John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would be the “baptiser in the Holy Spirit” (Mt.3:11). Jesus himself promised his disciples that although he was going away, he would send the Holy Spirit to be their Comforter or Helper (Jn.14:15-18; 25-27; 16:12-15). After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and imparted the Holy Spirit to them. I believe it was in this moment that they were ‘born again’. The moment we become a Christian we receive the person of the Holy Spirit who comes to live inside of us and help us live the Christian life (Jn.20:19-23). But in addition to this, Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” that would empower them to fulfil God’s purpose for their lives (Acts 1:4-8). There seems to be two distinct aspects to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives – coming to live inside of us the moment we are born again AND coming on or filling us to empower us to live the Christian life and do the works of God. There is both an ‘indwelling’ and an ‘infilling’ of the same Holy Spirit in our lives.
What happened when the Holy Spirit came upon them (see Acts 2:1-4)? In addition to a number of supernatural things occurring in the room where they met (wind and fire appearing), the visible or tangible indicator that the infilling of the Holy Spirit had occurred was that each one of them spoke in other languages (or “tongues”). As we read through the story of the first century church, we discover that this was not just a one off event for these 120 disciples. It was normal for believers in the first century (see Acts 8:14-19; 9:17-20 with 1 Cor.14:18. Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-7). The primary evidence of being filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues. Baptism in water, speaking in tongues and the gifts of the Spirit are a normal part of the Christian experience (although they are not necessary for salvation).
Speaking in Tongues
The very mention of this term or experience arouses a great variety of thoughts and responses. For those who have experienced it, there is a positive response and usually a testimony of the joy and release that accompanies it. For others who have not experienced it (and even some who have) there may be a somewhat negative response. Other people may feel inferior or second class as if their faith is suspect because they don’t speak in tongues. Maybe they heard tongues used at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate manner. So the responses are broad – ranging from curiosity to animosity. To start with, the term itself, though clearly Biblical, tends to get the whole experience off to a bad start. Our tongues are not the most attractive part of our body. We do use them to speak with but generally we try to hide them away (unless we are rudely poking out our tongue!). So what is ‘speaking in tongues’? The Greek word implies an actual language, so a better term is “spiritual language.”
Is it Important and is it for Today?
Spiritual language is Biblical and nothing in Scripture restricts it to the first century. It is not outdated, and many people throughout history and alive today have experienced it. Jesus was the one who introduced it (Mk. 16:17. Acts 2:4). It was the first sign to follow believers (Mt.16:17). It was given at the birth of the church (Acts 2:4). They all (120) spoke in spiritual languages on the first day the church came into being. It was God's idea. He created and endorsed it, obviously for a reason and a purpose. The early church continued to experience it. Paul promoted it (1 Cor. 14:5, 18, 39). He spoke in tongues more than anyone. He told no one to forbid it while encouraging its proper usage. Therefore, it must be important.
The Purpose of Spiritual Language
Unfortunately, there has often been a strong emphasis on the initial receiving of spiritual language but a weak focus on the continuous use of it in our lives. In the book of 1 Corinthians Paul spends a fair bit of time giving instruction about spiritual language. Paul makes a clear distinction between spiritual language used in public (the “gift of tongues”) with the necessary interpretation, and spiritual language for private use. Not all have the “gift of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:30). However, we believe that spiritual language for personal use is available for everyone (1 Cor. 14:5). What is the purpose of spiritual language?
1. To help us communicate with God. We desire to be closer to God, to draw near to him and express the deep cry of our hearts to him both in prayer and worship. Spiritual language helps us to speak directly with God (1 Cor.14:2). We are praying by the Spirit and therefore according to God’s will. He hears and understands us (1 Cor.14:13-15. Rom.8:26-28. Eph.6:18). Spiritual language, either for prayer or for worship, is not to be used in the presence of unbelievers unless there is an interpretation. Otherwise, they will not know what is going on and will think that believers are “mad” (see 1 Cor.14:15-17, 23-25).
Is ‘tongues’ an actual language? I believe so. In Acts 2, 120 disciples were present. Vs. 9-11 lists about 15 geographical areas. These people heard their own languages (dialects) being spoken. Some people have scrutinized tapes and concluded, "This does not contain the usual structures of recognizable speech." But with over 6000 known languages on earth, who is to say? Even a linguistic expert wouldn't have a basic grasp of 100 languages (see 1 Cor.14:10-12). Paul refers to the languages of angels, only understood in heaven (1 Cor.13:1). An “unknown” tongue refers to the understanding of the speaker not necessarily the language spoken. Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's not known somewhere on earth.
2. To edify or build ourselves up. Not only does a spiritual language help us communicate with God, it also helps us to edify for building ourselves up (1 Cor.14:3-5. Jude 20). Our spiritual language enables us to charge our spiritual batteries as it were. You may be facing a difficult situation, needing strength against temptation, experiencing some spiritual warfare, needing power to do God's will or needing grace during a trial. Build yourself up. Strengthen yourself through the Spirit. Use your spiritual language and train yourself to become strong in spirit. The power is his, the choice is yours.
3. To Reveal Mysteries to Us. Through the use of our spiritual language, the Holy Spirit can reveal mysteries to us (1 Cor.14:2. See also Mt.13:11. Rom.16:25-27). The Holy Spirit wants to show us spiritual things (1 Cor.2:7-16). Use your spiritual language and ask God to reveal his mysteries to you by the Spirit.
4. To Release Power Within Us. The Holy Spirit comes to give us the power and ability to do God’s will (Acts 1:8; 4:31. Eph.3:16).
How to Receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit
1. Believe that God wants to fill you with his Spirit (Acts 2:38-39. Lk.11:13).
2. Prepare your heart by having a clear conscience (1 Jn.3:21-22). Forgive others (Mt. 18:32-33; 10:8. Lk.12:48. Eph. 4:30-32). Remove bitterness and resentment.
3. Ask for the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Lk.11:9, 13. Jn.7:37-39).
4. Give praise to God with your voice (Lk.24:49-53).
5. Have someone pray with you and lay their hands on you if necessary (Acts 8:17).
6. Speak forth in a new language as the Holy Spirit gives you the words (Acts 2:4). Decide to open your mouth and speak a new language.
7. Continue to use your new spiritual language on a regular basis and believe for God to increase the flow of His Spirit within you. A gift is to be used not just received and put away.
Jesus said, "You must be born again" but he did not say, "You must speak in tongues". It is a gift (a promise) not a demand or obligation. We don’t ‘have to’ we ‘get to’. It’s an honour and a privilege.
Sample Discussion Questions
1. What were your impressions of “speaking in tongues” before you were a Christian and maybe just after you became a Christian? What influenced your perspective back then?
2. Have those who are filled with the Spirit share their story – how they received and what’s been different since.
3. Discuss why there is often a focus on receiving spiritual language but less on using it.
4. Have some prayer for those who have not received or who would like a fresh infilling of the Spirit.
Recommended Reading: The Beauty of Spiritual Language by Jack Hayford; Understanding the New Birth and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit by Kevin Conner; The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal by Vinson Synan.