The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues has long been perhaps the most controversial of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This may well be because it is something obviously out of the ordinary, and which apparently serves no purpose as far as the natural man is concerned. By contrast, gifts like healing have an obvious value, while gifts like prophecy are often not perceived to be supernatural in origin.
Some Christians seek to prevent tongues being used at all (certainly not in church), whilst others elevate tongues to be the test of true spirituality. As usual Truth lies between these extremes. The object of this paper is to reveal the true scriptural balance concerning tongues. It should be noted that the words used for "tongues" in Greek are the words ordinarily used for languages.
An appendix deals with modern errors and other subsidiary matters.
Tongues confined to the New Covenant Unlike all other of the spiritual gifts, the gift of tongues appears never to have been given to anyone during the period of the Old Covenant. This is itself highly significant, since it shows that the Church was given something entirely new, a special sign, at the Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus Christ when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church. There is a possible Old Testament reference to tongues in Isaiah 28:11, though it would be unwise to say that this was intended to be the primary meaning of this scripture. Certainly 1 Cor 14:21 clearly refers to this verse in order to show that the use of tongues (without interpretation) is a judgment on unbelief.
Tongues, a sign which follows those who believe (Mark 16:17)In Mark 16:17, tongues is one of five signs which follow those who believe (casting out devils in the name of Jesus, speaking in new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking deadly things without hurt, healing the sick by laying on of hands).
Manifestation of these signs appears to depend upon believing and being baptized (Mark 16:16), tying up with Acts 2.38-42. Mark 16:17-18 clearly cannot merely be a promise that Christians will be good at learning foreign languages.
There is no empirical evidence that Christians (in general) find it any easier than anyone else to learn foreign languages when they have to learn them in the usual way. Nor is it plausible that the ability to learn languages in the usual way would be regarded by anyone as a "sign" of belief in Christ.
The word "new" (rather than "different" or "many") may be significant, suggesting that the languages may not be merely new to the speaker but could be entirely new, for the purpose of uttering mysteries (see 1 Cor 14:2). Because the list of signs given in Mark 16:17-18 seem a curious mixture, including as it does the ability to take up serpents and drink deadly poison, some people suppose that this justifies rejecting these scriptures. (These verses at the end of Mark 16 have sometimes been regarded as not part of the original text because it is omitted from some of the earliest (though not necessarily the most reliable) manuscripts.
However most scholars now accept the validity of these verses.) Such an attitude is dangerous, and those who take this line often go on to reject other biblical teachings elsewhere which they find hard to understand. In favor of this text being genuine, and that Jesus had told his disciples to expect to speak in new tongues, is that when the believers were baptized in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and spoke in other tongues, they do not themselves seem surprised by what was happening to them, and Peter was confident about explaining it all to the crowds (Acts 2). Finally we note that these signs are to follow those who believe, so that these signs are definitely unlimited in scope of time. There is no evidence here to suggest that such signs will ever cease from following those who believe. If such signs do fail, it simply reveals unbelief. Tongues on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-42).The speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost is different in many ways from all the other cases of speaking in tongues recorded in scripture. Not only did they speak in languages which were known to the people who heard them, but it was accompanied by other signs: the sound as of a violent wind, and the tongues as of fire which descended upon each disciple (Acts 2:2-3). These features are absent from all subsequent recorded instances of being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.
They are said here to speak in other (i.e. different) languages (Acts 2:4), contrasting with the "new" tongues of Mark 16:17. Acts 2:6 says that the people were attracted by "the happening of the sound". Although a different word for sound is used in Acts 2:2, it seems more probable that the people were initially attracted by the sound as of violent wind (Acts 2:2), rather than by the sound of the disciples speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).
Although the text gives the impression that the disciples were all speaking at much the same time, their speaking must have been sufficiently separate and distinct for each hearer to pick out his own language and hear it properly and clearly, and to hear its full content and meaning: the declaration of "the great deeds of God" (Acts 2:4-11). What people heard was in their own native dialect (Acts 2:6).
This word for dialect is a different word from the word for languages used in Acts 2:4, and signifies correctness of accent as well of the words, so that each hearer heard the language just as they learned it from their mothers (Acts 2:8).
This explains the hearer's surprise that all the speakers were Galileans (Acts 2:7), because when people learn languages naturally the accent is always "foreign", and explains whey the hearers felt the phenomenon required some explanation (Acts 2:12). Between them, the disciples spoke a wide variety of dialects: some of these dialects were of people close by (Judea) as well as people far away (Acts 2:9-11).
Some commentators suggest that the tongues at Pentecost were not really understandable languages, and that the hearers' understanding of these tongues was a miracle of hearing rather than of speaking. They say that while some of the people (those with hearts open to God) heard the tongues as comprehensible languages, others were mocking unbelievers who thought them merely drunk (Acts 2:13). Although it may be true that mocking unbelievers may only hear "gabble" (an application of "He who has ears, let him hear", and a fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11), Acts 2:4 makes clear that the disciples were speaking in real languages which the Holy Spirit gave "them to speak out".
Acts 2:4 shows that the language and its content were given by the Holy Spirit, but, as in 1 Cor 14:28, it was up to the speaker whether he spoke out or remained silent. Miraculous hearing is therefore not an adequate explanation of the fact that the tongues at Pentecost were understandable. Acts 2:14 onwards shows that all these people were perfectly capable of understanding Peter when he spoke to them in his normal Galilean accent, so the purpose of the miracle of tongues was not to enable the people to be evangelized.
