Gift of Tongues

QUESTION: “Is the gift of tongues for the church today or was it just for the first century?  Should I seek to speak in tongues? And does it indicate anything about my relationship with Jesus Christ?”

ANSWER: In answering these important questions about the gift of tongues, two matters must be clearly dealt with.  First, what is the gift of tongues? And second, what is the purpose of the gift of tongues?  These questions can only be answered by looking carefully at the key scripture passages that deal with this gift: Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 14, and Isaiah 28.                                                                 The definition of tongues is found in Acts 2:4-11 where the phenomenon is described in detail as it took place for the very first time on the Day of Pentecost. After this initial description, it is never described differently or re-defined in the two other places where tongues is mentioned in the Book of Acts (Acts 10:46; 19:6). Neither is it re-defined in 1 Corinthians 12 or 14.  And the disputed verse of Mark 16:17 adds nothing to the definition.  It is a basic rule of biblical interpretation that once defined, and never re-defined, one must stick with the initial definition/description.  When looking at the account in Acts 2, Luke describes the gift in terms of known human languages. These languages may have been unknown to the Apostles, but they were known to the hearers who had come from all over the world to the feast of Pentecost.  Luke uses the usual words for human language (that of glossa and dialektos).  Based on the key passage in Acts 2, the spiritual gift of tongues might be defined as “the God-given ability to speak in a known human language that is unknown to the speaker.” To be able to speak fluently in a language when one has not learned the vocabulary or grammar of that language is clearly supernatural.  (As an aside, we should note that being supernatural does not automatically mean that it is from God. Tongues speaking—speaking in a human language unknown to the speaker—is a phenomenon that is found in the occult world as well in several religions in the world. Satan, who regularly counterfeits that which God does, is capable of producing this phenomenon. So believers must be discerning in this matter).  Now 1 Corinthians 13:1 (“speak with the tongues of men and of angels”) is sometimes used to say that “ecstatic utterances” (commonly said to be tongues speaking) is angelic languages.  However, several things must be noted before such an interpretation is accepted.  First, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Cor. 13) is using a grammatical device known as “hyperbole” (hypothetical exaggeration) to get across his point, which is that using your gift without love is really empty.  One should never base a doctrine on hypothetical exaggeration. (It should be noted that Paul did not have all knowledge or give his body to be burned). Second, it is a leap in logic to say that angels speak in ecstatic utterances.  There is no record of angels speaking that way.  The many times that angels speak, it is always in a God-given language such as Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic and probably numerous other languages.

This gift is very clearly designed to be a sign-gift and must be supernatural. In the majority of instances today where tongues speaking is said to occur, it is not in known human languages that is unknown to the speaker, which is clearly a supernatural event.  So biblically the definition stands that tongues is the God-given ability to speak in a known human language that is unknown to the speaker.”  It would seem wise to evaluate claims on tongues speaking in light of the biblical definition.

The second key matter in answering the above questions about tongues speaking has to do with the purpose of the gift of tongues.  Just why did God give this rather unusual gift?  The purpose of tongues is explained in just one place, 1 Corinthians 14:20-22.  In those verses, tongues is said to be a sign. (So if it is a sign gift then it is not an edification gift).  If something is a “sign”, then two other questions must be asked and answered: first, to whom is it a sign? And second, what is it a sign of?  In answering these questions from 1 Corinthians 14, we can come to some clarity on the gift.  Several critical points must be observed.

#1-Tongues is NOT a sign to believers (14:22).  This is a direct, unqualified statement made by the Apostle. The purpose of tongues has nothing to do with we who are believers! This fact alone eliminates a large number of ideas that are commonly given, such as tongues is a sign of Spirit baptism or a sign of a closer walk with God or of a second blessing or a special prayer language.  It is none of those…it is not a sign to believers.  It is then a sign to unbelievers.

#2-Tongues is a sign to unbelieving Israel. But Paul carefully qualifies that point by telling the reader that it is not unbelievers in general, but rather unbelievers in the nation of Israel.  In 14:21, he quotes from Isaiah 28:11 and refers to “this people”, which happens in the context to be the people of Israel. Tongues have no meaning to unbelieving gentiles which is why Paul suggests that the unbeliever who hears tongues simply thinks that these tongues speakers are crazy (14:23).  Israelites, however, were always seeking for supernatural signs from God (note 1 Cor. 1:22). The gift of tongues was to target unbelieving Israelites.

#3-Tongues is NOT a sign of blessing, but a sign of coming judgmentThe context of Isaiah 28, and other portions of the Old Testament must be considered to understand the significance of tongues.  At Mt. Sinai, God entered into a covenant relationship with Israel.  This “Mosaic covenant” was a conditional covenant; that is, blessing was conditioned on the obedience of Israel, but discipline would come if they were disobedient to the commands of God found in this covenant. God also spelled out that there would be various levels of disciplines that He would bring (see Lev. 26 and Deut. 28).  If disobedient Israel failed to respond to His discipline, then God would bring a greater discipline on them.  The final level of discipline by God would be bringing in foreign invaders into Israel, who would take them over.  So when Israel heard the language (tongue) of these foreigners in the streets of their cities, then they would know for sure that God’s judgment was upon them (note the important statement in Deut. 28:49). The idea was that God had spoken to them in Hebrew through their prophets but they would not listen. So, God would now speak to them in a language they did not understand but nevertheless communicated His message very clearly. The tongues of foreigners was a sign of coming (or present) judgment on disobedient, unbelieving Israel.  But what does this Old Testament concept have to do with the Day of Pentecost?

