This article is looking at the tongues of languages in the speaking in tongues. The author also discusses the speaking in tongues in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, and the relation of prophecy and revelation.

Source: Clarion, 1996. 4 pages.

Uttering Mysteries

Spirit baptism first functioned to transfer people from the Old Testament to the New Testament dispensation, to the dispensation of the Spirit of the ascended Lord and King. Initially this took place on the day of Pentecost, and subsequently this Spirit baptism was repeated to mark further transfers to the ever widening circles of the kingdom of God. Once this process of dual transfers – from Old to New Testament dispensation; and from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – had been completed, Spirit baptism once for all lost its character of being an additional or second blessing. The constant connection between faith and the gift of the Spirit in the Pauline writings, as well as Paul’s comment about Spirit baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13,  illustrate this. Spirit baptism is identical to the initial gift of the Holy Spirit which every Christian receives through faith.

This understanding of Spirit baptism means that it becomes impossible to connect tongues-speaking and prophecy to a second baptism reserved for a certain segment of the congregation. In fact, it could be argued that the only letter which clearly speaks about tongues-speaking, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, is one extended argument for the unity of the church. Paul argues for the unity of the church in connection with the danger of attaching oneself to certain philosophical leaders (1:10; 3:1-9), in connection with the Lord’s Supper (11:18-22), and in connection with tongues-speaking (12:12-13, 25).

To be sure, this Pauline insistence on the unity of the church does not by itself argue for the cessation of tongues and prophecy: Within the framework of the unity of the church through the one gift of the Spirit it remains possible to speak of a great diversity of gifts, so that only some members receive the gifts of tongues and of prophecy. Such is, in fact, the situation in Corinth. This means that a further analysis of the nature and the function of tongues and of prophecy is necessary. Such an understanding may also give insight into the question regarding the continuation of these particular gifts.

Tongues or Languages?🔗

I will take my starting point in a comparison between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians in order to consider the nature of speaking in tongues. There are at least six indications that both writings refer to the same phenomenon.

  • First, of course, the similarity in vocabulary itself between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians already prods one into the direction of an identical phenomenon.1

  • Second, it must be noted that in Acts 2 Jews from several different countries each heard the disciples speaking in his own language. It is remarkable that Paul applies the prophecy of Isaiah 28:11 about a foreign language – “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people” – to the tongues-speaking phenomenon in Corinth. These references to other languages, both in Acts 2 and in 1 Corinthians 14, further highlight the similarity between the two descriptions.2

  • In the third place, in both cases the tongues are of such a nature that bystanders who do not know what is going on think of it as something outrageous: In Acts 2 some of the bystanders suspect the disciples of being drunk (2:13, 15). An outsider who would walk into a church service in Corinth would think that the worshippers are out of their mind (1 Corinthians 14:23)3This means that in both cases the tongues come across as gobbledygook to the listeners.

  • Fourth, Paul’s reference to tongues “of men and of angels” lends further credence to the identity between the tongues in Acts and in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:1).4

  • In the fifth place, the element of praise is pronounced in both situations (Acts 2:11; 1 Corinthians 14:13-17).

  • Lastly, just as on the day of Pentecost, so also in Corinth, tongues occur in conjunction with Spirit baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13). It may reasonably be concluded, therefore, that the tongues to which Acts refers are the same as those about which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians.

Of course, this does not yet settle the question regarding the nature of these tongues. One may, in fact, wonder whether a precise answer to this question is attainable. 5There are only certain indications in Scripture. I am not convinced that together these indications provide us with a complete picture of the nature of tongues. A first question which must be settled in this regard is whether the gift of tongues is simply the ability to speak a foreign language – for example Latin, Greek, Chinese or Gaelic – or whether they are unidentifiable, perhaps ecstatic, utterances. In other words: Are they “languages” (xenoglossia) or are they really “tongues” (glossolalia)? It is highly unlikely that the tongues are a language known by the tongues-speaker himself, such as Latin or Greek. If that were the case the speaker himself would be able not only to speak but also to translate the language. This is, in fact, not the case. Paul writes that the tongues-speaker should pray that he may interpret what he says (1 Corinthians 14:13) and that he should keep quiet in the church if there is no interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:28). Clearly, the tongue or language is not a language which the speaker himself knows.6

Are we then perhaps to think that tongues are existing human languages which are not known to the speaker himself? John MacArthur, in his book Charismatic Chaos, is of the opinion that this is what tongues are. He gives the following arguments:

  1. the Jews heard the 120 believers each in his own language (Acts 2:6);

  2. Scripture uses the Greek word dialektos in this connection (Acts 2:6,8);

  3. interpretation or translation of tongues does not make sense in connection with ecstatic babbling: “You cannot translate ecstatic speech or gibberish;” and

  4. Paul’s reference to the foreign language of Isaiah 28:11 is only meaningful if tongues are Gentile foreign languages (1 Corinthians 14:21-22). 7

Paul indeed does give a number of indications that tongues are not uncontrollable ecstatic utterances.8The strange look on the faces of outsiders and the reference to too much wine in Acts 2 are not the result of ecstatic behaviour but of the unknown character of the sounds that are produced, whether that be unidentifiable sounds (glossolalia) or existing foreign languages (xenoglossia). In 1 Corinthians the distinct impression given is that no one was able to benefit from tongues unless there would be someone who could interpret or translate the language (1 Corinthians 12:10, 30; 14:2, 5, 13, 23, 27-28).

