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For those of us without the gift of tongues, does the Holy Spirit pray just when we ask during our quiet time with God?

A fellow Christian once told me that the gift of tongues is the inward proof that the Holy Spirit can pray for us when we don't know how to pray. For those of us who do not have the gift of tongues, does the Holy Spirit pray just when we ask during our quiet time with God? (6/13/2009)

This question is a response to the study tip for May 29, 2009. To answer it briefly, the Holy Spirit prays for us when we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26). Period. I read and re-read every occurrence of “tongues” in the New Testament, and I find nowhere that it says that this is the Holy Spirit praying through us or for us.

Now for the long answer. Do you remember our Advent study last year? I said, and several readers agreed, that half of what we “know” about Christmas has no basis in scripture. To my surprise, the gift of tongues falls into the same category, except that it’s way more than half.

Presumably, what we all “know” is this: sometimes, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a believer will begin to “speak” in a way that suggests a language, but which no one present can understand. This is a sign (1 Corinthians 14:22). What we all know diverges at the point where we say what it is a sign of. Our fellow-reader’s friend says it is a sign that the Holy Spirit prays for us. Some take it as a sign that the Spirit is present. Others take it as a sign that a person is truly saved (or the only sign, which is bad news for the rest of us, and therefore unloving and divisive).

The Hebrew word lashon and the Greek word glossa are both fairly common in the Bible, and they are used almost exactly like the English word tongue. It can mean the pink wiggly thing in your mouth (“I bit my tongue”) or a language (“English is my mother tongue”). Occasionally, it means something sort of tongue-shaped, like a “tongue of the ocean,” i.e., a bay, or “a tongue of fire.” I find no instance in the Old Testament of “speaking in tongues.”

Strangely enough, I also find no unambiguous instance in the New Testament of “speaking in tongues” the way we all “know” about it! I confess to considerable amazement. (By the way, have I mentioned lately how much I love it when you ask questions that improve my understanding of the scripture?)

Glossa is used 47 times in the NT. Seventeen times it means the physical tongue in one’s mouth (e.g., Mark 7:33-35). Once (Acts 2:3), it is used figuratively – “tongues, as of fire.” That leaves 29 times where it could mean “language.”

Of the 29, the contexts of 9 occurrences clearly show that it means ordinary languages like English or Spanish. The 20 left over where it might be possible that it means something else are these: Now, in Acts 10:46, the speakers of “tongues” are said to have been exactly like the speakers on Pentecost, who spoke in known languages, so I would prefer to rule that one out. The circumstances in Acts 19:6 are so similar, that I’m inclined to rule it out, too.

That leaves one saying from Jesus in Mark, and one discussion in Corinthians that uses the word 17 times. Let’s look at those.
Now, it is certainly true that wherever Christian missionaries go, about the first thing they do is learn new languages, and even the ones who stay home translate the NT into new languages. Way to go, Wycliffe translators! So while this could mean “speaking in tongues,” it could just as easily mean “speaking languages that people understand,” which I think makes more sense in the context of evangelism.

Clearly in Corinth, some people were speaking something that other people didn’t understand (1 Corinthians 14:2). But – and this is the important “but” – the Greek does not have the word “unknown” as in the King James, or “languages that others don’t know” as in the CEV. Instead, it just says, “The one who speaks in a glossa speaks not to men, but to God, because no one understands, because in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” “Unknown” also does not appear in the Greek in 14:4, 14:13, 14:14, or 14:19. Furthermore, Paul says that the “tongues” can and should be interpreted (1 Corinthians 12:10, 12:30, 14:5, 14:13, 14:26, 14:27). So – and as I said before, this came as a surprise to me – there’s nothing in the NT that requires “tongues” to be anything other than “languages,” or “speaking in tongues” to be other than “speaking a language unknown to the other listeners in the room.”

Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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