Home > Speaking in Tongues > Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels?

Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels?

So, let’s just get it out clearly here so you know where I’m at with this. I don’t believe that the speaking in tongues of the charismatic and pentecostal worlds is what Scripture talks about when it discusses speaking in tongues. I don’t think that speaking nonsense syllables in a way that seems uncontrolled and random is something that comes from the Spirit, nor would I think that a systematic speaking of nonsense syllables is from God. I don’t believe that speaking in tongues refers to the speaking of a heavenly language here on earth. I don’t believe the mysterious things of the Spirit are unintelligible.

What do I believe about speaking in tongues? Well, I believe that the best translation of the Greek word, glōssa, is actually “languages.” I believe that we should be talking about speaking in different languages and not in tongues. Because of all of the experiential background and what people have been taught, it’s easy to see Scripture talking about “tongues” and automatically see the usage of the terminology as a validation of the widespread contemporary practice of speaking in tongues. When we look at the whole of Scripture, it makes a lot more sense to use the term “languages” instead of “tongues” to translate glōssa. The word does literally mean tongue, but it is simplistic and illogical to read passages about speaking in “unknown tongues” or “hear every man in our own tongue” while visualizing a physical tongue as what is being talked about. It is also important to note that in Scripture there is not a distinguishing between the words used to describe different languages and the words to describe the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues; both concepts are described using the word glōssa. An example of the use of this word to describe languages is found in Revelation 5:9: “… and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” The word here only makes sense when we interpret “tongue” as meaning “language.” Thus I will be using “language(s)” to translate the Biblical word glōssa throughout this post. When I talk about the charismatic tongues speaking, I will use the term “tongues.”

I believe that the spiritual gift of speaking in languages enables Spirit-filled believers who have the gift to speak the languages of the people around them. The believer never actually goes through the process of learning the language of the people that they are speaking to, but they speak to those people about Jesus Christ, and it comes out of their mouths in the language, even the very dialect, of the people that are listening. It’s an incredible manifestation of the Spirit in the lives of the believers, with a purpose that is in line with all the gifts in the church, it is used to grow the kingdom of God.

This is what we see clearly portrayed in the very first manifestation of this gift of the Spirit. In Acts 2:3 something that looked like tongues of fire seemed to sit on each of the believers, then the believers began to speak in heterais(other, different) glossais(tongues or languages). They were obviously not speaking in unintelligible languages, but in languages that made sense. Those that heard the disciples speaking the message of Jesus, heard them in their own language and dialect even though they all had very different native tongues. If they had heard them speaking in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, that’s unimpressive. If they heard them speaking in syllables that have do not have correlates in an actual language, that’s just useless. The gift of tongues as portrayed here is used to preach the message of Jesus Christ in a way that both dissolves language barriers and is a miraculous sign for those who do not yet believe (1 Cor. 14:22), leaving them “amazed and perplexed.”

The initial use of the spiritual gift of languages is a precedent for evaluating the gift in other texts because it was the earliest usage setting the groundwork for the gift, the passage includes a detailed description of the gift actually in use, and the Acts 2 passage shows better than any other passage the potential power of the gift. In no other passage do we find such a fastidious description of the gift being used. Thus, Acts 2 should provide our foundational materials for framing a theology of the gift of languages. We should interpret other passages in light of the Acts 2 event, instead of interpreting Acts 2 in light of other Acts passages or 1 Corinthians 12-14. I hope to look at the other passages that mention the spiritual gift through the lens of Acts 2, but in such a way that the lens enhances the picture, without blinding me from seeing what the other passages are actually saying.

Jesus prophesies about the disciples’ future ministry saying, “And these signs will accompany those that believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages” (Mk 16:17). Many use this verse as a proof text of speaking in tongues. The argument is that the word new, kainais, necessarily means that the languages spoken are those that are not yet created or those that no one has ever heard before. This is a sensible interpretation, but kainais here could very well mean that the languages are new to the speakers, that the speakers have never previously known the languages that they were speaking. Chinese is unknown to me, and if I suddenly learned it, I would certainly call it a new language in my linguistic repertoire. For something to be new, it doesn’t have to be new to everyone, but new to an individual. To read this passage as talking about languages that are completely novel is reading into the text something that it might mean, but doesn’t necessarily imply. The passage in question does not suffice to supplant the typical view of speaking in tongues, but neither does it evidence the theology of heavenly nonsense syllables.

This is getting really long. We’ll call this part 1, and I’ll deal with two other passages in Acts and 1 Corinthians 12-14 in the next post, and after that answer some questions.

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