Hanko is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

A reader from Burnie, Tasmania asks whether the speaking in tongues in

I Corinthians 12


I Corinthians 14

is the same as in

Acts 2.

This is a very interesting question. Before Christ’s ascension into heaven, Jesus promised His disciples that “they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17). Here Jesus speaks of “new tongues” in distinction from the Hebrew spoken by the church of the old dispensation and still by the disciples in Jesus’ time. This obviously refers to the speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost.

In Acts 2 we read, “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Again in verse 6, “Every man heard them speak in his own language.” And in verse 8, “And now hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born.” Whereupon follows a list of the various languages spoken.

Some are of the opinion, that this was not a miracle of speaking, but of hearing. This is based on the fact that twice we read that the Jews and proselytes heard the one hundred and twenty speak to them in their own tongue or language. Yet this is impossible, since the miracle of speaking is ascribed to those who were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:6).

Evidently this is what happened: A large number of Jews and proselytes from practically every part of the known world were gathered in Jerusalem to keep the feast of Pentecost. It has been estimated that as many as two million people came from far and wide to keep the most important feasts in the Holy City. Thousands of these Jews and proselytes were drawn, possibly by the “sound as of a rushing mighty wind,” to the place where the one hundred and twenty were gathered and where the Spirit had been poured out. Now those who were filled with the Spirit moved among that multitude, speaking to each one in the language of his native country. We read literally in verse 8, “Every single man was hearing them speaking in his own language.” Thus, one of those who had received the Spirit walked up to a Parthian and spoke to him in his language. This same one may have approached a Crete or an Arabian and spoke to him of the “wonderful works of God.”

Actually a double wonder was performed upon them. In the first place, they were able to speak in languages which they had never learned. In the second place, they now understood the wonder of the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of their Lord and Savior as never before. Those were the “wonderful works of God” of which they spoke. The church had broken out of the narrow channel of the Jewish nation to become the universal church of the new dispensation. This is evident, not only from their speaking in tongues, but also in the fact that three thousand were converted and added to the church that same day.

Turning now to I Corinthians 12 and 14, we are confronted with the question whether the speaking in tongues in the congregation of Corinth was the same as the momentous event on the day of Pentecost.

There is an obvious difference between what took place on the day of Pentecost and in the church at Corinth. Those who spoke in tongues in Corinth did so publicly, in the audience of the entire congregation (I Cor. 14:2). As a result, the entire congregation heard them speak, and failed to understand them. For that reason the apostle stresses that if anyone spoke in an unknown tongue, he should be able to interpret what he said (verse 5), or there should be an interpreter (verse 27). Evidently there were many who desired to be able to speak in tongues, so that there arose confusion in the congregation. It must have sounded at times like a mad house, as each one thought he was gifted with the ability to speak in tongues (verse 23). This the apostle condemns in no uncertain terms. Paul adds that speaking in tongues should be limited to two or three persons (verse 27). Most emphatically he wants the church to know that the gift of prophecy, by which the entire church could be edified, was far more important than the gift of speaking in tongues, which the apostle describes as being the least of all the special gifts bestowed on the early church (verses 5, 6, 28).

Various interpretations have been given of the speaking in tongues as it appeared in Corinth and in other of the early churches. Some have ‘understood it to be a language of heaven, since in I Corinthians 13:1 Paul says, “though I speak with the tongues of angels . . . .” Others regard it as “whisperings and mutterings, rudiments of various languages.” Still others hold that those who spoke in tongues passed over into a sort of ecstasy, “making incomprehensible sounds, partly sighings, partly cries, disjointed words, all uttered in a highly excited state.”

There is no basis for these wild interpretations anywhere in Scripture. But there is every reason to maintain that the speaking in tongues referred to in I Corinthians and elsewhere in the epistles is the same as that which took place on the day of Pentecost. Although this gift was sadly misused in the congregation of Corinth, the purpose of it was to address a visitor who spoke another language in his own tongue, telling him of the wonderful work of salvation.

Paul says that he spoke in tongues “more than ye all.” This can readily be understood, because as the apostle to the Gentiles he came in contact with many different nationalities and languages. Therefore the Holy Spirit made it possible for him to converse with various nationalities in their own language.

It is also readily conceivable that a stranger would enter into the worship services at Corinth, and that the Holy Spirit would give one of the members the gift of tongues, declaring to him “the wonderful works of God,” or, as Paul expresses it, “speaking . . . by knowledge . . . or by doctrine” (verse 6). But for the sake of the congregation it was important that this message, proclaimed in a foreign tongue, should be interpreted, so that all could be edified.

Speaking in tongues did serve a useful purpose in the early church, so that Paul does not condemn it, but would rather that they all had that gift, if it were used properly (verse 5). But prophesying was far more beneficial for the entire congregation, for thereby they all1 were built up in the most holy faith (verses 3-5). He urges them to “covet earnestly the best gifts” (I Cor. 12:31).