The first time I became confused about the gift of tongues I had just finished singing at a Pentecostal church, where I had spent an hour giving a concert, praising Jesus and I thought, encouraging other Christians in their faith. When I finished my concert and was talking to people afterwards the pastor of the church approached me and asked me if I spoke in tongues. I told him I did not. He then patted me on the back in a conciliatory way and said, “Don’t worry Sister, some day you’ll be saved!” I had been a Christian (or so I thought) for some years. But this man made me doubt my salvation. I believed in Jesus, and I loved Him. I served Him with my whole being, using the singing voice God gave me to minister in coffee houses, in homeless shelters and in churches, where I encouraged people to follow Jesus. If I wasn’t a Christian, what was I? Thus, began my long and confusing journey into the world of tongues.
So as not to add to your confusion we will start at the beginning, where this unusual phenomenon first occurred – on Pentecost Sunday. In Acts 2:1-13 we can observe several things about the gift of tongues:
So now we have an idea of how it started and where it started and why. So what happened after that? Why did the gift of tongues suddenly become something everyone wanted? How did tongues come to be a “sign” that was required to prove you were a Christian? When did it become a “heavenly” language, rather than just another language?
Before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s work was from “without”. For example, in the Old Testament, you will often see the phrase “the Spirit came upon” (Numbers 11:25; Judges 3:10; 2 Chronicles 24:20), indicating that it was temporary. After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit dwelled permanently within believers (John 7:37-39; 14:17; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:13) which united all believers by that same Spirit, making us all equal (1 Corinthians 12:13). In other words, even if you can’t speak in tongues – despite what that pastor told me, you are still a Christian and still saved. Tongues were given on Pentecost as a sign of God’s power. Under the Old Covenant, God’s work with Israel had been external, but under the New Covenant it is internal (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Hebrews 8:9-10). The tongues of fire on Pentecost was God’s way of saying, “This is how we will do things now. I will dwell within you.” He was physically showing the believers how they would be transformed in Him and how it was possible for Him to abide in them. After that day, it was no longer necessary for God to create a show of tongues of fire over someone’s head, because everyone knew that this was the new way God would operate in His children’s lives. You believed, and you received the Holy Spirit. It was that simple.
Why then, did tongues become something everyone coveted?
It stemmed from paganism. When we look at the entire book of 1 Corinthians, we can see that Paul had some real concerns with these new Christians. We cannot forget that these people came out of a pagan culture where they worshipped many gods. Unfortunately, their beliefs about “gods” in general tended to carry over to the one true God, and so they would incorporate those beliefs into their daily lives. The issues Paul dealt with in his first letter to them were many. Even Paul’s greeting (1 Corinthians 1:2) to them gives us an idea of the enormity of the task before him, to get these people to understand who they now were in Christ – sanctified, called to be saints, equal with all those in Christ. But instead, they argued about leadership (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), they were still carnal, dealing with envy, strife and divisions amongst them (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). They listened to worldly wisdom (most likely the philosophers of the day) instead of reading the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 3:18-23). They were arrogant (1 Corinthians 4:18). They were sexually immoral (1 Corinthians 5), still living the same way as they did when they worshipped other gods. The list of problems is quite long that Paul had to deal with, so I will stop there, but the attraction to tongues and wanting it so badly came about because they were uneducated in the Word of God. Tongues to the Corinthians was a power play so to speak. To them, speaking in tongues was nothing more than the spiritual frenzies they experienced when worshipping other gods. In fact, speaking in tongues or ecstatic language was a common form of worship in pagan temples. This was a practice that was in play long before the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost. But the ecstatic language that the pagans experienced came from their association with demons. So when they saw God offered this gift, they desired it above all else. They believed tongues proved they had the power of God resting on them. And so they misused it and lorded it over those who didn’t speak in tongues, which is why Paul spent more than three chapters talking about tongues and why Spiritual gifts must bring unity. It is also why he said to desire prophecy more (1 Corinthians 14:1) because the gift of tongues does not edify the church unless an interpreter is present.
Now we know why it was desired, so when did it become a “sign” to prove you were a Christian?
