Speaking in Tongues
Few subjects have been the subject of as much disagreement and division in the modern Church as the subject of speaking in tongues. Not only is there debate within Christian circles about whether speaking in tongues is valid, but there are also vastly differing views on the nature, purpose, and proper use of speaking in tongues.
Many have been taught that it is required for salvation. Many others say that while it is not required for salvation, it is the only way to know for sure whether one is in fact “saved.” Some believe that it is for praying perfectly and bypassing the mind, while others believe it is meant for a sign. Some believe it is the most important of the gifts, while others believe that its importance has been exaggerated and over-estimated. Some believe that additional external manifestations such as falling down (called being “slain in the spirit”), making animal noises, laughing, etc., can be expected to accompany speaking in tongues, while others follow Paul’s exhortation to do all things “decently and in order.” And of course, some believe that it ceased after the first century, while others believe that its “revival” is a sign that we are in the “end times.”
Most everyone with a view or opinion about it claims they are following the Scriptures, yet they cannot all be right. These articles present an attempt to sort out the confusion, as God is not the author of confusion. (It is ironic that there is so much confusion surrounding what is thought to be a wonderful gift from God.)
Above all, we must be careful not to attach so much emotion to the subject that we are blinded to the Scriptures. We must also avoid basing our beliefs on what we have experienced. After all, we are warned in Scripture that supernatural signs and wonders can be counterfeited (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22; II Thessalonians 2:9). Paul and the other Apostles worked great miracles in corroboration of the message they preached. But that wasn’t enough to convince the Bereans. They still searched the Scriptures to see whether those things were so. We are to test spiritual matters against the Bible (I John 4:1), and to prove all things, holding onto what is good and letting go of what is not (I Thessalonians 5:21).
A Study of I Corinthians 12
The words of Paul in I Corinthians 12 have been misunderstood and misinterpreted when it comes to “speaking in tongues.” The last five verses clearly say that not everyone spoke in tongues. Not everyone had that gift. But in the organization I was involved with for many years, this clear statement of Paul was gotten around by means of a couple of “explanations.” First, it was stated that the context was speaking of a church meeting, and so not everyone would speak in tongues in the meeting. “If they did, you’d never get home,” said our teacher. The problem with this is that the context of the chapter is clearly talking about members in the body of Christ as a whole, and their various functions, not a church meeting. Besides, tongues is not the only thing mentioned in this section. That same explanation cannot be applied to apostles, or workers of miracles. Nobody in our meetings ever said, “Someone please stand and work a miracle,” or “please stand and raise the dead.”
Another explanation, still frequently used, is that everyone who is born again has the ability to operate all nine manifestations (gifts), but not everyone does, depending on their willingness or their believing. According to this explanation, different people have different adeptness, different “long suits” in one or more “manifestations.” But they really could (and should) operate “all nine all the time.” The basis of this was the result of misinterpreting the earlier part of the chapter, especially verses 4-11. Verses 4 to 6 speak of varieties of gifts, ministries, and effects (gifts, administrations, and operations in the KJV). Then verse 7 begins with “but.” It was said that this set in contrast what follows with what came before. Thus manifestations were different from gifts. The gift, we were taught, is the holy spirit, and the nine things listed in the following verses were manifestations of that gift.
The word for “but” in verse 7, however, is not the word alla, which marks a strong contrast. It is de, which is used to mark a transition between phrases, or a contrast that is not a strong one. It can also be translated “and,” “thus,” “now,” or “moreover.” The next verses list ways in which the spirit is manifested, but there is nothing to indicate that they are not gifts. They are all gifts, listed in no particular order, and when compared with other lists of gifts (Romans 12:4-8; I Corinthians 12:27-31; Ephesians 4:7-13; I Peter 4:10-11), it can be seen that these nine are gifts, but not an exhaustive list. In addition, verse 7 speaks of “the manifestation of the spirit,” not “manifestationS.” It means evidence, or showing forth. There are many varieties of gifts, ministries, and effects, but the same spirit energizes them; thus the manifestation or evidence of the spirit is given to each one for the common good, and the nine things listed are examples.
