Glossolalia: Speaking In Tongues
Glossolalia is a Greek word that refers to the ecstatic unintelligible utterances Christians make during prayer which is often referred to as speaking in tongues. It dates all the way back to the day of Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts. For any human communication to be successful, the message must first be encoded by the speaker, transmitted and then decoded by the listener or recipient. However, speaking in tongues doesn’t follow this pattern. With tongues, usually, the speaker himself cannot decode what he is speaking. In other instances, it is the recipient who decodes it and sends the meaning back to the speaker.
This is quite complicated don’t you think so? It is difficult to understand with the human mind and understanding. This is why most people make a mockery of tongues. Speaking in tongues has always attracted mockery from people who don’t understand its place in the church. The first time it was spoken, onlookers thought the apostles were drunk.
As already stated, speaking in tongues dates back to the day of Pentecost. In fact, speaking in tongues was the evidence of the gift Jesus Christ asked the apostles to wait for. That being said, it is crucial that I state that the speaking of tongues was not recorded anywhere in the Old Testament. Neither are we ever told Jesus himself spoke in tongues. However, Isaiah, the same prophet who prophesied the birth of Jesus, prophesied about tongues. He said in Isaiah 28:11 that ‘… by men with stammering lips and strange tongue will He (God) speak to this people’. Paul confirms that this verse was in reference to the speaking of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:21. Is it not amazing that Isaiah did not only speak about tongues, but he emphasized the point that it will be a means through which God will communicate to people? Speaking in tongues is a language through which God himself speaks to either the speaker or a group of people. To buttress a point I made in the first paragraph, tongues is spoken by a person who doesn’t understand what he is saying, in some cases, God picks it up and sends the meaning back to the person or to a group of people gathered.
A careful study of the subject of tongues, especially in the book of 1st Corinthians, reveals that believers can experience tongues in two major ways. The first of which is to use tongues as a prayer language, the second is to use tongues as a way to enter into the prophetic. A good understanding of this fact will put an end to most of the controversies surrounding tongues. In 1st Corinthians 14:13, Paul said that anyone who speaks in tongues should pray that God would grant him the ability to interpret it. He said this right after he made the point that it was his wish that every believer spoke in tongues and more importantly, prophesied. However, speaking in tongues and interpreting it is equal to the gift of prophecy. He also went on to state that, anybody who speaks in tongues openly to a congregation must be in the position to interpret it or there must be someone in the congregation to interpret it. If there is no one to interpret the tongues, the speaker should sit down and speak to himself and to his/her God. All these tell us that one can experience tongues as a prayer language and in other cases as a means to the prophetic. The latter is very much encouraged by the Apostle Paul. We can all speak in tongues. We can all prophesy. The key here is to have a strong desire for these gifts and God will honor the desire if it stems from faith in him by granting us graciously what we so desire.
The question is often asked, is speaking in tongues the sole indicator that one has received the Holy Spirit? Before I make any emphatic statement, I would like us to examine three events – all in the book of Acts. The first time that the apostles, together with the other believers spoke in tongues, the bible says the Holy Spirit had descended on all who were in the room and there were visible cloven tongues of fire on their heads. They spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. The second event is the story of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius. This was a total shocker because Cornelius was a Roman centurion, and hence, he was the least likely candidate to receive the Holy Spirit. However, in this story, while Peter was still expounding the word of God to Cornelius and his household, the spirit of God fell on them and they all began to speak in tongues and prophesy. The last event is recorded in Acts 19, where we see Paul interacting with some disciples at Ephesus. He asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit, they said no. So he laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in tongues and they also prophesied. What is the point here? From all indications, it seems in the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit comes upon a believer or when he/she is baptized in the spirit, he/she first speaks in tongues and in some cases prophesies. Primarily, the individual receives power when the Spirit comes upon him/her; the power to do what the spirit leads and this includes speaking in tongues. However, I am not saying one cannot interact with the Holy Spirit or encounter him unless he speaks in tongues. In the Old Testament we see the spirit of God come over so many people and yet none of them spoke in tongues. However, in some cases, when the spirit came over some people, they prophesied. Case in point, when the Spirit came upon King Saul and he prophesied.
