The subject of the gift of tongues is one on which there are differing views, and one which has given a good deal of concern to religious groups through the decades. The seeming revival during recent years in many quarters has brought the subject quite prominently before the Christian church in every land. In this article we shall seek to show the Biblical basis for this gift and why it was given.
1. The Saviour's Promise
It is quite clearly expressed in the Word of God that speaking in other tongues would be one of the signs that would be seen in the church. The words of the Saviour Himself are:
"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues" (Mark 16:17).
2. Three Incidents
There are just three incidents recorded in the book of Acts (Acts 2:4, 6, 7; 10:46; 19:6); and it might be mentioned in this connection that—
The apostles and others spake in different tongues.
The people heard in their languages. One would naturally conclude from these scriptures—
That actual living languages were spoken, languages which they had not known before.
That this gift was for the purpose of preaching the gospel (Acts 2:11) and of revealing the wonderful works of God.
Ellen G. White has an excellent note on this. She remarks:
"There were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." During the dispersion, the Jews had been scattered to almost every part of the inhabited world, and in their exile they had learned to speak various languages. Many of these Jews were on this occasion in Jerusalem, attending the religious festivals then in progress. Every known tongue was represented by those assembled. This diversity of languages would have been a great hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel; God therefore in a miraculous manner supplied the deficiency of the apostles. The Holy Spirit did for them that which they could not have accomplished for themselves in a lifetime. They could not proclaim the truths of the gospel abroad, speaking with accuracy the languages of those for whom they were laboring. This miraculous gift was a strong evidence to the world that their commission bore the signet of Heaven. From this time forth the language of the disciples was pure, simple, and accurate, whether they spoke in their native tongue or in a foreign language.—The Arts of the Apostles, pp. 39, 40.
A remarkable thing about the gift these apostles received is that they needed no interpreter. They spoke languages they had never learned and languages which were not given for that occasion only, but apparently given to them permanently. They used them as though they had learned them thoroughly, or as though they were their mother tongue.
It is very evident why this gift was bestowed on the apostles. It was to meet an emergency and also to make an impression at the beginning of the new movement just launched. The manifestation of the gift at Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19:6 was for the same purpose. We read:
They were then baptized in the name of Jesus; and as Paul "laid his hands upon them," they received also the baptism of the Holy Spirit, by which they were enabled to speak the languages of other nations, and to prophesy. Thus they were qualified to labor as missionaries in Ephesus and its vicinity, and also to go forth to proclaim the gospel in Asia Minor.—Ibid., p. 283.
3. The Experience in the Church at Corinth
The Scriptures declare that the "gift of tongues" was one of the gifts of the Spirit. This is recorded in 1 Corinthians 12:10, under the term "divers kinds of tongues."
This was given to the church at large. In its application to the apostles and others, as in Acts 19:6, the gift of a new language needed no interpreter. In its application to the believers, it needed an interpreter, and provision was made for it in the listing of the spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 12:10)—"the interpretation of tongues." This was given as necessity arose.
The gift of the "interpretation of tongues" was so intimately associated with the gift of tongues itself that it took the two to make the work complete—one to speak, the other to interpret. The gift involved two people. Might this not have been one of God's safeguards in the exercise of this gift? One was dependent on the other; one could work only as the other was present. Would not this prevent self-exaltation, spiritual pride, and undue seeking of pre-eminence because of gifts bestowed?
In any case, the gift would be manifested when there was a need. That need was not to comfort or confirm church members (1 Cor. 14:4) but particularly for unbelievers (verse 22). The need would be apparent when it became necessary to give evidence of the God-given character of the new movement, to make the gospel known to people in their own language.
We have but one instance in the New Testament of the twofold gift as mentioned in I Corinthians 12:10 and that is in Corinthians 14.What is provided in 1 Corinthians 12:10, all will agree, I am sure, provided for a pure, sane, and necessary manifestation. But what we have in 1 Corinthians 14 is manifestly a perversion of God's gift, and significantly enough, nowhere in the New Testament do we have even one manifestation of this gift to believers, which needed an interpreter in its pure form. Would this not suggest that its use was not very frequent, and certainly not necessarily essential? Manifestations of other gifts are recorded, but not this.
