Sign Gifts - Gift of Tongues




This study seeks to explore the “sign” or “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit as they are recorded in the Bible. In doing so we hope to learn what these gifts are, how they are used, and if they continue to be practiced today. To accomplish this goal, we must turn to the only source of authority on this matter, the Bible. This will be essential if we are to arrive at a biblical understanding of spiritual gifts in a time where there is much confusion and controversy over this matter. Since God is the One who gives and empowers these gifts, God has the final say in all matters relating to spiritual gifts. In doing so, we avoid the misdirection that often comes when Scriptural teaching is replaced with human wisdom, opinion, emotions, desires, and experiences. 

It should be noted that it is not our intent in this portion of our study to determine the purpose or duration of these gifts. Our goal is to simply identify the gifts and observe how they functioned in New Testament times. We will deal with purpose and duration of the gifts at a later time. In this segment we will be looking at the gifts of Tongues and Interpretation (1 Cor. 12:10).

1) Tongues (Acts 2:3, 4, 11; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28-30; 13:1, 8; 14:5, 6, 18-23, 39): To understand this gift we must go back to the original languages to discern the meaning of the term “tongues.” The term “tongues” comes from the Greek word “glossa” which has only two possible meanings. It is used about 4-5 times of the organ of the mouth used to speak a language. This usage can be seen in James 3:2ff as James speaks of it as being the hardest organ of the body to control. Secondly and almost universally, it is used of spoken human language. With this in mind it might be better to call this gift “spoken languages” or “spoken human languages” as this better reflects the nature of the gift.

The miracle of this gift is seen in the results of the words spoken not in their expression. By this I mean that the one who had the gift of languages communicated his thoughts into words which were transformed by the power of the Spirit into other languages the speaker did not know. Therefore, the disciples thought in Aramaic but when they verbalized their thoughts the man from Greece heard Greek, the man from Rome heard Latin, the one from Egypt heard Egyptian and so forth. In fact the phrase “everyone heard them in their own language” literally means their own “dialect.” To put this in modern terms, if we had been there, those from the US would have heard English however the man from Texas would have heard it as he speaks it, the New Englander as he speaks it and the man from the Midwest as he speaks it. This is what caused the great stir as the people could not understand how each one heard a different language even though only one person was speaking. For those into “sci-fi” Star Trek and Star Wars, we would say that the Holy Spirit’s work was like a universal translator. 

Acts 2:3-12, “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, "Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God." So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "Whatever could this mean?" NKJV

This is the only passage given in which the practice of “tongues” is actually described. In all other scriptural references we find only the record of the use of the gift or the record of the regulation of the gift. With this being the case, we assume that the practice as recorded in Acts 2 represents the practice of “tongues” throughout the New Testament.

I bring this point up because most of the current “practice of speaking in tongues” does not reflect the practice as recorded in Acts 2. The modern practice usually is composed of a smattering of random and often repeated sounds which make no sense in any human language. Many linguists who have studied this modern phenomenon have all concluded that it is not human language but mere gibberish. In response to this observation, those who practice tongues have determined that the gift of Acts 2 is a different gift from that practiced in Church. One gift was used for evangelism and the other for edification. To explain the absence of human language they have argued that the gift as practiced in the Church involves speaking in the language of heaven or more specifically, the language of angels. They turn to several passages to try to prove this fact.

1 Cor. 13:1: Paul declares that “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love I have become a sounding brass or a clanging symbol” NKJV. Their premise is that Paul indicated that tongues could be manifested in both a human and heavenly language. However, Paul is not saying that tongues ever involved the language of angels. In fact, he is saying just the opposite. The reference to the language of angels is a hyperbole or exaggeration to drive home the importance love in the exercise of all spiritual gifts. This is made clearer in verse two where he says if he “could understand all mysteries and have all knowledge and had the faith to a mountain.” No one has ever known all mysteries, had all knowledge or ever moved a literal mountain by faith. Paul’s point was to exaggerate or add to the extent of these gifts to show that no matter how great or miraculous they may be, a part from love they are valueless before God and to man.

