WHAT WAS “SPEAKING IN TONGUES” IN THE BIBLE?

Most people are familiar with the King James translation of the Bible. For our generation, that is where the English phrase “speaking in tongues” originated. To understand what “speaking in tongues” is, it is helpful to go back to the year 1611—the year the King James translation of the Bible was made.

Some of the words and phrases that were commonly understood in 1611 may not be so commonly understood today. As an example, today we might ask, “What language do you speak?”  If we had lived in 1611, it would have been more likely to have asked, “What tongue do you speak?” Today we might ask, “Do you speak a foreign language?” In 1611 we would more likely have asked, “Do you speak a foreign tongue?” The point is, in this sense, “language” and “tongue” both have the same meaning.

Some folks mistakenly conclude that “unknown tongue” in the King James translation means no one on earth knows the language. But, the fact is, these languages were only unknown to those who had never learned them—in the very same way a foreign language today might be unknown to us. Notice the following verse in the King James translation.

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.” (KJV)

Jesus spoke of this miracle before ascending to heaven. It involved speaking a foreign language that a person had not learned. It served to confirm that the teacher’s message was from God. 

Mark 16:17-20

And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues…And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” (NKJV)

The fulfillment of Jesus’ words began on the Day of Pentecost. The Apostles were given the ability to speak languages (tongues) that they had not learned.

Acts 2:3-11

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance… And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.’” (NKJV)

Notice how in these verses the words “language” and “tongues” are used interchangeably. When this miracle happened, all those who were present understood what the miracle was. The apostles were able to speak foreign languages that they had never learned! Notice again the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28 where he gave guidelines for how this miracle was to be used in the church assemblies. 

“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.  But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” (KJV)

We can see that a Christian with the ability to work this miracle had control over it when he exercised the “gift.” He was to keep silent if there was no interpreter present!  You can only interpret a real language. There are no verses in the Bible where “tongues” means anything but an actual language.

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