FAQ 8: “Gift of Tongues?”

FAQ 8: “Gift of Tongues?”

Is the gift of tongues for today?

Brochure #8 Revised 4-23-2004. (Frequent terms Christians use.)

How is the Holy Spirit working in churches today?  Is He using the gift of tongues today among His people?  Is He giving Christians the ability to speak in supernatural languages?  Or is this gift confined to the past; to the time when the New Testament was being written, and the living apostles taught and governed in the churches?  Many in the Pentecostal movement say that it is a valuable help to their prayer life; others say it is a sign of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and still others say it does not exist today because it is a form of verbal revelation from God that ended upon the completion of the New Testament. 

Was the gift of tongues a mystical or human language? 

Amidst all the confusion, the Bible gives us answers when it is rightly divided.  The gift of tongues was not a mystical or angelic language as some suggest citing 1 Corinthians 13:1 NASB (New American Standard Bible).  Paul is simply using a literary style of exaggeration called hyperbole.  Paul did not (1) speak in “tongues of angles” or (2) “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” or (3) “give all his possessions” or (4) “surrender his body to the flames”.  He was teaching that even if he could do the impossible, without love, it meant nothing.  The gift of tongues was simply this, a God-given ability to speak in a human language that had not been learned by the one speaking.  

The first use of tongues, found in Acts 2:1-13 NASB, makes it clear that it was actually a gift of languages-not ecstatic utterances.  This event marked the beginning of the New Testament church, where the Holy Spirit came in a dramatic way to indwell every believer.  During this time the speakers were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled” (v. 4).  Jews from all the nations had assembled to celebrate Pentecost in Jerusalem as part of observing the Jewish religious calendar (v. 5).  As the believers were speaking, each Jew in the crowd recognized his own native language (v. 6).  The word for “language” is translated from the Greek word [dialektos], where we get the word dialect.  Utterly amazed, the listeners spoke up and said, “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?” (v. 7-8).  By analogy, they would say, “How is it that these believers in Peru, Indiana, are speaking French, German, and Spanish?”  They were dumbfounded to hear Jews from Galilee speaking the languages of people surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (v. 11). “We hear them in our own tongues speaking of mighty deeds of God.”

How was the gift of tongues used in the first century?

In 1 Cor. 14:27 NASB, Paul explained the regulations for the exercise of the gift of tongues. Contrary to the way the gift of tongues is used today, they were to be exercised in an orderly way by speaking one at a time, and only two or three were to speak in a given service.  Paul also gave another instruction for the gift of tongues.  When used in an assembly, each message was to be interpreted by someone with the gift of interpretation so that the others might be edified by the God-inspired message (v. 13, 27).  These clear instructions tell us that the gift of tongues did not serve as a private prayer language as many claim today.  This gift, like other spiritual gifts, was to be used under God’s direction to serve and edify the church, not to enlighten one’s self (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:10 NASB). 

The most concise teaching in the New Testament on the gift of tongues is mentioned in 

1 Corinthians 13.  Specifically in verse 8, Paul made an interesting statement:  “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.”  In the expression “love never fails,” the Greek word translated “fails” means to deteriorate or to decay.  Paul’s primary point of this passage is to instruct his hearers about the eternal quality of love.  In contrast, Paul says that tongues “will cease.”  The Greek verb means, “to cease permanently” and they would never start up again.  This raises a very important question. If tongues are to cease, has that already happened? 

Has the gift of tongues ceased?

It must be admitted that 1 Corinthians 13:8 does not specifically say when tongues will cease.  Although 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 teaches that not only tongues will cease but also the gifts of prophecy and knowledge.  It is noteworthy that all three of these gifts are communication gifts.  These are gifts that are supernaturally given to impart divine revelation.  They are operative until a time prior to when the perfect (or the eternal state) comes.  The gift of tongues is placed into a category all by itself because of the grammar of the Greek verb “will cease.”  Paul writes that the gift of tongues will cease by itself sometime prior to when that time, “the perfect” (eternal state), arrives.  In other words the gift of tongues will decrease itself like a spinning top that loses its own energy. 

The question must be answered, when did tongues cease?  There is enough scriptural and historical evidence to conclude that tongues ceased to exist around the end of the apostolic age.  First, the gift of tongues was a gift that should be categorized with the miraculous gifts.  It was a communication gift that provided certain individuals with the ability to speak New Testament revelation in various human languages.  It was limited in its use and also to its period in history.  These special gifts ceased as the apostolic age expired.  The last recorded miracle in the New Testament occurred around A.D. 58 with Paul healing Publius on the island of Malta (Acts 28:7-10).  From A.D. 58-96, when John finished the book of Revelation, no miracle is recorded.  Miracle gifts like tongues and healing are mentioned only in 1 Corinthians, an early epistle.  Two later epistles, Ephesians and Romans, both discuss gifts of the Spirit at length, but no mention is made of the miraculous gifts.  It is also noteworthy to mention that none of the Pastoral Epistles, which were written to guide the function of the church, never mention tongues.  By that time miracles were already looked upon as something of the past.  Hebrews 2:3-4 reads, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.” 

