Friendly note: This blog works best if you read along with Bible in-hand (some of the scripture is printed directly in here, but not all of it, so it would be helpful to have it open when you read. The scripture used here is the English Standard Version [ESV].)
The topic is speaking in tongues—what is it, what is the purpose, and is it still relevant for practice today?
When it comes to instruction on this topic, probably the most comprehensive passage in the New Testament on speaking in tongues is found in 1 Corinthians 14. There are several passages that provide historical accounts of this occurring (Acts 2, Acts 10:34–48, Acts 19:1–10), and it is best to read these not as normative events, but as historical accounts. In other words, we understand these to be true and accurate historical accounts that teach us about how God’s plan for salvation was accomplished in Jesus and through his Holy Spirit. And, we can certainly learn truth about God and about ourselves that can help us grow in wisdom and knowledge of God, but we shouldn’t primarily read these as stories of what we would expect to happen to every Christian. In the same way, as we read of the work of Jesus Christ to accomplish salvation on our behalf, we also read of the work of the Holy Spirit coming powerfully to dwell among God’s people in a way that was unprecedented up to that point in history.
Nevertheless, 1 Corinthians 14 does provide a bit more direct teaching on the topic of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues was shown to be a spiritual gift that certain Christians were given. And it also seems that there were questions and concerns that Paul had in the way that some people in the church at Corinth were practicing this gift.
So we read in 1 Corinthians 14:
1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 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.
The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is shown to be given to some who then speak to God in a unique way (through a different language), and communicates true things to God in prayer.
Then, in verses 3–5 Paul then compared speaking in tongues with prophesy:
3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
Prophecy refers to proclaiming God’s truth to people in a way that they understand God’s word more clearly and directly. With that definition, it also becomes obviously clear why Paul compares the two: speaking in tongues communicates truth of God where others may not understand the words, versus prophesy is communicating truth of God where others can understand the words more clearly.
This shouldn’t give the impression that Paul thought tongues was a bad thing:
5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
In other words, Paul seemed to say that if someone speaks in tongues in public, there should be someone else there who can interpret this. Read verses 6–13 and 26–29 to see how Paul instructed speaking of tongues to be done in a public worship setting.
6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Paul clarified that he didn’t think that speaking in tongues was a bad thing:
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
But, the misuse of this gift was confusing to people, and if the point of the spiritual gifts was to build up the church, then the opposite would be accomplished if no one understood anything that was being said. So, Paul wrote,
19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Now, it gets a little confusing; so, hang in there. Paul wrote:
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.
Paul was likely quoting from Isaiah 28:11, and he seemed to be saying that speaking in tongues was a miraculous sign of the work of God to unbelievers, but prophesying was used by God to build up believers by declaring God’s truth and word to them.
23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
It is a bit confusing because Paul wrote that unbelievers will be turned away by speaking in tongues, but by prophesying believers will be convicted of sin and worship God. So, is speaking in tongues good or not good for unbelievers? Well, it seems that Paul was arguing that for someone to become a believer, he or she must hear and understand the truth of God. Speaking in tongues is intended as a gift from God so that people of all languages can hear and understand the gospel (that is a miracle of God’s grace to the unbeliever for sure!). But, if there are lots of people speaking in tongues, and no one present can understand what is being said (and there is no one to interpret it), then the unbeliever will simply leave without understanding the truth of God. In this situation, having someone prophesying the truth of God would be more beneficial, since the unbelievers would hear and understand the truth of God’s word. It also seems like interpreting the speaking of tongues is a method of prophesying, and therefore if someone did speak in tongues during a worship gathering, it must be interpreted (see verse 27).
All this to say very clearly:
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Whatever happens, it should build up the church, and proclaim the gospel to everyone.
Three final thoughts:
- Speaking in tongues was a real thing that happened, and we read about it in the Bible. It was a miraculous occurrence and a gift of God to be stewarded for his purpose and for his mission.
- Paul cautioned with some restraint on this topic. There was rarely a time when Paul warned Christians against using spiritual gifts, but with this one, he showed quite a bit of caution (no doubt because it was being used improperly—and it should also be noted that when there were people who could teach but were teaching contrary to God’s truth, Paul didn’t hold back any punches!). All this to say, we should not take the word of caution from Paul. Is the gift of tongues still available as a spiritual gift for Christians today? There are differing opinions. Perhaps it is, or perhaps God has chosen to withhold this gift for a period of time. Either way, we should thank God that he gave this gift so that we could hear the gospel in our language, and if God is still utilizing this gift, then it would be stewarded very carefully, in order to honor God above all things. There is not good warrant to argue that all Christians must be able to speak in tongues, nor that he is not a true Christian. That is a misstep and a misuse of this gift from God.
- The primary use of this gift is to glorify God and make his name known among all tribes, tongues, and nations. If we are going to argue about it, at least let us argue as we go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded us. And remember, Jesus left his home in heaven, took on human flesh and came down to live among us; he brought the truth of God to us in a way we could understand it (the most miraculous gift of tongues—Jesus is the image of the invisible God to us!), and he came to rescue us. Let’s tell the world!