“… they will speak with new tongues…”
as an introduction to the topic of the gift of speaking in tongues.
We live in an age when people do not want the truth, but they want what looks or feels good. When they hear any teaching, they ask “Does it look good?” or “How does it feel?”, instead of asking “Is this true? Is this what God says in the Bible?” And thus false teachers deceive them, and they are pleased with it… How sad to see them carried away by varied and strange teachings (see Hebrews 13:9) and deceiving themselves until they reach that big disillusion before the Throne of Christ…
When it comes to the matter of the gift of tongues, we don’t have an exception: Instead of looking to what the Bible really teaches, and instead of letting the Bible explain all the phenomena and experiences that they may observe, they rather choose to interpret the Bible according to their experiences and feelings and according to what they observe. They observe people claiming to speak in tongues, so they reinterpret the Bible according to that observation or experience, instead of examining that experience or observation with the Bible. And thus, those people fall in the same error of the heretics: They interpret the Bible with human traditions or philosophies or experiences, while the right thing to do is to let the Bible interpret itself and interpret everything in this life.
Now, have you ever asked yourself why Jesus, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power (see Acts 10:38), never spoke in tongues? Although Jesus made many miracles and healing, but He never spoke in tongues. And do you know why His disciples also never spoke in tongues before the Pentecost? It was only on the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was baptized by Christ with the Holy Spirit, that this sign of speaking in tongues was given to the Church (read Acts 2).
So what is the gift of tongues? why is the gift of tongues given? What is its purpose? How and when should it be used? And should Christians today speak in tongues?
What is the gift of tongues?
The Greek word “glossa” used in the New Testament means “tongue” or “language”. So the gift of tongues is the gift of speaking in other languages.
The first occurrence of this gift was in Acts 2. Jesus had promised His disciples to baptize them with the Holy Spirit, and in Acts 2 that happened once for all. There is no other time in the history of the Church when this baptism with the Holy Spirit happened. The Church was born once, not many times. It is on that Day of Pentecost that Christ baptized His Church into one body:
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
On that Day of Pentecost, the Church was born. All true believers in Christ were made one body, just as Jesus asked in His prayer before His crucifixion. And all those who by faith are born of the Spirit in all ages directly become one body with the Church of Christ. So there is not a second experience called “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as false teachers claim. When you are born of God, you are baptized with the Holy Spirit into that one body which is the Church of Christ.
With the birth of the Church, God gave a marvelous miraculous sign, as the disciples who were baptized with the Holy Spirit began to speak in other languages by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Note that these were other languages, and not just some ecstatic babble as many people imagine today. In Acts 2, where the first occurrence of this gift happened, we read:
“Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.
And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.
They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
“And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?
“Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabs–we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”" (Acts 2:5-11)
As we see in this passage, the disciples were speaking in the languages of all those nations. This is what the gift of languages (or what is called today “gift of tongues”) is. Those disciples were Galileans, and the Galileans were considered to be the non-educated people. And indeed, the disciples were simple men. So one could not expect these men to know other languages. That’s why the people who were in Jerusalem at the feast were amazed when they heard these Galileans speaking in their languages. They were speaking in all those languages listed in the verses above, and they were declaring the mighty deeds of God. Of course, if these were not understandable languages, those people would not know that the disciples were speaking of the mighty deeds of God! They clearly understood, each in his own language, what the disciples were saying.
There is another amazing thing here: Besides the fact that the disciples were speaking in other languages, they were also speaking in particular dialects!! In Acts 2: 6 and 8, the Greek word that is translated “language” is “dialektos” from which we have the English word “dialect”. And the dialect is a subgroup of a language. And the word dialect clearly cannot describe an ecstatic babble or an ecstatic speech.
And in the whole New Testament, this gift of tongues is the same gift that was received on the Day of Pentecost. In Acts 10, for example, some Gentiles believed in Christ and they received this sign of speaking in tongues. Later, in Acts 11, Peter reports back to Jerusalem of the incident that happened with those Gentiles, and he says:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them even as upon us also at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptised with water, but ye shall be baptised with [the] Holy Spirit. If then God has given them the same gift as also to us when we had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who indeed was I to be able to forbid God?” (Acts 11:15-17)
So Peter said that those Gentiles received the same thing the disciples received on the Day of Pentecost. And we have seen that what they received on the Day of Pentecost was the gift of speaking in languages, known languages.
And these languages are so normal human languages that they can be translated. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 the Apostle Paul says there are some in the Church who have received the gift of translating those languages, and he uses the Greek word “hermeneuo” which means “interpretation”. That’s the normative word for translating languages. As babble is not a language, so it cannot be translated, and so the Greek word “hermeneuo” cannot be used about it.
Let me just add as a note here that the word “unknown” in the phrase “unknown tongue” throughout 1 Corinthians 14, was added by the King James translators as an explanatory word and is not in the original.
