Misconceptions on Speaking in Tongues – Part I11 min read

You are currently viewing Misconceptions on Speaking in Tongues – Part I<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">11</span> min read</span>

Speaking in tongues in the context of Acts 2:1-8 

 There are numerous claims and theories about speaking in tongues. Numerous people do not actually know what to think when speaking in tongues. The main texts regarding speaking in tongues come from Acts 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. When one does not know the context behind the two main instances where ‘’speaking in tongues’’ was mentioned, one could have a biassed view of what speaking in tongues actually means. Therefore, this present article will focus on the context behind both stories and how one should view speaking in tongues in the 21st century. Each text contains several subtopics, which will be discussed in this paper.  

 1 – Terminological introduction 

The word ‘’tongues’’ in Greek is ‘’glosses’’, which, interestingly, does not only mean tongues but also ‘’languages’’1. In other words, when the Bible uses the word ”tongues”, the text refers to ”languages”, as this is the correct use of the definition of ‘’tongues’’ as we will see in later sections. This use of ‘’glossa’’ in this context is also seen in Mark 16:17, Acts 10:46, Acts 19:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 28-30, 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14. Interestingly, all these verses mention praising God, preaching, and communication, further stressing the importance of reading glossa as languages. In Greek, ‘’speaking in tongues’’ is glossolalia. With regard to Acts 2:1-8 this means that the disciples spoke in ‘’languages’’ they were unfamiliar with. What is of critical importance here is the realisation that they did speak existing languages, as everyone heard them in their own language. This, therefore, means that any kind of gibberish language cannot be the speaking in tongues mentioned in the New Testament.  

 2 – Speaking in tongues in the context of Acts 2:1-82 

The text from Acts 2:1-8 reads as follows: ‘’When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?’’ 

 This text contains several important topics that should be further examined: Pentecost itself, fire as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues. When examining speaking in tongues, as mentioned in Acts 2:1-8 it is necessary to examine these significant terms in order to correctly understand what actually took place.  

 2.1 – Pentecost  

Regarding the name Pentecost, Pentecost comes from the Greek pentekoste, which means the fiftieth. In order to understand Pentecost, one has to understand which day exactly is the fiftieth day exactly. By this calculation, Pentecost would come after the Feasts of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Pentecost is not introduced in the New Testament but originates rather from the Old Testament, where it was called the ‘’Feast of Harvest’’ or the ‘’Feast of the Weeks’’ (Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-22; Deuteronomy 16:10) and came after the ‘’Feast of the Firstfruits’’ (Numbers 28:26). The ‘’Feast of Harvest’’ and the ‘’Feast of the First Fruits” were linked to harvesting periods. There were two yearly harvesting periods: the early and final harvesting periods, which were in spring and fall, respectively. The Feast of the First Fruits was the celebration of the beginning of the early harvest, which is the wheat harvest. The newly harvested grain would be offered on the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:9-14). From that day on, one would count the fifty days, and the fiftieth day would be the Feast of the Harvest, or Pentecost. Regarding terminology, the Septuagint uses pentekoste for the Hebrew Shavuot (literally: weeks), and pentekoste can also be translated as the Feast of the Weeks (Exodus 23:16). Later, some rabbinical traditions added the remembrance of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on this day as well3 

 2.2 – Fire as a symbol for the Holy Spirit 

The Holy Spirit is portrayed using several symbolisms, both in the Old and New Testaments. The Father and the Son can be more easily ‘’understood’’, while the Holy Spirit and its workings are harder to grasp. Therefore, the Bible uses different symbols for us to better understand the Holy Spirit and its role. Some of these symbols are: a dove (Song of Songs 1:5), water (Isaiah 66:12; John 7:38), wind (Acts 2:2; John 3:8) and fire (Isaiah 10:17; Luke 12:49) 

The comparison between the Holy Spirit and fire on Pentecost is something that several Church Fathers wrote about. Gregory of Nazianzus (390 AD) said:  

‘’For this word Another marks an Alter Ego, a name of equal Lordship, not of inequality. For Another is not said, I know, of different kinds, but of things consubstantial. And He came in the form of Tongues because of His close relation to the Word. And they were of Fire, perhaps because of His purifying Power (for our Scripture knows of a purifying fire, as any one who wishes can find out), or else because of His Substance’’4 

 Cyril of Jerusalem (386 AD) said:  

‘’And it filled all the house where they were sitting; for the house became the vessel of the spiritual water; as the disciples sat within, the whole house was filled. Thus they were entirely baptized according to the promise, and invested soul and body with a divine garment of salvation. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; of fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives lustre to the soul’’5 

 In line with St. Cyril’s words, Severus of Antioch (538 AD) said:  

‘’And there appeared to them separate tongues: So then, the thorns were consumed, that is, the transgression from Adam was consumed”6. 

