Tongue-speaking among early believers

speaking in tongues (10)

Speaking in tongues 

Tongue-Speaking among Early Believers 

(A Preliminary Study)


  • What instructions do we read in the New Testament?
  • What directives and what prohibitions do we notice?
  • How do contemporary practices differ from this New Testament practice?


It is true that some religious leaders show very little interest in the beliefs and practices of the early Christians. They tend to think in naturalistic terms, failing to recognize that much of what we read in Scripture is meant to be normative to our life today.

Thankfully there are many others who recognize the New Testament as our guide to what we—today—should believe and practice as individuals and as communities of believers. Paul wrote to Timothy how he should direct the believers in Ephesus, “so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He also instructed Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).

How are we to view early practices of the body of Christ, as reflected on the pages of Scripture? Our study here is only a preliminary one and it seeks to discover the truth about tongue-speaking among the early believers. We don’t have all of the answers on this matter, but this study will explore some aspects of it in light of God’s infallible Word.

Tongue-Speaking among the Early Believers

Millions of people around the world claim that they speak in tongues. Since the turn of the twentieth century, great numbers of devoted religious people open their mouths and believe that they are speaking in an “unknown tongue” inspired by God or directed to God. What began as the modern day “Pentecostal” movement has spread to many different denominations and independent groups across America, through Latin America, into Africa, and into Asia. What can we say about this phenomenon of the past century?

We could examine “speaking in tongues” or glossolalia (from the Greek glossa, “tongues”) from various perspectives, but here we wish to limit our comments to an examination of what tongues were like in the first century. This should be the starting point in any more complete study of the topic.

Several different views of speaking in tongues

  1. Some secularists and liberals would say that this experience never happened but that people in the first-century church were influenced by pagan beliefs and thought that they spoke in tongues. Of course, this is a naturalistic view that must be rejected by anyone who holds to the reliability and authority of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
  2. Others believe that the various “gifts of the Spirit” were limited to the first generation of Christians. After these gifts served their purpose to authenticate the apostles and others, they were no longer needed. Sometimes 1 Corinthians 13:8 is used to convey this view.
  3. Some would say that tongues were meant to be a “sign” to the Jews or a sign that Spirit had been given to the Gentiles. After this purpose of the gifts was fulfilled, there would no longer be a need for these gifts. This is sometimes labeled as cessationism (i.e., tongues “ceased” after they fulfilled their original purpose).
  4. Still others would say that some of the gifts (tongues, interpretation, prophecy, miracles, and healing) were temporary, whereas other gifts were more natural endowments and will continue to be manifested until Christ returns.
  5. Tens of millions of people would claim that all of the gifts were meant to be operational until Christ returns. Thus, it is God’s will that all the gifts remain today and should be exercised among true Christians.
  6. Perhaps a subpoint under the point above would be those who say that tongues are the indispensible sign that one has received the “baptism of the Spirit” (Charismatics and most Pentecostals), and a few religionists (Jesus-only Pentecostals and other Apostolic people) would say that tongues are essential for salvation.
  7. Some people of a Pentecostal persuasion would emphasize part of the so-called Great Commission at Mark 16:17-18: “These signs will accompany those who have believed; in My name they will casts out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Many would say that speaking with “new tongues” will “accompany those who have believed.”

We are not able to discuss this whole subject at length here, but we merely want to look at one aspect of this phenomenon. I’ve been in various services in various churches and gatherings over the years where people claimed that they were speaking in tongues. There are some variations between people and groups, but they all claim that God is speaking through them by means of the Holy Spirit. What can we discover in the New Testament portion of God’s Word that would give us some insights on tongues that were manifested in the early body of Christ? This would be a starting point in any study of New Testament tongues. With this in mind, consider the following.

First, the tongues on Pentecost appear to have been actual languages spoken in the first century.

On the day of Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:4). “Tongues” here is the Greek glossa, and this refers to the tongue “as an organ of speech” (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, s.v. “tongue”). Vine says that “tongue” is used of “the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt [sic.]” (Ibid.). This same term is used in verse 11.

Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that Jews and proselytes had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. He says that they came from various provinces and geographical areas of the Roman Empire (e.g., Medes, Elamites, Judea, Pontus, etc.). “Luke lists fifteen nations of the civilized world in his day” (Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Acts of the Apostles). Therefore, “tongues” could refer to many different languages spoken in the first century.

