The gift of tongues is a sign that follows believers in Christ Jesus.
“And these signs shall follow them that believe, In my name shall they cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues, They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them, they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17).
Some Christians believe that the gift of tongues is a heavenly language and not an earthly language. Others believe that Christians can prophesy and preach in tongues. What are tongues? Must all speak in tongues? Is there just a gift or many gifts of tongues?
The Greek word translated tongues literally means “languages”. To understand the gift of tongues, we must understand its manifestations in the early church. In the Bible, the manifestation of the gift of tongues is recorded in the book of Acts. Its first manifestation was on the day of Pentecost. Another manifestation of the gift of tongues was in the house of Cornelius.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine (Acts 2:1-12).
Peter was still speaking when the Holy Spirit came upon all who listened to the Word. And the believers of Jewish origin who had come with Peter were amazed, “Why! God gives and pours the Holy Spirit on foreigners also!” For indeed this happened: they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God (Acts 10.46).
1) “Tongues” means languages: The disciples spoke with “other tongues”. Native Jews from every nation on the earth (expatriates) were at Jerusalem and heard them speak in their respective overseas languages.
2) Tongues are earthly languages: Other native Jews (nonemigrants) did not understand the languages of the disciples but the native Jewish expatriates from all nations understood them. To the nonemigrant Jews, the language/tongue is unknown (a mystery) since they do not understand. A mystery is something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain. The native Jewish expatriates “were amazed” that the disciples spoke in languages that they had never learned. The nonemigrant native Jews who could not understand, considered the disciples drunk. The tongues were not an unintelligible babble/heavenly language rather it was an intelligible earthly language.
3) The tongues were words of praise: On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were magnifying God and declaring His wondrous works. In the house Cornelius, the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages offering words of praise to God.
4) The tongues were spoken to God: Their words were directed to God and not to men. They were loud in their praises, such that it pulled a crowd including the native speakers of the various languages (native Jewish expatriates).
The writings of Apostle Paul to the Corinthians do not contradict the manifestation of the gift on Pentecost or Cornelius’ house.
The tongues were different earthly languages of men
- Pentecost: The native Jewish expatriates of each country under heaven understood their respective languages
- Apostle Paul: “I give thanks to God because I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14.18).
Tongues are spoken unto God and is not for prophesy or preaching
- Pentecost: The disciples were praising God and declaring his wondrous works. Praises are made unto God and not unto men.
- Apostle Paul: “The one who speaks in tongues does not speak to people, but to God (1 Corinthians 14.2).
An unknown tongue is a mystery
- Pentecost: The native nonemigrant Jews did not understand the words spoken and considered the apostles drunk. A foreign language is unknown to its hearers except it is interpreted
- Apostle Paul: “…For no one understands him, the spirit makes him say things that are not understandable” (1 Corinthians 14.2). There are many languages in the world, and each of them has meaning, but if I cannot find any meaning in what is said, I become a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker to me… (1 Corinthians 14.17).
The gift of tongues is just a sign to the unbeliever and not for prophecy or preaching.
- Pentecost: The faith of the unbelieving expatriate Jews was stirred when they heard the strangers speak in their overseas languages. Not only did the disciples speak in the languages of the foreign Jews, they were also glorying God before the unbelieving Jews. This was a sign that God was with the disciples. There was no prophesying or preaching in tongues.
- Apostle Paul: “God says in the Law: ‘I will speak to this people through those talking other tongues and through lips of foreigners, but even so they will not listen to me. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (1 Corinthians 14.21-22). The gift of tongues is different from the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14.4, 1 Cor.14.5).
There are many tongues but there is just one gift of tongues & one gift of interpretation
- Pentecost: The disciples spoke in many tongues (languages). The manifestation of the gift of tongues on Pentecost was same with that in Cornelius house. The same manifestation means it is the same gift. It is just one gift.
- Apostle Paul: “To one it is given from the spirit…… the gift of different tongues and to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12.10). In a gathering of believers who are native nonemigrant audience, there must be someone with the gift of interpretation before anyone can speak in tongues (a foreign language). Only then will the church be edified. When the church hears and understands the words of praise, they can say Amen to it (1 Corinthians 14.13-17). If there are no native expatriate unbelievers in the meeting, there is really no need to speak in a foreign language except there is interpretation. With no interpretation, it will deter the native nonemigrant unbeliever (1 Cor.14.23) Tongues are a sign to an audience who are native expatriate or foreign unbelievers.
What is the gift of tongues?
The gift of tongues is the divine ability for a foreigner (non-native) to speak a foreign earthly language which he has never learned. The non-native speaker speaks unto God in words of prayer, praise and thanksgiving and not unto men. A language/tongue should be spoken audibly as a sign only in the audience of an unbelieving native speaker(s) or expatriates of the tongue. Believers do not need the sign, but they can receive edification if they understand. If the audience are native speakers of the foreign language, they will understand, but if the audience non-native speakers of the foreign language, then there must be an interpreter.
Praying in an unknown tongue
Praying in tongues is prayer that is made by the Holy Spirit with the human spirit unto God by word of mouth in a foreign earthly language (1 Corinthians 14.13-17). When we pray in tongues, our minds remain idle for we do not understand what we speak.
Praying in a native language
Praying in a native language is prayer that is made by me unto God. I understand every word because it is my native tongue. When I pray in my own language, my mind is fruitful.
The Holy Spirit’s Prayer
The Holy Spirit can pray to God on our behalf. When He prays, the prayer is without words. Only a groaning sound may be heard The Holy Spirit intercedes for us. He makes perfect prayer for us because He prays according to the will of God.
“We are weak, but the Spirit comes to help us. How to ask? And what shall we ask for? We do not know, but the spirit intercedes for us without words, as if with groans. And He who sees inner secrets knows the desires of the Spirit, for he asks for the holy ones what is pleasing to God” (Romans 8.26-27).
The Gift of Tongues Today
In the early church, not all those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit could speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12.30). All spirit-filled believers must not speak in tongues. There may be some in our time who may be operating in the true gift of tongues. If so, they must regulate the use of the gift to avoid confusion and disorderliness. The purpose of the gift is mainly to activate the faith of unbelievers. Any manifestation that defeats this purpose should be avoided. Today, there are many fake tongues and crazy manifestations which scares away the unbelievers. Some babble, others use repetitive syllables. Everyone can babble. Everyone can repeat some syllables, and everyone can fake moods. We must be careful that what we speak is indeed an existing identifiable earthly language. We must be careful not to enter evil spiritual manifestations. We need to be sure that the tongues are truly of the Holy Spirit. The true gift of tongues may have gone silent. “Prophecies may cease, tongues be silent and knowledge disappear” (1 Corinthians 13.8). We must not be tempted to fill the vacuum by faking some tongues.
God had spoken through the O.T prophets that He would speak to the Jewish people through the sign of other tongues spoken by native Jewish foreign speakers (1 Corinthians 14.21). So, we really do not know if the LORD intended for the gift to be seasonal only during the era of the early church in Israel. God used the signs of tongues to speak to the unbelieving Jews. Many signs and wonders were done by the Holy Spirit through the early church. The Jews would not accept the messiah except they see signs. Most of them repented only when they saw the signs that were performed by the LORD and His disciples (John 2.23, John 4.48, John 6.2, John 6.30, John 7.31, Acts 1.3, Acts 8.6). The gentiles are not really moved by signs. They readily accept the gospel once they see the truth even if they do not see a sign or miracle. “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1.22). Most of the Jewish people believed because of signs. Signs were given them to activate their faith.