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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: What Is the Gift of Speaking in Tongues?

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What Is the Gift of Speaking in Tongues?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 1

One of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament is the gift of speaking in tongues. Tongue-speaking, or glossolalia, is an individual’s supernatural ability to speak in a language never before learned. Paul wrote the following to the church at Corinth about the existence of such a gift. He put it this way.

And God has appointed in the church...various kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28 NRSV).

According to Paul, God has appointed this particular spiritual gift in the church.

There Is Much Controversy That Surrounds This Gift

There is probably no spiritual gift that is so discussed or so misunderstood as the gift of speaking in tongues. The exercise of this gift has led to an exaggerated emphasis by some while a denial of its existence by others. Churches have been divided over the meaning, purpose and existence of this spiritual gift.

Even the nature of the gift is debated. Some believe that the gift of speaking in tongues was limited to known earthly languages while others feel that tongue-speaking can refer to ecstatic utterances, or a heavenly language.

Some believers elevate the gift to a place of importance that is far beyond what the New Testament teaches. This includes regarding the gift of tongues as “the” sign that a believer has received the Holy Spirit or the power of the Holy Spirit which is often called the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.”

In addition, the gift of tongues is believed by some to have ceased with the death of the apostles while others think the gift is still valid today. All of these questions about the gift of speaking in tongues need to be addressed in detail.

What is important is that we have a biblical understanding of the gift. Thus, it is essential that we discover things which everyone agrees upon.

What We Know for Certain about Speaking in Tongues

From the New Testament there are a number of things that we can know for certain about speaking in tongues. They include the following.

Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia) Means Speaking in Languages

Tongue speaking is also called glossolalia. Glossolalia is made up of two Greek words – glossa meaning tongue, or language, and lalia from the verb laleo to speak. Speaking in tongues can be simply defined as “speaking in languages.”

One of the unfortunate things about this spiritual gift is the regrettable way in which it is often understood. Using the phrase “speaking in tongues” gives the idea of something bizarre occurring. However, what is under consideration here is speaking in languages that the person has not previously learned.

While it would be more proper to translate this phrase as “speaking in languages,” the designation “speaking in tongues” has become part of Christian vocabulary. Therefore, we will use this description to describe the spiritual gift.

Speaking in Tongues Is Only Mentioned in Two Books in Scripture

We find speaking in tongues only mentioned in the Book of Acts and in First Corinthians. The examples are as follows.

Speaking in tongues is mentioned in Acts 2 (on the Day of Pentecost), in Acts 10 (at Caesarea), and in Acts 19 (in Ephesus).

There Are No References to Speaking in Tongues in the Gospels (With the Possible Exception of Mark 16:17)

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues (Mark 16:17 ESV).

However this reference is found in the disputed portion of Mark’s gospel. There is a serious question as to whether the last twelve verses were actually written by Mark.

Paul does not mention speaking in tongues in his letters to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, or Thessalonians. Paul does not mention the gift in his letters to Timothy, Titus, or Philemon.

Speaking in tongues is not mentioned in the universal letters: Hebrews, James, 1,2 Peter, 1,2,3, John, Jude. Neither is it mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

Speaking in Tongues Is Only Mentioned in One of the Four Letters Where Spiritual Gifts Are Listed

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are mentioned in three different letters that Paul wrote: Romans, Ephesians, and First Corinthians. Peter also mentions the gifts in First Peter. The only place where the gift of tongues is mentioned is in First Corinthians.

There Seems to Be Two Different Purposes for the Gift

The gift of tongues seems to have at least two different purposes. They are as follows.

  1. A sign to the unbeliever
  2. A means to pray

Speaking in Tongues Was a Sign for the Unbeliever

One of the purposes for tongues was a sign for the unbeliever. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians.

It follows that speaking in other languages is intended as a sign, not to believers but to unbelievers. But prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers (1 Corinthians 14:22 HCSB).

In the Book of Acts we find accounts of tongue-speaking which gave evidential value of the message of Christ. On the Day of Pentecost the gift was explained as follows.

Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–we hear them speaking in our own languages the magnificent acts of God. (Acts 2:10, 11 HCSB)

On this particular day, each person in the crowd heard the message of Christ in their own dialect. It was a supernatural sign to each of them.

It Is a Means of Prayer

It is also a means to pray to God. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14:14 ESV).

Paul spoke of praying in tongues. Thus, this gift can be used as a means of prayer.

There may be other purposes for the gift of speaking in tongues but these two are made clear in the Scripture.