It is significant that these “tongues” (Acts 2:4, 11) were known languages in the first century. This is confirmed by the fact that Luke speaks of these tongues as languages (“in his own language,” v. 6). The term “language” found in verses 6 and 8 comes from the Greek dialektos which denoted “the language or dialect of a country or district” (W. E. Vine, Ibid.). See also Acts 1:19; 21:40; 22:2; 26:14. It is safe to conclude that the “tongues” of Acts two were actual languages known in various geographical areas if the first century Roman world. (One additional comment may be made. Some would say that these tongues were spoken only by the twelve apostles whereas others would maintain that they were spoken by the 120 gathered Christians.)

Second, the tongues that Cornelius and the Ephesians spoke must also have been an actual language.

After he spoke the gospel to the Gentile centurion at Caesarea, Peter and his companions were “amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God” (Acts 10:45-46). This same term, “tongues” (glossa) is the one we noticed from Acts 2 (vv. 4, 11) that meant “languages” (vv. 4, 11). Thus, it would seem that Cornelius also spoke with an actual language as did those apostles (or all the disciples) on Pentecost.

When Paul later came to Ephesus, he found 12 disciples who were defective in their knowledge and faith. After the apostle baptized them, Luke tells us that “they began speaking with tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:6). Here again, “tongues” comes from the Greek glossa, which must mean that these men also spoke with a known language (although it may not have been known to them, personally).

Third, Paul regulates speaking in tongues as they were exercised in the city of Corinth.

The gift of tongues was one of many different gifts that were exercised by the believers in Corinth. Paul says that the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4), the Lord (v. 5), and God (v. 6) were involved in the giving of these various spiritual endowments (vv. 4ff). Various “kinds of tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues” were two of the gifts the apostle mentions (v. 10).

Fourth, apparently none of the gifts of the Spirit were possessed by any one Christian.

Toward the end of 1 Corinthians 14, we read that “God has appointed in the church” various gifts, including various “kinds of tongues” (v. 28). Paul then asks certain pointed questions: “All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healing, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (vv. 29-30).  God had not determined to give tongues to everyone—but only to a certain number of the Corinthians. (Note: The Greek grammar here indicates that “No” is the expected answer to the string of questions Paul gives.)

“The seven questions . . . are each introduced by the Greek negative me, implying the answer ‘No.’ ‘It would be preposterous,’ says Paul, ‘for all to have one and the same gift as for all the parts of the body to perform one and the same function.’ Once more he inculcates the principle of diversity in unity, and incidentally explodes any tendency to claim that all spiritual persons must manifest glossolalia” (F. F. Bruce, The New Century Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Corinthians).

Fifth, tongues were of limited duration.

In chapter 13, Paul shows the supremacy of love in life and in the body of Christ (vv. 1-3).  He tells us that faith, hope, and love abide and the greatest of these three virtues is love (v. 13). A key passage is verse 8: “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” The question necessarily arises as to what the apostle meant when he wrote, “We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (vv. 9-10). When would tongues “cease” and when would the partial revelation “be done away”?

What is the “perfect”? Is it the perfect state of existence in the kingdom of God? Is it Christ’s coming (for, indeed, He is perfect). Is it the perfect revelation of God, the completed canon of Scripture? Paul continues, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (v. 12).

The idea is that when God poured out the Spirit and the gifts were operational in the early body of Christ, God’s revelation came only in “parts” and only in a “partial” way. When the “perfect” comes, then the partial revelation through prophecy and tongues would cease. At that time, we will see “face to face” and we will “know fully.” We need not answer the question of duration at this point, but we do need to realize that tongues would cease (either at the time of the apostles, shortly after their time, in our day, or when Christ returns in glory) (see also Ephesians 4:1-15).

Sixth, Paul sets forth several instructions to regulate the exercise of Tongues.

1 Corinthians 14 is the great “prophecy and tongues” chapter in the Bible (see also chapters 12-13). More is said of these two gifts here than anywhere else in Scripture. Let’s notice a few of Paul’s comments on this debatable gift of tongues.

