‘The Gift of Tongues’ Biblically Defined (Part 1)

The first recorded instance of the gift of tongues is in Acts 2.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1–4, ESV)

This is the first use of the gift of tongues and should be our anchor point from which we interpret other scriptures relating to the gift of tongues. Please note that the disciples spoke with “other tongues.” But what are “other tongues?” The following verses tell us.

Acts 2:5–11 (ESV) —5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

We can note several things from verses 5-11.

  • The disciples speaking were from Galilee. (Verse 7)
  • There were a multitude of Jews that were gathered from many different nations and languages. (Verse 5)
  • Sixteen distinct nationalities are specifically mentioned as being present. (Verses 9-11)
  • Three times it is stated that the multitude from many nations understood what the disciples were saying in their native language. (Verses 6, 8, 11)

What Happened with this speaking in ‘other tongues’? We have 3 options:

  1. The disciples spoke their native language and the crowd heard in their language. No! Verse 4 says they spoke in ‘other tongues’ not their own.
  2. The disciples babbled in an unknown language and the crowd heard in their language. No! Verse 6 says they were hearing them speak each in their own language. This would require supernatural hearing. The supernatural was happening to the disciples, not the hearers.
  3. Each disciple supernaturally spoke a language previously foreign to them and every individual in the crowd heard at least one of the disciples speaking in their native language. This is the correct option and best describes what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

From these verses we can biblically define the gift of tongues as follows:

“The ability for a person to supernaturally speak a language that was previously foreign (unknown) to them.”

This definition is what we will use as our basis for interpreting any occurrence of the gift of tongues in the scriptures.


David Harris is the Senior Pastor at Faith Baptist Church. A former programmer, in his free time he enjoys spending time with his wife Kim and trying his hand at the illusive craft of smoking meat. You can follow him on Twitter @rdharriswv