Click to Change

Return to Top

Return to Top

Printer Icon


Prior Section Next Section Back to Commentaries Author Bio & Contents
The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: Could Tongue-Speaking Actually Be Ecstatic Utterances or Heavenly Languages Rather than Known Earthly Languages?

toggle collapse
Choose a new font size and typeface

Could Tongue-Speaking Actually Be Ecstatic Utterances or Heavenly Languages Rather than Known Earthly Languages?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 19

There are a number of people today who believe that God has given them the gift of speaking in tongues. One of the criticisms leveled against those who are presently using this gift is that they are not speaking in any known earthly language. Indeed, it is often claimed by those who have analyzed people speaking in tongues discover that they are not speaking in a genuine language.

One of the responses given to this objection is that the tongue-speaking in Scripture did not always consist of known languages. Some argue that the tongue-speaking were ecstatic utterances while others say that tongue-speaking was an angelic language rather than an earthly language. Those who believe tongue-speaking is not limited to earthly languages make the following points to support their case.

The Tongues in Acts Are Not Necessarily Known Languages?

The first point is that there is no clear evidence that the Book of Acts records people speaking in actual languages when they are said to have “spoken in tongues.” While Acts 2 makes it clear that the tongue-speaking was in known languages, the other instances in the Book of Acts do not. The following things are noted.

We Do Not Know about the Languages the Gentiles Spoke at Caesarea

When Peter preached Jesus Christ to Cornelius and his Gentile friends at the city of Caesarea, we are told that the Holy Spirit came down upon them and they began to speak in tongues.

However, nothing is said about the content of the tongue-language. We do not know if it was a known earthly language or if it was some sort of ecstatic utterance. Scripture does not tell us.

Furthermore, it was the sign of tongues, not the tongue language, which convinced Peter that the Gentiles believed in Jesus Christ. Indeed, there is no indication that anyone understood the languages that Cornelius and his group spoke when they received the Holy Spirit. Thus, the fact that they spoke in languages which they did not know is what convinced Peter that the Holy Spirit had fell upon these Gentiles as it had fallen upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost. This “language” may have been ecstatic utterances or some type of heavenly language. We are not told.

The Disciples at Ephesus

The same holds true for the experience of the Apostle Paul and the disciples he met in the city of Ephesus. There is no indication that the content of their tongue-speaking was known languages. All we are told is that they spoke in tongues. Nothing else.

Consequently, there is no convincing evidence that the tongue-speaking episodes, after the Day of Pentecost, consisted of people speaking actual languages. This being the case, it is claimed, that the Book of Acts offers no solid proof that tongue-speaking always consisted of known languages.

There Are Many Contrasts between Tongues in Acts and Corinth

But even if the tongues in Acts all were known languages, those recorded in First Corinthians seem to be of a different sort. This can be seen in a number of ways.

There Was Evangelism to Unbelievers in Acts, but a Worship Service in Corinth

In Acts, the tongue-speaking occurred in a situation where people received the initial indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It was something which was completely unexpected. It was a supernatural sign that indicated that God was placing His blessing on what occurred.

However, when Paul discusses tongues in his first letter to the Corinthians, his concern is the worship service. Thus, the situation is entirely different. These were people who had been believers in Christ for some time. Their experience with speaking in tongues was not connected with their initial reception of the Holy Spirit in contrast to those whom the Holy Spirit fell upon as recorded in the Book of Acts.

At Pentecost They Spoke to Humans, at Corinth to God

The words which were spoken in tongue at Pentecost were directed to the humans who had gathered. The Bible says.

And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language (Acts 2:6 NKJV).

In this case, they were speaking in languages so that the people who had gathered could clearly understand what they were saying.

However, at Corinth the words were seemingly directed toward God. Only He could understand them. Paul wrote.

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... So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:2, 9 NKJV).

Thus, on the one hand the people who spoke in tongues were understood by everyone in the crowd in Jerusalem while in Corinth it seems that only God understood what they were saying.

Pentecost Was a Sign to Believers, Corinth to Unbelievers

At Pentecost, the sign of tongues showed the disciples that the Holy Spirit had indeed come as Jesus had promised. Thus, it was a sign to believers.

However, we are told that the purpose for the tongues in Corinth was to be a sign for unbelievers. Paul wrote.

Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV).

Therefore, the purpose for the sign was different in each case.

No Interpreter Was Needed for the Tongues in Acts

One main difference between the tongue-speaking in the Book of Acts and that in Corinth was the need for an interpreter. There is no record of anyone in Acts exercising the gift of interpretation.

On the Day of Pentecost those who heard the apostles speak in tongues did not need supernatural interpretation. Indeed, the apostles were speaking in the dialects of the various people who had gathered. They understood the apostles because they were miraculously speaking in their native language. No supernatural gift of interpretation was necessary.

In addition, those in Jerusalem at Pentecost were unbelievers of the message of Jesus. Obviously they could not have exercised the spiritual gift of interpretation when they did not have the Holy Spirit!

In Caesarea, Peter and his group recognized the tongue-speaking was similar to what had happened on Pentecost. Yet there is no indication that someone interpreted what was these Gentiles were saying as they were speaking in tongues.

The same holds true for what occurred in Ephesus. Paul heard the dozen disciples speak with tongues but there is no indication that the gift was interpreted.

An Interpreter Was Necessary in Corinth

But at Corinth the situation was radically different. A supernatural gift was needed to understand what was being said. In fact, tongue speaking was forbidden unless an interpreter was present. We read.

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:27, 28 ESV).

The fact that an interpreter was necessary is an indication that the languages were not of the earthly variety.