  1. “Tongues” in 12:10, 28, 30 is from the Greek glossa. As we noticed before, this must refer to tongues that were actual languages.
  2. Another Greek term is also employed, phone. This term can mean sound, tone, voice, or voice. (See Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.) This is found in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11.
  3. In other places in this chapter, Paul uses glossa repeatedly. This shows that phone is equated with glossa, a term that we already noticed means languages (Acts 2:4, 6, 8, 11).
  4. Tongue-speaking can be directed to God: “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God” (v. 2a).
  5. The tongue-speaker builds himself up: “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” (v. 4a).
  6. Paul would have wanted all of the Corinthians to speak in tongues (v. 5). Since he already said that God gives to each according to His will (12:4-6), and God only chooses to give tongues (and every other gift) to certain Christians (12:28-30), this leads some to think that Paul is referring only to those who have the gift of tongues here. He isn’t suggesting that every single Christian should possess and exercise this gift. (See The College Press NIV Commentary: 1 Corinthians, p. 330.)
  7. The important thing is that the assembly of the Lord receives edification (v. 5). Prophecy and tongues (only with interpretation) can edify or build up the body of Christ.
  8. If tongues is coupled with revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching, it can be helpful (v. 6).
  9. Tongues are to be used only if it is “clear” and understandable (v. 9).
  10. If one doesn’t know the special language, he will be like a barbarian who is unable to speak in the common language of civilization (v. 11). (Barbarians were those who lived outside of the Greek-speaking world.)
  11. Tongues must be interpreted in order to benefit the hearers: “Let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret” (v. 13).
  12. Praying and singing in the Spirit are profitable only if they can be understood, only if a tongue is interpreted (vv. 14-17).
  13. Paul claims to speak in tongues more than even the Corinthians: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all” (v. 18).
  14. The apostle wanted to refrain from speaking in tongues if there was no interpreter present: “. . . however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (v. 19). Paul emphasizes the need to “instruct” others or edify the body: “. . . the church may receive edifying” (v. 5b).
  15. Tongues are for a sign to unbelievers (v. 22). But presumably if tongues are interpreted, they may have the same benefit as prophesying does for both the believer and unbeliever (cf. vv. 23-25).
  16. If there is no interpreter, tongues that are uninterpreted will cause the “ungifted” and “unbelievers” to conclude that the speakers are “mad” or insane (v. 23).
  17. Tongues would be one of various gifts that were exercised in the assembly: “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (v. 26). Tongues did have a place in the early assembly, but they should only be exercised in a way that people are edified or spiritually built up.

Seventh, only two or three tongue-speakers were permitted to speak in any meeting.

This shows the importance that the number of speakers is to be limited. “If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three” (1 Corinthians 14:27a). Four or more speakers are forbidden.

Eighth, the speakers should speak sequentially.

Speakers should speak one at a time. Instead of speaking all at once, they should speak in an orderly manner, one after another: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn” (1 Corinthians 14:27).

Ninth, there must always be an interpreter present when one speaks in a tongue.

This surely is an important point that should not be overlooked: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:27). Paul goes on to elaborate: “. . . but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God” (v. 28). Interpretation of tongues is a gift of the Spirit (12:10, 30). “Let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret” (14:13). In other words, speaking in tongues must be coupled with the interpretation of the tongues (14:5, 26). Otherwise, one must refrain from speaking.

Tenth, if there is no interpreter present, the tongue-speaker must keep silent.

Just as the prophet who is speaking when another receives a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:30) and women (vv. 33-35) must be silent in the assembly, so the tongue-speaker must be silent when there is no interpreter. “If there is no interpreter, he must be silent in the church” (v. 28a). What is he to do? “Let him speak to himself and to God” (v. 28b).

Eleventh, women are forbidden to speak in the assembly.

In the context of the gifts of prophesy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues, Paul strictly forbids women to publicly participate in speaking. Notice the clear but hated passage where the apostle makes this prohibition:

“. . . as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35).

First, notice that this prohibition against women speaking is one that is true of “all the churches of the saints.” It is not a local requirement. Second, women are to “keep silent” in the assemblies and are to be submissive (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1). Paul says that it is “improper” for a woman to speak in the public assemblies of the saints. We might notice that in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul also says that a woman is not to “teach or exercise authority” over the man but to remain quiet.

