Speaking in Tongues: Does it happen today?

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This past weekend I was asked to speak at SOAR Youth Rally in Augusta, GA. The whole weekend was centered around finding answers to questions that we might have when it comes to our personal faith or doctrinal questions to receive clearer answers. I was asked to teach on "Speaking in Tongues: What does the bible say and does it happen today?" I had a great response to the class and wanted to share my notes with the Walking in His Footsteps audience.

By the end of this article, I want us to understand the biblical purpose for speaking in tongues vs. speaking in tongues today and compare the two to see if they are the same. From that we can decide if people speak in tongues today. However, In order to talk about speaking in tongues, we must first understand the concept.

What is a “tongue”? (not the organ in your mouth) When you see the word tongue, it simply means – a language, a human spoken language. Like English, Spanish, French – those could all be considered tongues.

What was “speaking in tongues”? It was speaking of human languages – In the biblical sense, it was the ability to speak another language with which you had no prior experience. For example: I know English, but if I had the ability to speak in tongue, I could speak Spanish without studying the language and those who spoke Spanish could understand me. The apostles and other early Christians who spoke in tongues were speaking in languages that they normally did not speak.

What was the purpose of “speaking in tongues”?  We will dive deeper into this answer, but in Acts 2 you see the real purpose of speaking in tongues was to share God’s word with a mixed multitude.

Could it be considered a miracle? Again, in Acts 2 we see it was a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave miraculous gifts to the apostles and Jesus to provide proof of God, confirm God’s word to those listening, to verify true apostles, and to fulfill prophecy which included the gift of speaking in tongues. So, the question really becomes – do we have miracles today? However, we don’t have time to talk about that and our focus is on speaking of tongues. So, let’s dive deeper into the purpose of speaking in tongues and look at examples, then answer the question does it still happen today by comparing speaking in tongues from the bible and how people speak in tongues today.

Purpose and Biblical Examples

Acts 2:1-11 – The Day of Pentecost.

Purpose: To speak in the many different languages that were represented, so they would understand the message.

People had come from all around to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost and remember the law which was given at Mt. Sinai.

The Bible says that the Apostles were speaking in tongues (verse 4) and "dialects" (verse 6) and every man understood what the Apostles were saying (verses 6 and 11). The tongues (languages) were given miraculously to the Apostles to make it possible for them to speak to the understanding of the multitudes that day. Also, the people would be interested by this great event (verse 6). The Holy Spirit gave this gift of tongues to the Apostles (verse 14) So they could preach the Gospel to the mixed multitudes.

Acts 10:44-48 (Peter’s sermon to Cornelius) 

Purpose: To demonstrate God’s power, to show equality among Jew and Gentiles. 

Acts 19:1-7 (Twelve Disciples at Ephesus)

Purpose: To demonstrate that Apostle's could pass along spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In these cases, we see that the power of tongue speaking was used by God to show his power just as Jesus had promised. (Mark 16:17) Cornelius and all the people in his house miraculously spoke in languages (Acts 10:24-27, 44-46) before they were even Christians. They had not yet received the indwelling of the Spirit in water baptism. (Acts 2:38) They were not yet Christians. So, we learn that God used this sign of tongues in that case not to convince Cornelius, but to convince Peter and the Jews that Gentiles (non-Jews) can also be saved through the Gospel. (v. 45). These people had not been saved yet, but God used this opportunity to show Peter and the Jews that they had a right to baptism, just like everyone else. It was enough to convince Peter to baptize these gentiles who had received the holy spirit (v. 46-48)

In Acts 19:1-7, we find that the Apostle Paul properly taught and baptized some men, then he laid his hands on them and they received certain powers to speak in languages and prophesy. Thus, God worked through those Christians. 

I Corinthians 12 – Gift of the Holy Spirit

Purpose: To provide information that “speaking in tongues” was a gift of the Holy Spirit and to remind those with the gift that they are not better than someone without the gift.

We also read in 1 Corinthians 12-14 about tongue speaking as one of the gifts of the Spirit. (12:9,28-30; 13:1,8; 14:1-28.) The church at Corinth was having much confusion over tongue speaking and other gifts. Some people were thinking that they were better Christians because they had received the gift of tongues. Paul said that we all are equally partakers of the Spirit even though we do not all speak in tongues. (12:13) He argued in 12:29-30 that we do not all have the gifts, but we are all equal in the Spirit. So, tongue speaking was not so important and should not be considered greater than the other works. 

I Corinthians 14 – Instructions for Speaking in Tongues

Purpose: To give instruction on how to use the gift of tongues and fulfill the purpose while obtaining orderly worship.

In 1 Corinthians 14. Paul discussed the use of the gift of tongues at Corinth. He said that tongue speaking does not benefit the whole church (verses 4-6) unless there is interpretation. Those who had the gift of tongues were just trying to use it without considering the purpose of the gift and Paul said they were bringing in confusion. (verses 11-17.) Paul said he was not condemning the gift of tongues, only it must be used properly. (verses 18-19.) Then Paul explained that if they all just speak in tongues, the unbelievers will think they are mad (verse 23) and thus the purpose of tongues would be lost. To help them use tongues properly, Paul gave certain instructions. (verses 26-28.) The tongue speakers were to speak one at a time (by course) and no more than 3 could speak at all. There must be an interpreter. If no one is there to interpret, they must be silent. These rules were to help keep order in the assembly and glorify God. (14.33.) 

Why did Paul have to give instructions?