There Was Order at Pentecost but Confusion at Corinth

We find that when tongue-speaking took place on the day of Pentecost it was done in an orderly way. Scripture says.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1 NKJV).

In this instance, the disciples of Jesus were waiting for His prediction to be fulfilled. There was no chaos or confusion while they were waiting.

However, there was seemingly only confusion at Corinth when tongue-speaking was exercised. This caused Paul to write the following.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33 ESV).

The tongue speaking in Corinth did not result in order but rather only in confusion.

At Pentecost the Unbelievers Marveled, in Corinth They Though They Were Crazy

When the unbelievers heard Jesus’ disciples’ speaking in tongues, they marveled at what they were hearing.

And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7-8 ESV).

However, in Corinth, Paul said that the unbelievers would think the people were insane if the entire congregation spoke with tongues. He wrote.

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (1 Corinthians 14:23 ESV).

Thus, we again see the contrast between the speaking in tongues recorded in Acts and that in the city of Corinth.

Paul Seems to Be Speaking of Heavenly Languages

In addition, there are several remarks made by the Apostle Paul which indicates the tongues were not known earthly languages but rather heavenly languages.

First, he talked about speaking in angelic languages.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1 NRSV).

This seems to indicate the possibility of speaking in languages, which are non-human.

He also wrote that no human could understand what he was saying when he spoke with tongues. Paul stated it this way.

For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2 NRSV).

This statement would seem to rule out earthly languages. Paul clearly says that only God understands the person speaking in tongues. That would not be the case if a known earthly language was in view. Indeed, someone may enter the congregation who was familiar with that language.

Paul then made this observation.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive (1 Corinthians 14:14 NRSV).

All these verses seem to refer to a heavenly language.

Paul Talks about Various Kinds of Tongues

The Apostle Paul also spoke of various kinds of tongues. He wrote the following to the Corinthians.

[God gives] to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10 NKJV).

This “different kinds of tongues” could include heavenly languages.

Why Would Unbelievers Think They Were Crazy?

Paul said if everyone spoke in tongues then unbelievers who were present would assume they were all out of their minds. He said to the Corinthians.

Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (1 Corinthians 14:23 NKJV).

However, why would this be the case if everyone spoke known languages? Instead, wouldn’t the person realize a miracle was taking place?

These are the usual arguments given for those who believe that the tongues that were exercised in the city of Corinth were not known languages but rather were ecstatic utterances or perhaps heavenly languages. This being the case we should not expect to find modern-day tongue speakers speaking in languages known to us.

Thus, it cannot be argued that the gift no longer exists because there the people who speak in tongues today are not speaking in known languages.

Summary – Question 19
Could Tongue-speaking Actually Be Ecstatic Utterances or Heavenly Languages Rather than Known Earthly Languages?

It has been argued that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues may not consist of merely speaking in known earthly languages. Instead it may refer to either speaking in actual heavenly languages or making unintelligible ecstatic utterances. There are a number of reasons as why this is believed to be so.

To begin with, apart from one episode in the Book of Acts, there is no evidence that the remainder of incidents where tongue-speaking is recorded in the New Testament has to do with people speaking known languages. This is true for both the Book of Acts as well as First Corinthians. The evidence is as follows.

First, while Acts chapter two certainly seems to have earthly languages in view when the disciples of Jesus spoke with tongues, the other two occurrences of speaking in tongues, Acts 10 and Acts 19, are not that clear at all.

In Acts 10 there is no indication that anyone understood the tongue-language which was spoken. The same holds true for Acts 19. Indeed, nothing is said about the content of the speech from these people upon whom the Holy Spirit fell. Therefore, no one can say for certain that the tongues were known languages.

However, even if each of these three occurrences consisted of known earthly languages the situation in Corinth was quite different. A number of things need to be mentioned.

For one thing, in Acts, each of these occurrences took place in the context of preaching the good news about Jesus Christ to unbelievers. However, in Corinth a worship service is in view where the group consisted mainly of believers. Thus, the contexts are totally different.

Also the tongues in Acts were a sign to the believers that the Holy Spirit had fallen upon them. Yet we are told that in Corinth speaking in tongues was a sign to unbelievers.

In Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, each of the unbelievers present understood what the tongue speakers were saying. The situation at Corinth was completely opposite for none of the believers present understood what was being said in the tongue-language.

On Pentecost there was order when tongues were spoken. However, at Corinth there was nothing but confusion.

In addition, in Corinth, there was the need for an interpreter when the gift of tongues was exercised. No such need is recorded in the Book of Acts. It seemed that in each case there was someone who understood what was being said. However, this not the same as what took place in Corinth. Indeed, why the need for an interpreter if an earthly language was in view? Wouldn’t it be possible for someone in the congregation to know that language?

Furthermore, we know that the Apostle Paul spoke in tongues. He also wrote of the possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels. This seems to indicate that Paul may have been able to speak in a heavenly language rather than an earthly one when speaking in tongues. Paul also wrote of speaking words that no human can understand. Again, this seems to speak of a non-earthly language. These arguments have convinced some people that tongues can either be known earthly languages or unknown heavenly languages.

What Is the Proper Procedure for Using Tongues in a Meeting? ← Prior Section
Were the Tongues in Scripture Known Languages? Next Section →
BLB Searches
Search the Bible

Advanced Options

Other Searches

Multi-Verse Retrieval

Daily Devotionals

Blue Letter Bible offers several daily devotional readings in order to help you refocus on Christ and the Gospel of His peace and righteousness.

Daily Bible Reading Plans

Recognizing the value of consistent reflection upon the Word of God in order to refocus one's mind and heart upon Christ and His Gospel of peace, we provide several reading plans designed to cover the entire Bible in a year.

One-Year Plans

Two-Year Plan


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.