And again in 1 Corinthians 12:10, we read that there are “kinds” of tongues. This Greek word “kinds” (genos), from which we have the English word “genus”, means “a family, group, race, or nation.” It’s evident that there are no kinds and races and classes and groups and families of babble or ecstatic speech. But there are of course families of languages. Any linguist is familiar with the expression “language families”. There are national languages and there are racial languages. For example, the English language belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages (read it on wikipedia). The Arabic that is also mentioned in Acts 2 is a Semitic language; you can read about it and about its dialects on wikipedia. So the term “kinds” fits languages, and not babble.
And according to 1 Corinthians 14:7-11, tongues had to have a clear grammatical structure and clear rules of expression. Let’s read it together (it’s about tongues):
“Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.” (1 Corinthians 14:7-11)
In the church of Corinth, just like in many local churches today, there were people who claimed to speak in tongues, while all what they did was babble. They were giving “a sound”, as the Apostle says, but that sound was not giving the clear meaningful expression of a language, it didn’t have “a distinction in the sounds”, so it was an “uncertain sound”. So that was just babble. While languages have a significance. There is no language without some rules and grammatical structure so that people may understand it. And that’s why the person who doesn’t know a certain language is a foreigner to that language, and another who speaks before him in that foreign language will be like speaking to the air. This latter may be just using babble, and thus he’ll be just making non-understandable sounds and speaking to the air; or he may be truly speaking in a foreign language, but if he can’t translate it to the present people (see 1 Corinthians 14:13) he will look like speaking to the air, but only God understands him (see 1 Corinthians 14:2). As the right use of any gift is to edify the Church, so the person who speaks in a foreign language without having translation is using the gift in a wrong non-biblical way that is not according to love.
And, as we will see later, the effectiveness of the sign of tongues depends on the fact that true foreign languages are spoken, and not just babble. The Jews had to hear clearly foreign languages, and not just pagan babble, in order to see in it the sign that God has chosen a people from all nations according to faith.
Some people want to justify their babble by using the expression “tongues of… angels” that is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. But the fact is that there is nothing called “tongues of angels” in the Bible. And even if there were such a thing, it would not be the gift of tongues, as we have clearly seen what that gift is. If you want to make the “tongues of angels” of 1 Corinthians 13:1 the gift of tongues, you have to force it into this verse. And yet, there is nothing called “tongues of angels”. First, this “tongues of angels” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Scripture. And second, Paul is not even saying in 1 Corinthians 13:1 that there is really tongues of angels. In fact, he is using hyperbolic expressions. That means he is using exaggeration to make a point. In other terms, he says “even if there is more than human language and I have it, even if I have supernatural and non-human language and not just human language, and I did not have love, then that is useless!” In the next verses also he continues to use the same hyperbolic language. For example, he speaks about knowing all mysteries and having all knowledge… Is that possible? Is it possible that a man be all-knowing or omniscient like God? Of course not! And Paul doesn’t even say it is possible. He’s just using hyperbolic language. In other terms, he says that even if that were possible and I had it, I would be nothing without love.
William Samarin, Ph.D. in linguistics and professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, says the following: “Over a period of five years I have taken part in meetings in Italy, Holland, Jamaica, Canada and the United States. I have observed old-fashioned Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals. I have been in small meetings in private homes as well as in mammoth public meetings. I have seen such different cultural settings as are found among Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the snake handlers of the Appalachians and the Russian Molakans of Los Angeles…I have interviewed tongue speakers, and tape recorded and analyzed countless samples of Tongues. In every case, glossolalia turns out to be linguistic nonsense. In spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language.” (See William Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels [New York: Macmillian Co., 1972], pp. 103-128.)
In brief, anyone who gives any other definition for the gift of tongues is in fact introducing his own definition to the Bible due to the experiences or the observations that he has in his life. The Bible doesn’t give any other form of this gift. The gift of tongues is the Spirit-given gift of speaking in foreign languages.
The purpose and the use of the gift of tongues
In general, the purpose and the use of all spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues
All spiritual gifts are given for a reason, and it is surely a reason according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh. They are not some abilities given with the purpose of making the receiver boast as if he didn’t receive them (read 1 Corinthians 4:7). They are spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit, so they have a spiritual purpose according to love, and that purpose is the edifying of the Church:
“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all“ (1 Corinthians 12:7)
“for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ“ (Ephesians 4:12)
“So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12)
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)
Despite all these clarifications from the Apostle, the Corinthians had a problem with the showy gifts. In fact, many of the Corinthians had a fleshly way of thinking (read 1 Corinthians 3:1-4), so they didn’t think and act with love, but they wanted to edify themselves:
“One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:4)
Notice that this passage comes immediately after 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul told them about true love… You’ll see why I say this when you read the next lines.
