Is the gift of tongues a heavenly prayer language?

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The gift of tongues

Most Bible students agree that the heavenly prayer language or the spiritual gift of praying in tongues that God gave in the day of Pentecost to the body of Christ when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, was expressed in the normal languages of the world (Acts 2, 10, and 19). But some add that there was a second gift – a heavenly prayer language that the Holy Spirit gave. This latter gift, they say, is to express the Spirit’s “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

The heavenly prayer language

The doctrine of the heavenly prayer language is based on this verse: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14). Some interpret this to mean that when Paul prayed in the Spirit, he used a “heavenly tongue” and did not himself know what he was praying. But if this is true how would the believers that speak to God ever know if their private prayers were answered?

The problem in understanding 1 Corinthians 14:14 comes largely from the translation. If we rephrase the verse it will say: “If I pray in a language those around me do not know, I might be praying with the Spirit, but my thoughts would be unfruitful for those listening.”

Paul is saying, we should either pray so others around us can understand or else keep quiet. “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:15, 16).

According to this text, who has the problem with understanding? It is the listener and not the speaker as is commonly taught. If you have ever prayed with someone who is offering a personal prayer in a language unknown to you, then you know what Paul meant when he said it is difficult for you to say “Amen” at the end of the prayer. Without an interpreter, you have no idea to what you are agreeing.

The purpose of the gift of tongues

It is obvious from the context of 1 Corinthians 14 that the purpose of speaking in tongues, or foreign languages, is to communicate the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the listeners do not understand the spoken language, they cannot be edified.

Consequently, if there is no interpreter, the speaker is simply speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 13:1) and the only ones present who know what is being said are God and himself. This is the clear meaning of the often-misquoted verse (2) “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).

The apostle emphasizes again that the languages spoken need to be understood by the hearers. “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.” “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14: 9, 28).

What was the need for the gift of tongues?

The answer is to evangelize in the tongues of men. JesusGreat Commission to His disciples stated, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). But how could the disciples go out preaching to all the world when they spoke only one or two languages?

To fulfill the Great Commission, the Lord promised to give His followers a unique gift from the Holy Spirit. It was a miraculous, supernatural ability to speak foreign languages they had not formerly studied or known for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; … they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17).

Bible examples

There are only three actual examples of speaking in tongues that are recorded in the Bible (Acts 2, 10, and 19):

1.Acts 2 – “When the day of Pentecost was 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 all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven [divided] 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).

Why did the Lord wait until Pentecost to bestow this gift? Acts 2:5-11 tells us: “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language…”

The day of Pentecost was a Jewish holy day that fell 50 days after Passover. Devoted Israelites would come from all over the Roman empire to worship in Jerusalem. God chose this timely opportunity to bestow this gift of tongues upon the disciples so they could preach to the visiting Jews in their native languages. At least 15 different language groups were represented in the crowd that day (Acts 2:9-11). As a result, thousands of these visitors were converted.

For those that claim that the gift of tongues is a “heavenly language” understood only by God or those with the gift of interpretation. The Bible is clear in Acts 2 that both the disciples and those listening understood what was being preached. The crowds said, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).

Acts 10 – “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46).

This verse tells us that Cornelius was Italian, while Peter was a Jew, who spoke Aramaic. Because there was a language barrier at this meeting, Peter most likely began to preach through an interpreter. But when the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his household, the Jews with Peter could understand the Gentiles speaking in languages other than their native tongues. And the Jews heard them “magnify God” in these languages (v. 46).

Acts 19 – “And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).  Here, Paul in Ephesus spoke to the gentile disciples about receiving God’s Spirit. And they accepted his message and received the gift of the speaking of tongues.

From these references, we learn that the purpose for speaking in tongues is not to babble unintelligible sounds, but rather to communicate the Word of God (Acts 1:8).

Additional Resources:

Is the gift of tongues more important than other gifts?

What does speaking in tongues mean?

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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