The Gift of Tongues

The gift of tongues is spoken of multiple times in the New Testament. Mark 16:17 lists it among other miraculous gifts which would follow those who believe. The book of Acts says the apostles spoke with tongues (Acts 2) as well as the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) and the disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19). In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul mentioned the gift of tongues 12x in the three chapter context of 1 Corinthians 12, 13, 14. Obviously it is an important Bible topic, and unfortunately one which is often misunderstood in today’s religious world. Let’s note a few things about tongues.

Two Greek words translate as “tongue” into our English Bibles. Glossa can refer to the literal tongue (the organ in your mouth) or to a language. Dialektos, from which our English word dialect comes, is translated as “language” (NKJV) or “tongue” (KJV). These words are used interchangeably as seen in Acts 2:8-11:

…how is it that we hear, each in our own language {dialektos} in
which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those
dwelling in Mesopotamia … Cretans and Arabs—we hear them
speaking in our own tongues {glossa} the wonderful works of God.

The modern-day gibberish-like babble which is represented as the gift of tongues is inconsistent with what is in the Bible. When the apostles spoke in tongues, it was not an incomprehensible chatter—they spoke languages known to hearers but unknown to the speaker. A tongue is a language (a known language); the gift of tongues involves a speaker communicating in a language which he or she does not know, but the hearers will recognize.

Charismatic churches are enamoured with tongues. Years ago I was at the assembly of one such church, and what I saw can only be described as chaos. Leaving the running, and jumping, and rolling about on the floor aside—there were people here and there jabbering away all at the same time in “unknown tongues” with no rhyme, reason, or harmony to it at all. I was reminded of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:23, “…if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” The difference of course being, what the Corinthians spoke were actual languages whereas the tongue-wagging at the event I attended was incessant babble. Though tongues were used in the early church (if an interpreter present), it seems that Paul discouraged it (1 Corinthians 14:12-19, 23-28). The gift was not given to use as a performance or display.

To answer this, we need to understand the purpose of the gifts. In 1 Corinthians 14:22, Paul wrote, “…tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers…” A sign of what? According to Hebrew 2:3-4, “…signs, and wonders, and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirt…” were God’s witness to the authenticity of the gospel message. That is what happened in Acts 2—the people heard the gospel in their own languages by way of a miracle, and many believed. However, these signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit had a predetermined end.

Paul indicated there would be an end to the miraculous gifts given to reveal and confirm God’s word. He wrote:

…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are
tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will
vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is
in part will be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

Verse 8 declares an end for the gifts (fail, cease, vanish away); verse 9 states why the gifts were still present in Paul’s day (they only had partial knowledge of God’s word); and verse 10 says when the gifts would end (when perfect revelation had come). The perfect of this text is not the Lord Jesus—the Greek is not in the masculine form (“when He who is perfect has come”), but in the neuter form (“when that which is perfect has come”). When the perfect or complete revelation had come, then partial revelation would cease. We’ve had perfect revelation since the end of the first century. The miraculous gifts, including tongues, have ceased.

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