A STUDY OF TONGUES
By Juan Baixeras
Most Christians are aware of the phenomenon in some Christian denominations called tongues. The actual act is usually referred to as speaking in tongues. The question that we will be trying to answer today is if the modern interpretation of speaking in tongues is the same interpretation given in the Bible. Is it Biblically correct?
There are many denominations that will argue that if you do not speak in tongues that you have not really received the Holy Spirit and therefore you are not saved. I have read books and heard some pastors say that you should pray in tongues every day in order to be close to God. Are they correct? Do I need to speak in tongues in order to show that I belong to God’s family? Do I need to speak in tongues in order to prove that I am truly saved? These are questions that deal with ones salvation. This is a very sensitive area, one in which I would never impose my own views on someone else. Having said this, I do not think that it is inappropriate to review Scriptural evidence and share my conclusions. I think that by the end of this paper you will be able to answer those questions for yourself.
In this paper we will conduct a Scriptural study of tongues. We will be interested with four major questions concerning tongues:
What is tongues?
Who was it for?
What was its purpose?
Is this gift still around today?
WHAT IS TONGUES?
Tongues is defined as the following:
Strong’s Greek Dictionary; tongues - By implication a language.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words; tongues - a. A language. b. The supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learnt,
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon; tongues - 2a. The language used by a particular people in distinction from that of other nations. b. To speak with new tongues which the speaker has not learned previously.
Jesus is clear on the matter in Mark 16:17:
"These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, and they will speak in new languages."
The act of speaking in tongues is the act of speaking in a foreign language that one does not know. But let me stress the point that it is an actual human language, one that other humans beings can understand. The Bible does not anywhere give us an example of it being used as an individual language between a person and God that only God can understand. It does however, give us an excellent example of the gift of tongues in Acts chapter 2. It is a perfect model of the gift of tongues. The Bible provides us with many wonderful models on many subjects. The reason being of course, that we use them as a base of our understanding in order for us not to wonder too far off of the original meanings. For example, if we wanted to know, who we are supposed to pray to, God or Jesus? We would simply observe the model of prayer in the Bible and follow the example of Jesus and the Apostles who prayed only to God. Likewise, we should always refer to the model of tongues provided for us in Acts Chapter 2 when we are trying to understand tongues. I think it is crucial for us to review Acts Chapter 2. We will be referring to this chapter throughout this study.
Acts 2:1-13: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, "Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in our own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Lybianear Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God." They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, "What does this mean?" But others said scoffing, "They have had too much new wine."
This is our model. In this chapter it is quite evident that tongues refer to actual foreign languages. People from every nation heard the Apostles speaking in their own native language. Pay strict attention to the fact that it was a known language spoken by human beings to other human beings. This model does not fit with the modern concept of tongues as being a personal language between an individual and God which even the individual does not understand. In Acts chapter 2 there is no Scriptural evidence to support this modern day concept of tongues.
One equally important fact to be noticed here is the fact that everyone in this crowd was an unbeliever. They did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah of God’s kingdom, thus they did not believe the gospel message. This is evident in the fact that in Acts 2:37-38 they ask Peter what they must do, and Peter reply’s that they should repent and be baptized. Then in verse 41 it says that those who accepted his message were baptized and about three thousand people were added that day.
One very important factor about the gift of tongues is that it is exactly that, a gift. It is a gift from God that God gives to us at his discretion, when he wills it, not when we will it. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:11 says:
"But one and the same Spirit produces all of these (gifts), distributing them individually to each person as he wishes."
Not when we wish. It is a gift just like wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, and discernment of spirits. The prophets never said, "I think today at noon I will prophesy." They prophesied when the word of the LORD came upon them. It was not up to their choosing. And so it is with tongues. They are both gifts of the Spirit. If we return to our model in Acts Chapter 2 and compare that with Acts 10:44 when the Holy Spirit fell upon those at Cornelius’ house and they began to speak in tongues, we will se that in both of these examples the Holy Spirit came upon them without warning. In Acts 2:2 it says "suddenly." In Acts 10:44 it says, "While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word." None of these people chose at that moment to speak in tongues. It was God's choosing.
