Speaking in Tongues
When a person professes faith in Jesus Christ, God does more than save us from sin and death. He saves us to dynamic service within His arm of ministry—the worldwide church. At the direction of the Father, the Holy Spirit dispenses spiritual gifts to empower every believer so that we might effectively contribute toward the growth and vitality of the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Since Pentecost, one of the most controversial gifts of the Spirit has been “speaking in tongues.”
What exactly are these tongues? As with most biblical topics, the first mention of it should dictate our interpretation of the topic as it appears elsewhere in Scripture. After the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the early church began to speak in tongues (Acts 2:4). These tongues were actual spoken languages that were granted by the Holy Spirit, and this allowed the gospel to transcend language and culture barriers (Acts 2:5-12). In fact, the various languages and dialects are actually listed.
The apostles were able to supernaturally speak these different languages. Just imagine: they could preach a message in one language and then preach the same message in an entirely different language! Some commentators believe that the miracle was actually in the hearing, namely, that as an apostle spoke, each language group could hear the message in their particular dialect. However, the Bible seems to be clear that the miracle was actually in the speaking, not the hearing.
What was God doing through this strange phenomenon? He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 28:11, “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people…” The Jews prided themselves in using the beautiful language of Hebrew, but the prediction was that God would some day branch out beyond the bounds of Judaism and the Jews would be hearing God’s word in foreign tongues.
Paul warned the Corinthians that if they exercised this gift with unbelievers present, they would think that they were “mad.” However, the converted Jews in the church would know of God’s intention based on Isaiah’s prophecy. To prove his point, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11 in his discussion to remind them that God predicted he would speak even to the Jews using Gentile languages (see 1 Corinthians 14:20-22). To speak with an interpreter present would, of course, make the practice acceptable and beneficial to those who spoke other languages.
We do not believe that Paul speaks of some kind of a heavenly language in 1 Corinthians 14, nor does he speak about a private prayer language. Although a complete discussion of this chapter is beyond the bounds of this brief exposition, we are also convinced that believers who exercised this gift were in complete control of their mental faculties and knew what they were saying.
Also, we do not believe that the gift of tongues is necessary as proof of salvation or of the filling of the Spirit; nor is it the result of being baptized by the Holy Spirit. We believe that the birth of the church at Pentecost cannot be repeated just as the birth of Christ cannot be repeated. We do not have to meet in an upper room to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, for He has arrived.
But—and this is important—the ministry of the Spirit in the life of believers today is extensive: He baptizes us (making us members of Christ’s body); He seals us (guaranteeing our safe arrival in heaven); and He fills us with spiritual power for service. However, the gift of tongues, which marked a transition from Old Testament Jewish rituals to the New Testament Gentile/Jewish church, is a gift that is no longer necessary.
Of course, God may grant the gift of tongues as He wills for His own specific purposes. For example, we’ve heard reports of an English preacher who miraculously was able to speak in Chinese for the benefit of some in his audience. If such reports can be verified, this would indicate a gracious work of God to get the Gospel to those who desperately wish to hear it. However, throughout the centuries, missionaries have discovered that they must painstakingly learn a language, no matter how much they might pray for this miraculous spiritual gift.