by Dr. Hoyt W. Allen, Jr.
There is much confusion in the religious world regarding the nature of the gift of “tongues” mentioned in the New Testament. Some contend that the gift consisted of the ability to miraculously teach in a foreign language previously unknown to the speaker. Others assert that speaking in tongues involved uttering unintelligible sounds; “a disjointed, highly pitched, ecstatic series of ejaculations,” by which one somehow edified himself and communicated with God. What is the biblical position?
The Biblical Use of Tongues - A well-known rule of Bible interpretation affirms that every biblical word, not especially explained as having some unusual meaning, is to be understood in its common sense. What is, therefore, the ordinary meaning of the word “tongue” as used in the Bible? “Tongue” derives from the Greek term glossa and it is used in only two senses in Scripture. (1) In a primary sense it refers to the physical organ of speech, the tongue, Luke 1:64. (2) In a secondary sense glossa refers to the language spoken by a particular people in distinction from other nations. For example, Jehovah said of those ancients who were of one speech, “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language (glossan), that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:1,7). In the New Testament it is said of Christ, “… you were slain, and did purchase unto God with your blood men of every tribe, and tongue (glosses), and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). And so, aside from its primary usage as the physical organ, in the New Testament, “tongue,” according to the common meaning of the word, denotes simply a language. This must stand unless the context of certain verses can be demonstrated to prove otherwise.
The Promise Of Tongues - The “gift” of tongues was first promised in Mark 16:17, where Jesus said of certain believers, “they shall speak with new tongues.” Of special interest here is the word “new” (Grk., kainos). It suggests a newness of quality, not chronological newness. Hence, the Lord indicates that this gift would involve a fresh or new way of speaking; not a new kind of utterance previously unknown to the human family. We may now show exactly how the Savior’s promise was fulfilled. There are four examples involving the reception of the gift of tongues in the New Testament.
At Pentecost (Acts 2) - The character of the tongues on the day Pentecost is clearly revealed. “And they (the apostles) were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (4). Jews from many nations were in the city, and hearing these tongues, were confounded “because that every man heard them speaking in his own language” (6). Their amazement is further evidenced by the question, “How hear we every man in our own language wherein we were born?” (8). Again, “We hear them speaking in our tongues the might works of God.” (11). Surely it is obvious that the gift of tongues was the miraculous ability possessed by these Galileans to speak in the languages of the various nationalities present on that occasion.
At Caesarea (Acts 10) - The gift of tongues was given to the family of Cornelius to show the Jews that Gentiles were entitled to the blessings of salvation. When those Jews present “heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God,” they were convinced (10:46). The apostle Peter is very careful to identify this phenomenon with Pentecost. He was present on both occasions and declared, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning” (11:15). Further, “God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us” (11:17). The tongues mentioned in Acts 10 were languages as on the day of Pentecost.
At Ephesus (Acts 19) - After baptizing twelve men at Ephesus, Paul “laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them; and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied” (19:6). The tongues here are not described; but why should they be? The gift has been adequately defined twice already in the book of Acts. We are not at liberty, therefore, to assume that the gift mentioned here is different from those former cases.
At Corinth (I Corinthians 12-13) - It is frequently alleged that real proof for ecstatic utterances is found in 1st Corinthians. Let us note some of the faulty arguments urged in support of this theory. (1) It is alleged that Paul’s reference to “kinds of tongues” (I Cor. 12:10) implies a type of tongues beyond that of mere human languages. The point is not valid for the word “kinds” (genos) denotes “the aggregate of many individuals of the same nature, kind, sort, species” (Thayer). These are different human languages of like-nature. (2) Some argue that the reference to “tongues of angels” (13:1), implies a heavenly type of language.
This cannot refer to a superior heavenly, ecstatic utterance because, first of all, such would suggest that the Corinthians were blessed with a gift superior to what Christ’s apostles received on Pentecost. This is absurd. Moreover, these tongues, exercised without love (i.e., without an interpreter) were senseless sounds
(sounding brass or clanging cymbal). The implication is, however, that when used in love, they were not senseless sounds! Actually, Paul’s argument here is hyperbole (exaggeration for emphasis). See a similar usage in Galatians 1:8. Paul neither literally expects angelic perversion of the gospel, nor his speaking in angelic tongues; he is simply stressing a point.
The Tongues of (I Corinthians 14) - McClintock and Strong note that some verses in I Corinthians 14 “have given rise to the notion of a strange, ecstatic, inspired, unearthly language; but these all admit of a different solution” (Vol. X, 463). The fact is, the gift of tongues was being abused at Corinth. It was exercised without love (13:1) by those who spoke to foreigners without benefit of a translator (28), or who spoke simultaneously (27), thus creating confusion (33). With this situation in view, I Corinthians 14:2 is easier to understand. It might be paraphrased as follows: “He that speaks in a foreign language (which his audience cannot understand because no translator is present) speaks not unto men, but unto God; for no man (of this alien audience) understands; but in the spirit he speaks mysteries (things which are hidden from the audience because of no interpreter).” There is no reason to view I Corinthians 14:2 as an allusion to ecstatic utterances. There are other indications in this chapter that the “tongues” were merely human languages. Note: 1. The tongue edified its user even as prophecy did the entire church (4). The difference was, the former frequently depended on a translator; the latter did not. To edify is to “build up.” If the prophet edified the church with intelligent words, we must conclude that the individual who edified himself with a tongue also used intelligent words. 2. The word “interpret” (5) means to explain or to translate. See Acts 9:36. It involves a language. 3. 3. The term “barbarian” (11) denotes one who speaks a foreign language. Compare Acts 28:2 where those of Malta who spoke the Punic language are called barbarians. 4. Tongues involved using “words” (19). Words (logus) suggest the “expression of thoughts” (W. E. Vine). Mere sounds do not! 5. “Strange tongues” (heteroglossos) (21) are called “other tongues” in Acts 2:4, and are identified as languages. Also, I Corinthians 14:21 is a quote from Isaiah 28:11, where human languages are in view. And so, we may again emphatically state that the gift of tongues was simply the miraculous ability to speak a foreign language.
The Purpose Of Tongues - The gift of tongues and other miraculous abilities were “signs” designed to convince unbelievers of the heavenly origin of Christianity. Such signs were never intended to be an end within themselves, but were the means by which God authenticated the messages of those who proclaimed his Cause (Mark 16:20; I Cor. 14:22; Heb. 2:3,4). Those signs performed by first-century disciples were recorded by the New Testament writers. See John 20:30,31. They thus “confirm” its holy message. To contend that these signs are available today, is to affirm that the Bible is not God’s final revelation to man. If, however, divine revelation has ceased, then so have the signs which accompanied such.
No Tongues Today - Paul, in discussing the temporary nature of spiritual gifts, declared, “tongues… shall cease…” Tongues were utilized in the revealing of God’s truth which came “in part.” But when “that which is perfect” (literally in Greek, “the perfect thing”) came, namely, the completed revelation, then tongues, as well as all other spiritual gifts, were removed from the church’s possession (see I Cor. 13:8-10). Noted scholar, W. E. Vine, has well said: “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 I Corinthians 13:8, that this gift would cease in the churches, just as would ‘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” (Dictionary, IV, 143).
Many sincere people actually believe they have “spoken in tongues.” But since the Bible teaches that such is not possible in this age, some other explanation will have to be given for “personal experiences.” It is dangerous to attribute something to God for which He is not responsible!