So how does the Biblical evidence compare with the modern day interpretation of tongues? Does it fit with some modern day pastors who claim that in order to stay close to God, you should pray to Him in tongues on a regular basis?
WHO WAS IT FOR?
The claim by some today that tongues is a sign that you have really received God’s Holy Spirit, can be best understood when one understands who tongues was intended for.
The Apostle Paul is extremely clear on this point. 1 Corinthians 14:22 states:
"Thus, tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers, whereas prophecy is not for unbelievers but for those who believe."
Paul is very clear about who tongues is for, the unbeliever. This fits exactly with our model in Acts 2. The crowd that Peter was addressing were all unbelievers. We can also see this example in Acts 1:1-47 in which Peter and some other Jewish believers go to the house of a Gentile called Cornelius who was a centurion of the Cohort called Italica.
Acts 10:44- 46: "While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God."
Later, in Acts 11:18 when Peter is telling other circumcised believers what had happened at Cornelius’ house, it says:
"They stopped objecting and glorified God, saying, "God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too."
You may ask, how does this fit, were not the brothers that accompanied Peter believers already? Yes, they did believe in the kingdom of God and Jesus as the Messiah, what they did not believe was that the gospel of the kingdom of God was for the Gentiles also. Notice that in Acts10:45 the circumcised believers (Jews) were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles. In Acts 11:18 above, it says that they came to the conclusion that God has then given life giving repentance to the Gentiles too. The unbelievers in this case were the brothers that accompanied Peter. God used the gift of tongues in this instance to confirm to the rest of the brothers that did not believe that the gospel was meant for the Gentiles, that it was indeed meant for everyone. This is the mystery which Paul speaks about in many of his letters such as in
"I am a minister in accordance with God's stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God (the Gospel of the kingdom), the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles."
Until this point, the Jews believed that salvation was meant only for the Jews. That the kingdom of God was strictly for the Jewish people. In Acts 10:17, Peter told the other believers in Jerusalem:
"If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?"
The Question "Who was it for?" can also be answered by observing who it was not for. It was not for everyone.
Paul is crystal clear on this matter in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31:
"Some people God has designated in the church to be first apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?"
Paul is explicit that all the gifts are not for everyone. Is everyone an apostle? No. Is everyone a prophet? No. Do all speak in tongues? No. As Paul says, not everyone is supposed to have the gift of tongues even in his day. So how does that fit with some groups that claim that you must speak in tongues in order to be saved? Does that mean that a believer in the gospel whom God has chosen not to give the gift of tongues to is not saved? How does that fit with the idea that it is a personal prayer language between an individual and God? Does that mean that some people will never be able to be as close to God as others because they cannot pray in tongues?
I think there is ample evidence to conclude that tongues is indeed for unbelievers as the Bible says it is. The question that must then be answered then is, how does that fit with the modern day interpretation of tongues? How does that fit with people who claim to speak in tongues at church to other believing churchgoers? How does that fit with someone alone in their room praying to God in tongues? That person is not an unbeliever. An even better understanding will arise when one sees the purpose of tongues.
WHAT WAS IT´S PURPOSE
The purpose of the gift of tongues as well as the other gifts of the Spirit, was to confirm the gospel of the kingdom of God and Jesus as the Messiah, its king, to unbelievers. This could range from confirming Jesus as the Messiah to a crowd, as to confirming to other Jewish believers that the kingdom of God was not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also. It was a sign used to confirm God's teaching. It was God’s testimony to us.
Hebrews 2:3-4 states:
"How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? Announced originally through the Lord (Jesus), it was confirmed for us by those who had heard. God added His testimony by signs, wonders, various acts of power, and distribution of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His will."
