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Is Speaking in Tongues a Prayer Language?

Many pentecostal churches teach that speaking in tongues is a heavenly language, the “tongues of angels”. Is this what the Bible shows? Where does this teaching originate from?

The Greek words used in the New Testament for tongues, when used in relation to speaking, simply meant “language”. The Greek “glossa” means “tongue, language,” and the verb “laleo” means “to speak”, producing the word “glossolalia”. This always refered to an earthly or known language.

There is only one verse in the Bible that mentions the tongues of angels. It is 1 Corinthians 13:1(KJV) “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”. Is Paul really saying that he speaks in the tongues of angels? This verse needs to be viewed in context and also in relation to the translation from the Greek. The word that has been translated to “though” when translated and used in over 95% of all other places in the New Testament, has been more correctly translated to “if”. Other Versions of the Bible do translate this correctly to “if I spoke in the tongues men and angels”.

Regardless of this mistranslation, merely reading the following verses clearly reveal that Paul is speaking rhetorically, as had he been speaking literally he would be boasting that he understood all mysteries and knew everything, which we know is not the case. These verses read 1 Corinthians 13:2-3 “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing”. Paul is emphatically expressing his desire that the people should demonstrate love, generosity and charity, the important fruits of the spirit, because without these everything else becomes void. He is showing that love is the most important characteristic that God’s people need to express in all aspects of their lives and their ministries. He is not saying that he really can speak in the tongues of angels and has all knowledge.

Isn’t speaking in tongues used to edify ourselves?

It should be noted that all of the gifts of the spirit that God gave were related to building up the church. Evangelism, prophesying, teaching, preaching and speaking in tongues to reach the surrounding nations and rest of the world with the gospel message were all gifts to edify the church.

Paul writes 1 Corinthians 14:4 “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church”. Many preachers use this verse to prove that we should speak in tongues to edify ourselves and build up our faith. Is this what Paul is really saying? If we again look at this verse in context it can be seen that Paul is in fact rebuking the church at Corinth for their misuse of the gift of speaking in tongues, and telling them that it is of no use whatsoever if they speak in tongues and no one around them understands them. He says that prophesying is far more important, as that will build up the church.

1 Corinthians 14:5-7 “I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? 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?”

He continues on to say that they may as well be speaking into the air. 1 Corinthians 14:9 “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”. These words are far removed from encouraging them to edify themselves? The whole purpose of his message was to encourage them to stop being self-centered and work on doing things that would build up the church.

The Bible makes it clear that speaking in tongues was for the purpose of witnessing to people in their own languages that they could understand and not speaking where noone knew the meaning of the words being spoken. 1 Corinthians 14:11-12 “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. Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church”.

All Bible references are from the King James Version.

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