3 Purposes for Speaking in Tongues

I wrote previously that speaking in tongues commonly accompanies being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Based on the book of Acts, I believe that it should be a normal response to the Holy Spirit baptism. I believe it is possible to be baptized in the Holy Spirit without speaking in tongues; I just think that tongues is the most normal New Testament pattern.

What is speaking in tongues? Simply put, speaking in tongues refers to speaking in a language you have never learned, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture indicates that the language may be known or unknown, earthly or possibly angelic (see 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14:2). It is a supernatural gift given by the Holy Spirit.

But speaking in tongues has purposes beyond being an “evidence” of the baptism of the Spirit. There are a variety of purposes for speaking in tongues, and failure to distinguish them has caused some misunderstanding about this topic. I will cover three of the purposes below.

1. Personal Prayer

One purpose of speaking in tongues is personal prayer. Here is some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on this from 1 Corinthians 14:

“For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.”
-1 Corinthians 14:2

“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.”
-1 Corinthians 14:14-15

“I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
-1 Corinthians 14:18

Paul obviously spent a lot of time praying in tongues, but most of it was done in private–outside of the public church setting.

Scripture indicates that praying in tongues can be a form of praise and thanksgiving to God. It can also be a powerful means of intercessory prayer. Not only can this bring worship to God and breakthrough for others, praying in tongues edifies the one who does it (see 1 Corinthians 14:4). If you have this gift, I encourage you to spend time praying in tongues often.

2. Corporate Word

Speaking in tongues for personal prayer is perfectly good and right. But in the church setting, we must be aware of the corporate body and strive for the edification of the whole church.

“I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.”
-1 Corinthians 14:5

When believers are assembled together there must be proper order so that the whole church can be built up; not just a few individuals. Paul was correcting the Corinthian church for using tongues in a disorderly way in the corporate setting. He strongly encouraged tongues—“I wish you all spoke with tongues”—but he was concerned about the whole church being strengthened. And he did not want there to be confusion.

In a corporate setting, the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues can work together. When this happens it is the same as a prophetic word coming forth that edifies the whole church. “…he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Prophecy is more profitable in the church setting, unless there is interpretation.

Here is how this works: Someone in the congregation gets a stirring to give a corporate word in tongues. They speak it out loud, and then wait for the interpretation to come forth. Either the person who spoke the word or someone else in the congregation will receive an interpretation of what was spoken in tongues.

(Here is an article on the nine manifestation gifts of the Spirit)

3. A Sign for Unbelievers

1 Corinthians 14:22 says, “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” Speaking in tongues can be a sign that points unbelievers to Christ. This is what happened on the day of Pentecost. The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Many outsiders heard and said, “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Peter preached the gospel and the result of this event was 3,000 souls added to the kingdom.

There are many testimonies of God using the gift of tongues to be a sign to unbelievers. Most of the testimonies I have heard are from the mission field and go something like this: the Holy Spirit will prompt a believer to speak in tongues to a person, and though the one speaking had no idea what he was saying, the one listening understood it completely. It was a message from the Lord or the gospel message, leading a person to Christ.

Hopefully this brief overview has brought insight and cleared some confusion. I hope that one day the whole church will embrace this gift from God and use it according to His purposes.

What are your thoughts or questions about speaking in tongues? What are some other purposes of speaking in tongues?


12 Responses to “3 Purposes for Speaking in Tongues”

  1. Thank you for shedding light on a topic that seems to stir up so much controversy, probably because there’s so much power in its proper use. I had a couple of spirit baptisms, but did not speak in tongues until much later (it was on the way home from the mall a year ago to this month, and I was praying earnestly for something in the car). So, the tongues may not manifest instantly, but I do agree that it is God’s will for every believer to have this personal prayer language. And may I add, tongues is so practical? There are so many times that what I feel in spirit is so deep that English words are insufficient. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I feel, just a deep groaning – and tongues can express what’s there.

    • That’s great Emily, thanks for sharing your experience. You are right; praying in tongues is a powerful weapon, and practical as well!

    • Billie Korstad says:

      My experience with receiving the gift of tongues was when I was worshipping while driving down a country road after dropping of my daughter (jr high). I had the music ion in and was singing when His spirit brought me into a new way of singing – tongues! I was overwhelmed with his love and felt like I was in Heaven. I sing in tongues a lot and mostly find deep intercession taking me there as well!


  2. I speak in tongues! Thank you, God.

  3. Is speaking in tongues something that is developed or is it always something thats instant? Like you either have it or you don’t or can you sorta have it if your still developing it? Is there such a thing as practicing speaking in tongues?

    I’ve heard various things growing up…

    • Hey Eric,

      Those are some great questions! I think that tongues is something that is given instantly on one hand, but can be exercised on the other. So when a person first receives the gift of tongues, they may have only a few syllables or words, and as they exercise the gift it expands. Other people may receive many more words in a much more powerful baptism in the Spirit experience. Everyone’s experience is different, so there is no black and white answer. One thing I would avoid is when people try to get you to “repeat after me.” It is not just repeating words or syllables other people are saying, but what the Holy Spirit is giving.

      Hope that helps!


  4. JanisAnderson says:

    Great Article Jake.. When I have some desperate prayer request or need .speaking in tongues draws me so close to The Lord , many times God gives me the interpretation in my private prayer time, especially when the need is so deep I don’t know what to pray!!! But God does… Miss you guys

  5. Arlene Neely says:

    Hi I have three questions:(1) The Tongues that were spoken in the book of Acts, is that also used today or was that only for during that time as a sign to unbelievers due to the different Nationalites? When I speak in tongues the holy spirit allows me to sing in tongues as well, some I already know but haven’t heard for along time or not at all.Others are songs of praise and at times he allows me to interpret by singing it out afterwards in my language or speak it. It’s all Praise and Worshiping the Lord.(2)Will the Holy Spirit allow an unknown tongue believer to speak in church? and of course interpret as well or someone else? I didn’t understand in your writing Is the unknown tongue the same as the one who speaks out in church (Corporate)?

    • Arlene,

      Thanks for the comment/questions. Yes, I believe that the tongues that happened in the book of Acts still happen today. When I described the three purposes for speaking in tongues in the article, the nature of the tongues is essentially the same–speaking in a language you have never learned, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the context and purpose that is different in each case. For your other question, yes, I believe that it is an unknown tongue that is spoken in church along with an interpretation.

      God Bless,


  6. This was very helpful information about speaking in tongues. We have new pastor and I belong to a baptist church. Our previous pastor did not speak in tongues and although I know of it, I have not been under spiritual leadership before that involved speaking in tongues. In some ways it does make me uncomfortable because I don’t understand it but at the same time it speaks to my spirit within and I feel the presence of God.

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