In order to emphasize how important it is that women heed the instructions here, Paul issues this warning: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (v. 37). Both men and women must not trifle with the apostle’s words here for they are actually the words of Jesus our Lord! This suggests that these instructions on women’s participation in prophesy and tongues must not be seen as merely a local custom in Corinth, or a time-related matter that pertains only to the first century, or any other limited circumstance. It is God’s will that is being conveyed through the words of His apostle.

Tongue speaking

Common Violations of Biblical Teaching by Contemporary Tongue-Speakers

We have noticed many instructions that Scripture gives to us, particularly in the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and all of these directives are meant to regulate the speaking in tongues. One source says that there are presently over 500 million Charismatics and Pentecostals, a full half billion people in the world! ( Charismatic_ Christianity). We suspect that tens of millions of these people claim to speak in tongues.

We would think that these great numbers of people would be interested in what Scripture teaches about tongue speaking. However, instead of people obeying Scripture or regulating their practice according to Scripture, we find many deviations and outright acts of disobedience. Notice a few of these that come to mind:

  1. Many claim to speak in tongues but they fail to speak in actual languages. We have already noticed that the three Greek terms, used interchangeably, would indicate that first century tongues were genuine languages, unknown and unlearned by the speaker.
  2. Many people exalt tongues above other gifts of the Spirit. In contrast, Paul says that prophecy is “greater” than tongues (14:5).
  3. Some claim that every person who receives the “baptism” of the Spirit today must give evidence of this by speaking in tongues. In contrast, Paul says that only some in the assembly at Corinth had this gift of tongue-speaking (12:28-30).
  4. Commonly, in charismatic or Pentecostal meetings, one hears a variety of different expressions of tongue-speaking; however, there is little or no interpretation. This appears to be a clear violation of Paul’s instructions to remain silent if there is no interpreter present.
  5. Often, in Pentecostal circles, numerous people may be heard speaking in tongues. In contrast, Paul says that only “two or at the most three” should so speak in any one meeting (14:27). (Pentecostals say that in such cases, each individual is free to speak in tongues and that these are not meant for public edification. However, one is hard pressed to find this in the chapter we have been examining.)
  6. Commonly, speaking in tongues may become a bizarre noise of many people speaking at the same time!  Paul tells us that speaking in tongues is to be done with each participating “in turn” (14:27). This means one at a time.
  7. It must be possible for a tongue-speaker to restrain himself and his utterances, for he is not to speak at all if there is “no interpreter” present (14:28).
  8. As we noticed earlier, it would seem that modern Pentecostals and Charismatics almost always avoid, neglect, or clearly disobey Paul’s clear prohibition against women’s vocal participation in the meetings, including her speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:33-37; cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15). It may be that even more women than men claim to speak in tongues!

In addition to these weighty points, there is another point that many simply overlook.  In the very context that we have been discussing in our examination of tongues, prophesy, and other spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14), Paul writes, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). This text tells us that “all” were baptized by one Spirit and “all” drank of the Holy Spirit. This experience was common to “all” the Corinthians who were saved.

There is some discussion as to whether this is a baptism of water that is effective “by” one Spirit, or whether this is a baptism of Christ “in” the Holy Spirit (the Greek can read either way). Whatever the answer is here, we do know that there is a “water” component and a “Spirit” component to baptism. Water baptism is not merely water and Spirit baptism is not merely Spirit. Perhaps Christ’s words at John 3:5 would apply in this context: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

In other scriptures, we read that one is (water) baptized into the “name” of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Further, Peter tells those on Pentecost, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38-39). Here both forgiveness and the Spirit are directly related to repentance and baptism. The baptism of Cornelius (10:44-48) and the Ephesians (19:5-6) is closely related to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps also the baptism of Romans 6:3-5 is directly related to the Spirit (compare 7:6). The baptism of Galatians 3:26-27 is likewise related to the Holy Spirit (cf. 4:6).

But here is the problem that must be considered. The vast majority of those who claim to speak in tongues (and exercise other spiritual gifts) haven’t truly been baptized! Any baptism that they claim to have experienced surely must be lacking, with the absence of water (for immersion) or the absence of the Holy Spirit. (Many other aspects of Biblical baptism are also lacking.) This would mean that one requirement or condition for the exercise of tongues would be missing. Yet multiple millions of people around the world claim to speak in tongues, prophesy, perform miracles, and healings. Something is dreadfully wrong here.