At the conclusion of the New Testament writings, the entire New Testament had been written and was circulating through the churches.  The revelatory gifts had ceased to serve their intended purposes.  And when the apostolic age ended with the death of Apostle John, the signs that identified the apostles had already become nonexistent.  Paul wrote, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12).

Was the gift of tongues for believers or unbelievers, Jews or Gentiles? 

A second observation, beside their use in history, is that tongues were intended as a sign to unbelieving Jews.  1 Corinthians 14:21 reads, 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.” In a freely rendered quotation from Is. 28:11-12, Paul explained that centuries earlier the Lord had predicted that one day He would use men of other tongues, that is foreigners, speaking unknown languages as a sign to unbelieving Israel, who “will not hear Me.”  These other tongues are what they knew as the gift of languages, given as a sign to unbelieving Israel.  That sign was three-fold:  cursing, blessing, and authority.  To emphasize the cursing, Paul quoted Isaiah’s words of warning to Judah of the judgment from Assyria.  The leaders thought his words were too simple and rejected him.  The time would come, the prophet said, when they would hear Assyrian, a language they could not understand, indicating judgment.  Jeremiah spoke similarly of the Babylonians who were also to come and destroy Judah (Jer. 5:15).  When the apostles spoke at Pentecost in all those foreign languages (Acts 2:3–12), the Jews should have known that the judgment prophesied and historically fulfilled (first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonian captivity) was about to fall on them again for their rejection of Christ.  This included the destruction of Jerusalem (B.C. 70) as it had happened in 586 B.C. under Babylonian power. 

Explaining further in 1 Cor. 14:22, “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.”  Paul tells us explicitly that all tongues are for the sake of unbelievers.  In other words, that gift has no purpose in the church when everyone present is a believer. And once the sign served its purpose to pronounce judgment or cursing on Israel, and the judgment fell, the purpose ceased along with the sign gift.  The blessing of that sign was that God would build a new nation of Jews and Gentiles to be his people (Gal. 3:28), to make Israel jealous and someday repent (Rom. 11:11-12, 25–27).  The sign was thus repeated when Gentiles were included in the church (Acts 10:44–46).  The sign also gave authority to those who preached both the judgment and blessing (2 Cor. 12:12), including Paul, “But prophesying is … for those who believe” (1 Cor. 14:22).  In the completely opposite way, the gift of prophesying benefits only believers, who are able, by their new natures and the indwelling Holy Spirit, to understand spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; 1 John 2:20, 27).

Tongues, as God intended, signified that God had begun a new work that included Gentiles.  The Lord would then speak to all nations in all languages instead of only to the Jews in Hebrew.  The barriers were now down and so the gift of languages symbolized not only the curse of God on the disobedient nation of Israel, but also the blessing of God on the whole world.  Tongues were, therefore, a sign of transition between the Old and New Covenants.  With the establishment of the church, a new day had begun for the people of God.  God would speak in all languages. 

Is the gift of tongues a private gift of spiritual blessing? 

The purpose of all spiritual gifts is the edification of the church, not self-gratification.  The gift of tongues is inferior to other gifts (1 Cor. 14:18-19).  It was primarily a sign (v. 22) and was also easily misused to edify self (v. 4).  Therefore, the gift of tongues had limited usefulness in the church; thus it was never intended to be a permanent gift. 

What does history teach us about tongues? 

Although extra-biblical evidence does not carry the same authority as Scripture, it does help to reinforce the evidence of Scripture.  The evidence of history also indicates that tongues had ceased at the end of the apostolic era.  Again, it is important to note that tongues are mentioned only in the earliest New Testament books.  We know that Paul wrote at least twelve New Testament epistles after 1 Corinthians and never mentioned tongues again.  The following New Testament writers never mentioned tongues:  James, John, and Jude.  The gift of tongues is mentioned only briefly in Acts and 1 Corinthians as the new message of the gospel was being spread.  But once the church was established, tongues were gone.  They stopped.  The later books of the New Testament do not mention tongues again, and the gift virtually disappeared in the post-apostolic age. 

Chrysostom and Augustine, the greatest theologians of the eastern and western churches, considered tongues obsolete.  Writing in the fourth century, Chrysostom stated categorically that tongues had ceased by his time and described the gift as an obscure practice.  Augustine referred to tongues as a gift that was adapted to the apostolic age. 

We must conclude that the gift of tongues if practiced today is not the gift of tongues described in the New Testament.  The gift ceased, as the Holy Spirit said it would in 1 Cor. 13:8.  The gift of tongues is not an authentic gift following the completion of the Bible.