The only narrative in the Bible describing tongues in detail appears in the book of Acts. Luke said that the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The people who witnessed this sign were shocked: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (vs. 7-8).
The apostles spoke in tongues. The apostles spoke in native languages that they had never studied or learned. The gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in languages foreign to the speaker but known to the inhabitants of the region where the language was commonly used.
Based on Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth, charismatics define “tongues” in terms that contradict Luke’s plain narrative. Their misinterpretations arise from a failure to acknowledge the context in which Paul’s teachings appear. For example, Paul says that “if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Does this mean (as some claim) that tongue-speakers can preach in a heavenly language? No. This is hyperbole.
In the very next verse, Paul says that “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Did gifted Christians in Corinth literally remove mountains? No. Did they literally speak in the tongues of angels? No. Hyperbole is exaggeration used for emphasis. To speak “in the tongues of men and of angels” is to be highly gifted and eloquent.