For these reasons and others, we must conclude that great numbers of Charismatics and Pentecostals are violating Scripture. Even if one were to conclude that this gift was genuine and available today, surely most of what we see is not genuine, not valid, and is, in fact, a counterfeit of the real gift!

Let’s Conclude with these Observations

First, in the second and third centuries, various tongue-speakers (such as the Montanists) claimed to exercise this gift, but they were heretics. Does it strike you as incongruous for an unsaved person to claim to speak in tongues?

Second, some people today (and even whole sects and denominations) claim to speak in tongues but they are heretical in doctrine and are false teachers. For instance, there are numerous Apostolic or Jesus-Only (“Oneness”) people who appear to be devoted and devout, but they deny that Jesus is God’s Son. They claim that Jesus is God the Father (see 1 John 2:22-24)! Does it not seem strange that God would grant the gift of tongues to those who are not even His children?

Third, tongues are often exercised in a completely unscriptural way. As we have noticed, some Pentecostal denominations would say that tongues are the indispensible sign or demonstration that one has been “baptized” in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). Without this experience, it is thought that one can’t have this measure of the Spirit! Would God give this gift to endorse a false teaching like this?

Fourth, many (most) of those who claim to speak in tongues are clearly heretical and false in their beliefs and practices. For example, there are numerous Catholics today who claim to speak in tongues. This charismatic view is espoused by those who claim that God has made them appreciate Mary, the saints, the Mass, and Catholic traditions in an even greater way! Would God give genuine tongues to a false and counterfeit Christianity? The same would be true of Protestants and others who claim to have this spiritual gift while they espouse and teach many false doctrines and practices.

Fifth, most tongue-speakers are not even saved! When one looks at the so-called “conversion experience” or “salvation experience” of most of the tongue-speakers, there is a vast difference between what they have had and what Scripture teaches on how to be saved, forgiven, and born again! But consider: Many have not repented of all their sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30-31 20:21; 26:20). Additionally, some have not exercised a genuine faith in God, in Christ, and in the redemptive death and resurrection of the Lord (John 1:12; 3:14-18, 36; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25-26; Romans 3:24-25; 5:1; 10:9-10). Some of these believe in the so-called “sinner’s prayer” or “easy believism” or “baptismal regeneration” (or baby baptism, and many other aberrations). Further yet, the great majority have not experienced an authentic baptism into Christ Jesus (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 8:12, 35-39; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:21).

If they have not truly been saved and born again into God’s family, how can they have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 5:32; Romans 5:5) and possess the gift of tongues which would come from the work of the Spirit (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32)?

Let’s view Scripture Accurately and Order our Lives Accordingly

We’ve seen enough from our study of tongues in the first century to conclude that what we see today is very different from what was practiced some 2,000 years ago. Let’s begin to go to the Word of God to find our faith and practice and not rely on popular but false church doctrines of our own day—regardless of how many millions of people are willing to do this.

Remember that Jesus our Lord warned: “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:13-14). Paul urged the Colossians to beware, “that no one will delude you with persuasive argument” (2:4). Let us take warning of this delusion to which we are prone. As the apostle said in another context, “Do not be deceived” (Galatians 6:7a). Many are being deceived in our day regarding speaking in tongues.

In our short study, we are not directly addressing the question of the duration of the gifts of the Spirit and when certain gifts were to “cease” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)—whether in the time of the apostles, shortly after the time of the apostles, or yet future. That issue remains to be discussed. But this study simply shows that what is purported to be speaking in tongues in our day is far removed from the New Testament practice.


We know that there are many unanswered questions that we may have regarding spiritual gifts. This short study was not meant to deal with many aspects of this important subject. We merely want to show that what purports to be “speaking in tongues” in our world today fails to meet the tests of Scripture. There appears to be a vast amount of counterfeit experiences among religious but deceived professing “Christians.” This would be true both of those in traditional Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations as well as independent groups and also individuals scattered in the world who do not

See also, What God Wants in the Community of Christ.



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