Glossolalia is the transliteration of the Greek word that means to speak in tongues or languages. It comes from the words glossa (tongue) and laleo (to speak). In Christian terminology, it has come to be known as speaking in ecstatic utterances or non-intelligible language. As such, this term has often been connected with the charismatic movement.
There is much debate regarding whether modern glossolalia (speaking in non-intelligible words) is the same as what the Bible describes as speaking in tongues. A distinction can be argued for two primary reasons. First, speaking in tongues in the Bible was never clearly associated with a special unknown language. The closest connection is found in 1 Corinthians 13:1 where Paul mentions, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." He did not say he spoke in angelic language; he only wrote that if he did speak in an angelic language but did not love, he was only a noisy gong or clanging symbol.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 13:2-3, "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." These extreme examples help support the idea that Paul was not communicating the practice of speaking in the language of angels.
The second reason to dispute that glossolalia is the same as biblical speaking in tongues is due to the fact that such non-intelligible language is not limited to charismatic practices. A variety of religious groups worldwide have exhibited similar experiences of speaking in ecstatic languages or utterances as part of religious activities.
Acts 2 offers the Bible's first look at speaking in tongues. In this account, people from 15 different language groups were in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. The chapter notes that each person understood the message in their own language (Acts 2:8). This was not an expression of an angelic language or ecstatic utterance, but a miraculous translation of known language to communicate the gospel.
Speaking in ecstatic utterances is not the biblical gift of tongues. The purpose of speaking in other languages was to share Christ with others (1 Corinthians 14:19-22).
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