The recipient of a miraculous gift in the New Testament could control himself (14:32). Paul addressed it because they were misusing their gift of tongues. They could choose when to use it and when not to use it, at times they were causing confusion and chaos in worship, so Paul put rules in to place. 

Do people still speak in tongues today?

  • How do people speak in tongues today?
    • Ecstatic Utterance – incoherent gibberish in front of believers.
    • They are without interpretation and usually more than one person at a time is “speaking in tongues”.
  • What is the purpose of speaking in tongues today?
    • There’s no purpose. People will say it is to prove that they have the gift of the Holy Spirit or that you must speak in tongues to be saved (where do we read that?
    • We have the written word of God that is translated in many languages across the world. Why would we need to speak in tongues today?
  • Based on what we know from the bible, we can ask the following questions:
    • Is speaking in tongues today like:
      • Acts 2:1-11? Where are the tongues of fire? Where is the sound of a rushing wind? Why can the multitudes today not all understand the tongues like Acts 2? It is not the same as Acts 2. People today cannot understand the tongues that are spoken; therefore, the tongues are not the same as Acts 2. 
      • Acts 19.1-7? Where is the Apostle to lay his hands on us? The true Apostle must be one who was an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus. (Acts 1.12-26.) See also Acts 8.14-18 where the invisible gifts of the Spirit were given through the Apostles' hands. (Simon the Sorcerer could see that through the Apostles' hands the powers were given and he wanted that power to be able to pass on the gifts. It was something that he could see came through the Apostles' hands.) Where is the Apostle to lay his hands on us? Tongues today are not like Acts 19. 
      • Acts 10.44-48? Does the gift of tongues come on non-Christians today? No. Where is the purpose of Acts 10 today to convince Jews of the equality of the Gentiles? Does everyone present get the gift of tongues today like happened at Cornelius house? (10.44.) It is not like Acts 10 today. 
      • 1 Corinthians 12-14? Paul said the tongue speakers must speak not more than 3 and one at a time. Also, an interpreter must be there to interpret or the tongue speaker must be silent. Is that what we see today? I do not think so. My friends, tongues of today are not the same as the tongues of the Bible. 
  • Does Paul say tongues will cease? – I Corinthians 13
  • In chapter 13, Paul said tongues will cease. (verse 8.) When? When "that which is perfect is come then that which is in part shall be done away." (verse 10.) Is that the coming of Christ? Was the gift of tongues to continue until Jesus comes? No. That which is perfect cannot mean Jesus because it is in the "neuter" case (Not male. Not female) in the original Greek of Paul's writings. It means the perfect thing, not the perfect person. What is the perfect thing? The fully revealed New Testament. You see, God was giving those special gifts (tongues, prophecies, healings. etc.) to reveal his truth, guide the church and spread the Gospel until he could completely reveal all and close his revelation to man.

Do people speak in tongues today?

There is simply no such thing as an “ecstatic utterance” in the New Testament. The tongue-speaking of 1 Corinthians 14 entailed human language—not incoherent gibberish. A simple reading of the chapter demonstrates that known human languages are under consideration. For example, Paul paralleled tongue-speaking with the use of the trumpet in warfare. If the bugler sounded meaningless noise, the military would be thrown into confusion. It was imperative for the bugler to blow the proper notes and tones, i.e., meaningful musical “language,” so that the army would understand what was being communicated (whether to charge, engage, or retreat). Sound without sense fails to achieve the very purpose of tongue-speaking.

Later in the chapter, Paul quoted Isaiah 28:11-12 where God threatened the Israelites with the fact that their failure to listen to Him (by means of the words spoken by His prophets) meant that He soon would be communicating to them through the language of their Assyrian conquerors—conquerors whom God would send against them. This powerful illustration presupposes the fact that in both Isaiah and 1 Corinthians, human languages are under consideration. After quoting Isaiah, Paul drew the conclusion that tongue-speaking was intended by God to be directed to unbelievers. Why? Because it would prove to the unbeliever that the tongue-speaker, who did not possess the natural ability to speak that language, was being empowered by God to speak in the language spoken by the unbeliever. The unbeliever would recognize the divine origin of the tongue-speaker’s ability, and thereby be willing to consider the words being spoken as the instructions of God. Again, an examination of 1 Corinthians 14 yields the result that no contextual justification exists for drawing the conclusion that the Bible refers to, let alone endorses, the notion of “ecstatic” speech.

Conclusion

The purpose of speaking in tongues was to share God’s word across multitudes of people from many different regions who spoke different languages. It, also, was to show the power of God to the unbeliever, so tongues were used in the presence of an unbeliever to see the miraculous gift of someone speaking their language who had no prior knowledge of the language.

Where does the power of God lie today? In the written word. We have no use for speaking in tongues or miracles, because God has recorded all the things that we need to know in order to believe in Him through His word.

Further Study

  1. Did New Testament apostles and Christians speak in “ecstatic utterance” or in a language that could be understood?
  2. When the use of tongues was recorded in the bible, was it for believers or unbelievers? Why?
  3. Are interpreters used today when someone begins to speak in tongues?
  4. When people "speak in tongues" today is it in an understood language (i.e. Spanish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.)?
  5. Are the rules set forth in 1 Corinthians 14 followed when "speaking in tongues"?

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Andrew Thompson is the Youth and Family Minister at Rose Hill Church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He is married to the beautiful, Joy Thompson (who is way out of his league!). They enjoy sharing life together, ministering to teens and families, football in Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide!), and musical theatre. Andrew is a proud supporter of sarcasm and dry sense of humors. Thank you for reading!

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