Speaking in Tongues: Intelligible Languages or Unknown Tongues?

When the Bible mentions “speaking in tongues,” is it referring to intelligible human language or unintelligible unknown tongues?


Yet these two types of speaking in tongues are closely related. Let’s take a look.

Tongues as Intelligible Languages

The first time speaking in tongues is mentioned is in Acts chapter 2:

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
–Acts 2:1-4 NIV

The Greek phrase for “other tongues” is heterais glossais. Glossais is also used in Acts 10:46 (Spirit-baptism of the Gentiles) and 19:6 (Spirit-baptism of the Ephesians).

However, the occurrence in Acts 2 is the only place where “other tongues” are identified as known human language.

6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?
8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”
–Acts 2:6-8 NIV

The word “language” is translated as such because it comes from the Greek dialekto. In Acts 2, heterais glossais is understood as native dialects—known human languages.

Peter indicates that this understandable form of tongues, xenolalia, is a type of prophetic utterance foretold by the prophet Joel: “‘Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy‘” (Acts 2:18 NIV).

The foreign hearers understood the Spirit-baptized disciples to be “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11 NIV) Spirit baptism manifests itself in prophetic declaration and praise.

Although the tongues at Cornelius’ house and in Ephesus are not identified as intelligible human languages, heterais glossais is still used. We see that the circumcised believers who accompanied Peter to the Gentile’s house “heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:46 NIV). When Paul laid his hands on the Ephesians, “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6 NIV).

Spirit baptism manifests itself in prophetic declaration, praise, and speaking in tongues, whether they are intelligible (xenolalia) or unintelligible (glossolalia).

Tongues as Unintelligible Utterances

In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul discusses “speaking in tongues” (lalousin glossais) at length (12:30; 13:1; 14:2, 4, 6, 13, 18, 23, 27, 39).

In these chapters, however, Paul assumes that the Corinthians’ utterances in tongues are unintelligible: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (1 Cor. 14:2 NIV). And “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9 NIV).

Therefore, these unintelligible tongues must be interpreted by someone gifted by the Holy Spirit to do so: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says” (14:13 NIV). And “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret” (14:27 NIV).1

If Paul insists these tongues must be interpreted, he apparently considers they are not intelligible human languages being spoken, as in Acts 2. Yet, Paul says, “No matter how many different languages there are in the world, not one of them is without meaning” (14:10 GW).

These Corinthian tongues may be unintelligible, yet they are not meaningless. They merely need to be interpreted.

A key to the difference between xenolalia and glossolalia is found here:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
–1 Corinthians 13:1 NIV

Paul, here, could be comparing prophecy in the native language with a glossolalic message in an unknown tongue that must be interpreted. But he could also mean that some speaking tongues is understandable human languages (“tongues of men”), as at Pentecost in Acts 2 (xenolalia), and some are unintelligible unless interpreted (“tongues of angels”), as in these chapters of Corinthians (glossolalia).

As Robert P. Menzies points out in his excellent Speaking in Tongues (CPT Press, 2016), all of these passages:

  • Associate tongues with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
  • Use similar vocabulary (glossais)
  • Describe resulting speech as praise and prophecy

There are contemporary instances where private tongues or public messages in tongues are recognized as known human languages. Jordan Daniel May has collected testimonies of xenolalic occurrences in his inspiring Global Witnesses to Pentecost: The Testimony of ‘Other Tongues’ by Jordan Daniel May (Cherohala Press, 2013).

Whether we use tongues as private prayer language or deliver a Spirit-prompted message in tongues at a gathering of believers, we are speaking prophetically and glorifying God.

16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.'”
–Acts 2:16-18 NIV

1. Paul is comparing private prayer language, given as evidence of being baptized in the Spirit, with the spiritual gift of tongues, a Spirit-prompted utterance in a public setting that must be followed by the Spirit-prompted gift of interpretation.

Reading the Bible Chronologically


Did you know that the material in the Bible is not arranged in strict chronological order?

Here’s the current pattern of books arrangement: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/66books.cfm.

And here’s a link that lists the books chronologically, according to the historical time periods they cover: https://ichthys.com/mail-Bible%20chrono.htm

Have you read the entire Bible, cover to cover? I have. But now I want to read it chronologically—in the order the historical events occurred. The following plan from Blue Letter Bible will enable you to read the whole of Scripture chronologically in a calendar year:


Here’s another plan that lets you read from the Old Testament, Psalms or Proverbs, and the New Testament each day: https://www.biblica.com/resources/reading-plans/

What version or translation should you read? There are many. But the five most popular are listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations_into_English#Popularity. I prefer the New International Version (NIV).