Acts 2:4: the reference to “other tongues” is not a reference to non human dialect for the context clearly indicates that “others” is speaking of “other human languages.” 

1 Cor. 12:10, 28: used as proof of heavenly languages when “tongues” are described by “kinds” or “diversities” of tongues. However the Greek word “kinds” in all its meanings refers to that which is of humanity thus Paul is speaking of the speaking of various human languages. 

1 Cor. 14:21 is appealed too as it speaks of “other tongues” however the rendering of this word has only one meaning and that being “other human languages.”

So as we speak of tongues, let us note that as it is practiced in the New Testament Church, it is the ability to be heard in a dialect or language other than what one is thinks or knows. What a marvelous evangelistic gift this would be today for those who go to a mission fields that speaks a language unknown by the missionary. With out language classes, he would be able to immediately be able to communicate to the natives the gospel and the truths of Scripture without knowledge of their language. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any use of the gift of tongues in this manner today.

I indicated earlier that Acts 2 the only description of the practice of tongues however there are a few other facts we can learn about their use that should be noted at this time. In 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul seeks to correct the misuse of spiritual gifts by giving some guide lines as to how they were to be practiced. From these guide lines we draw some conclusions about the practice of the gift of tongues or languages as given in the New Testament.

A) The gift of tongues was not given to everyone. This is a common mistake because the account of the first use of the gift of tongues (Acts 2) gives the indication that all spoke in tongues after receiving the Holy Spirit. However an examination of 1 Cor. 12 indicates differently.

1 Cor 12:4-11, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.” NKJV

1 Cor 12:28-31, “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” NKJV

1 Cor. 14:5, “I wish (desire not a command – literally, I wish you all could speak) you all spoke in tongues, but even more, that you all prophesy (preach).”

In verses 4-11 God indicates that God individualizes gifts, not giving any two individuals the same type and portion of gifts. Some get tongues, others get healings, others faith and so forth. Likewise, in verses 28-31, Paul asks a series of questions which the Greek grammar demands the reader to answer “no” with each question. Thus he writes “do all speak in tongues” and he expects his readers to answer, “of course not.” Therefore it is clear that tongues as a gift of the Spirit is not intended for every believer.

B) The gift of tongues is not the sign of the filling or baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a believer’s life but not the sign. By this I mean that the exercise of any gift of the Holy Spirit is evidence that an individual has been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ at salvation. Likewise, though filling is associated with speaking in tongues in Acts yet it does not have to be associated to any one gift. This is substantiated by two facts.

i) #1: Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 12:12-13, that all who are saved have been baptized by the Spirit into one body. In other words one can not be saved without being baptized by the Spirit. Since Paul indicated earlier in the same chapter (4-11) that not everyone speaks in tongues but everyone is baptized regardless of their gift, than it must be concluded that tongues are not the necessary evidence of the Baptism of the Spirit.


ii) #2: Paul commands believers to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). At this point we need to understand that “filling” means nothing more than “control.” For Paul to command believers to be filled with the Spirit indicates the responsibility lies with the believer rather than the Spirit. In essence the believer is called upon to yield control of his life to the Holy Spirit. Likewise the tense of the verb “fill” indicates that this filling is to be on an ongoing process on the part of the believer until his faith is completed. Therefore we can not make filling a special work of the Holy Spirit in which the believer is raised to a higher spiritual plain resulting in tongues speaking. We also can not make it synonymous with the Spirit’s work of baptizing believer’s into the body of Christ at salvation. To put it another way, baptism is a one time event that places the sinner into the saving work of Jesus Christ whereas filling is an on going, day by day effort on the part of the Saint. 