Such a translation does not necessarily have to refer to an existing human language, however. It may just as well refer to some form of revelation that did not come in a particular human language. The Lord may equally well have used sounds that in and of themselves do not have a meaning, but that He used for His purposes. Through interpreters, the Lord would then indicate what the meaning was. The interpretation of tongues is a new element in 1 Corinthians, which is not found in Acts 2. There it appears that people immediately understood the tongues. MacArthur rightly observes that the Jews heard the 120 believers each in his own language. However, the point is not just that they hear the 120 believers in their own language, but also that they hear the believers in their own language (2:8). This may indicate that Pentecost came not only with a miracle of tongues, but also with a miracle of hearing. Thus, when the Lord first sent His Spirit he may not only have given the ability of speaking in tongues, but may also liberally have given the gift of interpretation of tongues. This would explain why we read nothing about the Jews frantically searching for some of the 120 who spoke their particular language. It would also explain the mocking charge of drunkenness at Pentecost better: If the tongues were existing languages, all of the bystanders would soon have found out that different people of the 120 believers spoke different existing languages, understood only by those who had grouped themselves around the right speaker. Most likely, therefore, Pentecost came with a miracle of speaking in tongues as well as of interpretation of tongues (a miracle of hearing). It is more likely that this uttering of mysteries was really in “tongues” (glossolalia) than that it was in foreign languages (xenoglossia).

Tongues, Prophecy and Revelation🔗

Whatever the exact character of tongues, they do have a certain cognitive content; what is more, this content may be defined as various aspects of our salvation in Christ. Paul states that someone who speaks in a tongue utters mysteries by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2). This means that tongues-speaking is a way in which God reveals his redemption in Christ. Paul mostly speaks of “mysteries” in connection with terms for revelation.9 Mysteries speak of the various aspects of the salvation which has been revealed in Christ.10The word “mystery” may have a secretive connotation for us. Paul, however, does not speak of mysteries as if they are secrets. Almost invariably, when he speaks of “mysteries,” he speaks of something which used to be hidden but has now been revealed. O. Palmer Robertson, in his book The Final Word, goes through all 28 occurrences of the term “mystery” in the New Testament. From this study he concludes:

If we set aside for a moment the occurrence in 1 Corinthians 14 presently under consideration, twenty-seven cases explicitly talk about a “mystery” as something once hidden but now revealed. Christianity emphatically is not a mystery religion.11

This finding is of crucial importance, for it means that both tongues and prophecies are not something mysterious or secretive, but that they give revelation. Just as tongues are ways of uttering mysteries, so also prophecy is connected to mystery (1 Corinthians 13:2). With regard to prophecy, Paul is even more explicit than in connection with tongues. Not only is prophecy the uttering of mysteries, but it is, in fact, a form of revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 30). The conclusion must be that also tongues are a form of revelation. Ultimately tongues are not of human origin. They can only be directed upward to God after they have come downward from God.12

The revelatory nature of tongues is already an indication that tongues were part and parcel of the apostolic period only. If tongues would still function today this would have obvious repercussions, both for the doctrine of revelation and for the doctrine of Scripture. It would imply an open canon. This is why it is one of the strong points of MacArthur’s book that already the second chapter is entitled, “Does God Still Give Revelation?” Indeed, this reveals a key problem in the charismatic position. If tongues were to continue today, it would become impossible to maintain the closed canon of Scripture.

Ultimately, therefore, one of the decisive arguments in favour of the position that tongues are no longer around (the cessationist position) is that the revelatory character of tongues and prophecy demands it. The charismatic movement places the closed canon of Scripture in danger. It must be admitted that this argument is not taken directly from Scripture. It is only an argument, as the Westminster Confession states, that “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” ( Nevertheless, the secondary character of the argument does not make it less compelling. One cannot maintain the revelatory function of tongues and prophecy and the closed character of the canon at the same time.


  1. ^ Cf. John R.W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, 2nd ed. (London: Inter-Varsity, 1975), p. 112.
  2. ^ Cf. O. Palmer Robertson, “Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing,” Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975) 48, n. 5.
  3. ^ .Cf. Robertson, “Tongues,” 51. 
  4. ^ While there can be no absolute certainty, the evidence would tend to support that Paul does refer here to tongues-speaking. See C. Trimp, “De charismatische gemeente,” in De gemeente en haar liturgie: Een leesboek voor kerkgangers (Kampen: Van den Berg, 1983), pp. 39-40; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 630-31. J.W. Maris is of the opinion that Paul only speaks hypothetically. He states that the angelic languages are just as unreal as having “all knowledge” (v. 2) and as “surrendering my body to the flames” (v. 3) (Geloof en ervaring: Van Wesley tot de pinksterbeweging [Leiden: Groen, 1992], p. 238). Apart from the fact that there is a difficult textual problem in verse 3, however, it is clear from chapter 8 that the Corinthians were in fact boasting of their knowledge. Fee refers to the Corinthians’ rejection of proper sexual roles; their denial of the resurrection of the body; their interest in “wisdom” and “knowledge”; and their general sense of having arrived; all in support of his contention that Paul does refer to glossolalia.
  5. ^ The Greek word for “tongue” is the same as that for “language” (glossa). 
  6. ^ Cf. Vern S. Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (1977) 132.
  7. ^ John F. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 277-78. 
  8. ^ Paul’s injunction that only two or three are allowed to speak in tongues; only one at a time; and only if an interpreter is available is sufficient proof that tongues are not the kind of ecstatic behaviour manifested in many Pentecostalist churches today. 
  9. ^ Cf. G. Bornkamm, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) IV.821. 
  10. ^ Richard B. Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: Studies in New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed), p. 61 
  11. ^ O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), p. 26.
  12. ^ Gaffin carefully establishes the revelatory character of tongues and rightly concludes that the word “mystery” “emphasizes that what is revealed is inaccessible to human effort and disclosed by God unilaterally. Consequently, “mysteries” specifies the inspired, revelatory nature of tongues as well as prophecy” Perspectives on Pentecost, pp. 79-80).

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