 2.3 – Being filled with the Holy Spirit 

The term ‘’being filled with the Holy Spirit’’ is mostly used in the Book of Acts and has deep spiritual meanings. One’s ‘’being filled with the Holy Spirit’’ means that one’s soul is full of the Holy Spirit and that the entire heart is ‘’taken over’’ by it. This happens through the Mystery of Baptism, where one gets filled by the Holy Spirit. This means that one is transformed by the Holy Spirit, receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-11) and enjoys fellowship with Christ and enjoys the fruits of the Resurrection. When someone is devoting himself as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1) they are living a spiritual life. Just as someone who is living an earthly life is seen as being taken over by the earthly life, someone who is living a spiritual life is being taken over by the spirit7. Multiple people were said to be filled with the Spirit: Uri, the son of Hur (Exodus 31:3), Elisabeth (Luke 1:41), Zacharia (Luke 1:67), Peter (Acts 4:8), Stephen (Acts 6:5, 7:55) and Paul (Acts 13:9) 

 2.4 – Speaking in tongues 

At last, we come to the speaking in tongues part. The disciples were from Galilee and did not have a formal education like Paul had (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5). The interesting part is that the disciples were formed by a diverse group of people. For instance, Andrew, Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) were fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22), Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 9:9-13) and Simon was a zealot8 (Luke 6:15). After the descending of the Holy Spirit, there were two possible scenarios: the disciples would learn every language, including vocabulary and grammar, and thereafter they would be able to preach to non-Jews and Jews in foreign countries (such as the Hellenized Jews in Alexandria who spoke Greek rather than Hebrew). Another scenario would be that God would make the people hear the disciples, regardless of the language they spoke, in their native tongue. The second scenario is the more plausible one; therefore, the disciples were instructed to preach the Gospel everywhere. Cyril of Jerusalem (386 AD) explained this by saying:  

‘’The Galilean Peter or Andrew spoke Persian or Median. John and the rest of the Apostles spoke every tongue to those of Gentile extraction; for not in our time have multitudes of strangers first begun to assemble here from all quarters, but they have done so since that time. What teacher can be found so great as to teach men all at once things which they have not learned? So many years are they in learning by grammar and other arts to speak only Greek well; nor yet do all speak this equally well; the Rhetorician perhaps succeeds in speaking well, and the Grammarian sometimes not well, and the skilful Grammarian is ignorant of the subjects of philosophy. But the Holy Spirit taught them many languages at once, languages which in all their life they never knew. This is in truth vast wisdom, this is power divine. What a contrast of their long ignorance in time past to their sudden, complete and varied and unaccustomed exercise of these languages!’’9 

 St. Cyril explicitly mentions that the disciples spoke existing languages that were foreign to them. Gregory the Dialogist (604 AD) further stressed this by saying:  

‘’And they began to speak in various languages: The Holy Spirit appeared over the disciples under the form of fiery tongues, and gave them the knowledge of all languages’’10. 

 This has also been prophesied by Isaiah, the prophet. Isaiah prophesied that God ‘’with stammering lips and another tongue, He will speak to this people’’ (Isaiah 28:11). The Church Fathers further stressed the link between Isaiah 28:11 and Pentecost. Augustine of Hippo (430 AD) said:  

‘’Just as sometimes all the utterances of the Old Testament together in the Holy Scriptures are signified by the name of the Law. For the apostle, in citing a text from the prophet Isaiah, where he says, “With divers tongues and with divers lips will I speak to this people,” yet prefaced it by, “It is written in the Law.’’11 

 John Chrysostom (407 AD) added to this saying:  

‘’Someone might well ask how the apostles drew to themselves all these people. How did men who spoke only the language of the Jews win over the Scythian, the Indian, the Sarmatian and the Thracian? Because they received the gift of tongues through the Holy Spirit. Not only did the apostles say this but also the prophets when they made both these facts clear, namely, that the apostles received the gift of tongues and that they failed to win over the Jews. Hear how the prophet showed this when he said, “ ‘In foreign tongues and with other lips I shall speak to this people, and in this way they shall not hear me,’ says the Lord’’12 

 Gregory of Nazianzus excellently summarised it, saying:  

‘’They spoke with strange tongues and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learned it. And the sign is to them that do not believe, not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, “With other tongues and other lips will I speak to this people, and not even so will they listen to me, says the Lord.” But they heard. Here stop a little and raise a question. How are you to divide the words? For the expression has an ambiguity, which is to be determined by the punctuation. Did they each hear in their own dialect so that if I may so say, one sound was uttered but many were heard; the air being thus beaten and, so to speak, sounds being produced more clear than the original sound? Or are we to put the stop after “they heard” and then to add “them speaking in their own languages” to what follows, so that it would be speaking in the hearers’ own languages, which would be foreign to the speakers? I prefer to put it this latter way; for on the other plan the miracle would be rather of the hearers than of the speakers; whereas in this it would be on the speakers’ side. And it was they who were reproached for drunkenness, evidently because they by the Spirit wrought a miracle in the matter of the tongues’’.  


  1. ‎“Strong’s Greek: 1100. Γλῶσσα (Glóssa) — the Tongue, a Language.” Bible Hub, biblehub.com/greek/1100.htm.‎ 
  1. ‎ Malaty, Tadros Fr. Patristic Commentary on the Book of Acts, pp. 71-91.‎ 
  1. ‎ For an analysis see: Conservative Yeshiva Online, ‘’Shavuot: The Day of the Giving of the Torah?’’‎ 
  1. ‎ Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume VII: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 383.‎ 
  1. ‎ Ibid, p. 128. ‎ 
  1. ‎ Severus of Antioch on Acts 2:3. Catena: Bible & Commentaries.‎ 
  1. ‎ Inspired from the homily of Fr. Luke Sidarous on ‘’be filled with the Holy Spirit’’. ‎ 
  1. ‎ A zealot is comparable to a politician. ‎ 
  1.  ‎ Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume VII: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 129.‎ 
  1.  ‎ Gregory the Dialogist on Acts 2:4. Catena: Bible & Commentaries.‎ 
  1.  ‎ Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series (Augustine), Volume III: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatise. ‎Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 216. ‎ 
  1. ‎ Savage, John. The Fathers of the Church: Saint John Chrysostom – Apologist. Catholic University of America Press, 1985, p. 215.‎ 





Leave a Reply