The phenomenon of speaking in tongues is quite unique to this new covenant age and has been colored by certain Christian circles as inexistent today. This spiritual gift considered by some to have ceased during the closing of the canon of Scripture seems to still be in operation today but is it a genuine language (glossa) or emotionalism built on the desires of others? In order to understand the biblical premise of tongues let’s look in the scriptures and make our conclusions from God’s word instead of the mouths or doctrinal statements of a few.
What Is The Gift of Tongues
A working definition of tongues is in order before we tackle the question at hand. Wayne Grudem defines tongues as: Speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker. Another definition by Sam Storms indicates that the gift of tongues is simply the spirit-energized ability to pray, worship, give thanks or speak in a language other than your own or one you might have learned in school. This gift was bestowed on the apostles as they tarried on the day of Pentecost.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
The New Testament narratives indicate in Acts that various nations all heard their languages proclaimed and were astonished (Acts 2:11). It was this symbolic divine act that would catapult the Gospel into every nation. So is tongues an evangelistic gift to be used with nonbelievers? There is no clear evidence that dictates so but its primary purpose was to address God, either in praise or prayer (1 Cor. 14:2,14). Paul here is saying that his mind is unfruitful but the spirit prayers. The nonmaterial aspect of his being is speaking about his own will and how his spirit prays and not the Holy Spirit through us. Peter, while giving his discourse, was amazed when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48) but not all who received the good news spoke in tongues. Jesus (Luke 4:1), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Zachariah (Luke 1:67-79) all were filled and tongues are not mentioned.
The Nature of Tongues
Tongues according to 1 Corinthians 14 was used for the edification of the believers in the church (1 Cor. 14:3-6,12,17,19,26) and the author gave specific instructions on its use. Uninterpreted tongues seemed to become a regular part of the church at Corinth and in Pauls words, they were acting like children (1 Cor.14:20). We see a lot of abuse with tongues that has caused many to not only question its authority but turn nonbelievers away from our doors. Paul elaborates this with a prophecy of judgment (See. Is. 28:11-12) and is applying that situation as a sign of judgment to unbelievers. But when tongues are interpreted, all can understand the mysteries revealed and is edifying to the body (1 Cor.14:5). What is Paul referring to when he uses the word “mysteries?” It may be that Paul is referring to anything that is outside the realm of our understanding and our inability to comprehend its speech.
Should All Speak in Tongues?
To answer, this question let us look at Pauls response in 1 Cor. 12:30. Just as not everyone is a gifted teacher, or apostle or prophet or possess the gift of healing not all speak with tongues. Does this mean that the one who has the ability to speak in tongues is greater than the one who can’t? Some have tried to force down the mouths of Christians a “Second Experience” to mean that the infilling of the third God-head is not within grasp if the evidence of tongues isn’t present. This distortion of the truth has caused a separation within the body of Christ when its the Spirit that wills the gift (See. 1 Cor.12:7-11). This is a gift like any other gift and our desire should be too earnestly seek the higher gifts (1 Cor. 12:31).
So why does God give tongues to some and not the others? It could be in how the gift is exercised whether in public or private settings (1 Cor.12:7-11;12:28-30;14). We all contribute to the body in a certain way that God decrees from each of our specific giftings. Pauls rhetorical question in 12:29 doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask the Father for tongues and it doesn’t mean a disconnect from the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us upon salvation.
Concluding Thoughts on Tongues
There are many demonic counterfeits that have grossly infected the church with disorder and abuse of this spiritual gift that has caused many to remain silent on the issue. Paul said that I speak in tongues more than all of you (1.Cor 14:18) but he understood that without interpretation and understanding these words are idle and revelation incoherent. This is not some “ecstatic speech” filled with mindless gibberish were the believer is not in total control of his or her speech. When the apostles were filled in the New Testament, overwhelmed with power, they were able to stop speaking in tongues so Peter could give his sermon (1 Cor. 14:27-28). My spirit prays (1 Cor. 14:14) and it craves a closeness with its creator. The word manifested his glory and through the atonement, I can speak to my heavenly father with words fashioned by His design.