The Gift of Tongues

Part 1: Tongues in the Bible

By Robin Schumacher

A young Christian guy I know recently started visiting his friend's church after regularly attending with his parents. The new church is one that believes and teaches that Christians today should speak in tongues, which is something not practiced or taught at his parents' church. He's now pretty confused over what he's seeing, and wonders if there's something he's missing out on by not speaking in tongues like he sees his friend and others doing.

I can relate to him pretty well. When I became a Christian at nineteen, I became involved in a street ministry in our city that was staffed quite heavily by believers who encouraged me to seek the gift of tongues. I, too, became confused and ended up visiting their church where the pastor laid his hands on me and commanded that I speak in tongues (nothing happened).

That was many years ago, but the controversial subject of tongues is just as hot now as it was back then. Is there a systematic and Biblically sound way to answer the question of whether tongues are for today?

Two Key Distinctions

Let's begin to respond to the question by covering a couple of important points about the Bible in general. The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that a key task of any philosopher was to make distinctions. This ability becomes quite important in understanding the topic of tongues, as there are at least two key distinctions in Scripture that need to be noted.

The first distinction concerns the difference between what is prescriptive in the Bible vs. what is descriptive. Scripture contains many genres including didactic teaching, narrative, and others. Some who point to the book of Acts as proof that tongues are for today need to realize that books like Acts and 1 Corinthians describe many different historical things that happened in the early Church, but those events are not necessarily being prescribed for today (e.g. head coverings for women in 1 Corinthians).

The second distinction involves the difference between the fact of miracles and the gift of miracles. The fact of miracles can be found throughout all of Scripture, but the gift of miraculous sign gifts is constrained to three specific and brief periods of past history—the Mosaic period, the prophetic period (with Elijah and Elisha), and the apostolic period with Jesus and the apostles—with there being a fourth (apocalyptic) period coming. In each of these situations, God gifts a few persons with sign gifts that are used to overrule false teachings and false gods, confirm God's truth, and serve as a witness against those who stand in opposition.

Understanding these two important distinctions in Scripture helps pave the way for believers to recognize what should and shouldn't be expected in the Church today.

The Definition of Tongues

Next, let's look at the definition of tongues—what exactly are they?

The writer of Acts records the event at Pentecost when the apostles spoke "with other tongues" (glōssa, Acts 2:4) and their audience heard them in their "own language" (dialektos, Acts 2:8). The latter Greek term clearly communicates that tongues was a 'dialect'; a language. Depending on the context, the first Greek word can refer to (1) the actual physical tongue in the mouth; (2) a language; (3) a gibberish, ecstatic type of speech prominent in pagan religions and referenced by non-Christian writers such as Celsus.[1]

Few challenge that the tongues of Acts 2 was a literal language or deny that the miracle described in the chapter would be the equivalent of someone today spontaneously speaking a language that they've never learned such as Japanese. More controversial is the 'tongue' referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1 where he says, "If I speak with tongues of men and of angels…" and later in 1 Corinthians 14:2 where he says: "For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit." What are we to make of these references?

Regarding the statement made in 1 Corinthians 13, it should be understood that the Bible writers utilized many literary devices in their works with one of them being hyperbole (exaggeration). Never does the Bible speak of any angelic language; anytime that an angel spoke to a person, it was in the person's native language. This being the case, Paul could just be using hyperbole to make his point.

While it is rational to believe that, before humankind was created, the angels of God communicated amongst themselves via some form of language, in the context of the 1 Corinthians 13 passage Paul could also be using another literary device—figures of speech—to convey the idea that the "tongues…of angels" was the equivalent of speaking in a very elegant manner.

With these explanations in mind, it seems prudent to view the general argument laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 to be that no matter what language a person uses, if it was being employed without love and couldn't be understood then the individual wasn't doing anyone any good.

Some have tried to say that the tongues referenced in chapter 14 aren't a valid human language like that seen in Acts 2, but rather something else even if not an angelic language. Making the case for pagan religious ecstatic speech in the passage is difficult given that anywhere else in the New Testament where they are referenced, tongues refer to a literal, understandable language. Further, the line of reasoning that it is a heavenly language fails as, again, Paul appears to be using hyperbole or figures of speech in referencing supposed angelic languages. Also, nowhere else is there a heavenly language referred to in Scripture.