#4-At Pentecost, that generation of Israelites was under the judgment of God. It is often overlooked that Jesus Himself had pronounced final judgment on that generation of Israelites because they had rejected (and would become partners with Rome in killing the Messiah).  This irreversible judgment given by Jesus is found in Matthew 23:33-38.  On the Day of Pentecost tongues were heard.  Peter warned Israel that their present generation was corrupt and that they needed to separate themselves from the coming judgment. Peter stated in Acts 2:40, “save yourselves from this generation.”  This separation, of course, could be accomplished by obeying God—in this case, by believing in Jesus as their Savior-Messiah.  God did judge that generation in the Romans wars of 66-73 AD. The gift of tongues was a viable gift as long as the purpose of the gift was valid.  In other words, when unbelieving Israel was judged in those Roman wars, the purpose of this supernatural gift no longer existed. But before that time the purpose of the gift was very much alive. That is why Paul said that the Corinthians (around AD 55) were not to forbid speaking in tongues.                                                                                                            It is very likely that the gift of tongues will be used greatly during the coming Tribulation.  This is the case because the purpose for tongues is alive and well. At the beginning of the Tribulation, Israel will be an unbelieving, disobedient nation and God will once again be using the supernatural to grab the attention of His covenant people.

The Conclusion.  Most of what passes for tongues speaking today is not known human languages.  Yet, human languages are what was heard at Pentecost.  This was supernatural and it was the supernatural nature of the gift that caused it to be a “sign.”  What is heard today can easily be replicated and then said to be the tongues of angels.  Furthermore, the presence of unbelieving Israelites is almost never part of the equation.  Tongues speaking in churches, or in a private prayer language, simply does not align with the biblical purpose of this gift.  The conclusion then is that this gift is not for today’s church.


(1) Is it a private prayer language? While the idea that tongues is a private prayer language is a common claim, it should be noted that such a view would stand counter to the purpose of the gift of tongues and be against the purpose of spiritual gifts in general.  Gifts were to benefit others, not the ones with the gift.  To turn a gift towards oneself is foreign to the whole concept of spiritual gifts which were given for “the common good.”  Normally we would not accept this idea if we would apply it to other gifts.  What would we think of the person who had the gift of giving but said, “I am going to use my gift of giving for myself.”  Or, one with the gift of teaching saying, “I am just going to employ my gift of teaching to teach myself.”  There is something wrong about that and we would not accept this reasoning.  So should we allow it for the gift of tongues?

(2) What was the content of what the tongues speakers were saying?  Paul makes an interesting statement in 1 Corinthians 14:2.  There he says that when one speaks in tongues it is not to men but to God.  In other words, the gift of tongues is not for edification, exhortation or evangelism. Men are not the focus of the gift.  God is the focus which means that tongues is fundamentally praise to God.  And this reveals what the content of tongues is about. This is seen the first time tongues occurred (Acts 2:11).  There the tongues speakers were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”  Perhaps they were saying such things as, “to God be the glory because He raised Jesus Messiah from the dead and conquered Satan, sin and death.”  In any case, they were praising God for His works and His attributes.  Obviously people heard the tongues speakers, but they were not being instructed in Christian doctrine or were having the gospel explained to them.  “Not to men”, therefore, does not point to something being done alone in private.  It is speaking to the direction, focus and content of the gift of tongues.

(3) Was tongues speaking designed to be part of Christian worship? The Apostle Paul declared that he spoke in tongues more than any of the people in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 14:18) thus making it clear that he didn’t have some bad attitude towards the gift.  However, he was equally clear that tongues was out of place in the church gatherings (14:19).  When the church gathered together, it was there to be built up in the faith, and tongues is not primarily for edification; that is why he stated that 5 words in a language known to the congregation was better than 10,000 words in a foreign language that no one understood. (Paul would allow those with the gift to use it because in a roundabout way God would be praised; but better just to praise God in the language of everyone in the church).  So if Paul spoke in tongues frequently but it was not in the church, then where did he speak?  It is commonly said that he did so in his times of personal prayer.  But that would go against the very purpose of the gift that he instructed them about (14:20-22).  It is far more likely that he used it in Jewish evangelism.  As he went from city to city, he would first go to the synagogue.  Apparently he would regularly speak in the language or dialect of the region, which language he did not know.  What an immediate impact that would have upon the Jewish listeners!  Immediately these would be confronted with a supernatural sign and this would give Paul instant authentication as a messenger from God.

  • Dr. Paul Benware