In Jesus’ time and throughout the Apostles lives, God gave them incredible signs to confirm to the people that what they were saying was true. Christians today can know with certainty that Jesus resurrected because it can be proven logically, without a doubt,
using the historical records of the lives of the Apostles. (See article, Proving the Resurrection) But Jesus and the Apostles did not have the proof that we have today to present to the people. This is why God gave them signs to confirm their claims. Would anyone have believed Jesus if he had claimed to be the Messiah but had performed absolutely no miracles. How could anyone differentiate Jesus from the others before him who had also claimed to be the Messiah? Or would anyone have believed Paul that God had resurrected Jesus if Paul had not performed any signs. Imagine yourself a first century Jew in Corinth. One day a man called Paul comes along who claims that in Jerusalem, God resurrected Jesus Christ, which proves that he is the Messiah. The first words out of your mouth would be, "can you prove it?" At this moment in time Paul has really no hard evidence to support his claims. All he can do is recount how Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. But how would you know that he is being truthful and not making the whole thing up? This is why God gave them signs, to confirm the truth of the gospel and the name of Jesus the Christ.
I believe tongues at the same time as functioning as a sign to confirm the gospel might also have been used as an evangelical tool to bring the gospel to foreign lands. I believe God gave this gift to people like Paul who preached to the Gentiles from many nations in order for Paul to be able to get the message across. Imagine if you went to Russia and all you speak is English, and let us pretend that no one in Russia has ever heard of Christianity. How could you possibly hope to get this message across? I think it would be impossible. Look how hard it is to get the message across to some people who speak the same language as us. I think God gave this gift to Paul in abundance in order for him to establish Christian outposts who would then spread the message to their own people.
The verses that I conclude this from is 1 Corinthians 14:18 and Mark 16:17:
"I give thanks to God that I speak in tongues more than any of you."
I think that with Paul it was an indispensable evangelical tool as well as a gospel confirming sign. I think in Paul’s ministry it worked hand in hand.
"These signs will accompany those who believe (the Apostles): in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages,"
In the verse above Jesus is giving instructions to the eleven about going out into the world and proclaiming the gospel.
Does the use of tongues in the Bible coincide with today’s concept of tongues? Ask yourself, for what purpose are people today claiming to use tongues for? Does it fit the model in the Bible?
IS THE GIFT OF TONGUES FOR US TODAY?
Once we understand who the gift of tongues was for, and what its purpose was, we can then come to an objective conclusion to this question.
Tongues and other gifts of the Spirit were used as a sign to confirm and spread the gospel at a time when there was no hard evidence besides the Apostles’ eyewitness account (which could always be challenged). It was also used as an evangelical tool at the same time. This is not the case today. We have Christian communities in every nation on earth that can spread the gospel to their own people in their own language. We also do not need it to confirm the gospel because we have proof of the greatest sign of all, the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus Christ which we can prove through the lives of the Apostles. What purpose would it serve today?
An ex-pastor Robert Hach gives an explanation that I happen to agree with. He states that the gifts of the Spirit were only for two generations after the Apostles. After this period, Christian outposts were established and the people now had the same proof of the resurrection as we do today through the lives of the Apostles.
His conclusion comes from Acts 2:38-39 where Peter is speaking to the large crowd. Let’s take a look at these verses.
"Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord will call."
Peter tells them to repent and be baptized and they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift of the Holy Spirit should not be confused with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers (see paper, The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit). He tells them that the promise is for them and their children (two generations) and those far off. "Those far off" is a reference not to Jews who were geographically far away, or to believers in the future, but to Gentiles. The Jews considered the Gentiles to be far off from God and his covenant with the Jews. This can be verified by Paul in Ephesians 2:11-13:
"Therefore, remember that at one time you, Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision... But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have become near by the blood of Christ."
So the promise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is then for the Jews and Gentiles and their children. I think this fits Scripturally with what we have been covering. The generations after this time period now had the proof of Jesus’ resurrection through the lives of the Apostles. These generations did not.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says:
"There is no evidence of the continuance of this gift after apostolic times nor indeed in the later times of the Apostles themselves."
1Corinthians 13:8-12 states:
"Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to my childish ways (NSRV).
This verse has been interpreted several different ways. "When the complete comes" has been translated as "when the perfect comes" in some other Bibles. Zondervan’s Greek and English Interlinear Bible has it in the original Greek as: "but when the perfect thing comes." The interpretations of this verse range in meaning. One interpretation suggests that tongues will cease "when the perfect comes." The "perfect" being a reference to Jesus. I do not think that Paul would refer to Jesus as a thing. A quick look into the meaning of the Greek word teleioo that is translated as "complete" or "perfect," will help us in understanding this verse.
