The reader may seem very interested in the title of this small article. Why is there such a big fuss among church gatherings about the gift of tongues? Does the gift of tongues still exist today, or can someone claim to have the gift of speaking in tongues? Why is the idea of speaking in tongues taking such an important place in Christianity today? I will attempt to explain in some detail the purpose of the gift of tongues that was introduced in the early church in Acts 2, and why it continued for some years, and why it should not have such a preeminent place among us today.
First of all, what is ‘speaking in tongues’? A ‘tongue’ is another word for a different language. It is worthwhile to look back to the first instance when tongues, or languages was used. You may remember Genesis 11 where it begins with all the people having one language. Then they decided to make a huge tower to reach to heaven, and the Lord came down to see what these people were doing. From verse 7 the Lord confounded their language and caused everyone to speak different languages so that they could not understand each other like before. Therefore, the name Babel means confusion, and as a result, the very first instance in which tongues, or languages, is mentioned is a sign of judgement. It is judgement because the people wanted to reach God in their own way and ignored His instruction and His way, and God did not allow that, and therefore judged the people by causing them to speak in different languages so that they could not understand each other.
When we come to the book of Acts, the Lord had promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would descend and dwell in them after He went up to sit at God’s right hand. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit indeed came and dwelt in the believers, and the gift of tongues was given to them because at Jerusalem there were people from all nations and tongues (languages) and they needed to hear the Word of God in their own language. See Acts 2:4-12. The people who were of the nations all marvelled and were astonished. However, the others mocking could have been the Jews, the people of Israel. It is also clear from the New Testament, that speaking in tongues was for judgement for the Jews, because they chose not to believe in Christ as their Messiah and that He is the Son of God, and on the other hand, tongues was used to establish and grow the Church (all true believers in Christ) that it is from the Lord, and not from humans.
The apostle Paul writes about tongues in 1 Corinthians 12 and acknowledges that it is a gift by the same Spirit, the same God and the same Lord. In chapter 14, he elaborates on the purpose of tongues, and it is clear that if a person speaks in tongues, they only edify themselves because only God understands, unless there is someone to interpret. The Corinthian believers were actually abusing their gift of speaking in different languages and each one spoke a different language, but Paul had to step in and correct that. If a person from outside came in the church gathering and heard people preaching in a different language, that person would say the preacher is mad (see 1 Cor 14:23) but if one really used his gift and spoke clearly the word of God and everyone understands, then that person who came in the church gathering from outside, then there would be a change (see verses 24 and 25). Paul mentions the purpose of tongues in verse 21, quoting from Isaiah 28:11. Therefore, tongues are for a sign, not for the believers, but for the unbelievers, but prophesying (meaning speaking from the Word of God to the conscience of those gathered to hear) is profitable for the believers, and also the unbeliever will be convicted when hearing the Word of God spoken with power.
Now we come to the practicality of all this. Does speaking in tongues exist today? I would conclude from the New Testament passages we looked at, that the ‘gift of tongues’ does not exist. So how does someone speak a different language than his/her native speech? We are all capable of learning different languages when at school, college or university, of-course, given the opportunity, so it is clear that if a person speaks other languages, and I know people who are multi-lingual, he/she had to have learned it and studied the language/s. I speak English and also a little German because I learnt it, so if I went to a country where either of English or German is not widely used, went to a church gathering and started to preach in any of these two languages, the people will not understand me, unless there is someone who can interpret, and therefore they will not benefit from the preaching. In concluding this small article, the Biblical word ‘tongues’ means just another language, and it was given as a sign of judgement, for those who do not believe in the Lord, and not for the true believers. It was also given to establish and grow, and strengthen the early Church, as we see that even Cornelius in Acts 10 and those with him after they believed, started to speak in tongues. After the Church was established and strengthened by the Lord Himself, the gift of tongues was not present any longer, and down the centuries, people had to learn foreign languages to go and serve in the missionary work for the Lord. May we all learn from this and not get caught up in giving the ‘gift of tongues’ such a high important place among us. Let us pursue the gifts for the benefit of our local gathering that we may all be built up and edified.