So although the gift was given for the edification of the Church, the carnal Corinthian sought to edify himself with it, or in other terms to boast carnally with counterfeits. While the right use of the gift of tongues is when you speak in tongues and people understand what you say, i.e. when you have interpretation or translation of the tongue so that people may be edified. This is what Paul says here:
“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.” (1 Corinthians 14:5)
And that’s why Paul wrote the chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians. Many people think that this chapter 13 is a piece of poetry about love that has fallen suddenly there, without any context and without any relation with the other chapters of this Epistle to the Corinthians. While the fact is that you can’t really understand this chapter or the other chapters without understanding this chapter 13 within its context in this Epistle. This chapter is between chapter 12 and chapter 14, i.e. in the middle of a section on spiritual gifts. As love is the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22), and as those gifts are gifts of the Spirit, so anyone who doesn’t behave according to the Spirit will use the spiritual gifts (or their counterfeits) in a way that does not agree with love. That’s what is happening today also, by the way. The main characteristic of true love is that it does not seek its own (see 1 Corinthians 13:5). While those carnal Corinthians only sought their own, and they even wanted to use the spiritual gifts for their own benefit (read 1 Corinthians 14:4), although the right and loving use of that gift is the edifying of the Church through translation of the spoken tongue, as we have seen.
The particular purpose of the gift of tongues
While all gifts are given for the edification of the Church, but there are some sign gifts that have a specific purpose besides that general purpose, just as any sign has. When we don’t have any need of that sign anymore, that gift ceases as it doesn’t serve any biblical purpose anymore. And the gift of tongues is one of those sign gifts.
What was the particular purpose of the gift of tongues? It was a sign to the unbelieving Jews so that they may understand that God has abolished the Old Covenant in which only the Jews are the Covenant people of God, and He has established the New Covenant in which God took for Himself a people from all nations and languages. That was a judgment on this people who refused their Messiah after they kept refusing the way of God and broke the Old Covenant. Let’s see where all this is said:
“Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.
In the Law it is written, “BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,” says the Lord.
So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 14:20-22)
It is with great sadness that we see how today the counterfeit of this gift is used as a sign for believers, although its purpose was to be a sign for the unbelieving Israel. There is a big resemblance between the church of Corinth and the general state of the visible Church today…
So we see in the above quoted passage that God told the rebellious Israel that He would speak to them through strange tongues as a judgment on their rebellion, and that they would keep refusing to listen. Paul was quoting from Isaiah 28:11-12 where the prophet said:
“Indeed, He will speak to this people Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue,
He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” And, “Here is repose,” but they would not listen.” (Isaiah 28:11-12)
The primary fulfillment that is according to the Old Covenant was done by the Assyrians. Those Assyrians spoke Assyrian (another proof that what is meant by tongues is a known human language), a foreign language for the Jew. But that Old Covenant fulfillment was just a shadow of the substance that would come with the New Covenant. As Israel broke the Covenant that God had made with them, then God promised about a New Covenant in the last days:
“Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
By abolishing the Old Covenant, God took for Himself a new people that is not formed only of Jews, but from Gentiles also, and thus Christ made of the two groups one people:
“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,
by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Ephesians 2:14-15)
It is about this people that the Apostle Paul said:
“who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:14)
This people is the Church.
Now, the Jew could not even imagine any uncircumcised person as being part of the people of God. The Jews thought that they were the only people of God, and that was right under the Old Covenant. But now God was telling them that He chooses a people from all nations and languages, and He gives to the Jews the sign of tongues to tell them this fact.
This is the particular purpose of the gift of tongues.
Should Christians today speak in tongues?
Actually, not even in the days of the Apostles all Christians spoke in tongues. For more details about this, read our article What about the signs that Jesus talked about in Mark 16?
As I said above, all sign gifts have a particular purpose. When they fulfill that purpose, they cease. And in fact, the Bible tells us that the gift of tongues would cease after it fulfills its particular purpose:
“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)
As we have seen, the particular purpose of the tongues was to declare to the unbelieving Jews that God was choosing for Himself a people from all nations. So this sign of tongues was useful for the time of birth of the Church. That gift did its work, it declared to Israel that God has chosen a people from all nations, and now all Jews know about the Church, and yet the unbelieving Jews still do not believe, just as the prophecy said (see above). It is more than evident that God has abolished the Old Covenant, as the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. We now have the full revelation of the New Testament. And thus, there is no more use for the sign of tongues. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is not giving that gift to anyone today anymore.
Some people do not understand what it means that a sign gift ceased. Well, it is just like the gift of Apostles. Do we have Apostles today? No. Why? Because an Apostle of Christ is someone who accompanied Christ all the time that He worked among the people, beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from them; and an Apostle of Christ is a witness of His resurrection (see Acts 1:21-22). We don’t have such a person today, so we don’t have Apostles today. In the same way, there is no need for the gift of tongues today, therefore the Spirit is not giving this gift to anyone today.
Grace be with you!
Disciple of Jesus Christ