The gift of tongues is certainly an invigorating manifestation of the Spirit, yet, is it necessary or even in effect today?
Throughout the course of Paul’s epistles, spiritual gifts are listed five times. Relative to the development of the New Testament canon, 1 Corinthians 12 appeared first, then Romans 12, and lastly Ephesians 4. The gift of tongues appears three times in the earliest of these chapters: 1 Corinthians 12 (vv8-10, 28, 29-30).
The Biblical use of the gift of tongues has ceased but certain passages make sincere inquirers wonder if what charismatic circles practice today equates with the tongues spoken in early apostolic times. These puzzling passages need to be considered.
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; in My name … they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17). Are these “new tongues” the untranslatable utterances that are spoken today?
The word “new” (kainos) means that the tongues to be spoken would be a fresh experience for the speakers. These were languages that, although unknown to the speakers, were comprehended and familiar to the hearers. Acts 2 (vv6-8) proves this; the tongues spoken at Pentecost were ordinary languages clearly understood by proselyte Jews that converged on Jerusalem for that feast. The companion gift of interpretation of tongues was not needed in Acts 2. That multilingual crowd heard messages in their own “old” mother tongues, spoken fluently by men to whom these languages were “new,” having never previously studied them.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels …” (1Cor 13:1). Does the gift of tongues employ angelic languages today? Paul uses several hypothetical and extreme examples (i.e., knowing all human languages and tongues of angels, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, having all faith) to emphasize that even if all this were possible, it would be worthless without love. Furthermore, throughout the entire Bible, angelic communication with humans from Genesis (16:7-12) to Revelation (22:8-11) was always in a recognizable earthly language.
“For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him” (1Cor 14:2, 4; also vv13, 14, 19, 27). Could the expression “unknown tongue” refer to the incoherent garble we hear today?
Every occurrence of the word “unknown” in chapter 14 is in italics (KJV), indicating that translators supplied the English word although it is not in the Greek text. This expression has been used erroneously to teach that Paul was dealing with something foreign to the Pentecost experience. The languages represented in the local church at Corinth were fewer; likely Greek was spoken by the majority, Hebrew and Aramaic were spoken by Jews (16:12), and Latin by Roman saints (16:17).
If a Corinthian brother began to speak, for example, in Egyptian, it is more than likely that he would need someone with the divine gift of interpretation to communicate the message to his audience. The gift of interpretation for Egyptian was not needed in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10), but it would be needed in Corinth (1Cor 12:10, 30; 14:5, 13, 26, 27, 28).
In the absence of an interpreter, if a brother were to speak in tongues he would be speaking only to God and would, with the Spirit’s help, edify only himself (v4). Only God and he would understand, even though he was speaking in a recognizable earthly language. In verse 14 the apostle seems to contradict himself when he states that “if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” The same Spirit Who enabled the man to speak a language he had not spoken before, also revealed to that man the meaning of the truth freshly communicated to him. However, his words were unfruitful because they did not edify the listeners who, without an interpreter, failed to understand his prayer.
“Unknown tongues” do not refer to jumbled babblings in private devotion, nor should ecstatic gibberish ever be used in Biblical church gatherings.
“Wherefore, brethren … forbid not to speak with tongues” (1Cor 14:39). Does this verse teach that it is wrong to forbid the use of tongues today?
This epistle to the Corinthians was written by Paul about the year A.D. 55. The Old Testament was being used in Corinth but the New Testament was still incomplete with likely only James, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Galatians in circulation. Another 50 years would have to pass until the Bible would be completed. In the meantime, the gift of tongues and other sign gifts, which were of a temporary nature, would give credence to the message preached until the canon of Scripture was completed (1Cor 13:10; Jude 3), thus rendering the sign gifts unnecessary. However, Corinthian believers in the middle of the first century were not to forbid its use ahead of God’s timing.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:4). Is the gift of tongues a necessary proof that a believer has experienced the baptism of the Spirit?
The baptism in the Spirit (not “of,” or “with” the Spirit) was an event that happened once-for-all at Pentecost (1Cor 12:13), joining all believers alive on earth that day into the Church which is the body of Christ. Since that day, every other believer becomes a member of this body at the moment of conversion. But Jerusalem believers, specifically, in the upper room were also filled with the Spirit that day. Those who make much of the reference to tongues in Acts 2 forget that there was also “a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind” and “the appearance of cloven tongues like as of fire” that sat upon those in the upper room (vv2-3). Nowhere in the Scriptures is the gift of tongues stated as being the primary evidence that the indwelling of the Spirit has taken place in a believer (Eph 1:13).
“With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people” (1Cor 14:21). Is not this quotation from Isaiah 28:11, 12 proof that what we hear today is the fulfillment of prophecy?
In Genesis 11 and in Isaiah 28, God’s use of languages not understood, was a sign of judgment because of unbelief. “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (1Cor 14:22). A look at the three historical instances of tongues used in the New Testament (Acts 2, 10 and 19) will show that unbelieving Jewish audiences were present. As in Isaiah 28, the use of tongues in the New Testament was a sign of judgment upon the unbelieving Jews. The strange notion that the gift of tongues could or should be a blessing for believers today contradicts the sufficient Word of God.