Ecclesiology – Spiritual Gifts – Gift of Tongues
The gift of tongues is one of the many Spiritual Gifts given by Christ when He ascended to Heaven, sat next to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit. The first manifestation of this Spiritual gift is recorded in the Book of Acts in which all believers that saw Christ ascend received the Holy Spirit poured out for the first time.
When the day of Pentecosta came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. – Acts 2.1-4
5Now there were dwellingb in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6And when this sound rang out, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking his own language. – Acts 2.5-6
7Astounded and amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8How is it then that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,c 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and converts to Judaism; Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” – Acts 2.7-11– Acts 2.1-11
We find in this first account in Acts 2, that the gift of tongues caused all believers to speak, and that the hearers that where from various nations heard the word of God in their own native language. This caused the unbelievers that heard it to be astonished at the miracle that was taking place. Notice in verse 4, we learn that believers speak in a new tongue as the Holy Spirit enabled them.
What is the Gift of Tongues
The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in the language of other men (nations) or of angels. We see this definition come from 1 Corin 13.1. The tongues of men are the literal languages of other nations. The definition of the language of angels is not elaborated on in the Bible and to try and define it would be to go beyond scripture (1 Corin 4.6).
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. – Acts 2.4
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13.1
The Apostle Paul also explains in 1 Corin 14 that the person speaking in tongues may not be able to interpret or understand what they are saying, as he states the mind is unfruitful, meaning that it doesn’t understand the words.
9. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding – 1 Corin 14.9, 14
Purpose of Tongues
The Apostle Paul explains the purpose for the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians with a detailed explanation. The first purpose is alluded to in 1 Corinthians 14.
It is a Fulfillment of Prophecy
The gift of Tongues was prophesied about in the Old Testament, and we get Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 14.21-22.
In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. 22 Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. – 1 Corinthians 14.21-22
Here we see Paul explain what he meant in verse 22, when he says that tongues are meant to be a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. He shows us that tongues is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy as he quotes it in verse 21; in which God declared to the people of Israel, the unbelievers that would not hear His words, that He will speak to them with the tongues of other nations, or strange tongues.
For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, 12 to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear. – Isaiah 28.11-12
This was the punishment for unbelieving Israelites that refused to obey God, this was foretold in Deuteronomy by Moses. If God’s people would not listen to Him, He will subject them to a nation of foreign tongues, whose language they would not understand. This is why this gift is given as a sign to unbelievers, it is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that was given as punishment to Israelites as foretold long ago.
46 They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. 49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand – Deut 28.46,49
In Acts chapter 2, Peter points to the prophet Joel’s prophecy being fulfilled by the signs and wonders, and filling of the Spirit that was occurring at that time. This prophecy is being fulfilled as God pours our His spirit in these last days on believers, and sign and wonders where to follow.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, – Joel 2.28-31
As A Sign and To Share the Gospel with Foreigners
We see that when God gave the Spirit in Acts 2.4, many were brought to believe in God because they heard those unlearned men speaking in tongues, in their native language about the miracles of God. Jesus revealed in Mark one of the signs that will follow believers will be the acts of speaking in new tongues.
These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; – Mark 16.17
Reversal of Babel
The gift of tongues causes unbelievers to hear the word of God in their native language so that they may hear the mysteries of God and the gospel revealed to them. In Genesis 11, God separated the nations of the world at the tower of Babel by causing the languages or tongues of the people to become confused. This is considered by many as a type of reversal of the separation of nations, and God’s acceptance of the nations back to Him (Acts 17.30).
To Edify the Church or Yourself
The gift of tongues is able to edify the church if there is an interpreter. This is because an interpreter allows the tongue to be translated and understood so those that hear it may receive a revelation and believe or so that some other edification that may occur.
The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. – 1 Corinthians 14.5
If there is no interpreter, then a tongue only edifies the speaker, since at that point only the person speaking the tongue will know whether what they are doing is being done by faith in the Spirit or by the Spirit.
For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. – 1 Corin 14.2
The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. – 1 Corin 14.4
Ordinances of Speaking in Tongues
God gives us very clear instruction concerning the gift of Tongues and how to use it properly, since it was and still is such a misunderstood gift. In fact, it needed so much direction that the Apostle Paul dedicated an entire chapter to this gift to help the Corinthians direct it properly. We read in Chapter 12 verse 1 that the Corinthians wrote an inquiry to Paul about spiritual gifts.