I Corinthians 12:
8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. [see NASB]
I was once taught that the word “to” in verse 8 should be “for” according to the Greek (the previous word "for" being in the sense of "because"), and that “one” meant “one profit,” so that these verses should read: “Because for one profit is given the word of wisdom, and for another [profit] the word of knowledge...” However, the Greek does not give even a hint of evidence for such a grand mistranslation, and many followers or former followers have rightly given up this explanation.
However, many of them still maintain that anyone who is born again has the ability to operate all nine of these gifts. Verse 11 says they are distributed to each individual as “he” wills. I was taught that “he” referred to the one who receives the gift, thus indicating that what manifestations one operates is up to one’s own will. But regardless of how you interpret the “he” in verse 11, verses 18 and 28 still clearly state that God has put the members of the body where He wants them.
I Corinthians 12:
18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. [see NASB]
A person’s gift determines his function in the body. Verses 12-26 compare the Church with the human body. The foot doesn’t say it’s not a part of the body because it’s not a hand. The ear doesn’t say it’s not a part of the body because it’s not an eye. Each member has a particular function, and is placed in the body to perform it. But notice what this passage does not say. It does not say that every part of the body has the ability to be any other part. It doesn’t say that the eye is not an ear but it could be if it wanted to, or that the foot could be a hand if it wanted to. Nor does it say that every part of the body should aspire to do all functions. Every member has its own function which is determined by God.
Furthermore, verses 7-11 clearly state that to one is given a gift, and to another is given another gift. Different gifts are given to different people. If a gift is not given to you, you don’t have it! This is another proof that verse 11 can’t mean “As the person wills.”
I Corinthians 12:
27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. [see NASB]
The whole notion that all believers have the ability to operate all the gifts has been read into this and other passages, but there is no Scriptural basis for it. One of the reasons for reading it into the Scripture is the misunderstanding of what the holy spirit is. In the Bible, it is the presence and power of God, or the risen Jesus, at work in people or events. This is in contrast to the “new birth spirit” or the “incorruptible seed” that is now a part of the believer, as I and many others were taught. I cover this in detail in the articles, The Three Parts of Man Fallacy and The Holy Spirit of God. Next I will deal with what the purpose of tongues in the first century was, and whether or not it was intended to be a “private prayer language.”
What It Is Not
In considering whether the modern phenomenon of speaking in tongues is in fact the same as the New Testament gift, we must examine the Scriptural evidence and observe what the purpose of New Testament tongues was. As we examine the Scriptures we will see that “tongues” was a sign energized by the holy spirit which confirmed and corroborated the Gospel message being preached.
Contrary to this understanding, I was taught, as many are, that speaking in tongues was to be a personal prayer language to be used in one’s private prayer life. In fact I was taught that the Bible lists 11 things that speaking in tongues is good for. Several verses in this list were misunderstood because they were taken out of context, and some did not even say what the list claimed they said. The following is the list of what speaking in tongues was said to be for:
1. To edify you – I Corinthians 14:4, Jude 20.
2. To speak to God divine secrets – I Corinthians 14:2.
3. To speak the wonderful works of God – Acts 2:11.
4. To magnify God – Acts 10:46.
5. To pray perfectly – Romans 8:26, 27.
6. To give thanks well – I Corinthians 14:17.
7. To have the spirit bearing witness with our spirit – Romans 8:16.
8. To know you are a joint-heir with Christ – Romans 8:17.
9. To strengthen you with might in your inner man – Ephesians 3:16.
10. To be a sign to unbelievers – I Corinthians 14:22; Mark 16:17.
11. Rest to the soul – Isaiah 28:11,12; I Corinthians 14:21.
Plus, it was said to have an additional purpose when interpreted:
To bring a message from God or for God to the people – I Corinthians 14:5, 13, 27, 28
Paul does mention that when someone spoke in tongues they edified themselves (although Jude 20 doesn’t mention speaking in tongues). He also said that one who spoke in tongues spoke to God divine secrets (mysteries), and gave thanks well, and in Acts they were said to speak the wonderful works of God, and magnify God. But these references ignore the context that clearly teaches that the gift is of no profit unless it’s interpreted. We will deal with these below.
