I wrote previously that speaking in tongues commonly accompanies being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Based on the book of Acts, I believe that it should be a normal response to the Holy Spirit baptism. I believe it is possible to be baptized in the Holy Spirit without speaking in tongues; I just think that tongues is the most normal New Testament pattern.
What is speaking in tongues? Simply put, speaking in tongues refers to speaking in a language you have never learned, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture indicates that the language may be known or unknown, earthly or possibly angelic (see 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14:2). It is a supernatural gift given by the Holy Spirit.
But speaking in tongues has purposes beyond being an “evidence” of the baptism of the Spirit. There are a variety of purposes for speaking in tongues, and failure to distinguish them has caused some misunderstanding about this topic. I will cover three of the purposes below.
One purpose of speaking in tongues is personal prayer. Here is some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on this from 1 Corinthians 14:
“For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.”
-1 Corinthians 14:2
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.”
-1 Corinthians 14:14-15
“I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
-1 Corinthians 14:18
Paul obviously spent a lot of time praying in tongues, but most of it was done in private–outside of the public church setting.
Scripture indicates that praying in tongues can be a form of praise and thanksgiving to God. It can also be a powerful means of intercessory prayer. Not only can this bring worship to God and breakthrough for others, praying in tongues edifies the one who does it (see 1 Corinthians 14:4). If you have this gift, I encourage you to spend time praying in tongues often.
Speaking in tongues for personal prayer is perfectly good and right. But in the church setting, we must be aware of the corporate body and strive for the edification of the whole church.
“I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.”
-1 Corinthians 14:5
When believers are assembled together there must be proper order so that the whole church can be built up; not just a few individuals. Paul was correcting the Corinthian church for using tongues in a disorderly way in the corporate setting. He strongly encouraged tongues—“I wish you all spoke with tongues”—but he was concerned about the whole church being strengthened. And he did not want there to be confusion.
In a corporate setting, the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues can work together. When this happens it is the same as a prophetic word coming forth that edifies the whole church. “…he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Prophecy is more profitable in the church setting, unless there is interpretation.
Here is how this works: Someone in the congregation gets a stirring to give a corporate word in tongues. They speak it out loud, and then wait for the interpretation to come forth. Either the person who spoke the word or someone else in the congregation will receive an interpretation of what was spoken in tongues.
(Here is an article on the nine manifestation gifts of the Spirit)
1 Corinthians 14:22 says, “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” Speaking in tongues can be a sign that points unbelievers to Christ. This is what happened on the day of Pentecost. The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Many outsiders heard and said, “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Peter preached the gospel and the result of this event was 3,000 souls added to the kingdom.
There are many testimonies of God using the gift of tongues to be a sign to unbelievers. Most of the testimonies I have heard are from the mission field and go something like this: the Holy Spirit will prompt a believer to speak in tongues to a person, and though the one speaking had no idea what he was saying, the one listening understood it completely. It was a message from the Lord or the gospel message, leading a person to Christ.
Hopefully this brief overview has brought insight and cleared some confusion. I hope that one day the whole church will embrace this gift from God and use it according to His purposes.