William J. Stewart
There are a great number of people who believe that the gift of tongues still exists today. If we were to enter into some religious assemblies, they will engage in an activity which they refer to as “tongues.” Do tongues, as those which were in the first century church still exist today, or have they ceased?
WHAT IS A TONGUE?
We must understand what it is we speak of when we use the word “tongues.” A great problem in our world today concerning this issue is that men and women do not know what a “tongue” is. It is believed by many that to speak in a tongue is to speak in a language which is uncomprehensible to humans. It is believed to be a “gibberish-like” sounding talk, which is to encourage and edify the members of the church.
There are two words in the Greek language which are translated to English as tongue. They are defined by Strong’s as follows:
- conversation, speech, discourse, language;
- the tongue or language peculiar to any people
- the tongue, a member of the body, an organ of speech:
- a tongue, the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations
If we examine the use of these words in light of the Scriptures, we will then understand exactly what the gift of tongues was. Consider the following passages:
“And how is it that we hear, each in our own language [DIALEKTOS], wherein we were born?” (Acts 2:8)
“And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew tongue[DIALEKTOS], they kept all the more silent…” (Acts 22:2)
“Cretans and Arabs — we do hear them speaking in our own languages[GLOSSA] the wonderful words of God.” (Acts 2:11)
“…to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another different kinds of tongues [GLOSSA]; to another the interpretation of tongues [glossa].” (1 Corinthians 12:10)
(NOTE – the word different does not appear in the Greek. It has been added by translators)
“…yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others, than ten thousand words in a tongue [GLOSSA].” (1 Corinthians 14:19)
Nowhere in Scripture is a tongue referred to as an uncomprehensible language. Rather, a tongue is a language, spoken by a particular group of people. If this is the case, then what is the miracle or gift of tongues? If I had the ability to speak with tongues, I might be able to speak the Spanish language, a language which I do not know. Thus, those who were Spanish could understand the things which I spoke. We read that on the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke in various tongues. Each one heard in his own tongue or language. The tongues which are spoken of in the book of Acts are the same tongues which are spoken of in 1 Corinthians. They are languages.
DOES THE GIFT OF TONGUES EXIST TODAY?
Knowing that a tongue is simply a language, we must ask the question, do we still have the gift of tongues today? There are some who will affirm that we do, there are others who will oppose the idea of tongues being present to this day. Let us consider what the Scriptures say in this regard.
It is helpful to know what the purpose of tongues was in the first century church. Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers…” (1 Corinthians 14:22) Tongues were not intended for common use in the church, but rather to convince unbelievers of the authenticity of the gospel message. As with all the gifts and miracles used in the first century church, the purpose was to confirm that the word which was being preached was from God. The Hebrew writer wrote, “…how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at first began to be spoken by the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:2-4) God bore witness to the authenticity of the message which the apostles brought by giving them the ability to perform signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit, of which is the gift of tongues.
Do tongues have any purpose today? If the purpose was to confirm the word, then they are no longer needed. The word of God has been given to us, has been confirmed and written down. We do not have new prophecies or messages which come forth today which have need of being confirmed (Galatians 1:6-9). Therefore, the need for tongues has ceased. Again, remember that the tongue was not for the benefit of the church, but for the unbeliever. Tongues were only spoken in the service of the church if there was an interpreter present. But the more effective use of the gift of tongues is precisely what we see in the book of Acts. Many people of diverse nationalities were gathered into one spot, and they all heard the message of God in their own tongue. Therein is the power of tongues.
Paul again writes to the people of Corinth, saying, “…if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak in tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23) Paul stressed the importance to the brethren to use tongues in their proper place. For instance, if one got up to speak in tongues at the church in Jerusalem, and he spoke in the Egyptian tongue, the other members would not understand what is being said, but they would realize that he spoke in a tongue. However, consider the poor Jewish man who is visiting with the church for the very first time. He has no idea what is going on! He will think that the people about him are mad! If he spoke Egyptian, then he would be amazed, and most assuredly would believe, but since he is Jewish, he concludes that those about him are crazy!
Tongues, as all miraculous gifts of the Spirit had an intended purpose, and an intended time frame. Once the message of the apostles had been confirmed as truth, the need for such things was gone. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, “…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-11) Paul affirms the fact that tongues, as well as other gifts of the Spirit will cease. He says such will happen “…when that which is perfect has come…” Many say this talks of the Christ. It does not. The word perfect in the context does not refer to sinless, but rather to maturity, or completeness. When the revelation of the word of God was complete, then, the need for spiritual gifts ceased, and thus, as Paul stated, the gifts failed, ceased, and vanished away. The church had no need for such “…childish things…” anymore, but had come to a point of maturity.