The only way we can learn what God's purpose in the gift really was is to study 1 Corinthians 14 and seek to ascertain amid Paul's cautions and counsels what we can of God's original intent.
The following matters emerge from such a study:
1. The exercise of the gift was not to cause confusion; everything was to be done orderly and with proper decorum.
2. It was no sign to believers in Christ; it could be, under proper guidance, a sign to unbelievers.
3. Whenever manifested, it was to be accompanied by the interpretation—never without.
Paul is concerned that in all that is done in the church services that the church—
Be edified 1 Cor. 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17.
Be comforted 14:3, 31.
Be exhorted 14:3.
Be instructed 14:31.
Be profited 14:6.
Be blessed 14:16.
Be grateful 14:17.
But speaking in a language no one understands (verses 2, 7, 8, 9, 19)—
Means speaking "into the air" (verse 9). That things are "unfruitful" (verse 14). That people are not "edified" (verse 17).
That visitors will think the speaker is mad (verse 23).
Whether we think of "tongues" as in Acts 2, 10, and 19 or in Corinthians (with interpreter) the following should be borne in mind:
That the gift of tongues is not the most important of the gifts. It is mentioned last in the list of gifts (1 Cor. 12:10), and not referred to at all in the gifts of the Spirit as listed in Ephesians. Furthermore, we can hardly expect God to give us the gift of speaking a new language today, with all the facilities at our command for learning one. It could happen, of course, in a real emergency and for that emergency only, and the man himself possibly be quite unconscious that he had thus spoken.
But counsel has come to us from the servant of the Lord on this aspect of the question:
It may in some cases be necessary that young men learn foreign languages. This they can do with most success by associating with the people, at the same time devoting a portion of each day to studying the language.—Counsels to Parents and Teachers, pp. 515, 516.
The manifestation of the gift in I Corinthians 14 had many drawbacks if there was no interpreter and it seems as though that was the situation the apostle is referring to (see verses 28, 5, 13, 27). The speaker, with no interpreter,
Doesn't speak to men (verse 2).
Doesn't edify the church (verse 4).
None can understand his message (verses 6-12, 16).
None can understand his prayer or song (verses 14, 15).
Unbelievers will think he has lost his mind (verse 23).
Yet with all this, the apostle says, "Forbid not to speak with tongues," but, "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:39, 40).
4. The Sequel
It must be said to the credit of the Corinthian church that they evidently accepted the apostle Paul's counsel. This is apparent from what he wrote to them in 2 Corinthians 7:8-15, for we hear no more of their speaking in tongues.
5. The Gift Is God's to Bestow
The gift of tongues, like any other gift of the Spirit, is not one's prerogative to choose; it is God's to bestow (1 Corinthians 12):
"Diversities of gifts" — "same spirit" (verse 4).
"Differences of administrations"—"same Lord" (verse 5).
"Diversities of operations"—"same God" (verse 6).
"Same God . . . worketh all in all" (verse 6).
"Given [by the Spirit] to every man to profit withal" (verse 7).
"Is given by the Spirit" (verse 8). "Worketh . . . one and the selfsame Spirit" (verse 11).
"Dividing to every man severally as he will" (verse 11).
"God hath set some in the church" (verse 28).
The gifts are one thing; the fruits are another. All do not have the former, but all can have the latter. (See Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 12:31: "A more excellent way." Then read 1 Corinthians 13.) Reception of the Spirit is not dependent on the "gift of tongues." Think of Jesus, of the prophets, of the patriarchs, and of the apostles who did not have it. Another thing we might keep in mind is that—
There is a great work to be done. The world will not be converted by the gift of tongues, or by the working of miracles, but by preaching Christ crucified.—Testimonies to Ministers, p. 424.