“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Jesus went back to Heaven
God the Son left His heavenly home, descended to earth, was born of a virgin, lived, ministered, died on the cross, and resurrected to provide eternal redemption for everyone who believes. Then He ascended back to heaven and sits at God’s right hand, waiting to return for His believers.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit Who Gave the Gift of Tongues
But when He ascended, He didn’t orphan His believers. He promised to send them another Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Various signs accompanied the Spirit’s appearance:
“When the day of Pentecost had come …suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house…. And they (Jesus’ followers) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (languages), as the Spirit enabled them to speak…. The crowd came together and were confounded, because each man heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:1-6).
The Spirit came on Pentecost
So, the first mention of believers speaking in tongues was on Pentecost. These ‘tongues’ were the Spirit-given ability to speak a foreign language the person hadn’t previously learned.
The crowds that heard them were Jews, and proselytes from dozens of countries gathered in Jerusalem to
celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:7-11).
“They (the crowd) were all amazed and perplexed, (asking), “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
Tongues was a Sign of God’s Judgment
One of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, told them it was a sign of the judgment that God promised to send “before that great and glorious day of the Lord comes” (Acts 2:20). God’s judgment was coming because God had sent Jesus to Israel and all humanity. But, instead of believing in Him, they crucified Him! Yet God still offered the crowd His salvation if they changed their minds about Jesus, promising,
“And whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
These tongues were a sign to a rebellious people.
Tongues are a Sign for Unbelievers
What is the gift of speaking in tongues? The Apostle Paul makes the continued purpose of tongues clear in a letter to a church, saying,
“So tongues are for a sign, not to believers, but to unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22).
The Holy Spirit Gives Gifts to Believers
The believers in Paul’s churches had questions about the gift of tongues. He taught that every believer in Jesus receives gifting when they are born again, which allows them to serve in the Church. He said,
“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Paul lists ‘tongues’ (languages) as a gift the Holy Spirit might give to believers when they are saved.
- He lists some of the gifts, and he (intentionally) lists tongues last:
“To one is given … the word of wisdom, to another … of knowledge …. faith … gifts of healings … the working of miracles … prophecy… various kinds of tongues (and) the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
- He says the Holy Spirit doesn’t give the gift of tongues to every believer. So, it’s not meant as a sign that someone has become a believer or has reached a higher spiritual plane than other believers. He expects a ‘no’ answer to each of his questions:
“Are all apostles? … prophets? … teachers? … workers of miracles? … healings? Do all speak with tongues?
… (or) interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).
- Paul emphasizes that the Holy Spirit distributes these gifts as He wills, not as we will:
“But (the one) … Spirit works … dividing to each “ (1 Corinthians 12:11).
- Paul insists that believers use every gift in an orderly manner. And with tongues, that means not speaking over each other or without someone who can interpret what they’re saying:
“If anyone speaks in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him remain silent in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).
- Paul says speaking unknown tongues in the church is inappropriate because the speaker only edifies himself and not the others around them (1 Corinthians 14:1-20).
There is disagreement among Christians today about whether the gift of tongues is still present. I’ve heard missionaries testify that when they bring the gospel into previously unreached lands, new believers sometimes speak in tongues, and legitimate miracles happen as the Holy Spirit supports the legitimacy of the message of these missionaries.
Assuming these testimonies are true, their testimony fits well with how the Bible presents the purpose of tongues: They are a sign to unbelievers.
What is the Gift of Speaking in Tongues?
- The Holy Spirit enables the speaker to communicate in a language they haven’t learned.
- Tongues was a sign from God to a rebellious people who crucified their Savior, yet if they changed their minds and believed in Jesus, the Lord would save them.
- The Bible first describes it when the Holy Spirit came into the world on the Day of Pentecost.
- Tongues is a miraculous sign intended primarily for unbelievers.
- The Holy Spirit gives gifts, including tongues, to each new believer so they can serve the Church.
- The Holy Spirit sovereignly gives gifts and doesn’t give every believer tongues.
- When believers exercise the gift of tongues in church, they must follow Paul’s rules or keep silent.
- Speaking in tongues is not a sign of salvation or achieving a higher spiritual plane.
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