I recently began a series on the gift of tongues, but started with some thoughts on the larger scope of Spirit-inspired speech. But let’s move on specifically to the gift of tongues.
The first instance that we read about tongues is at the Pentecost event of Acts 2:1-4:
1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The word normally translated as ‘tongues’ in our English versions comes from the Greek word glossa or glossia (plural). It could also be translated as ‘languages’, which seems an acceptable translation when considering the biblical teaching on this gift. Though some might argue it sounds like babble (or babel), it actually comes as some sort of intelligible language, even if that language is not personally known to the speaker.
As a kind of side excursus, many theologians see this act of the initial outpouring of the Spirit as a reversal of the curse at the Tower of Babel where there was a confusion of languages (Genesis 11:1-9). Because of Pentecost, tongues now stands as a sign of unity in the body of Christ, God using people to speak in languages they have not learned to be a blessing to the body of Christ.
Of course, one of the main purposes of tongues in Acts 2 was that of an evangelistic drawing of people to Christ. But, a sort of theological deduction from considering tongues across both Acts and 1 Corinthians (and possibly a few other passages) is that such was given as a unifying sign of edification to the body of Christ, thus, reversing the curse of Babel for God’s covenant people. And, I can only suppose that the first Christians that witnessed the amazing and paradigmatic event of Acts 2 would have been blessed and edified by the outcome.
Now, in the account of Acts 2, the people spoke in languages that were recognised by those gathered around (see Acts 2:5-12). This is really the only biblical account in which we see tongues being utilised evangelistically. But that does not mean it was never again utilised in such a way in the New Testament record, especially if an interpretation comes forth, which we will consider later on from looking at 1 Corinthians 14.
We see other specific examples of tongues in Acts, specifically with Cornelius’ household in 10:46 and the Ephesian disciples in 19:6. But neither of these accounts point to an evangelistic use. Rather they were a response to the baptism/initial filling of God’s Spirit.
Still, though tongues might come forth in a language recognised by those present (and I can think of a couple examples off hand from ministry friends in the present day), we must also bear in mind that tongues might not always be spoken in a language that is recognised by those present. I think such is acceptable when we consider words like there from Paul:
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. (1 Corinthians 14:2)
But it is through the interpretation of the tongue that understanding is brought to the body of Christ for edification, or even utilised in drawing people to Christ. And, I suppose the need for the gift of interpretation would only point to the fact that tongues are not always understood by those present.
There is much discussion about another aspect of tongues, as highlighted by these words of Paul:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Some will claim that this reference to ‘tongues of angels’ is a hypothetical situation and one should not expect to find themselves speaking in such a manner. But remember the first words of Paul’s statement: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men.’ Now, we know this is an actual certainty – speaking in the tongues of men that we have not learned. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would refer to one situation that is a reality and one situation that is hypothetical. And, noting that tongues is a Spirit-enabled language, it’s possible that one might speak in a heavenly tongue.
Nothing could be ‘proved’ in regards to this, since tongues can regularly come forth in languages one has never learned, and especially since there are thousands of languages and dialects in the world. But I would propose that, since it is possible to speak in tongues (languages) or men, then the same could be true with regards to tongues of angels.
As an encouraging personal side story on the gift of tongues, I share an account of a specific local church where a friend of mine is an elder-pastor. This happened about a year and a half ago.
My friend specifically works with a church that officially relates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But, while they maintain that relationship of accountability, the church does not always practically function in regards to every specific of the SBC. For example, they have a plurality of eldership, which is not the norm for SBC churches.
Also, as you might imagine, historically, the SBC has not been an advocate for the practise of the more ‘charismatic’ giftings of the Spirit, i.e., those in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. My friend’s church never preached against such, and they actually were quite open in allowing people to openly share what God was stirring in them during their corporate gatherings, even some things that could be classified as prophecies and revelations. But, with tongues, there was not much knowledge or practise of this gift.
So, my friend and the wider eldership of the church decided to take up preaching and teaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. Wow, what a challenge to say the least! And, of course, many months down the road, they took up a close study of 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Not too long after they finished the teaching on those chapters, God brought a surprise into their midst. God was making sure that their spirituality was not just doctrinal teaching, but also a practical reality. In one of the Sunday gatherings of the congregation, a person gave the first ever public message in tongues. In recalling the story to me, my friend shared how he kind of sat back in his chair and went on to let God know that he trusted Him. This was something that had never happened before. But my friend was not going to ‘nip it in the bud’, as they say.
And when the message in tongues was finished, the interpretation came forth by the one who spoke in the tongue.
But here is the beautiful part – After the gathering ended, a young man came forth to speak with my friend who is one of the elder-pastors. This young man did not usually attend their gatherings. Rather, he happened to be there as he was in a close relationship with one of the members of my friend’s church. I guess he was the boyfriend of one of the young adults of the church. He shared with my friend that he was of Jewish background and the tongue that had come forth in the gathering was in Hebrew (obviously more modern Hebrew than ancient-biblical Hebrew). And the young man preceded to share that the interpretation that came forth was correct.
A fantastic story of God’s grace and gifting amongst His people. A testimony to the reality of the gift of tongues being utilised, and utilised properly, in the corporate gathering of God’s people.
Thus, here are some summary points from this first post on tongues:
- Tongues is most likely a God-statement that He was reversing the curse of Babel for His body.
- Tongues can be utilised evangelistically (as in Acts 2) or in edifying the body (1 Corinthians 14).
- Tongues can be spoken in actual human languages or in the languages of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1).
I hope this has begun to give somewhat of a solid introduction into the gift of tongues. Stay tuned for more articles in which I will discuss other important aspects of the gift.