We are not sure exactly what the inquiry was, but it must have had something to do with the gift of tongues since he goes into so much detail. Very much like in today’s age, we still have a difficult time understanding it or using it properly. It seems like churches either want to make the gift of tongues their central focus or ban it all together; both extremes are addressed by Paul.
The gift of tongues is to be done in proper order, as are all thing in the Church, as God is a God of order, not confusion and chaos (1 Corin 14.33). It is to be allowed by two or three, at the most, however if there is no one able to interpret, the tongues are to cease for that gathering, as it will become a distraction after that or obviously God does not want to move in that fashion, so the congregation should refrain from trying to push it.
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. – 1 Corinthian 14.27-28
On the other hand, the Apostle Paul says do not forbid the speaking of tongues, because if God wants to act through this gift, we should not hinder His works. We should allow the two or three to speak at the proper time. Perhaps during a prayer session or whatever is proper for that congregation, as it says in a fit and orderly way.
My brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. – 1 Corinthians 14.39
Misunderstandings of the Gift of Tongues
There are several misconceptions about the gift of tongues we will review below. This is typically because Christians will take their interpretations about a scripture and teach it as a fact. This is why discernment is important and ensuring we abide by God’s word in not going beyond what the scriptures teach when we accept something as truth.
Is Tongues the Only Way to Pray in the Spirit?
Is praying in tongues the same as praying in the Spirit? This is a teaching common among specific groups or churches. The idea that praying in the Spirit only occurs when praying in tongues is primarily derived from 1 Corinthians 14.14:
if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful – 1 Corin 14.14
However, we need to look at the entire context around this:
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? – 1 Corin 14.13-16
When we look at the entire context, we see that Paul is giving instructions for tongues in prayer and use around other believers. In fact, this verse refutes the idea that praying in the spirit can only be done in tongues, as in verse 15 Paul says he will pray with his spirit and with his mind, which he just explained, cannot be done if you are speaking in tongues. Praying in the spirit and with your mind is to pray with your understanding in a language you and those around you understand so those around you may agree and say Amen (v.16).
Further, we find that scripture teaches us that no one knows exactly how to pray as they ought to, so the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us to God whenever we pray.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words – Romans 8.26
The Bible teaches us to always pray, and pray without ceasing (Eph 6.18, Gal 5.16), not to do so in tongues. Further the Lord Jesus, when teaching His disciples how to pray, never mentioned anything about praying in tongues, but rather prayed with them a very intelligible prayer (Matt 6.9).
Is Speaking in Tongues a Sign of Salvation?
These are some groups that state you are not saved until you speak in tongues. This misconception comes from various passages in the book of Acts, that shows when the Holy Spirit came upon people, they began speaking in tongues. There are three passages in the Book of Acts in which this happens (Acts 2.4, 10.44, 19.6) after a person received the Holy Spirit.
In contrast to these accounts, there are many occasions in which people became believers and did not speak with tongues (Acts 2.41, 8.5, 16.31, 21.20). In fact, scripture does not teach at all that speaking in tongues is required evidence that a person has received the Holy Spirit. We are told that every believer has the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.9, 1 Corin 12.13, Eph 1.13) however not every believer can speak in tongues, as we see explicitly expressed in 1 Corin 12.29-31, 1 Corin 14.5.
Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? 30Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? 31But covet earnestly the best gifts. – 1 Corin 12.29-31
Is Speaking in Tongues a Language, Can it be Learned?
We may infer from 1 Corinthians 13.1 and various other passages that tongues is either a human language or an angelic one. However, we also find that it may simply sound like babble or groans as well as alluded to in other verses.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13.1
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 – 1 Corin 14.2
If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? – 1 Corinthians 14.23
Tongues is a spiritual gift, and as we find in the passages about spiritual gifts, they are given to us by the grace of God (1 Peter 4.10). It may be assumed that those in the church, such as elders, are able to help those younger believers grow in their gifts, and that spiritual gifts can be given through the laying on of hands according to God’s will (2 Tim 1.6, 1 Corin 12.11).
However, to say that you can teach someone to have a spiritual gift in not Biblical because gifts are given by God. The Bible tells us we may ask for them (1 Corin 12.31, 1 Corin 14.5), however, to try and force or fake something is to err from Biblical teaching and is something Christians should be cautious of. This should not discourage us form seeking a Biblical gift, rather be patient in faith asking God for it (James 3.17).