However several verses were referenced which don’t even mention speaking in tongues. Two of them were Romans 8:16 and 17. It was said that the benefits of speaking in tongues included having the spirit bear witness with our spirit, and providing proof that we are joint-heirs with Christ. However these verses say nothing about speaking in tongues. Verse 14 speaks of being led by the spirit of God, which works in many different ways. This working of the spirit is what bears witness to the fact that we are children of God.
Another one in Romans 8 is verse 26: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” This was claimed to be a reference to speaking in tongues, which enabled us to pray perfectly without our minds getting in the way. But how can “groanings which cannot be uttered” be referring to speaking in tongues, if speaking in tongues consists of “utterances”? The NASB renders it as, “groanings too deep for words.” But speaking in tongues consists of words, albeit words we don’t understand. That can’t be what this verse is talking about.
Yet another one was Ephesians 3:16: “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” Certainly the holy spirit of God strengthens us with power, but again, this verse says nothing about speaking in tongues.
Another misquotation was that speaking in tongues was rest to the soul. This was arrived at by combining I Corinthians 14:21 with Isaiah 28:11-12, which is quoted in that verse. Isaiah reads, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing…” But what they failed to include was the rest of verse 12. It says, “To whom he said, This is the rest…yet they would not hear.” The passage was not saying that speaking in tongues would be rest to the soul. It was saying that his people would be spoken to through foreign languages because they would not listen to Him in their own language. This was initially fulfilled when Israel was taken captive to foreign lands, but just as Isaiah said this before, Paul says in his time that tongues were a sign to unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:22). Far from being “rest to the soul,” it was a sign of judgment to unbelieving Israel.
This is in fact the key to the purpose of the gift of tongues in the first century. It was a demonstrable sign to all those present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In Samaria (Acts 8) after the Apostles laid hands on those who had not received before, Simon “saw” that the holy spirit was given. He saw it by way of “signs and great miracles” (v. 13) which includes gifts of the spirit (Hebrews 2:3-4), including — but not limited to — speaking in tongues. In Acts 10, it was a sign that the Gentiles had received the holy spirit. Were it not for this sign, the disciples would never have believed that the Gentiles could be fully included. And finally, in Acts 19, after Paul had expounded the superiority of baptism in Jesus’ name over John’s baptism, speaking in tongues was again a sign that they had received the holy spirit, confirming the message that Paul had taught them.
In every reference in the book of Acts to speaking in tongues, it was done in public and was clearly a sign that the holy spirit was in operation, as corroboration of the message being preached. Nowhere do we read of it being used in personal, private prayer, as many have so wrongly been taught. If one speaks publicly in a language he has not learned, those who hear it and understand the language can testify that it is indeed a supernatural sign. But if one speaks in such a language in private, since he does not understand it and no one else hears it, there is no proof that it is indeed an unlearned language, and therefore it does not function as a sign.
A Study of I Corinthians 14
When Paul writes about speaking in tongues in I Corinthians 12-14, it is often assumed that he is somehow speaking of a different kind of speaking in tongues from what we read about in Acts, or at least a different usage of it. But I Corinthians 14:22 clearly states that “tongues are for a sign.” There is no Scripture that when correctly understood teaches that the gift of tongues was for anything other than a sign. Nevertheless, I Corinthians 14 has a number of verses that have been misunderstood and misinterpreted as saying that it was meant to be a personal prayer language to be used in private prayer.
I Corinthians 14:
2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. [see NASB]
Many read about speaking to God divine mysteries (or secrets) and think what a wonderful experience that must be. But Paul is not saying that it is something they should aspire to, but rather that they should prophesy, so that the Church may be blessed. When someone spoke in tongues, the words they spoke may have been speaking divine secrets, but what good did it do the person speaking or anyone else if it was in a language they didn’t understand?
We then read in verse 4, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself…” (Edify simply means to build up.) I was taught that this was, in fact, one of the primary reasons for speaking in tongues. It was said that speaking in tongues edified or built up “our holy spirit.” This terminology was the source of a great deal of confusion, and it simply is not found in the Bible.
