Summary: This is a Scriptural examination of the gift of tongues. The Word of God defines the gift as well as describes its purpose, proper usage and active duration within the Church.
Of all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, none has provoked more interest and fascination than that of the gift of tongues. This is not only true of the last one hundred years, with the advent of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement, but even in the 1st Century as is evidenced by the Corinthian congregation’s preoccupation with the gift.
We aim to use the authority of Scripture rather than the unreliable testimony of rumor and experience to learn the nature of this gift, the purpose of this gift, the appropriate use of this gift and the fate of this gift. We must remember that the Scriptures are the Church’s infallible guide.
I. The Nature of the Gift of Tongues.
The first demonstration of the gift of tongues is found in Acts 2:1-11. In this passage, the twelve apostles are gathered together, by the commandment of Christ Jesus, and they receive the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit. Verse 4 reads, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.”
The Greek word for “tongue” is glossa. It refers either to the physical tongue or to the human language that the human tongue speaks. Obviously, in our verse, it cannot be interpreted as the physical tongue; after all, the Spirit did not permit them to use the physical tongues of others with which to speak However, it is not only possible to understand it to refer to the second meaning - human languages spoken by the human tongue - it is so defined within this passage.
Luke tells us that there were “Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.” This was the case because it was the custom for Jews through-out the world to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the yearly Feast of Pentecost. Verse 5-8 states that when the Apostles began speaking in tongues, these foreign pilgrims “were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?’”
Here, the pilgrims explain that the tongues spoken by the Apostles were their own native, foreign languages. The Greek word translated “language” is dialektos, from which we get our word dialect. Note the nationalities represented here, in verses 9-11, “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.”
The miracle here, as stated by these pilgrims, is that a dozen uneducated Galileans were suddenly speaking these various foreign language or dialects. According to Scripture, the gift of tongues was a supernatural ability to speak an earthly foreign language without special training.
Note, too, that it was not ‘heavenly language’ nor was it gibberish, but speech in a earthly, foreign language. Verse 11 - as the pilgrims state “we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God."
Paul reveals that the gift of tongues was human languages in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.”
Notice that the Apostle says “various kinds of tongues.” The word translated “kinds” is the Greek genos. It means "nationality," "race," or "kindred of people." Therefore, Paul says there are "various kinds of languages," or "various nationalities of tongues." Thus, this terminology identifies "tongues" as an earthly human language.
Another passage which proves that the gift of tongues was a supernatural ability to speak an earthly foreign language is found in 1 Corinthians 14:21. Here Paul reveals that the gift of tongues was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, “In the Law it is written, ‘BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,’ says the Lord.”
Paul is quoting Isaiah 28:11. In the passage, the Prophet Isaiah is foretelling the invasion and captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Assyrian army is going to come down and conquer Israel. The Assyrians will speak to the Israelites in their native Assyrian. The very presence of the foreign language of the Assyrians within Israel will be God’s way of speaking judgment upon the unfaithful Israelites. Thus, Paul use of this passage from the Book of Isaiah equates the gift of tongues with non-Hebrew foreign languages.