The tongues were a sign (cf. Mark 16:17). Peter points out that these people were not drunk - it was only 9 am - but were fulfilling prophecy. By his quotation from Joel 2 (Acts 2:17-21) Peter equates these tongues with prophecy (Acts 2:17), which is not surprising since they were declarations about God's mighty works in languages which the hearers could understand. (This is in significant and clear contrast with the tongues mentioned in 1 Cor 14 which Paul says are equivalent to prophecy only when interpreted (1 Cor 14:5). The Corinthian tongues were not in languages known to those present, but were for the utterance of mysteries towards God and not men (1 Cor 14:2).)
Peter goes on to preach powerfully concerning the prophecies concerning the death and resurrection of the Messiah, that they were witnesses of the fulfillment of these prophecies, and that in consequence they had received the promised Holy Spirit.
Peter says they (the devout men present (Acts 2:5), Jews & proselytes (possibly even gentiles in view of "the temporarily residing Romans" Acts 2:10) there present, their children, and all far away - everyone that our God calls) can receive the same promise on condition of repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38-40).
Although nothing is said specifically about exactly what the 3000 added that day received when they repented and were baptized (Acts 2:41) they must have received the fulfillment of Peter's promise. It is inconceivable that they received any less, since in Acts 8:14-17 the deficiencies of the experiences of the Samaritans were considered a serious problem which had to be remedied by an Apostolic visitation. The significance of Tongues as a sign of the New Covenant.
Pentecost was an unusual feast as it used leavened bread (unlike the others which used unleavened bread), so it was appropriate that it was at this particular time that the Holy Spirit should be poured out on ordinary sinful people. Gift of tongues - sign of the end of Babel.
The gift of tongues was a new feature of the New Covenant (Acts 2:7-11). It was a sign that through the Church, God is lifting the curse of the confusion of language at Babel (Gen 11:7-8). God dispersed the peoples and gave them different languages so that they would no longer be able to undertake vast projects of which God disapproves. The confusion of language at Babel was a merciful act of judgment. Until the Anti-Christ once again brings all humanity back under a single political authority, God can avoid having to judge all the human population at once because different cultures become ripe for judgment at different times (e.g. Gen 15:16). The sign of tongues at Pentecost revealed that, in Christ, there is now a united people who understand one another, the first fruits of God's task of bringing all things under Christ's authority (Eph 1). Gift of tongues - sign of God's control of the believer
The gift of tongues is a sign to the believer that God by the Holy Spirit has gained full control of his entire personality to obey God. The heart is filled with gladness when the Holy Spirit takes control (Acts 2:26), and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34; Luke 6:45).
James tells us that no human being can control the tongue (James 3:8) and that those who think themselves religious but cannot control their tongues are deceived, and their religion is not real (James 1:26). Everyone makes mistakes, and someone who makes no mistakes in what he says is a perfect man, who can control his whole body (James 3:2).
None of us reach this standard, but the gift of tongues is like the bridle which controls a horse (James 3:3), or a rudder on a ship (James 3:4-5). But apart from God, this control is impossible (James 3:6-10): the control of the tongue that the Holy Spirit achieves in the gift of tongues shows that God has got hold of the entire personality.
This control exceeds anything available in the Old Covenant (compare Jeremiah 31:31-34). Could the widespread objection to this gift of the Holy Spirit be the result of the total death of self-will which the exercise of the gift represents? Gentiles receive the Spirit (Acts 10).
When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles at Cornelius' house (Acts 10:45-46) the Jews present regarded this as proved by their speaking in tongues and magnifying God. Although in some ways similar to Pentecost, Acts 10 provides no evidence to suggest that the tongues were in languages known to anyone present. Presumably by this time the 1 Cor 14:2 type of unknown tongue must have been well known. The disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7)
When Paul laid hands on these former disciples of John they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6). The form of the text suggests that the speaking in tongues and prophesying were two distinct activities. Tongues in the regular life of the church All the occasions of the use of tongues so far mentioned were one-off events, and did not form part of the regular life of the church.
The main teaching on the use of tongues in normal church life is given in 1 Corinthians Chapters 12 to 14. Tongues is supernatural, not enhanced normal linguistic ability1 Cor 12:10,28,30 mention the gift of different sorts of tongues, and the gift of the interpretation of tongues. The distinction drawn between being able to speak in tongues and being able to interpret them (1 Cor 10,30) shows that these abilities bear no relationship to normal natural linguistic ability where speaking a language and understanding it are simply different aspects of the same ability.
1 Cor 12:28 emphasizes that these gifts are gifts to the church (rather than to individuals). Attitudes will determine how useful the gifts will be to the church1 Corinthians 13 is sometimes regarded as saying that all that matters is love and that the gifts can therefore be ignored as being of no consequence.
This is not however Paul's intention: he is making clear that attitudes will determine how beneficial to the church those gifts will actually be. Gifts will eventually pass away, not because they lack value, but because they will have fulfilled their purpose (of building the church).
Tongues may be those of angels1 Cor 13:1 refers to tongues of men and of angels: thus the tongues spoken are not necessarily the languages of men, but may be, in a real sense, languages of heaven. Gifts, including tongues, to be used with love.
Paul's emphasis in 1 Cor 13:1 is on the right use of tongues - with love - otherwise whatever we say will will be a distracting clashing noise. This description of a clashing noise may possibly suggest that without love the tongue becomes meaningless (compare 1 Cor 14:7-9).
Certainly it suggests that the tongue, being prayer, is only as good as the quality of our love towards God. Similar considerations apply to other gifts (1 Cor 13:2-3).