Vines Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, teleioo - To bring to an end by completing or perfecting, is used (I) of "accomplishing" (see Finish, Fulfill); (II) of "bringing to completeness."
Strong’s Greek Dictionary, teleioo - to complete, accomplish, consummate, consecrate, finish, fulfill, (make) perfect.
With these definitions we can better understand that the word "teleioo" is not a reference to Jesus, but as we shall see, a reference to the maturity of the body of Christ (the community of
believers) which starts at 1 Corinthians (12:27). Paul is comparing the early church to a child. Its knowledge is limited like a child’s. He then compares the church’s adulthood to the day when it is mature. How is the body of Christ mature? There are two possibilities. The first is that in Paul’s day people would follow the truth of Christ because of the gifts of the Spirit that the first two generations displayed (these gifts were signs to confirm the message of Christ). This is referred to as "knowing partially." People believed because of what they saw. In 1 Corinthians 12:31 he says that now he will show us an even better way to recognize the truth of Christ (an even better sign). This is the way of love (God’s love in us). Then Paul says that when it is accomplished, completed, made perfect, that the gifts will cease, "the partial will pass away." To be mature for Paul means to know fully. 1 Corinthians 13:12:
"At present I know partially, then I shall know fully."
To know fully the love of God that comes with the knowledge of the message of Christ (the proclamation of the kingdom of God and His Messiah), and for people to believe this message not because of the gifts of the Spirit, but because of the love that is witnessed among Christ’s followers. Love is a greater sign of confirmation than the gifts of the Spirit that will eventually cease. John 13:34-35 states:
"I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Matthew 5:44-48 is all about love for your neighbor and your enemies.
"But I say to you, love your enemies… For if you love those who love you…So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
To be perfect like our father is to be able to love like our Father. This is how Christ was made perfect and how we are to strive for perfection. Unconditional love.
John 17:23 speaks of being made perfect by the love of God in them.
"That they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."
The second view is that Paul is comparing the early church to a child. Its knowledge is limited like a child’s. He then compares the body of Christ reaching maturity in the knowledge of Christ and his message. Maturity in the sense that it will possess the entire truth, the entire Bible. Remember, there was of yet no New Testament for the churches to study, hence, the need for prophesying and the other gifts. What Paul is saying is that when the churches reach adulthood (possession of the Bible), when the truth is completed, finished, accomplished, that prophesying and tongues will cease.
Vine’ Expository Dictionary has a commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:8:
"There is no evidence of the continuance of this gift after apostolic times nor indeed in the later times of the Apostles themselves; this provides confirmation of the fulfillment in this way of 1 Corinthians 13:8, that this gift would cease in the churches, just as "prophecies" and "knowledge" in the sense of knowledge received by immediate supernatural power. The completion of the Holy Scriptures has provided the churches with all that is necessary for individual and collective guidance, instruction, and edification."
Although both are possible, I think that the first interpretation is the correct one. It is in agreement with the teachings of Christ, while the second one suggests that Paul knew that there would someday be a New Testament. There is no way of knowing if Paul knew that his letters and the writings of others would become the New Testament.
One trap that I hope the reader does not fall into, is to think that I am saying that God does not perform any miracles today. Miracles and the gifts of the Spirit are two entirely different things. I do believe God still does miracles today, but I think they are more on a personal level. They are not needed to confirm the gospel. That confirmation has already been given.
There are a few difficult verses which have been taken completely out of context to imply that tongues is a personal language between a believer and God which even the believer himself does not understand. I will cover these and offer an explanation. The first is in 1 Corinthians 13:1:
"If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal."
The conflict is in the term "angelic tongues." There is not enough information here to determine for sure what Paul meant by it. I think for Paul, tongues is both human and angelic in that it is "human" because it is an actual human language, and "angelic" in the sense that it comes from God. But there is not enough information here to conclude that it is an individual language between a believer and God. That would be an irresponsible interpretation of Scripture. The second verse is in 1Corinthians 14:2:
"For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit."