The mistake has too often been made that because speaking in tongues is associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6 that tongues must be the proof of the baptism of the Spirit in all believers. There are many conversions described in the NT where no tongues are present. Since the baptism of the Spirit is what places all believers into the body of Christ but not all believers speak in tongues, we must conclude that tongues is not necessary for the Baptism of the Spirit or always a part of the Filling of the Spirit.

C) The gift of tongues is under the control of the believer to whom it has been given. It has often been claimed that speaking in tongues is not under the control of the believer so therefore whenever the Spirit comes upon him, he must speak in tongues. The truth is just the opposite. In 1 Cor. 14:27-28 Paul gives the following rules regarding speaking in tongues in a church service. Since these are commands this indicates that the gift must be under the control of the one who seeks to speak in tongues.

i) No more than 2 or 3 may speak in tongues in any given service (27)

ii) Those speaking in tongues are to take turns – in other words no more than one at a time speaking in tongues (27)

iii) No speaking in tongues unless there is someone present who can interpret it so all can be edified through it (28)

D) The gift of tongues is a lesser gift. Too often the gift of tongues is given a prominence or priority never afforded it by God. This can be seen in the writings of Paul

i) One who speaks in tongues edifies only himself but one who prophecies edifies the church (1 Cor. 14:4)

ii) Greater is the one who prophecies than the one who speaks in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5)

iii) Paul would rather speak five words that the people understand than to speak10,000 words in a tongue (1 Cor. 14:19)

iv) In the two lists of gifts given (1 Cor. 28-30) Paul begins with the greater gifts and ends with the lesser gift, that being tongues.

E) The gift of tongues does not have to be learned nor have instruction given to enable the believer to begin exercising his/her gift. Acts 2:4 tells us that once they received the Holy Spirit they began to speak in tongues. There is no training session or set of instructions to be followed nor are there any given anywhere in the New Testament. If speaking in tongues must be learned through training or instruction then we must conclude that what is taking place is not of God.

2) Interpretation of Tongues (1 Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:5, 13, 26-27). I include mention of this gift at the end of this segment only because it is interconnected with the gift of tongues. It would appear that tongues though heard and understood by all the hearers in Acts 2, yet at this point in the development of the New Testament Church there were times when the speaker would speak in tongues or languages not understood by anyone present. I was at first puzzled as to why there might not be anyone present that could understand what was being said and why a gift was needed to interpret. However, I believe the answer is found in 1 Cor. 14:21-22. Paul ties the gift of speaking in tongues with the prophecies given specifically to the Jewish people (Isa. 28:11-12). The gift of tongues was to be a sign to the unbelieving Jews of the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, their Messiah. Paul had alluded to this previous in 1 Cor. 1:22 where he writes that “the Jews seek a sign.” I believe that the ones to whom this gift was aimed were the unbelieving of Israel and only an unbelieving Jew would hear the gift of tongues in his own dialect. Therefore if some one got up in Church and spoke in tongues without an unbelieving Jews present, no one would know what he had said and thus it was a fruitless exercise to all present (1 Cor. 14:5-19, 26-27) unless someone could interpret his words for all to understand.
To bring this to a conclusion, without dealing with the issue of the duration of the gift of tongues, we have learned much about the gift of tongues and interpretation that should govern every church and believer who claims that tongues are still viable for the present church age. If they are going to practice the gift of tongues in a Scriptural manner they should take note of the following.

A) Tongues must be a human language.

B) Tongues are not intended for all believers.

C) Tongues are not a manifestation of the Baptism of the Spirit or the Filling of the Spirit.

D) Tongues are under the control of the believer and as such there should be no more than two or three tongues speakers in any service, each taking their turn separately, and never if there is no interpreter present.

E) Tongues are to be considered a lesser gift finding its way to the later part of the lists of spiritual gifts.

F) Tongues are a gift from God and do not need to be learned to use them.

G) Tongues are only understood by those who are unbelieving Jews or are have the gift of interpretation.

I believe if these rules were followed by tongues speakers today, better than 95+% of the practice of tongues would cease.