Speaking in tongues, and how God reaches around language barriers.
by D. L. Mcphaull
“Unless you speak in tongues, you have not been baptized in the Holy Ghost, because speaking in tongues is evidence you are saved.” This often-expressed teaching is a commonly held belief among some Christians who believe that the redeemed will speak in unknown tongues. But, is there biblical support for this teaching?
Speaking in tongues is well known among believers. A 2010 study by the Barna Group indicated that among self-identified Christians, 76% have knowledge of the gift of tongues. However, surprisingly, only 10% of them have ever spoken in tongues. Nonetheless, ever since William J. Seymour’s 1906 Azuza Street Revival, a very heavy emphasis has been placed upon believers speaking in tongues, particularly in the Pentecostal and Charismatic faiths. Furthermore, many have embraced the idea that to speak in tongues is to speak in unintelligible words that are directed heavenward.
What did you say?
Perhaps, we should first clear up the idea that the Bible suggests believers will speak in an unintelligible, unknown tongue. In Scripture, the word, “tongues” is translated from the Greek word, “glossa,” which means a language. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (carm.org) offers that speaking in tongues is a New Testament phenomenon, wherein individuals speak a language unknown to him or her. The language might be either another earthly language, (French, Spanish, German, or others) or, it might be the language of angels. The latter belief, no doubt, based on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13: 1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…”
The Bible never identifies an angelic language. In fact, in the Bible, each time an angel spoke to a child of God, they communicated in a language understood by the hearer: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30); “… behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2:11); and “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus…” (Acts 1:11).
The purpose of speaking in tongues today
What purpose is served by the gift of tongues? The publication, Christianity Today (March, 2000) reported that among Pentecostal Christians, heavy emphasis has been laid on speaking in tongues as “initial evidence” of baptism in the Spirit. Still, other Christian communities view tongues as a heavenly language, or prayer language, good for preventing the devil from overhearing the prayers of the saints, and counterfeiting answers to prayer. Such thinking suggests that Satan is powerful enough to disrupt God’s plans, which is not true.
Are tongues valid, today? Absolutely.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12 that spiritual gifts are provided by the Holy Spirit. He observed that there is a diversity of spiritual gifts, each selected and given by the Spirit of God, for the profit of all. As you read 1 Corinthians 12, you’ll notice that the gift of tongues is not the premier gift. It’s not even second or third. As the Apostle lists some of the spiritual gifts, the gift of tongues is ranked number 8. Closing out the chapter, once more Paul listed spiritual gifts, and still, the gift of tongues is not found near the top of the list. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul declares that the greatest of the spiritual gifts is love.
Gifting at Pentecost and now
So, why the need for spiritual gifts? It is certainly not to provide evidence of the new birth through baptism of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that evidence of the new birth is demonstrated through a changed heart reflecting the fruit of the Spirit articulated in Galatians 5:22, 23. The reason the Holy Spirit provides spiritual gifts is explained in Ephesians 4:12, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…” Spiritual gifts are provided for two reasons: To equip believers for our work of ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. Notice, no reference is made to heavenly language, prayer language, even secret language.
Paul sheds more light in 1 Corinthians 14:22 where he wrote, “tongues are a sign not for those who believe, but to unbelievers.” That’s what Jesus meant when He said in Mark 16:17, that those who believe would, “speak with new tongues.” Do we have any Scriptural evidence of believers speaking new languages? We certainly do! Matthew 24:14 sets our pace, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” In Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, that prophecy was fully manifested. And, as we read Acts 2, each time we see the word tongues, we may rightly replace it with languages. Acts 2:4 tells us, “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Was this Spirit-given gift of languages one of unintelligible utterances? Not at all. Let’s allow the Bible to instruct us, Acts 2:5, 6, “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation… confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.” Verse eight raised the question, “And how hear we every man in our own language, wherein we were born?” Then verse 11 ties off the Bible’s explanation for the spiritual gift of speaking in other languages, “we do hear them speak in our languages the wonderful works of God.”
So much to do, so little time
On Pentecost, the gift of tongues (languages) was provided for the sharing of the Gospel. And, it is for the same purpose that the gift of tongues is provided today. Not for communication with God, but rather for communicating about God with those who may speak another language.
The Linguistic Society of America reports that on this earth, 6,909 distinct languages are spoken. Meanwhile, so far, the Bible has been translated into 2,508 different languages, only. In order for this gospel of the kingdom to reach the entire world, the gift of speaking in other languages, while not the number one gift, is certainly needed for the sharing of the “good news” of our soon-coming King. So, even as we yearn for our Lord’s return, we long for the gift of tongues (languages) that we might tell the world about Jesus.
This article is part of our January/February 2018 Issue
DONALD L. MCPHAULL, M.S.W., has enjoyed 30 years of ministry and is currently the senior pastor of the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.