Nowhere in the New Testament is it taught that speaking in tongues is the only evidence a person has received the Holy Spirit. Some have taught (like that pastor friend of mine) that it is a sign you are saved. Most reputable Pentecostal churches do not teach this. However, there are still some that believe the baptism of the Holy Spirit comes not at the moment of conversion, but later and results in speaking in tongues. However, Scripture contradicts this (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Ephesians 4:5). There are three places in the Bible where speaking in tongues was evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4; 10:44-46; 19:6). However, there are also thousands of people who received the Holy Spirit through belief in Jesus, and nothing is said about them speaking in tongues (Acts 2:41, 8:5-25, 16:31-34, 21:20). In fact, there is no mention in Acts 2 that the three thousand people who were saved on the day of Pentecost spoke in tongues.
The Scriptures tell us that every believer in Christ has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 1:13-14), but not every believer speaks in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:29-31). In fact, speaking in tongues is not even a sign for believers, but for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22). The Scriptures are clear, speaking in tongues is not something to signify you have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit happens immediately upon your confession of Christ as your Saviour, and speaking in tongues is a gift given to some, but not to all.
When did tongues become a “heavenly language” rather than an earthly language?
There is nowhere in the Bible where you will find the expression “heavenly language”. Some have expressed that Paul’s use of the words, “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 is proof that there is a heavenly language that only angels—and certain “Spirit-filled” believers—can speak. But we must take scripture in context because when we do, it is clear that Paul is using hyperbole when using the words “tongues of angels”. He is saying that it doesn’t matter if you are speaking in your own language, in a foreign language “tongues of men” (languages of the earth), or even in the language of the angels, it’s all moot without love. Clearly, by using his exaggeration of “tongues of angels,” we can see that he was not speaking about some secret language between some believers and God. Even the verses after this show his use of hyperbole when he talks about having faith big enough to move mountains, or offering his body to be burned (1 Corinthians 13:2-3). He is not saying that speaking in tongues is a heavenly language at all. He is simply trying to make a point that you can’t speak in tongues of men (the pagan babble they were accustomed to) or the tongues of angels (the gift of the Holy Spirit) without it sounding like a bunch of noise if you don’t have love. In other words, he was telling them to stop lording it over people that they could speak in tongues!
Is the gift of tongues still available today?
Yes! Of course, it is. Unfortunately, it has been abused in some churches by people who think speaking in tongues connects them more directly to God, improves their prayer life, or gives them a sort of “spiritual high”. I have had some friends with this gift exclaim that unless they speak in tongues, they do not feel connected to God. And to me, that is very sad, as they are missing the entire point of this gift. They are seeking to edify themselves instead of the church. But the purpose of all the spiritual gifts is for the edification of the church. Paul affirms this in 1 Corinthians 14:12.
I have been in Pentecostal churches where everyone is speaking in tongues at the same time. Which is a clear violation of scripture and again, one that Paul admonishes against for a good reason:
Therefore 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? (1 Corinthians 14:23)
It is so important, therefore, that if you have the gift of tongues, you belong to a church that uses it correctly and that you know for a fact you have been given this gift and are not just caught up in the form of hysteria that can happen in some churches who misuse this gift. For example, I remember praying with a friend who went into a trance-like state and began speaking in tongues. I immediately asked her to interpret what she was saying, and she looked at me like I’d grown two heads. “Interpret? I don’t know what I’m saying.” I responded by informing her that if she didn’t know what she was saying then biblically she must stop. Her response was that she “couldn’t control it.” My friends, if you can’t control the Holy Spirit’s gift of speaking in tongues, then you are treading on dangerous ground and behaving like the Christians in Corinth whom Paul was admonishing.
The gift of tongues when properly used today will be a sign to unbelievers, who will hear in their language what you are saying. And if used when no unbelievers are present there will be an interpreter available to help everyone in the church understand what was said. For the main reason for all spiritual gifts, as I’ve repeatedly said during this series, is to grow and edify the church. If you are only edifying yourself, you are using this gift inappropriately.