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 Does tongues enable one to preach the gospel in a foreign language?

John Hoole February 15, 2009

On the day of Pentecost languages were spoken by the 120 disciples which, though unknown to them, were understood by different groups in the multitude that came to watch. This remarkable phenomenon has given rise to a number of theories regarding the exact nature and purpose of the speaking with other tongues.

One theory I have already covered briefly in an earlier lesson. Some expositors take the position that the 120 in the Upper Room spoke in their own Galilean tongues and the audience heard and understood them as if they were speaking in all the different tongues listed in the account. It was a miracle of hearing rather than a miracle of speaking.

But it wasn't the audience that had the Holy Spirit come upon them. It was the 120 in the Upper Room on which the Holy Spirit fell. Acts 2:4 specifically says they began to speak with other tongues. There should be no question, from the wording used here, that it was the followers of Christ that began to speak in other languages. The Bible says, in Acts 2, that it was they that spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance.

I am not going to spend much time on this theory. Suffice it for me to mention that when the apostle Paul finds fault with the use of the gift of tongues in the congregation at Corinth - as recorded in the first letter to the Corinthians, he does not blame the hearers for lacking an ear that would interpret their own tongues into foreign ones. Rather he blames the speakers for speaking with the tongue words not easy to be understood "by the unlearned." (1 Cor. 14)

Another theory about the tongues spoken that day is the question we are considering today. This theory says these early Christians were given other tongues to accelerate the spread of the gospel. In other words, speaking in tongues in the early church was a supernatural communication of the gospel in languages unknown to the speaker but known to the hearer.

This theory states that without the gift of tongues, the disciples would have been faced with the arduous task of mastering many languages before they could witness to the uttermost part of the earth. Therefore, God gave to them the ability to preach the gospel in languages that they never learned. And in that manner the good news was spread quickly over the whole earth.



There is only one case in the Bible where we know the hearers understood what the speakers in tongues were saying. This was on the Day of Pentecost. There are several other records in the Book of Acts where speaking in tongues occurs. And in none of them is there any indication there were listeners who understood the languages.

Now, when the 120 began to speak in tongues, there was at first no audience. If tongues was to preach the gospel, who were they preaching to at the beginning. There had to have been a delay between the time the 120 began to speak in tongues, and the gathering of the crowd. No, they were not speaking with tongues because the crowd gathered, but the crowd gathered because they were speaking in tongues. And not a single word is mentioned about preaching the gospel in tongues even after the audience had assembled before them.

Unfortunately, in the early years of the 20th century Pentecostal explosion, some believed this and left for the foreign fields to be missionaries without learning the language of the people there. And many returned badly discouraged.

The fullness of time

Let me take a side step to interject a relative piece of information. In the Book of Galatians, there is an amazing passage, and and it is easy to read it and continue without giving it much thought. What I am about to say is taken from a lesson I taught on November 13,2005. It's title: In The Fullness of Time. Let's read what Paul says to the Galatians.

Galatians 4:4 NKJV

4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law,

The same verse in the NIV reads:

Galatians 4:4 NIV

4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,

In the fullness of time, it came to pass. That phrase suggests at least 3 things:

o that there is a right moment for things to happen

o that it's not ours to plan that moment but to recognize it,

o and that we are not the primary agents of what happens in the world.

God's intervention into human history changed the world. Guided by a sovereign God, historical events worked in harmony to prepare for the precise moment of Jesus' arrival on earth.


In part, it means that in the divine scheme of things, this was the perfect moment to send the Messiah. It was perfect because God brought a broad variety of circumstances into place at that moment. Several factors aided in this time being the "fullness of time."

1. First of all, the time was right religiously.

In the Old Testament, there were many times that God had to judge the Israelites. The main reason for God's displeasure was the fact that Israel went "after strange gods." This was part of the reason for being taken over by the Babylonians during Daniel's time.

Jeremiah 5:19 KJV - They had gone after strange gods.

19 And it shall come to pass, when ye shall say, Wherefore doeth the LORD our God all these things unto us? then shalt thou answer them, Like as ye have forsaken me, and served strange gods in your land, so shall ye serve strangers in a land that is not yours.

During and after the Babylonian captivity, Israel once and for all forsook the idolatry into which she had so often fallen. You never again see them clamoring after false gods. And Jeremiah 5:19 is the last time you read the phrase "strange gods" or anything similar to it. Despite their many other sins and failures, including the national rejection of their own Messiah, no significant number of Jews has ever again turned to idolatry.

Additionally, it was also during the Exile in Babylon that the Jews developed synagogues, which they used as places of worship, as schools, and as courts. In addition to that, they at last had the completed Old Testament, assembled by Ezra and others after the return from Babylon.

Those features facilitated the proclaiming of the Messiah's gospel among the people of Israel. So, first, the time was right religiously in Israel.

