What does speaking in tongues mean?
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The word “tongue” in the Bible simply means “a language.” Jesus told His followers, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). But how could the apostles go out preaching to all the world when they spoke only one or two languages? In order to fulfill the great commission, Jesus promised to give them a unique gift from the Holy Spirit. It was a miraculous, supernatural ability to speak foreign languages they had not formerly known for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; … they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17).
There are only three examples of speaking in tongues recorded in the Bible (Acts chapters 2, 10, and 19). Let’s examine these three cases:
“When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven [divided] tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
God sent this gift in the form of tongues of fire so they would know that He would empower their feeble tongues in the same way He strengthened Moses to go before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10-12) and touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the heavenly altar (Isaiah 6:6, 7). From this example it should be very clear that the gift of tongues was given to communicate the gospel in different existing languages of the world.
Some have mistakenly suggested that the gift of tongues is a “heavenly language” understood only by God or those with the gift of interpretation. The Bible is clear in Acts chapter 2 that both the disciples and those listening understood what was being preached “the wonderful works of God” (Verse 11).
The second example when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, asmany as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46). Acts 10:1 tells us that Cornelius was Italian, while Peter was a Jew and spoke Aramaic. Because there were obvious language barriers at this meeting, Peter likely began to preach through an interpreter. But when the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his household, the Jews with Peter could understand the Gentiles speaking in languages other than their native tongues.
The third and final example of speaking in tongues is when Paul preached to 12 Ephesian disciples “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). When the Holy Spirit came upon these 12 Ephesian men, Paul recognized that they were prophesying, or preaching, in new languages.
The only times the gift of tongues was associated with the out- pouring of the Holy Spirit is when people from more than one language group were gathered together, thus creating communication barriers.
The purpose for the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not to mutter or babble unintelligible sounds, but rather to have power for preaching. This is why Jesus said, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
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