To access many Bible versions online, I go to https://www.biblegateway.com.

Many blessings on your reading adventure!

The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.
–Psalm 119:130 NKJV

Sins Against the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit as a Dove

The Holy Spirit is a Divine Person, a member of the triune Godhead. And as God, the Spirit can be sinned against. The New Testament warns us of six specific sins against the Holy Spirit. But first, let’s examine the Spirit’s personhood.

The Holy Spirit is a Person

Sins Against the Holy Spirit

Of the six sins against the Holy Spirit, three can be committed by Christians, and three by those who do not know Jesus Christ. We’ll examine the ones non-Christians can commit first.

Insulting the Holy Spirit

How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
–Hebrews 10:29 NIV

The word “insulted” means to exercise violence, use despitefully, reproach, or treat shamefully. It is used only here in the Bible.

The salvation offered us through Christ is a gift of grace, not to be spurned, but to be accepted with faith, humility, and joy.

Resisting the Holy Spirit

51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
–Acts 7:51-53 NIV

This word means to oppose. The religious leaders of Stephen the Martyr’s day came from a long line of those who said they honored God but rejected what God’s prophets had to say. Disobedient to the spirit of the Law, they crucified Christ. And, despite the miracles that Stephen did, these stiff-necked people resisted the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Law, the Prophets, the Christ, and Stephen. Their rage led to Stephen’s stoning.

Blaspheming the Holy Spirit

“31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
–Matthew 12:31 NIV

The Pharisees accused Jesus of casting a demon out of a man by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. He warned them against attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to the devil. For these unbelievers, Jesus said that such sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will not be forgiven. Serious indeed.

Quenching the Holy Spirit

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
–1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 NIV

As believers, we must not extinguish the Spirit’s fire through the manifestation of spiritual gifts. Instead, as Paul told Timothy, we are to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6 NIV).

“Stir” is the word anazopureo, meaning “to rekindle or stir up.” It comes from a combination of three words: one meaning “intensely,” one meaning “a live thing such as an animal or beast,” and another, meaning “fiery, fire, or lightning.”

Paul insisted that Timothy “lively and intensely set yourself on fire to use your spiritual gifts!” Do you eagerly desire spiritual gifts? (1 Corinthians 14:1). Stir yourself up. Do not quench the Spirit’s fire.

Grieving the Holy Spirit

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
–Ephesians 4:29-32 NIV

How we speak to and treat others can distress the Holy Spirit. We are to cleanse ourselves from the sins of the flesh and put on Christ (Romans 13:14), speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Lying to the Holy Spirit

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?”
–Acts 5:3 NIV

Ananias and his wife Sapphira led the church to believe they had sold a piece of land and given the whole amount to the work of the Lord when they actually had held back a part of the money. In lying to the apostles and the church, they had lied to the Holy Spirit. For this, they paid with their lives.

Our Power Over the Spirit

Although the Holy Spirit is sovereign, we as Christians have the power, as Sam Storms says, “either to restrict or release what he does in the life of the local church” (Practicing the Power, 180).

We can quench or resist the Spirit by neglecting the Divine’s work of baptizing (filling) with the Spirit and imparting spiritual gifts through which the church must be built up. We can stymie the Spirit by creating an atmosphere in our church meetings that does not allow for the Spirit’s spontaneous moving. We grieve the Spirit when we despise tongues and prophetic utterances.

Let us honor the Spirit in our lives and in the midst of the Church, allowing the Spirit to have free reign and to manifest the glory of God with signs, wonders, gifts, and fruit.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
–2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV

Finding Godly Confidence

What is confidence? The dictionary defines it as “trust, reliance, belief.”

Have you ever struggled with having confidence? Recently, my self-confidence has taken a hit, so I decided to see what the Bible says about confidence. I found some encouraging words.

Paul, of course, said, “For it is we… who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 NIV). Our confidence should not be only in ourselves, but should be placed first in God.

Here are some Scriptures about confidence in God. They’re so good, I’m committing many of them to memory.

For you have been my hope, O Sovereign LORD, my confidence since my youth.
Psalm 71:5 NIV

For the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being snared.
Proverbs 3:26 NIV

The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.
Isaiah 32:17 NIV

Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.
Jeremiah 17:7 NIV

Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.
2 Corinthians 3:4 NIV

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Ephesians 3:12 NIV

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
Hebrews 3:14 NIV

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:16 NIV

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
Hebrews 10:35 NIV

So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:6 NIV

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.
1 John 3:21 NIV

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
1 John 5:14 NIV

God bless you with confidence this coming year!