2. Second, the time was right politically.

Rome had instituted what is called the Pax Romana (Roman peace), which provided economic and political stability. One of the Roman Empire's greatest contribution to the world was it vast system of roads. It is estimated there were some 53,000 miles of main military roads, and approximately 200,000 miles of secondary roads. They also published a large collection of travel maps. Under Caesar Augustus and his successors, land travel was quicker and safer than ever before. The apostles and other early teachers could travel freely and safely throughout the empire and could do so on the magnificent system of roads built by the Romans

Here are some pictures of the ancient Roman Road near Kavala, which is the modern name of the biblical city of Neapolis. Paul would have walked up and over these mountains from Neapolis to Philippi. I was standing on another major Roman Road while taking this picture of ancient Philippi. Here is a picture in Philippi showing the Via Egnatia. As you can see, those first century Roman roads are still in good conditions in many places.

It was no accident or happenstance when Jesus came the first time. God's timing is always perfect. He is never too early or too late. God is not a God of approximation - but a God of exactness.

Romans 5:6 NIV

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

We need to trust His perfect timing in our lives. We can be "anxious for nothing" because God will provide just what we need just when we need it.

3. Third, the time was right culturally.

Alexander the Great thoroughly established Greek culture and language throughout most of the known world, and this continued its dominating influence long after Rome succeeded Greece as world ruler. Because of this fact, Rome made it a law that all business transaction must be carried out in Greek. If you wanted to establish any business, whether small or large, all business records must use the Greek language.

There is no hint in the New Testament that the gift of tongues was ever used to preach the gospel. In the New Testament world, Koine Greek was the universal language spoken by almost every resident in the Empire. There may have been some secondary languages - like Aramaic and Hebrew, and in Asia Minor (Turkey) there were various languages, but Greek was the language common to all. Nearly anyone in the Roman empire could have understood a message spoken in Greek.

That means that during the first century there would have been no reason for Christians to learn foreign languages to preach the gospel. Therefore, there would be no need for Christians to speak in tongues as a missionary tool. In order for believers to fulfill the great commission to evangelize the people of the world, they could just use the language almost all people were conversant in.

On the day of Pentecost, for example, when the people heard the 120 praising God in a variety of languages, Peter stand up and preaches the first Pentecostal sermon. In Acts 2:14, Peter says: "...let this be known to you, and hearken to my words." How could all these people of different nationalities and languages have anything made known to them. How could they hearken to his words unless they knew what he was saying? Certainly he did not speak some 16 different languages simultaneously.

And yet, all heard and all understood him. And out of that vast crowd, composed of so many diverse groups, 3,000 accepted the invitation and were saved. The only explanation is that Peter spoke in a single language which was familiar to all. That would have been either the universally understood language of Greek, or the popular Aramaic.

No, glossolalia - speaking in tongues - was not needed for a clear comprehension of the gospel. Hearing their native tongues spoken by the Galileans astonished the multitude. But it was Peter's message, in a language known by all, which conveyed the gospel to them.

In that setting, while tongues were not necessary for communication of the gospel, they did serve as a supernatural sign. Those who heard the outpouring of tongues witnessed a miraculous manifestation. It was hearing their languages spoken by Galileans, along with the sound like of a rushing mighty wind, that captured their attention. But it was the message of Peter about Jesus that showed them their need of a Savior.

The New Testament part of our Bible could now be written in a language that all would know. The apostles and the early Christians who propagated the gospel during the first several centuries had a common language with those to whom they witnessed and with whom they worshiped. And the qualities found in the Greek language was the most precise instrument for the conveyance of human thought the world had ever known.

Now, let's get back to directly answering our question. Peter did not need to speak in tongues to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Greek was the common language of the Roman empire. And Aramaic and Hebrew were secondary languages for the Jews.

I think there may be another example of this in Acts 13 & 14. Paul starts his first missionary journey leaving from Antioch of Syria. His companions are Barnabas and John Mark. They walk to the port city of Seleucia and travel by boat to the island of Cyprus. They land at Salamis, where they preach the gospel. They move west to the city of Paphos, where they have a meeting with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus.

They leave Cyprus to the northwest, going to Perga on the mainland. This is where John Mark leaves the group and returns to Jerusalem. They travel almost due north about 80 miles to the city of Antioch of Pisidia. Paul takes the opportunity to preach Christ in the synagogue in Antioch. Because of the success of that message, many people wanted to hear more. Some of the Jews of this city stirred up opposition to Paul and they were expelled out of the city. They travel about 80 miles southeast to the city of Iconium - today called Konya. This brings us to the beginning of Acts 14. Iconium was the capital city of the region of Lycaonia. They preach the gospel again in the synagogue, and again, the Jews stir up the people and threaten their life.

They leave Iconium and go to the cities of Lystra, also in the province of Lycaonia. At Lystra, Paul prays for a man who had crippled feet from his birth. The man is healed and he leaps and walks. That is recorded in Acts 14:8-10. Now let's read the next verse.