I was taught that “The Holy Spirit” was another name for God, and that “holy spirit” (lower case h and s) was God’s gift to us, and was now “our spirit,” one of the three parts of man (spirit, soul, and body). But this actually finds no Scriptural foundation, and the gift of the holy spirit is never called “my spirit” or “his spirit” referring to the one who received it. It is the spirit of God or the spirit of Christ, at work in and through believers and in various situations, which is given as a gift. (See a detailed study of this in the articles on The Three Parts of Man Fallacy and The Holy Spirit of God.) When someone in the Bible spoke of “his spirit” it referred to his human spirit, the spirit of man, the innermost part of his being. This will become particularly significant when we get to verse 14 where Paul says that his spirit prays (see below).
I Corinthians 14:
4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. [see NASB]
Based on verse 4, it was said that we should aim for self-edification in private, while in public Church meetings we are to seek to edify the Church. But if speaking in tongues were for building oneself up, why would he only mention it in the context of not doing it, but rather edifying others? Why would there be no other section of Scripture that explicitly told us to build ourselves up by speaking in tongues in our personal prayer lives?
Jude 20 refers to “building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost.” But that verse does not mention speaking in tongues; it has been read into it. To pray in the holy spirit is to pray as led by the spirit. This is how we build ourselves up. This could include speaking in tongues as well as prayer with one’s understanding, as Paul refers to it as “praying in a tongue” (vs. 14-17). But he emphatically states that it is unfruitful, and of no profit, unless interpreted.
Nevertheless verse 4 (as well as Jude 20) does speak of edifying or building up oneself. Note it does not say building up one’s holy spirit. Why would the spirit of God even need to be built up? Is God’s spirit not complete? I was taught that it was like a seed that needed to be nurtured and grown. But the Bible does not teach this. Furthermore, presumably this building up in the spirit would be something that everyone needed, so why wouldn’t everyone be told to speak in tongues? But we saw that chapter 12 clearly states that not everyone had the same gifts, thus not everyone spoke in tongues.
Still, while he doesn’t say that it “edifies our spirit,” Paul does say that whenever someone spoke in tongues, it edified them, or built them up in some way. So does that mean that we should speak in tongues to edify ourselves as long as it’s not in public? This is what is assumed by many, but it does not say that. The act of speaking in tongues in its proper usage (as a sign) was not without benefit to the speaker, since the holy spirit was energizing him and working through him to produce this supernatural sign. But Paul is quick to add the contrast – he that speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he that prophesies edifies the church. Unless it’s interpreted, speaking in tongues benefits the speaker only, but prophecy benefits the speaker and the Church. Thus we are exhorted to edify the Church, not just ourselves.
Verse 5 of chapter 14 says, “I would that ye all spake with tongues …” and we nearly always stopped there and left off the rest of the verse, “…but rather that ye prophesied.” We were always told that this verse said God wants everyone to speak in tongues. But Paul did not contradict his earlier assertion that not all believers speak in tongues (12:30). The word for “would” is “wish” or “desire” in other versions. It’s the Greek word thelo, which sometimes expresses the intention of the will, but other times expresses merely a desire for a state of affairs with no indication of divine will or even that such a state of affairs was possible. (Compare his wish in I Corinthians 7:7 that “all men were even as I myself,” that is, unmarried and undistracted. He knows it won’t actually happen, since he says, “But every man hath his proper gift of God.”)
Paul wished that they all spoke in tongues, but even more that they prophesied. He didn’t wish they all spoke in tongues because it was a wonderful gift that everyone should have and use. He wished it because in its place and proper usage as a sign it had its value, but again he is quick to add that he wished even more that they prophesied, since without interpretation the gift of tongues was fruitless. But he was not saying that either he or God wanted everyone to speak in tongues, for that would contradict 12:30 (all do not speak in tongues).
Verse 5 goes on to say, “…greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.” Yet nearly every Christian who believes in speaking in tongues magnifies that gift above prophecy and the other gifts. And that might be reasonable if indeed its purpose was to build up our spirit and pray perfectly. But again, such self-edification was never the point or purpose of the gift, nor is there any passage of Scripture that suggests that.
