue bypasses the human understanding, the understanding does not benefit from such prayers. The Apostle Paul enjoins those who speak and pray in unknown tongues to also pray in their understanding, for the participation of the human mind in prayer helps to strengthen faith. If you don’t know what you’re praying about, how will you know when you’ve received the answer? And how will your faith grow? Receiving definite answers to specific prayers helps faith to grow.
Now, we come to the crux of the matter: how to coordinate the gift of speaking in unknown tongues in the Church. Let us look at what Scripture has to be say about this matter.
1 Corinthians 14:26 How is it then, brothers? when you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done to edifying.
1 Corinthians 14:27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.
1 Corinthians 14:28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.
Speaking in unknown tongues is to be done in an orderly fashion in the Church, for those who have this gift of the Spirit. Not more than three people should speak in unknown tongues during a Church meeting, and they should do that one after the other. Every message spoken in a foreign language should be interpreted for everyone to hear and be edified. If no one has the gift of interpretation of tongues, then the speakers in unknown tongues should keep silent. This is to prevent disorderliness in the Church meetings. Despite this Apostolic rule to prevent confusion and disorder during Church meetings, we find entire Pentecostal and Charismatic churches babbling in confused tongues all at once during meetings. It is as though they are out-competing themselves to rebuild the tower of Babel. The confusion and embarrassment such scenes create are enough to discourage intelligent unbelievers from attending such meetings, because the believers present a picture of mad people in various stages of mental derangement and hysteria.
1 Corinthians 14:23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that you are mad?
1 Corinthians 14:33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.
In conclusion, speaking in unknown tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit that imbues one with the supernatural ability to speak a foreign language without prior learning. It is the gift that launched the Church on the day of Pentecost and still has the potential to awe and amaze unbelievers, and open them up for the preaching of the Gospel. However, corruption and misuse of this gift has only inspired disdain and contempt for the Church from unbelievers. Only a return to the Apostolic understanding and use of this great gift of the Spirit will clear the great mess and confusion occasioned by its abuse and misuse today.
God bless you all!