The Bible affirms that “tongues” were intended primarily for the benefit of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22), serving no useful purpose if they could not be understood (1 Corinthians 14:7-11, 14-20). If a tongue-speaker wanted to say something in a religious gathering where there may have been some who could not understand him, either his message was to be interpreted or he was to remain silent (1 Corinthians 14:12-13, 26-28).
Some read 1 Corinthians 14 and stop at verse 5, thinking they have discovered a whole new purpose for tongue-speaking. But from what Paul goes on to say in the rest of the chapter, it is evident that in these first five verses he is rebuking the Corinthians for their misuse of this gift. Certain ones in Corinth were speaking in tongues, but instead of speaking to men they were merely speaking to God since no one could understand them (v. 2). Nevertheless, they should have been speaking to men so as to be understood (vv. 7-11, 14-20). Some were speaking in tongues in order to edify themselves (v. 4), but their gifts should have been used to edify others (vv. 4-19).
Not everyone in the early church had the ability to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-30). The apostles and Cornelius’ household received this gift through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-47; 11:15-17), but these two cases were for specific purposes that were fulfilled. Other Christians received the ability to speak in tongues by the laying on of an apostle’s hands (Acts 19:6; cf. 8:17-19). However, this gift was not meant to be permanent in the church (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The miraculous gift of tongue-speaking, like the other spiritual gifts, fulfilled its purpose of communicating and confirming the divine message during a time when the church was in its infancy and without God’s complete written revelation. Now that the Bible is complete, speaking in tongues is no longer needed.
There is a big difference between tongue-speaking in the Bible and the ecstatic utterances or unintelligible babblings that many today call tongue-speaking. There may be counterfeit “miracles” (Matthew 24:24) and various miraculous claims (Matthew 7:21-23), but this is not sufficient proof that such is from God. “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Originally appearing in The Exhorter (April–June 1998).
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