He then goes on in verses 6-11 to elaborate how and why speaking in a language unknown to the hearers is of no benefit. He exhorts them therefore (v. 12) to seek to excel to the edifying of the church, rather than to excel to self-edification. This is in line with his previous statements, “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” (I Corinthians 12:31; the more excellent way being the way of love described in chapter 13). “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” (I Corinthians 14:1). The whole thrust of these three chapters is that the gifts are to be other-oriented, not self-oriented.
I Corinthians 14:
Verse 13 begins with “wherefore” meaning that what was just said is the reason for the next statement. Paul commands the Corinthians to seek to abound to the edifying of the Church, and for that reason the tongues-gifted person is commanded to pray to interpret, so that the Church understands and is edified. Why would Paul say this if it was intended as a private prayer language? Thus the gift of languages was never to remain permanently non-public. It was to go public, and was to be interpreted so that all might know what was being said. That tongues always required interpretation in the Church was Paul’s point. I was taught, though, that interpretation of tongues was required in the Church, but speaking in tongues without interpretation was desirable in private. But where did this idea come from? Paul never says it in his entire treatise on the gifts of the spirit (chapters 12-14), and there is no other passage anywhere in Scripture that says such a thing.
We saw above that the gift of the holy spirit is never called “my spirit” or “his spirit” referring to the one who received it. Verse 2 in the NASB says “in his spirit” but most other English versions translate it “in the spirit.” When Romans 8:16 spoke of “The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit” it was thought to mean that The Spirit [God] bears witness with our gift of holy spirit. But we saw that that is not what the phrase “our spirit” means. It means our human spirit, the spirit of man, the innermost part of our being. The Spirit of God bears witness with our human spirit. Similarly, in I Corinthians 14:14 Paul refers to his spirit praying.
I Corinthians 14:
14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. [see NASB]
Paul said if he prays in a tongue, his human spirit – his innermost being – prays, but his mind is unfruitful. Prayer of any kind is to come from the heart. When one spoke in tongues, he was praying from the depths of his spirit, but doing so in an unlearned language meant his mind was unfruitful. I was taught that “my holy spirit” was the perfect part of me and when that spirit prayed, it bypassed the mind and thus was perfect prayer and perfect praise to God. However the phrases “perfect prayer” and “perfect praise” appear nowhere in the Bible. God wants us to pray with our hearts and our minds. He wants our entire being, not just a part of us.
Verse 15 was interpreted as saying that we can pray with the spirit in private or we can pray with the understanding in the church. But notice it doesn’t say “or.” It isn’t saying we have two options — praying with the spirit or with the mind. It’s saying we pray not only with the spirit but with the mind also, as opposed to speaking in tongues, which was praying with the spirit only and not with the mind. “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” Proof that this is what the passage is referring to is in the next verse: “Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?” In this case, blessing or praying “with the spirit” is defined as speaking in tongues, that is, in a language unknown to the hearers. (The NASB puts it, “Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only…”) Nowhere does Paul ever say that praying with the spirit only and not also with the mind is something we should do, in public or in private.
He says “For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified” in verse 17, but again he doesn’t say that that makes it desirable as long as it’s in private. The words that one spoke in tongues were not without meaning. They spoke mysteries (I Corinthians 14:2), they spoke the wonderful works of God (Acts 2:11), they magnified God (Acts 10:46). So they gave thanks well enough in another language, but the person who does not understand the language doesn’t understand the prayer of thanksgiving and is not edified, so it’s of no profit.
Paul thanked God he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians (v. 18). I was taught that he did it so much that he was built up spiritually more than they were. But if that were the case, wouldn’t this be akin to boasting? It sounds dangerously close to the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prayed, “God, I thank thee, that I am not like other men are … or even this publican” (Luke 18:11). On the contrary, Paul was thanking God that he had many opportunities to reach out to people with preaching and “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Corinthians 2:4). But once again he was quick to add that in the Church he would rather speak but a few words in their language than many in an unknown language.
Notice, by the way, that speaking in tongues was not for the purpose of preaching the gospel in another language, as some have thought. Some in later years even tried to go to foreign countries and preach without knowing the language. They failed miserably. On the day of Pentecost, the speaking in tongues was a wondrous sign that corroborated the message, but Peter preached the gospel in his own language.
Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12 in verse 21, as mentioned above, and concludes in verse 22 that tongues were a sign to unbelievers, while prophecy was a sign to believers. This was the whole purpose of tongues in the first-century church. God never intended tongues to go uninterpreted, for unless someone was present who understood the language, no one understood what was said, and there was no proof that it was a real language, and therefore it did not function as a sign to anyone. The same is true today. Someone speaking strange syllables may sound as if they are speaking in an unknown language, but unless there is someone there to hear it and testify that it is an actual language, there is no proof and therefore it is not a valid sign to anyone.
In verses 23 and following, Paul points out that if everyone in the meeting were speaking in tongues and unlearned people came in, they would think the Church was mad. In the organization with which I was involved, we took this to heart and prided ourselves in not “misusing” the gift like so many others did, but did it “decently and in order.” But we were still misusing it the same way others did when we promoted it for private prayer and self-edification.
Paul taught the Corinthians that when they assembled they were to limit tongues to two or three, and “let one interpret” (v. 27). I was taught that the word for “one” meant “that same one” but the Greek does not support that. It is simply the number “one.” It would not make sense to say that two or three should speak in tongues and “that same one” should interpret. Which “same one” would it be referring to? However, the one who interprets could be the one who spoke in tongues, as Paul said that a person who spoke in tongues should “pray that he may interpret” (v. 13).
I was also taught that “if there be no interpreter” in v. 28 actually meant “if he lacks the will to interpret,” because it was like saying “if he is not an interpreter.” But the Greek does not support that either. It is simply the normal Greek phrase “there is no” plus the word “interpreter.” The verse goes on to say that if there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep silent and speak to himself and to God. This was thought to mean he should just speak in tongues silently to himself, but it doesn’t say that. It only says speak silently to himself and to God.
We kept trying to insert references to speaking in tongues privately, but the entire context of Paul’s treatise says nothing about it. The gift was always for edifying others, not for self-edification. Plus, not everyone was given that gift, contrary to what many still teach today. When it is falsely taught and expected that everyone should speak in tongues, the possibility of self-deception is very great. We must test the spirits (I John 4:1), and prove all things, holding fast to what is good (I Thessalonians 5:21).
So far we have looked at why tongues was a gift, one of several that manifested God’s Holy Spirit, and not every Christian received all gifts; therefore not every believer spoke in tongues in the First Century Church. We have also seen that the purpose of it was to be a sign to unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:22), thus confirming the message being preached. Once the message is established, such confirmation is no longer needed, so it is only natural that it would not be a permanent thing, and Paul tells us this in I Corinthians 13.
I Corinthians 13:
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. [see NASB]
Paul said that tongues would cease at some point, but this section of I Corinthians 13 has been the source of some debate about when it would cease. Tongues advocates say that it will be when the Lord returns, since they say his return is when “that which is perfect” comes and the partial is done away. On the other hand, many cessationists (those who believe that the gift of tongues ceased) say it refers to the completion of the New Testament. They point out that the word in Greek for “that which is perfect” (literally, “the perfect”) is neuter, implying an inanimate thing, rather than masculine, which it would be if it referred to Christ. They point out that it does not say, “When he who is perfect comes.” However, “the perfect” could just as easily refer to the perfect state of affairs that will come to pass at the Parousia (Christ's second coming).
But the important thing to understand is that Paul says nothing here about tongues continuing or not continuing until the Parousia, although many think he does. First of all, the main focus of the whole chapter is the supremacy of love, not the gifts and when they would cease. Secondly, if you read it carefully, you see that although he says in verse 8 that prophecy will be done away, tongues will cease, and knowledge will be done away, in verses 9-10 he mentions only knowledge and prophecy. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” Therefore whether one interprets “that which is perfect” as the completed New Testament or the return of Christ, it still doesn't say that tongues will or will not cease until then.
Then the rest of the chapter continues the theme of the supremacy of love, and doesn't mention the gifts at all. It only speaks of the superiority of seeing face to face over seeing in a mirror, and of knowing as we are known over knowing in part. So this whole passage, so often cited in the debate over tongues, neither proves nor disproves when tongues would cease. It is clear that Paul said they would cease at some point, but the point of I Corinthians 13 was not to foretell when.
