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I was recently asked by a friend to provide her my opinion regarding tongues. Though I am not a theologian, I wanted my response to be based on what Scripture says about the matter. So, I immediately began looking up the Scriptures relating to the subject, as well as getting a little help from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible to formulate a response.
It was tempting at first to give a verse-by-verse commentary on the scriptures, but I challenged myself to just try summarizing my findings so that my response didn’t err on the analytical side. If you wish to conduct your own study, I’ve listed the key biblical references at the end of this commentary.
The most important concept to grasp at the beginning of this study is that the word “tongue” literally means “a language” or “dialect.” I particularly liked this definition from Strong’s: “(3b) the supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt.”
Just before Jesus was taken from this earth, He charged the apostles to be witnesses of Him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Scripture was still in the process of being penned, so there weren’t any tracts or translations to pass out on the streets. The cool thing is, Christ’s expectations of them being witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth wasn’t dependent on themselves. He told them they would receive power from the Holy Spirit (Acts: 2:8) to accomplish this task.
Though we generally first think of speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift, the ability to speak in tongues was originally given to those who were gathered together on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). They were “filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).
The timing of this is very significant, once again reminding us that God does nothing haphazardly or without meaning. The Feast of Weeks, a harvest feast known as Pentecost, occurred fifty days after the Feast of First Fruits, which took place at about the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, it’s very likely Jerusalem was crowded with Jews and proselytes (Acts 2:5-11) who not only lived locally, but who had traveled from other countries to observe this feast.
With Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection occurring just 50 days prior, the world outside of Jerusalem and its nearby towns was clueless as to the existence of Jesus Christ, let alone the redemptive work He accomplished on the cross. What perfect timing for thousands of Jews and proselytes from throughout the world to hear about the “wonderful works of God” (Acts. 2:11) in their own language and dialect. As the they began returning to their homelands, they became the conduit through which the gospel would travel beyond Jerusalem.
What we can conclude from the above is that the initial and primary purpose of tongues was to spread the gospel. Paul summarizes this in 1 Corinthians 14:22, “…tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.”
That being said, we do know that the gift of tongues is listed along with other spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. When you study the Scriptures, it’s very clear that the purpose of gifts was, and is, to edify, or build up, the body of the church (Ephesians 4:11-12).
It’s easy to understand how most of the gifts would work for the edification of those within the church, but not as easy for oth. ers, such as the gift of tongues. My best guess is that there would be those who would visit or come into the folds of the church from other geographical areas. They may have come out of curiosity, or to learn more about this new Jesus movement. Their understanding of what was being taught would be very limited due to the language barriers. This would be a scenario in which tongues within the church would be beneficial for the purpose of the gospel being understood. But, again, this would not be edifying for the body of believers, only for the unsaved.
However, Paul gives a warning in 1 Corinthians 14 that if everyone within the church is speaking with tongues (remember, this means an actual language), an unbeliever coming in would see only confusion and think the entire group was mad (vs. 23). Yet, the usage of the gift of prophesy (preach/teach) would reach the unbeliever (vs. 24).
There is another spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit that comes into play here. That is the gift of interpretation. In that same chapter, Paul instructs the church that someone with the gift of interpretation must be present if anyone speaks in an unknown tongue. Otherwise, the speaking in tongues is like speaking into the air (vs. 9) and edifies only the speaker (vs.4). That definitely defeats the entire purpose of speaking in tongues unless there is an interpreter.
Paul addressed this in verse 19 by saying he would rather speak five words to the church that could be understood and teach others, than to speak 10,000 words that were unintelligible. He even admitted in verse 6 that if he came to their church speaking in tongues, his visit wouldn’t profit them at all unless he utilized another edifying gift.
It’s interesting to note that we primarily read about tongues during the early Church age since it was a key tool in getting the gospel outside the boundaries of Jerusalem. Yet, as the gospel spread throughout the world, we read less and less about the usage of tongues. Why? Because it became less and less necessary.
This brings us to a statement in the Strong’s concordance pertaining to tongues. It reads:
Based on the above, there is really no biblical basis for the usage of tongues today. However, we know that there are denominations and those with personal views who continue the practice. I think the first question to ask is “why?” As the quote above states, we have everything we need today, in written form and in multitudes of languages, that provides a clear presentation of the gospel and the doctrines we need to “grow in the grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Also, while Paul clearly taught that we should desire the best gifts, it is clear he considered tongues as one of the lesser ones. So why would we want a gift that has little or no value?
Secondly, is there an interpreter present? Without an interpreter, the utterances are just being spoken into the air without benefit or edification for anyone other than the speaker.
One of the main controversies about today’s usage of tongues within certain denominations is the importance placed on the gift of tongues. It has become an unscriptural indication that someone has been filled by the Holy Spirit. Those in the church who don’t participate in the practice are often perceived to be not as spiritual as those speaking in tongues.
This would result in another issue Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul teaches that God disperses gifts throughout the church body as it pleases Him. And, there are many members that make up the body. If everyone within a church focuses on speaking in tongues, it is as if the entire church becomes an “eye” (vs. 17). Where’s the rest of the body? Who’s being edified, and is there an interpreter? If God purposely distributes the gifts, it must mean that a church body needs a diversity of gifts to be a balanced congregation.
Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (1:9-11) includes a request that they approve things that are excellent. I can think of no greater goal than to aspire to excellence in the words, thoughts, actions, worship, attitudes and deeds we do in serving the Lord. Our lives and service should always be focused on glorifying Him, and never ourselves; and, holding onto the ritual of tongues falls short of this goal.
References: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12-14.