The Different Types of Tongues Explained

Speaking in tongues is a heavily debated topic in the Christian faith. If you post anything about speaking in tongues on social media, you’ll get very passionate responses from both sides. 

People will tell you it’s babbling nonsense. Other people will tell you it’s very real and powerful.

I believe speaking in tongues is a miracle from God that still happens today. Most of the people who say speaking in tongues is wrong believe that because someone else told them to believe that. They usually haven’t spent time reading what the Bible says about the topic.

One of the most detailed chapters on the topic of speaking in tongues is 1 Corinthians 12. The chapter starts with this verse: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant.”

Paul tells us right there that we need to spend time studying this topic. Regardless of what you believe right now, Paul says not to be ignorant. Paul also explains that spiritual things seem foolish to unbelievers. If you think speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts is foolishness, I’d ask you if you’re a believer or unbeliever.

Now, if you’re ready to learn more about the topic of speaking in tongues, I’m going to unpack this topic. Speaking in tongues is listed in 1 Corinthians 12, along with 8 other spiritual gifts. These 9 gifts are usually called the Gifts of The Spirit.

Paul describes the 8th gift as “different kinds of tongues.” 

There’s not just one type of tongue. If you do more research on this topic, you’ll find that there are four different types of tongues. The most common type of tongue is for your personal edification. There are also tongues that need interpretation, intercessory tongues, and tongues as a sign to unbelievers. 

Each is unique and has a specific purpose.

Tongues for personal edification

This is the most common type of tongue, and usually what people are talking about when they tell you they pray in tongues.

This can quickly become confusing, because this is not the type of tongue we see first in the book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit first falls upon the disciples, the tongues they’re praying in are not for personal edification.

Speaking or praying in unknown tongues for your personal edification is explained in 1 Corinthians 14:2-4.

“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. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.”

It’s important to note that this verse explains that this type of tongue is only a conversation between you and God. You aren’t speaking to anyone else, and no one will understand what you’re saying.

I don’t need to hear or understand what you’re saying when you’re praying to God. So, this type of tongue doesn’t require any interpretation. 

What is the purpose of this then?

Why can’t you simply pray in English, or your native language?

Paul says that speaking in tongues to God edifies yourself. The word “edify” means to build a house. Or to build up your character and encourage. When you pray in tongues, you’re building up courage and character within yourself.

This is confirmed in Jude 1:20:

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit.”

Praying in the Holy Spirit, or praying in tongues builds you up and strengthens your spirit.

This is a wonderful gift from God! No wonder the devil has worked so hard to make people believe it’s a bunch of nonsense. The devil doesn’t want you to become a strong, confident believer.

Paul boasted that he prayed in tongues more than anyone. No wonder he was able to face the intense persecution and had endless confidence in the goodness and love of God. He spent so much time edifying his spirit.

This type of tongue is the first sign that someone has received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. You can read throughout the book of Acts that when people were baptized in the Holy Spirit they began speaking in tongues. 

This is the first sign because it’s for you, while the other miracles are for the benefit of others. 

God designed it this way because He needs you to become strong in the Spirit before you help other people.

If you’re going to operate in the other gifts of the Spirit, you need to spend time building yourself up.

Romans 8:26

Tongues for interpretation

The next type of tongue is the tongues that need an interpretation. This is what Paul is talking about throughout 1 Corinthians 14.

“Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” 1 Cor. 14:13

“If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret.” 1 Cor. 14:27

This is confused with praying in tongues for personal edification because they’re explained in the same chapter. But Paul makes a clear distinction between the two types of tongues.

Tongues for an interpretation are not a prayer to God. They are a message for someone in the Church. If I came to your church and had a message that was in a language you didn’t understand, someone would need to pray for an interpretation of my message. If not, my message would be meaningless. 

It’s also clear that this type of tongue is not a human language. If this was referring to a human language, there would be no need to pray for an interpretation. You’d just need to have someone who naturally learned to speak both languages. 

This tongue is a supernatural language that comes from the Holy Spirit, and He gives someone the interpretation. 

We cannot speak and interpret these tongues by our own will. This is a gift directed by God, for the purpose of edifying the Church.

This gift of tongues and interpretation is like the other gifts of the Spirit. We can pray and believe God for them to happen, but they don’t always happen how or when we want. When we speak or pray in tongues to edify ourself, it’s done by our will. We can do that whenever we choose, but tongues for interpretation are directed by God’s will.

Tongues as a sign to unbelievers

The third type of tongue is a sign to unbelievers. This is what happened in Acts 2 when the first disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began speaking in tongues and people heard them speaking in their own language. This was a supernatural sign from God.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?””
Acts 2:4-12 NIV

We can see here that this type of tongue is a gift given by the Holy Spirit. 

The people around when it happened heard the disciples speaking in their own language. There was no interpreter telling them what was being said. 

They heard the wonders of God and were amazed by it.

That’s how tongues were a sign to people who didn’t believe.

This type of tongue is a human language. It’s not a prayer to God and doesn’t require interpretation. The person hearing the tongue will hear it in their own language and it will be something that glorifies God. 

An example of this today might be someone on a mission trip to a different country. They begin speaking in a language they don’t understand. Someone around them hears what they are saying and it’s glorifying to God—they hear their own native language being spoken. But, the person speaking doesn’t understand what they’re saying, only the person hearing understands.

If I was in South Korea and began speaking in another tongue, it could be Korean. I might unknowingly tell someone “God loves you and wants to heal your heart. He has been pursuing you and wants to restore your family.” Since I don’t speak any Korean, I wouldn’t know what I’m saying, but it would be a sign to the person who understands.

Tongues of intercession

The last type of tongue is for intercession. This is explained in Romans 8:

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27 NIV

Tongues of intercession may seem similar to praying in tongues for personal edification. The difference here is that you’re interceding for other people. Rather than edifying yourself, you’re praying for other people and their circumstances. 

It can be difficult to know whether you’re praying for personal edification or interceding. I’ve experienced this, and heard other people explain situations where they’re interceding while praying in tongues. It usually feels like a knot in their stomach, and a need to pray rises up within them. That feeling doesn’t go away until God has finished interceding for His people through you.

Of course, you’re still in control of your body, but God is using your mouth to fulfill His will on the earth. 

When I’m praying in tongues and building myself up, I can start or stop whenever I want. When I’ve felt the strong urge to pray, I believe I was interceding for other people. Similarly to tongues as a sign to unbelievers and tongues that are interpreted, this gift is directed by God, rather than your own human will.

I hope this article has given you a better understanding of the different types of tongues. I encourage you to read through the scriptures about this topic, and ask God for a deeper understanding. He wants to teach you and show you His power and love.

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