Acts 14:11-15 NKJV

11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!"
12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out
15 and saying, "Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them,

Did you notice what it said in verse 11? After the people saw the crippled man was healed, they began speaking in the Lycaonian language. The context shows that Paul and Barnabas did not know what they were saying. The Lystrans, speaking in their local dialect, began to prepare a sacrifice. They thought that the Greek gods had come down among them. They thought Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes.

But as soon as Paul and Barnabas understood what they were doing, they tore their clothes, ran into the middle of crowd, protesting this sacrilege. Here is the way the Message Bible renders verse 14.

Acts 14:14 (Message)

14 When Barnabas and Paul finally realized what was going on, they stopped them. Waving their arms, they interrupted the parade, calling out,

This situation at Lystra dramatized the lingual circumstances for Christian missionaries in the first century. I think this passage decisively eliminates the concept that tongues were needed for missionary purposes.

So, the short answer to our question is this: Tongues were never shown to be the instrument of preaching the gospel in the Bible.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul makes it very plain in several verses that tongues, by itself, should not be spoken in a church service. It had to subsequently be interpreted by someone with the gift of Interpretation. Paul say that only then would the people understand what had been said. Paul also says that when he was teaching or preaching, he did not employ the gift of tongues.

On the contrary, the general rule for the speaker in tongues is that "no man understands him." (1 Corinthians 14:2) And because of that, Paul instruct those who bring a message in tongues to a congregation to pray for the interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:13). Otherwise, those who hear that person will not understand and will not be edified.


During this lesson we have made note that the Bible does not provide a single occasion where someone preaches the gospel in a language they have never learned. But I don't want to give the impression that God could not cause that to happen. I would not want to limit God in what and how He might do something.

Let me end with a story about Evelyn Thompson. She and her husband were missionaries some 60+ years ago on the island of Mindanao. I don't know if it still this way, but back then there were jungles, interior places not usually reached by anyone. They were on a trek to reach a new village. Someone from the village had asked them to come. In the village was a woman that was, literally, out of her mind. The villagers did not know what to do with her at all, and they had brought her to a place near the ocean where, to a house on stilts - high stilts maybe twelve feet high. It was made of bamboo rounds and looked more like a cage.

Evelyn Thompson says, "My husband and I were brought up into that house with several other people to pray for this woman." Let me continue the story in her words.

As soon as we walked into that room, we realized what was happening, as the Holy Spirit made known to us the demonic nature of the problem with her. There was a small baby in the corner of the room lying on a mat. It was her baby - a beautiful baby - but she could not take care of it. Someone else was doing that.

As we came in and almost immediately began to pray for her, the woman began to rant and rave. We prayed as one would usually pray in such a setting. We prayed with power, we prayed in the language of the Holy Spirit, but still nothing seemed to happen.

Finally, I said to the people, "Those of you who do not believe or cannot have the faith to release this woman from the chains that bind soul, please leave the room. All but three left - my husband, another man, and I were left. Then we prayed again. At first, when I laid hands on here, she calmed - but nothing happened. Great compassion filled my soul and I cried out, "Oh God, what can I do here?" I cannot leave this place without Your doing something here that I can see, that this woman would be delivered." I again began to pray with such passion that my husband put his arms around me, feeling concerned for the way I was pouring myself out in prayer. We still had much to do on this journey, and he was concerned for the ebbing of my strength in the tropical heat. But I asked him to release me and allow me to pray until I sensed victory, and he agreed.

I began to pray again, and as I did, out of my mouth - like a ball of fire from the middle of my stomach, came another language that I had never learned, nor had I ever heard it before. But as it came out of my mouth, I saw that there was a change in the expression on the face of the woman we were praying for. I saw that her eyes were listening, and at once I began to understand that I was speaking her language. As this change came over her, I saw the muscles in her face begin to relax, the trembling stopped, and her hands ceased the wild beating of the air as though she were trying to hit me. She had been writhing almost like a slithering snake, and this, too, ceased, as well as her constant laughing over her shoulder in a hysterical way. Then a most wonderful thing happened.

I not only could see that she understood me, but suddenly, I was enabled to understand what I was saying. I was able to think as well as to speak in a language which I had never learned and never heard before. In the following minutes I explained the story of Jesus Christ, God's gift to us, and how Jesus had died for our sins and rose from the dead. And with a perfect awareness of every word I was speaking, I led her to the Lord Jesus Christ with full understanding of that language at that time.

She was totally delivered and today she still lives. She became a witness to the Resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ. She was restored to her husband that very day - and took her baby and nursed it. Now, these many years later, she knows the Lord and has raised her children accordingly.

Evelyn Thompson later says, "I did not know the language after that one instance. I later heard that language spoken by others in the mountain areas, but could not understand it and I certainly could not speak it.

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