4 Need to Know Points when Studying the Gift of Tongues
The theology concerning the gift of tongues is usually viewed as tertiary and, therefore, is sometimes seen as less important to have correct. But, there is a great amount of heresy, deception, and confusion surrounding the subject of tongues, and many people have either been grossly misled out of ignorance, or worse, are deliberately deceiving others for selfish gain. As Christians, we should be aware of this so that we can guard against doctrine that is contrary to what Scripture teaches.
In this article, I have chosen to discuss 4 key points that I think are very important to know about the gift of tongues, why it was given, and how it was used.
1) It is the ability to speak a true language.
The Greek word for “tongue” is glossa and it can either mean, literally, “tongue” (the organ) or “the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.” In Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, those in the upper room began to speak in tongues. Those who were listening heard the truth spoken in their native languages (vs. 6-11). Unfortunately, the gift of tongues is often watered down to mean a spiritual, or prayer language that doesn’t have to be a language spoken by others. This view is extrapolated from a few New Testament verses in 1 Corinthians 14 that are taken out of context and misunderstood.
One of these verses is 1 Corinthians 14:2 which says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” This verse is often taken to mean that these “mysteries in the Spirit” are equivalent to unintelligible gibberish. The meaning of this verse is made clear in light of the chapter as a whole. What Paul is saying here is that if someone is speaking in a language that no one in the church understands, it is a mystery to them because they have no idea what he is saying (1 Corinthians 14:9-11). This brings me to my next point.
2) It should not be done without an interpreter.
This is one of the commands that gets ignored so often. Paul tells the church at Corinth that those who have the gift of tongues should not speak in church if there is no one to interpret (1 Corinthians 14:28). If someone comes to a church where they only speak Greek and, through his gift of tongues, starts speaking in Hebrew, he will not be understood. This is why Paul says that “he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (vs 4). Speaking in a language that no one understands is not profitable.
3) It was meant to be a sign to Israel that the new covenant had come and God’s salvation was offered to the Gentiles.
This was prophesied in the Old Testament, and the Jews knew this day would come. Paul even references this prophecy in Corinthians 14. The original verse is found in Isaiah 28 and says, “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people” (vs 11). In Acts 10, when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit was given to the Gentiles and the same sign of tongues that was given to the disciples at Pentecost was given to them, also. The Jews who were with Peter could not believe that God gave His Spirit to the Gentiles, but Peter replied, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (vs 47). In his sermon entitled “The Gift of Tongues,” John MacArthur says, “The Lord would now speak to all nations in all languages. The barriers were down. And so, the gift of languages symbolized not only the curse of God on a disobedient nation, but also the blessing of God on the whole world.”
4) It is not evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
A common teaching is that believers should pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit and that the only way they know that this baptism has occurred is by their ability to speak in tongues. This view is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, if someone is a true Christian, he or she has already been baptized by the Holy Spirit and placed into the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:13 tells us that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The filling of the Holy Spirit, however, is something that should happen over and over again in the life of the Christian.
We see believers in Scripture be filled with the Holy Spirit numerous times, and Paul urges us to do the same (Ephesians 5:18). Being filled with the Holy Spirit simply means walking in obedience to Christ. MacArthur says, “When you’re filled with the Spirit of God, it means that you have yielded to the total dominance of the Spirit in your life.” There were a few instances in Scripture when the filling of the Spirit led to believers speaking in tongues (Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 19). However, we are never told that speaking in tongues is the only sign of being filled with the Spirit. In Ephesians 5, we see actions like a husband loving his wife, a wife submitting to her husband, children obeying their parents, Christians lifting each other up with spiritual songs and submitting to one another in humility, as the result of being filled with the Spirit.
What we see today from many charismatic churches and organizations is not the true and Biblical gift of tongues. It is often a self-glorifying heresy that is leading many people to believe they are experiencing a manifestation of the Spirit, when in reality, they are experiencing something far different. Whether you are a cessationist or a continuationist, we must be diligent to guard against false representations of the gift of tongues and to test all claims against the true and authentic gift found in Scripture.