The gift of tongues is, quite possibly, the most misunderstood of the apostolic gifts in scripture. The general impression in the church today is that the gift of tongues is the ability to speak unintelligible ecstatic utterances that are incomprehensible to those listening. Typically, proponents will characterize this as a ‘private prayer language’, ‘angelic language’ or claim that it’s your ‘spirit speaking’. When we examine scripture, however, this definition of tongues, although widely accepted, is revealed to be no more than superstitious nonsense. We have a detailed account of the gift of tongues in action in Acts 2:4-11, which looks nothing like what Charismatics claim to be the gift of tongues:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and 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? 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—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
It is blatantly obvious that when the Apostles were speaking in tongues on Pentecost (the first time the gift was given) they were speaking in human languages that could be understood by their audience. It was very obviously not the incomprehensible gibberish that characterizes the supposed ‘gift’ that the Charismatics claim. Proponents of the Charismatic view will claim that they are speaking in the language of angels that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13:1. When viewed in context however, it is obvious that Paul is using hyperbole, not saying that people actually speak in angel-ese (if there is such a thing).
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Paul’s point is that even the best, most amazing spiritual gifts are worthless if you don’t have love, and he uses hyperbole to get his point across. He’s not saying you can literally move mountains or know all the things; even the most whacked-out televangelist wouldn’t teach that. It’s the same thing with speaking in an angelic language. It’s just hyperbole, guys; chill out. Paul wasn’t saying you can speak angel.
The gift of tongues is, according to scripture, the supernatural ability to speak fluently in a human language that one had never learned. If you see someone doing this, they have the gift of tongues. If someone claims to have the gift of tongues, but is just belting out quasi-linguistic nonsense, they don’t have the gift of tongues, they’re just yelling stuff. The ‘tongues’ espoused by the Charismatic movement fall definitively into the latter category.
Now that that’s settled, does anyone have the gift of tongues today? Short answer: no. Nobody actually speaks in tongues today, because nobody speaks in human languages that they haven’t learned. This isn’t unexpected or disturbing if you’re a cessationist; Paul said it was coming in 1 Corinthians 13:8. The gift of tongues fulfilled its purpose, which was as a sign of judgement on the Jewish people for rejecting the Messiah, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22:
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. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.
The gift of tongues was a sign to unbelieving Jews that God was at work and that, by rejecting Jesus, they were rejecting their Messiah. Now that that message has been delivered, the gift of tongues has fulfilled its purpose and the Holy Spirit has ceased to issue that gift, because we don’t need it. Instead of pining after gifts that God in His wisdom has decided are unnecessary, we should focus on loving each other, loving our neighbors, and spreading the Gospel. That’s why we’re here, not to spout out gibberish like crazy people.
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