Other than a brief reference in Mark 16, the gift of languages is only spoken of in Acts and I Corinthians. It is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Neither Paul, in his later epistles, nor James, Peter, John, and Jude make any mention at all of speaking in tongues. Surely if it were a major tool to be used for our benefit as so many Pentecostals and Charismatics claim, there would be more instruction about it than just the rebuke of its misuse in I Corinthians.
In addition, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the message of salvation, “…which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will.” (Hebrews 2:3- 4). Notice that it does not say, “…since the beginning the message has been confirmed with signs…” God’s bearing witness is here referred to as something that had happened in the past for the purpose of confirming the message being preached (see also II Corinthians 12:12).
But what about Mark 16:17-18? Didn’t Jesus say that there would be signs following those who believe, including speaking with new tongues? This passage comes right after Jesus upbraided the apostles for their lack of faith. He then charged them to go into the whole world and preach the gospel. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). The singular “he that believes” indicates that every single person who believes and is baptized will be saved. But in contrast, verses 17 and 18 refer to “those” who believe. The plural indicates that it is talking about believers as a group.
17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. [see NASB]
Notice that verse 17 doesn’t say “all them that believe.” This passage doesn’t say that these signs would follow everyone who believes right up until the Second Coming, and that all believers are supposed to speak in tongues. Nowhere else in the New Testament is such a statement made, and in fact Paul states emphatically that not all speak in tongues in I Corinthians 12:30.
Besides, if one takes this text to mean that all believers are to do these things, why limit it to speaking in tongues? Why not also insist that all believers are to cast out demons, take up serpents, drink poison with no harm, or lay hands on the sick? Most of these signs are recorded in the book of Acts. (There is no record of anyone drinking poison, but the incident in Acts 28 of Paul being accidentally bitten by a snake and having no harm is similar to the prophecy that they would pick up snakes.) Yet they are recorded as happening to certain individuals on certain occasions, but obviously not to all believers. Remember, Jesus didn’t say that all believers should do these things, much less seek out such signs. He said they would accompany or follow believers, they would happen as a result, and we see from the rest of Scripture that not every single believer did all of these things. In addition, the signs which confirmed the word they were preaching also became less frequent as time went on.
Even the miraculous healings, which were signs to confirm the Gospel, were not performed by all believers, and they also happened with less frequency as time went on. God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul (Acts 19:11), but at a later point he tells us that Epaphroditus was sick, near death, but God had mercy on him (Philippians 2:25- 27). He advised Timothy to use a little wine for the sake of his stomach and his frequent ailments (I Timothy 5:23). And he says that he left Trophimus sick at Miletum (II Timothy 4:20). In none of these cases does he mention seeking for an instantaneous, miraculous healing. HOWEVER, this is not to say that God no longer works healing or miracles in our lives, as He chooses, in response to our prayers. James exhorts those who are sick to “call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). But the purpose of individual men publicly performing healing and miracles was a sign to confirm the Gospel message.
When the Gospel was first preached, God confirmed it with great signs, wonders, and miracles, including the gift of languages (speaking in tongues). Time passed and such signs declined. The Church was established, and the message was preserved in writing for future generations; the confirmation with signs was no longer needed. The canon of Scripture was completed with the book of Revelation. The gift of languages is not mentioned anywhere in the later New Testament writings, and in the post-Biblical writings of the Early Church Fathers, the mention of speaking in tongues is relatively rare.
There is no question that speaking in tongues greatly declined after the Apostolic Age. It resurfaced occasionally and sporadically in the 17th - 19th centuries, but did not become a widespread phenomenon until the 20th century. Since Paul said that tongues would cease but did not say when, those who ask “Have tongues ceased” are actually asking the wrong question. If or when the gift ceased is the subject of endless debate, and both sides will quote the Early Church Fathers in an attempt to prove their viewpoint. But the more important question is, does the modern phenomenon called “speaking tongues” represent a genuine resurgence of the Biblical gift of languages spoken of in the New Testament? The following article discusses that in detail.
This page last updated April 19, 2018