I was astounded to hear Dr. George Arthur say in a sermon that for 1600 years, the speaking of tongues was prohibited in the church. Nevertheless, there were a few individuals who did speak in tongues. Therefore, the Pentecost experience lasted for only 200 years. This shook me. The question is why and how did this happen. I believe some verses in the Bible, taken out of context in their interpretation, contributed to this. I am going to do my best to share a few of such with you:
Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? … 1st Corinthians 12:30
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease… 1st Corinthians 13:8
In the first verse, Paul was talking about the fact that not all of us operate in the same gifts however, our individual gifts come together to edify the church. That is why he asked, ‘do all speak in tongues?’. The tongues Paul talks about here is the special gift of tongues. We all should speak in tongues however, there are people with a special gift of tongues which is often characterized by the ability to interpret it. The second verse is also often quoted to support the assertion that tongues ceased right after the era of the early apostles. I have one response to both arguments. My response is found in 1St Corinthians 14:39. In that verse, Paul says ‘So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues’. This implies that tongues-speaking must not be prohibited by any believer or denomination of the church. In the second verse, the apostle mentions that tongues shall cease. It isn’t clear what he means or when this shall happen, but one thing I do know is that we are in the same covenant with God as Paul was. Therefore, if he said nobody should forbid speaking in tongues, then this instruction very much is relevant to us today. It couldn’t be that the apostle contradicted himself in the same epistle to the Corinthians.
Paul is not the only one who emphasized the need for believers to speak in tongues. Jude in Jude 1:20 also said believers must build themselves up in their most holy faith, praying in the spirit. Praying in the spirit is another term for speaking in tongues. This can be seen in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians where he told the believers to pray in the spirit at all times (Ephesians 6:18) and also in 1st Corinthians 14:15.
Speaking in tongues is highly relevant in our walk with God today. It launches us into the realm of the manifestation of the spirit like nothing else. Just as Jude said in the verse above, we build up ourselves in our most holy faith when we speak in tongues. This is to buttress what Paul said in Corinthians about how speaking in tongues edifies the believer. Speaking in tongues is intimacy with the Most High God. It is like you and God have your own secret love language. I will urge all of us to desire and ask God to grant us the ability to first speak in tongues (those who don’t speak it) and (those who speak it) the ability to interpret it which is equal to the gift of prophecy.
One thing that I have realized Christians rarely talk about is the faith and humility required to speak in tongues. The truth is, the Holy Spirit gives you utterance when you speak in tongues, therefore you must have faith in him that he is addressing the burdens of your heart accurately or better than you would if you prayed in any human language. It is difficult to appoint another person to make an appeal on your behalf unless you believe that that person will better articulate your grievances than yourself. This is why it takes a lot of faith to speak in tongues. It takes a lot of faith in the Holy Spirit. The truth is, we are not ever articulate enough to communicate our own burdens and desires to God aptly. It says in scripture that we don’t know how to pray as we ought to so the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered. See? The Holy Spirit is a better prayer warrior than you are. If you can understand it, then you can muster the humility and faith that is required for one to speak in tongues.
Tongues is also a unifier of the body of Christ. It brings people of different cultural backgrounds together by giving them a common language. Again, Dr. George Arthur said, “tongues is the antithesis of Babylon”. Meaning, tongues is the direct opposite of what happened during the construction of the tower of Babel. While in those times God gave the people different languages to cause disunity, in our time he has given us a strange language to unify the church. The first time the believers spoke in tongues, there were people from different parts of the world represented there. And all of them could hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. Some of the people came from Cyrene and Lybia (Africa), Judea, Cappadocia, Rome, Pontus, Asia etc. They all drew near to the upper room and were later addressed by Peter. That day 3000 of them gave their lives to Christ. Now, this reminds me of another controversy surrounding the speaking of tongues. Most people are of the view that it is not tongues until it is a human language spoken by someone somewhere in this world. For example, if I’m Ghanaian, my tongues should probably be in Italian. This assertion is based on what happened on the day of Pentecost where people from different parts of the world could hear the believers speak their own language. Concerning tongues, Paul said in 1st Corinthians 14:2, that “one who speaks in tongues speaks not to men but to God, for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit”. Therefore, tongues are not supposed to be understood by human beings. However, we see that on the day of Pentecost people could hear the believers speak their own dialect and language. I believe this was supernatural and it may happen in some instances especially when the Holy Spirit wants to use tongues as a sign to some unbelievers. However, it is not always the case that when you speak in tongues then you are speaking some foreign human language. It doesn’t always work like that.
There are a 1000 and 1 more things I could share on speaking in tongues but space and time won’t allow me. When I set out to write this, I only wanted to prove that speaking in tongues was highly biblical and still relevant in our time. But while writing it, I was convicted to pray for all who read this to either start speaking in tongues if they don’t already, and to those who speak, to ask God to help them interpret tongues and prophesy. I pray that we all have an encounter with the spirit after reading this article.