So, what is speaking in tongues? First, let me say that this topic, though a very hot topic in Christianity today, was never a major topic in Scripture. In fact, out of the 27 books of the New Testament, speaking in tongues is only mentioned in 3 of them. That’s right, just 3 out of 27 books. Out of the 260 chapters in the New Testament Scriptures, the gift of tongues is only mentioned in 7 of them. Surprising isn’t? As much as you hear it talked about on Christian television, and as many books as there are for and against it on the shelves of Christian bookstores, you would think that the topic of speaking in tongues would be one of the most written about topics in the Bible. But it’s not.
So what exactly is it? There are two primary views. The most prominent view today, at least as it is seen on Christian television, is that the gift of speaking in tongues is some type of supernatural ecstatic utterances or angel talk. The more conservative view is that speaking in tongues is the supernatural ability to speak in a known language that one never before has learned. So which is it? If we examine Acts chapter two, when the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost, the believers that were present spoke in tongues. Now look specifically at verses 6, 8 and 11. In each of these cases those who were in Jerusalem, who were pilgrims from all over the region, heard these disciples speaking the marvelous works of God each in their own language. So on that day, tongues was not ecstatic utterances. These followers of Jesus spoke in known languages that they had never before learned. In Scripture, angels are always heard speaking in a known human language. There may be a special angelic language used in heaven, but there is no specific evidence of that in Scripture.
But didn’t Paul claim to have spoken in the tongues of angels in First Corinthians 13:1? This is the verse that advocates of tongues being a form of angel talk use to prove their case. However, look at the entire first 3 verses. What is the main theme that Paul is teaching? It is the supremacy of love. Any spiritual service is useless if it is not done in love. To prove this point, Paul uses a form of hyperbole (exaggeration for emphasis). He not only says, “If I could speak with the tongues of angels,” he also writes of “knowing all mysteries”; “Moving mountains”; and “being burned to death.” Are these true of Paul? Did Paul know all mysteries? Certainly not. Did Paul ever move a mountain? Not literally. Was Paul ever burned at the stake? Not that we see in Scripture.
What are all of these statements? They are hyperbole. Paul is saying, “Look, even if I could speak in a heavenly language…if I did not have love it would be useless. Even if I knew all mysteries, but didn’t have love…it would be useless. Even if I could move mountains, but didn’t have love, it would be useless. Even if I could give my life to be burned at the stake but did not have love…so what?” To say that Paul is claiming to have spoken in an angelic language based on this one verse is a pretty big leap. In fact, all of these statements are written in the Greek subjunctive mood which is the mood of possibility. If Paul were stating that he had in fact done these things, he would have written them in the indicative mood which is the Greek mood of reality.