Critics and some Christian groups refute the concept of “speaking in other tongues”, “speaking in unknown tongues” or “speaking in tongues” as “gibberish” or “mumbo jumbo” (I use these for the lack of other terms) to be biblical. They argue that it means being polyglot. They say that Paul was the only one who spoke about it and argue that Paul was polyglot, that’s why he said he thanked God that he spoke in tongues more than anyone else (1Corinthians 14:18).
I am going to show/analyze some of the passages that refute this suggestion. First of all, it was not Paul who initiated this teaching. Isaiah prophesied about it (Isaiah 28:11), which Paul quoted in 1Corinthians 14:21.
Before His second ascension, the Lord Jesus said:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” – Mark 16: 17-18
Paul re-echoed this when he said:
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, NOT to them that believe, BUT to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. – 1Corinthians 14:22
Notice those bold, underlined words. Speaking with new tongues is one of the signs of believers (Christians); in other words, speaking in new tongues is one of many signs that one (non-believer) can differentiate between Christians and non-Christians. If that’s true, then there is no way that speaking in new tongues here means being polyglot because you and I know that many non-Christians are polyglot.
Jude too spoke of praying in tongues (in the Holy Spirit – 1Corinthians 14:15); that it helps us to build up our most holy faith:
But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost – Jude 1:20
They (critics, sceptics…) also suggest that one can only speak these unknown tongues (men’s languages) when the Holy Spirit gives them the utterance. But doesn’t that suggest that some non-Christians can actually do what God can since they can speak those languages as well if indeed it means being polyglot?
For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. –1Corinthians 14:2
This verse explains it all, that “No man” understands the one who speaks in tongues because he isn’t speaking to men (men’s languages), but to God and that “he speaks mysteries in his spirit.” This shows how spiritual speaking in tongues is.
Paul continued by saying:
As we see, Paul is saying, (1) it’s his spirit that prays when he prays in tongues (2) not even him understands what he is saying. This refutes the “Paul was polyglot” theory.
To understand it further, let’s go back to where Paul started it before going into details in chapter 14. He started it in chapter 13, though he only elaborated on love in that chapter, but in verse 1 we see this:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. – 1Corinthians 13:1
It is clear that Paul was actually referring to two kinds of tongues: “Men’s” and “Angel’s”. So the unknown tongues in chapter 14 can’t be that of men’s because he said he didn’t even understand himself (1Corinthians 14:14). In his second letter to the Corinthian Church he wrote this:
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. – 2Corinthians 12:2-4
Paul was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words that are not lawful for a man to utter. What he heard here is not men’s language but angels’. Why was it not lawful for a man to utter? Because natural men cannot understand it (it is foolishness to them, just like these critics):
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. – 1Corinthians 2:14
People only spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Spirit. This is another proof that it has nothing to do with men’s languages, otherwise I don’t see the difference between those whom the Holy Spirit came upon and “polyglot” non-believers.
“…And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 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, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
“While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all of them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God…(Acts 10:44-46).
1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,
2 He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.
3 And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.
4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. (Acts 19:1-6)
They also suggest that the purpose for speaking in tongues is to preach the Gospel to people whose languages they don’t speak nor understand; but these passages show that these believers were not about to preach to anyone, they spoke in tongues simply because they received the Holy Spirit as He gave them the utterance. It was for their own benefits as Jude tells us to use it to attain our most holy faith (Jude 1:20); not for preaching! (See Romans 8:26-27 for more)
There is no suggestion from any passage to show that speaking in tongues is only used when preaching the Gospel to people whose languages are unknown to us. We only are told to speak in tongues when talking to God or building our faith. I mean, what sense does it make for one who speaks English to suddenly use French, Italian or any other language (of men) in his prayer, if indeed speaking in tongues means being polyglot? Wouldn’t that suggest that those non-English languages are God’s language?
When rounding off, Paul said this:
Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and FORBID NOT to speak with tongues. – 1Corinthians 14:39
He said we ought to always speak in tongues; this has nothing to do with preaching the Gospel. It rather means speaking in tongues in prayers, confessions or in worship:
18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; 19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody IN YOUR HEART to the Lord; – Ephesians 5:18-19
As we see, the so-called “gibberish” or “mumbo jumbo” is what the Bible teaches about speaking in tongues, not as what these critics suggest. It is a blessing for Christians to speak in tongues; it is not for the Pentecostals. Biblically, those who celebrated Pentecost (Pentecostals) did not receive the Holy Spirit; they did not speak in tongues. It was those who locked themselves in the upper-room, non Pentecostals, who received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues (Acts 2:1-13).
One more thing (I nearly forgot to address this passage in Acts):
These critics also like quoting this passage on Acts 2:6-13 to show that they couldn’t have spoken “mambo jumbo” since the passage records the language they spoke:
6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. 12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? 13 Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.
Well, if this is what the Bible records, then it is what the passage itself says, “…the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). But that does not mean that we have to interpret the entire Bible as such, because God who knows and can do anything can make others understand what is being said, this is why Paul said:
Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. – 1Corinthians 14:13
The interpretation here is the same as interpretation of dreams (Genesis 40-41; Daniel 2:17-45, 4:19-27). Only God knows the meaning of it, that’s why Paul was saying that they should ask God for the meaning. When God reveals something to people, only the one whom He reveals it knows it.
For example, when Jesus appeared and spoke to Paul, Paul was the only one who heard Jesus speaking in Hebrew (Acts 26:13-14), his companions who themselves speak and understand Hebrew could only heard a voice without understanding it (Acts 9:7, 22:9).
The Bible records that John understood voice of thunders and was about to write what he heard before being told not to (Revelationn10:3-4).
Paul said that if they can’t interpret it then they better just speak to God or to themselves (1Corinthians 14:28). Interpretation of tongues equates prophecy (1Corinthians 14:4-6).
Paul compared speaking in tongues like sounds of musical instruments, though they cannot be understood yet all have meanings:
7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? 8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? 9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. 11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. – 1Corinthians 14:7-11
Also Psalm 19:3 says, “There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.”
As already mentioned above, Paul teaches how they were not supposed to speak in tongues when addressing people because they wouldn’t understand it, unless there is someone who has the gift of interpretation amidst of them. That’s why in the next few verses, he said:
12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. 13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray THAT HE MAY INTERPRET. 14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is UNFRUITFUL. 15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit (in tongues), and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. 16 Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, HOW shall he that occupieth the room of THE UNLEARNED say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he UNDERSTANDETH NOT what thou sayest? 17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified. 18 I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: 19 YET in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue…27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. – 1Corinthians 14:12-19, 27-28
Why would he compare five words with his understanding to ten thousand words in unknown tongues (1Corinthians 14:19) if he suggested “unknown tongue” as tongues of men?
I mean, how can five words in English be interpreted ten thousand words in French or any other human languages?
The bottom line is, Paul in 1Corinthians 14 refers to tongues of angels as he previously mentioned in 1Corinthians13:1:
Though I speak with the tongues of men AND of angels…
Tongues of angels Paul claimed to have spoken here can never be men’s since he also claimed to have spoken MEN’s.