What Does the Bible Say About Tongues?
I was eight years old when I transferred to Sweetwater Academy’s third grade class. Eight seems too young to be insecure, but I was already carrying around a collection of nicknames that had bruised my ego. My horizon of future social success brightened when Louie, the cool kid, picked me to be on his kickball team. Unfortunately, the athletic gene had skipped a generation. It wasn’t too many days and my newness had worn off. I knew the honeymoon period had abruptly ended when we were out on the playground and a boy yelled in my direction, “Hey, Pippen,” collapsing in boisterous laughter. No athletic gene was necessary for me to know that Pippen was a popular local athlete who was known amongst us youngsters for having a flat face and prominent ears. Labels from my mounting collection rapidly surfaced: pancake face, cabbage patch doll. It was like someone had thrown a bucket of mud on my spotless white dress. I was killed that day by the tongue of an eight-year-old.
The Bible addresses our tongue’s potential for great evil in the third chapter of the Book of James. James writes, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). James presents the tongue as a wild force that cannot be tamed by man. He explains that our lives are like a great ship that “though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth” (3:4). The writer likens the tongue to the nautical device that directs the ship and reminds the reader that whoever is controlling the helm is controlling the entire vessel. Thus, it is not difficult to understand that God would choose the tongue as the member of our body that is submitted to His control, providing evidence of our receiving the gift of His Spirit. God picked the part of our body that man could not bring into submission on his own and made it a key component in the infilling of the Holy Ghost.
Isaiah prophesied concerning the role of tongues in the church, writing, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will He speak to this people. To whom He said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing” (Isaiah 28:11-12). The rest and refreshing Isaiah spoke about in connection with tongues is the Holy Spirit. It was on the day of Pentecost that Peter preached, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). In Acts 3 Peter preached to another gathering of people, and this time his salvation message clearly echoed the words of Isaiah, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (verse 19). Thus, the words of Isaiah and the words of Peter build a bridge between the Old Testament and New Testament that clearly connect speaking in tongues with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus makes reference to tongues in His conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler among the Jewish people. Jesus uses the physical to illuminate the spiritual when he explains, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We can’t see where the wind comes from, yet we can hear it as it blows around us. This proves true in the spiritual—like the wind, our tangible evidence of the initial infilling of God’s spirit is a sign that we can hear—the sign of tongues.
Jesus Christ’s last words to His disciples before His ascension were a command to “wait for the promise of the Father,” the promise that they would be “baptized with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 1:4-5). It was days later when approximately one-hundred-twenty people who were gathered in an upper room of Jerusalem were “all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The Bible catalogs the events immediately following the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, revealing that a multitude gathered to question and comment on the goings on in this particular upper room. Peter capitalized on their curiosity, explaining that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy eight-hundred-years-old. God’s spirit was being poured out on all flesh. (See Joel 2:28.) Peter explained that believers were receiving “from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit,” which they could “see and hear” (Acts 2:33, NKJV). The crowd had just heard people speaking in tongues, and Peter emphasized to them tongues as the evidence of the promised Holy Ghost.
This experience marked the dawning of the New Testament church. The book of Acts records many instances in which the Holy Ghost was poured out and all have in common the evidence of tongues. In Acts 10 the Holy Ghost is poured out on the Gentiles, and the Jewish onlookers are astonished when they hear them “speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:46). In Acts 19 Paul traveled to Ephesus and found a group of believers who had not yet heard of the infilling of the Holy Ghost. Paul laid hands upon them and the Bible says, “the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues” (19:6). Acts 8 is the only chapter that records an instance where the Bible does not clearly state the evidence of tongues in connection with the outpouring of God’s spirit. However, it does reveal that Simon, a sorcerer, “saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given” (8:18) and offered to pay the apostles for this power. Simon witnessed a visible sign that the Holy Ghost had been received. There was tangible evidence that went beyond emotion, confession of faith, or water baptism. All of these signs had occurred previously. Simon saw the same visible sign that everyone else in the Book of Acts and believers today recognize as the initial evidence of the infilling of the Holy Ghost, the evidence of tongues.
Certainly God could have chosen any range of human responses to signify the infilling of His Spirit. We could have clucked like a chicken, flown around the room, or any other behavior that registers on the spectrum of the impossible. One thing is clear; God has continued the pattern of using outward signs to accompany His covenants with mankind. With Noah it was the rainbow, with Abraham it was circumcision, with us it is tongues. Jesus Christ confirmed this in His last days treading this Earth when He instructed, “And these signs shall follow them that believe…they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16.17). Your tongue has an endless potential for evil, but when submitted to the Spirit of God tongues becomes the outward sign that marks the inward covenant relationship between God and man.