Lastly, perhaps it is just my natural skepticism, but I find it difficult to swallow the claim that the tongues referred to in Acts 2—the ones that can be verified as a working language today—have disappeared, but the tongues gift that no one can verify or understand remains in use today.

I would again argue that the best interpretation of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 14 is that a person who is speaking in a literal language unknown by anyone is providing benefit to no one, whereas the one using a prophetic gift of preaching and teaching is supplying profit to the entire assembly.

It should be remembered that a corrective tone is being set by the Apostle in chapters 12-14, where he is clearly trying to instruct the Corinthians in the best use of spiritual gifts and prohibit their abuse as well as thwart the elevation of minor gifts like tongues over others more important (a point certain denominations that put tongues at the forefront need to seriously consider).

The Purpose of Tongues

Next, it's vital to understand God's specific purpose for tongues—what did they actually represent? Fortunately, we don't have to guess because Paul clearly tells us: "In the Law it is written, 'By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.' Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers" (1 Corinthians 14:21–22, emphasis mine).

Paul freely quotes a verse from Isaiah (Isaiah 28:11-12; cf. 33:19) where the prophet is delivering a judgment on disbelieving Israel. Because Israel had rejected God, He brought the Assyrians against them who spoke a language they did not understand. This verse echoes two other Old Testament verses that pronounce a similar judgment on Israel: "The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away . . . a nation whose language you do not understand" (Deuteronomy 28:49), and "Behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar . . . a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say" (Jeremiah 5:15).

In other words, if Israel won't receive God's message from His prophet in a language they do understand, they will get another, punitive message from God in a language they don't.

Using this as his context, Paul says the purpose of tongues is for a sign, but not for believers; instead, they are a sign of judgment and warning to unbelievers. This realization brings strong clarity to what we see happen in the New Testament with tongues.

Recall for a moment how and when tongues arrive. Israel had just murdered and rejected their Messiah in a way reminiscent of the Jewish rejection of God in the Old Testament. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles[2] with tongues of fire (fire typically representing judgment in Scripture) enabling them to speak in languages they had never learned. The Jews had heard Jesus' message in their own language and rejected it along with God's ultimate Prophet, Jesus, but now they are hearing God's message in a different language that serves as a warning to any who would still disregard it. God gave them yet another sign (as Paul says, "Jews require a sign"; 1 Corinthians 1:22) that the age of the Church had arrived.

The same thing happens in the two other cases where tongues appear in Acts. In chapter 10, tongues are given to a particular group of Gentiles (Cornelius) with the unambiguous reason being to serve as a sign to the Jews that the Gentiles are included in God's plan of salvation. This fact is spelled out in chapter 11 when Peter is confronted by the Jews for having gone to the Gentiles. When he tells them of how tongues externally signaled the salvation of Cornelius and his household, "they [the Jews] fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'" (Acts 11:18).

Lastly, in Acts 19, Paul happens upon a group of Jews some twenty years after Christ's crucifixion. They clearly aren't Christians, but are only acquainted with John the Baptist's preaching. After Paul teaches them about Jesus, they are saved and manifest the gift of tongues. The author of Acts showcases this sign to his readers to demonstrate how salvation in the new age is only possible through Christ, and that religious Jews as well as non-religious Gentiles have but one way to God, which is via Jesus, and not through their prior Old Testament ways.

Unlike what some denominations teach and practice today, when a closer look is given to how and when tongues appear in Scripture, the purpose of tongues is truly seen to be a sign to unbelievers just as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22.

Next: Part Two, The Gift of Tongues Today. Do tongues have a place in today's Church? An examination of the various warnings and considerations regarding what might be happening now in congregations that claim the gift of tongues remains active today.

1. Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (201). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2. The conclusion that only the apostles spoke with tongues is strengthened via the comment made by the crowd: "And they were amazed and astonished, saying, 'Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?'" (Acts 2:7).

The Series:
The Gift of Tongues Part 1: Tongues in the Bible
The Gift of Tongues Part 2: The Gift and Fact of Tongues Today

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Published 5-22-13