This verse must be understood in the context of the whole chapter, and not as an individual verse. Paul is writing to a church, he is telling the congregation at Corinth that he prefers them to prophesy than to speak in tongues because it builds up the Church. Remember prophecy is for the believer while tongues is for the unbeliever. It does not do much good to confirm the gospel to people who already believe in the gospel. People will claim that Paul is saying that tongues are used to speak to God and not to human beings. That might be an initial understanding, but what then do we do with Acts Chapter 2 in which it was used to speak to other people?
Even in this same chapter in verse 6 Paul says:
"Now brothers, if I should come to you speaking in tongues, what good will I do you if I do not speak to you by way of revelation, knowledge, or prophecy, or instruction."
Notice that he is talking about speaking to them, not to God. This verse probably means, what good is it for me to come to you and speak in tongues (your language) if I am not going to use it for revelation or instruction (as an evangelical tool).
In verse 9 Paul says;
"Similarly, if you, because of speaking in tongues, do not utter intelligible speech, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be talking to the air."
It is important to note that it is intelligible speech, which other people are supposed to understand. If other people do not understand it, it is the same as speaking to the air. In this next verse Paul clears up any misunderstanding that one might have arrived at from the opening verse. He very specifically explains that he has been talking this whole time about different languages in the world. Lets review 1Corinthians 14:10-11:
"It happens that there are many different languages in the world, and none is meaningless; But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to one who speaks it, and one who speaks it a foreigner to me."
Paul is speaking about actual languages in the world. What I believe he meant in 1 Corinthians 14:2 is simply that unless there is someone there to interpret tongues, that person is basically uttering mysteries because no one can understand him. Only God knows what he is saying. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words agrees, and further states:
"Chapter 14 gives instruction concerning the use of the gift, the paramount object being the edification of the church; unless the "tongue" was interpreted the speaker would speak "not unto men, but unto God."
If you have ever visited a country where they speak a different language which you do not understand and you turn on the local news, it will be unintelligible, and the meaning of the news story will be a mystery to you, unless there is someone there to interpret. Verse 5 states:
"One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up."
When one reads the whole chapter it is obvious that Paul does not think that tongues are a special language between a believer and God that is unintelligible even to the believer himself. Verses 6, 9, 10-11 make this view an impossibility. They stress that it is a worldly language used to communicate to other people. That it is intelligible and meaningful to someone, maybe not all the people present, but to someone. And if no one understands it, it is the same as speaking to the air.
How do these verses apply to today’s interpretation of tongues? Is someone praying by themselves in tongues praying in an intelligible language? According to Scripture they should be able to understand what they are saying, or at least have someone there to interpret for them. If not, they are as Paul says, "speaking to the air." The concept of modern day tongues is not Biblical and does not fit our model in Acts 2 or anything anywhere in the Bible. There are a few difficult verses, but when looked at in their entirety, they are not that difficult at all.
WHY HAS SPEAKING IN TONGUES BECOME SO POPULAR?
Speaking in tongues has become so popular in the last century because human nature is very sense oriented. People are used to experiencing reality by what their senses tell them. People consider real what they can touch, feel, see, smell, taste, and hear. God however is not tangible. We cannot put our finger on Him. This troubles a lot of people. We believe in God by faith, not because of our senses. God has given us solid proof of His existence in many ways, the greatest of them all by the resurrection of Jesus. We however, were not their to witness that event. We have to rely on logical proof through the lives of the Apostles, which our mind evaluates and concludes by logic and the preponderance of historical evidence that it must of happened. But it does not involve our senses.
The act of speaking in tongues gives people the sense oriented experience that many are looking for. Sure, who would not want to see a burning bush that does not burn, or the Red sea part? It would be an incredible experience, but it would not give me any more faith in God’s plan for our salvation than I already have. I have never been to China, but I know that it exists. Just because I have not seen it, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. A lot of people feel closer to God when their senses can agree with their mind. This is why tongues has become so popular. People feel that they are actually sensing God. That He is now tangible. But is this experience Biblical, or is it another one of man’s feeble attempts to reach God in a way which God did not design? You decide.