Not Every Believer Has the Gift of Tongues

It is clear from the New Testament that speaking in tongues is not a sign of receiving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts there were instances where people received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues and other instances where they did not.

In Corinth all believers had been baptized with the Holy Spirit.

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13 NRSV).

Paul said that each believer in Corinth had been baptized with the Spirit.

However, not all of the believers in Corinth had the gift of speaking with tongues. Paul wrote the following to them.

Does everyone have the gift of healing? Of course not. Does God give all of us the ability to speak in unknown languages? Can everyone interpret unknown languages? No! (1 Corinthians 12:30 NLT).

The sentence is structured in the original Greek in such a way that demands that the answer be “No.” Not everyone should be expected to speak in tongues. Therefore the gift of tongues is not a required gift.

Paul linked the various gifts to different part of the human body.

What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! (1 Corinthians 12:19 NLT).

A body is made up of different parts. All parts of the body are necessary yet all parts are different. Thus, not everyone is a Bible teacher and not everyone speaks in tongues.

There Are Warnings against Misuse of the Gift

The Apostle Paul spoke highly of the gift of tongues. Indeed, he wrote the following words to the Corinthians in praise of the gift.

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (1 Corinthians 14:5 ESV).

He said he wanted everyone to speak in tongues.

He also wrote.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you (1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV).

Obviously he had a high regard of this gift from God.

But he also warned against the misuse of the gift. We find him giving these words of warning to the Corinthians.

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV).

This tells us that there is a proper, as well as an improper way, of using this gift. In other words, the gifts can be either used properly or abused.

The Bible Sets Strict Guidelines concerning the Use of the Gift

The Bible sets down guidelines by which the gift of tongues should be exercised. They are found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Those who exercise the gift are to do so according to the rules that have been set down in Scripture.

Speaking in Tongues Was Not to Be Done in a Church Service without an Interpreter

If the gift of tongues were to be exercised among believers, then there must be someone there with the gift of interpretation. Otherwise the person is to keep silent. Paul wrote.

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:27, 28 ESV).

The purpose of believers gathering together is to build up the entire group of believers.

The Gift of Tongues Will Someday Cease

The gift of speaking in tongues will someday come to an end. Paul wrote elsewhere to the Corinthians.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away (1 Corinthians 13:8 ESV).

This gift will not last forever.

Speaking in Tongues Was Not Forbidden

Even with all the abuses of the gift, speaking in tongues was not forbidden. Paul wrote about not forbidding the exercise of the gift.

So, dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39 NLT).

Paul would not forbid the proper exercise of the gift though the church in Corinth was abusing this gift from God.

Tongue-Speaking Should Not Divide Believers

The exercise of the gift of speaking in tongues should not be something that is divisive among Christians. Whether or not the gift still exists, it should not be a point of contention. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the exercise of the gift.

Summary – Question 1
What Is the Gift of Speaking in Tongues?

Speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift. It is the ability to speak in languages that have not been previously learned. The proper way to state the gift should be “speaking in languages” rather than “speaking in tongues.” However, “speaking in tongues” has become part of Christian vocabulary.

Speaking in tongues is only mentioned in two New Testament books – Acts and First Corinthians. In fact, in only one of the four books where spiritual gifts are mentioned, First Corinthians, do we find a reference to speaking in tongues.

In the New Testament, speaking in tongues seemingly had one of two purposes. It was a sign to the unbeliever or a means of prayer. While there may have been other purposes for the gift these two are certain.

We know that not every Christian has the gift. Indeed, the gift was given by God to only a select group. Those who had the gift were not any more spiritual or less spiritual than anyone else.

Scripture also warns about the misuse of the gift and has set down certain guidelines for its use. These guidelines need to be followed if the gift is going to be exercised.

There was to be no tongue–speaking in church without an interpreter present. Paul emphasized that there are no exceptions to this command.

The gift, like all spiritual gifts, is not meant to be permanent. There will come a day when this spiritual gift will cease. Even with all the abuses present, the Apostle Paul told believers in Corinth not to forbid the exercise of the gift.

Finally, tongue speaking should not be an issue that divides believers. Unhappily, it continues to be.

These are some of the things we know for certain about the gift of speaking in tongues. It is from this basis that we should examine the totality of what Scripture has to say about this topic.

What Does the Bible Have to Say? (Introduction) ← Prior Section
Were Those Who Spoke in Tongues in an Ecstatic, Uncontrolled State? Next Section →
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