What Is Glossolalia?

Many of the creations and wondrous acts of God defy the imagination, yet He gave us the language the writers of Scripture used to impart His words to us. We can also describe with language, to the best of our ability, what we read in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is of the utmost importance for us; He gives us an understanding of God’s word, and we discern what the world will never comprehend (1 Corinthians 2). The second chapter of Acts introduces one such wonder to us, and it’s what some define as glossolalia. Acts 2:1-4 records what happened on the Day of Pentecost when the sound of a mighty rushing wind came accompanied by divided tongues of fire that rested on each of the disciples who were gathered together. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

Glossolalia is a 19th-century term extrapolated from the Greek word, glossa, which is the word Peter used in this passage. Glossa means “tongue” (in this case it means language). Lale is defined as “to speak.” Therefore, glossalalia is defined as “speaking in tongues.” The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines glossolalia as “the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship. It is practiced especially by Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.” It is also said to be “speech-like” sounds thought to be a spiritual manifestation of the Holy Spirit for use in private or public prayer in a language that does not exist.

What Does the Bible Say about Speaking in Tongues?

Speaking in tongues is first mentioned in Mark 16:17, as Jesus foretells, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues.” Jesus, in this passage, spoke to the disciples (the 11—those who would become the apostles). New tongues are new languages, and this happened on that amazing Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. (Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20, although evidence points to their inclusion).

The word, new is important as we look at this passage. It’s the Greek word, koinos, which means new of form, not of something that is entirely unknown, but new to those who heard them. They were new languages to the speakers, unlike that to which they were accustomed. The disciples who were gathered together on the Day of Pentecost is a poignant depiction of this. The people in attendance heard in their own languages what the disciples said. Peter, then—when he stood and preached—is not said to be perplexed by his own speech. He spoke with a firm stance and without hesitation. He knew what he said (Acts 2:11).

In Acts 10, after Peter was brought to the house of Cornelius (a Gentile) by the Spirit (Acts 10:19-22), he shared the Gospel with Cornelius’ household. And all the [Jewish] believers with him were amazed because the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. They heard the Gentiles speak in other languages (tongues) just as happened to them(Acts 10:44-48).

Paul’s ministry is affected by this, too. Acts 19 reports the account of Paul while he ministered in Ephesus. He encountered about 12 disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and “they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” Here again, the term tongues means languages—known languages.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, records the gifts of the Spirit and the purpose of speaking in tongues. Throughout the chapter, Paul’s overarching message is that although there are various kinds of gifts, there is one Spirit Who empowers them (1 Corinthians 12:11).

Facts about languages (tongues) as mentioned by Paul are:

The manifestation of the Spirit is given “for the common good” (v. 7).

“Various kinds of tongues (languages)” is mentioned in v. 10 as one of the gifts. It would have been an important gift during the first century, as the spread of Christianity eclipsed the confines and local languages of “Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8).

In 1 Corinthians 13:8, Paul highlights love—how it will never end. As a contrast, Paul says the gifts of prophecy and knowledge will pass away, and the gift of tongues will cease. The when of cessation is implied to be at the Second Advent of Christ because the apostle Paul includes himself in that period (1 Corinthians 13:12).

An essential proviso of the gift of tongues is an interpreter, and the goal is to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:5-6).

In 1 Corinthians 12:30, Paul reasons with the church about the various gifts and how they are distributed. We are not to be upset if we do not have the same gift(s) as someone else. Not everyone will be able to speak in another language. The key is to work together with the gifts we are given.

Paul also says speaking in other languages is a sign for unbelievers. Since glossa refers to language, it would not make sense for a church full of believers to need this sign gift. In 1 Corinthians 14:18, Paul says he is thankful he speaks “in tongues” (other languages) more than “all of you.” That makes sense because he is the great missionary of the first century and he would require the gift to interact with people of other nations.

Paul gives further reference to tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (a list of gifts), 13:1,8; 14:18, 21-23, 39.

What Is the Difference between Xenolalia and Glossolalia?

Xenolalia is when a person speaks in a language unknown to him. The Greek word means “foreign-speaking.” In modern-day usage, it could be likened to a missionary in a foreign country who has the ability to speak the native language with no training. Glossolalia is defined as something which sounds similar to speech, but which does not correspond to a known language.

Is Glossolalia Biblical?

This demands a two-fold answer. The Greek word glossa is used in all New Testament passages which refer to speaking a language (Scriptures as noted above). The idea of speaking in an unintelligible language, or as ecstatic utterances (glossolalia) via spiritual experience (whether forced or not) is a late 19th-century development by German Protestant theologians; they attempted to explain tongues as recorded in the New Testament. The term, glossolalia was coined by F. W. Farrar in his 1879 book, “The Life and Work of St. Paul.”

As used by those whose definition of glossolalia fits the term as defined in the 19th century, it is not biblical. Intelligence is part of the character God imparted to us as His image-bearers. To speak in public with sounds and utterances which cannot be interpreted, nor which do not serve to build up the church is chaotic and confusing, and God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). Earlier in the same chapter (vv. 26-28), Paul gives a mandate about the use of speaking in other languages within the church setting. He is clear all should be done to build up the church body, and he reiterates the need for an interpreter. If none is present, silence is the rule, and the person should speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:26-28).

1 Corinthians 13 is called the “love” chapter—a whole chapter devoted to love! Verse eight says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Starting in 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul reiterates the supreme importance of love, which is to direct how the church uses each of its gifts. Love is a gift from the Lord, and He is the Giver of every perfect gift (James 1:17), and lest we forget, God is love (1 John 4:8). Paul uses hyperbole to make a strong defense of his point about love being the greatest (1 Corinthians 13:13). When he says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” the meaning is clear. That the “tongues of men” is genuine language is affirmed in Acts 2:1-13. As for “tongues” (languages) of angels, there is nothing in Scripture that corroborates this as actual language. Paul is being suppositional.

In conclusion, it would be out of character for the Spirit to give a gift that does not edify nor contribute to the well-being of other members of the church; a nonsensical utterance (glossolalia) does not benefit anyone. Nor does it bring glory to the Lord, which is our chief end. Jesus structured His church as one of love and order (unity), where believers glorify the Lord and edify each other through the use of their spiritual gifts.

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Lisa BakerLisa Loraine Baker is a rock & roll girl who loves Jesus. She and her husband, Stephen, inhabit their home as the “Newlyweds of Minerva” with crazy cat, Lewis. Lisa is co-author of the non-fiction narrative, “Someplace to be Somebody” (End Game Press, spring 2022). She has also written for Lighthouse Bible Studies, and CBN.com,