There is a lot of misunderstanding about the gift of tongues bringing confusion to many believers. This misunderstanding can be detrimental to their relationship with God and sometimes hinder their joy in the Lord and understanding of their position in Christ. In some Christian circles and denominations, speaking in tongues signifies having the Holy Spirit and salvation. You may be someone who is struggling to understand this gift. Let us look at scripture to understand the gift of tongues properly.
Firstly, what is the gift of tongues? Jesus promised the disciples in Mark 16:17 that among the other signs, “tongues” would also accompany them. This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-12 where the disciples spoke in the existing languages of the Jews gathered there from different nations. The Greek word used for tongues is “glossa.” The meaning of this word, as given in the Strong’s Dictionary, is: “of uncertain affinity; the tongue; by implication, a language (especially, one naturally unacquired): the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.“)
This supernatural gift was given to the disciples for the purpose of evangelism. In Acts 1:8, we read, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Notice here, again, that the purpose of the gift is to be a “witness” and used to spread the gospel. To proclaim the gospel in a language that peoples of other nations could hear the good news of Christ and receive the gift of salvation. It was a sign that they were empowered and sent by the true and living God. Amen!
The disciples were Gallelians and only knew the local language. Suddenly through the gift of tongues, all those gathered in the upper room could now speak in languages they never spoke so that all the people gathered there could hear the gospel message in their own language. Now with this gift, they could go to the ends of the earth to preach and proclaim Jesus Christ.
Tongues speaking in today’s world seem very different from the one specified in scripture. It is often unintelligible words that no one can understand, nor do they resemble any existing languages. Often the people that are prayed over to receive this gift are usually advised to start speaking anything that comes to their minds. When they start talking in this language, it is considered as evidence of receiving and being anointed by the Holy Spirit. When someone does not speak such a language, they often feel as though they do not have this special anointing and sometimes even question if they have the Holy Spirit.
This type of teaching is far from scripture. The Apostle Paul clearly teaches that the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit on someone’s life is to be measured by the fruit of the Spirit as given to us in Galatians 5:22-23 and no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Also, 1 John 2:20 states that all who know the truth are anointed by the Holy One. Amen! These are the marks of a genuine Christian.
Like the misuse of this gift in current times, the Apostle Paul had to deal with the same issues in the Corinthian church. Reading the account in 1 Corinthians 14, we see that early church members who had this gift often spoke in different languages (tongues) while praying, and others spoke in these languages in church meetings. Believers praying in different languages in private did not require an interpretation, whereas when it is said in public, an interpretation is necessary.
Believers in the Corinthian church began to use this gift as a quest for personal fulfilment. Likewise, in some of today’s churches, the use of tongues is often used to measure spiritual superiority and anointing as opposed to the one who does not have this gift.
Paul had to establish how to practice this gift of tongues, especially in public gatherings and put it in its proper place. We see in 1 Corinthians 14 that prophecy was a higher gift than tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:1-4 says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
The verse begins by saying “pursue love” – not tongues, and then it says earnestly desire the higher gifts. Now, what are the higher gifts? Paul gives us the list in 1 Corinthians 12:28-31, saying, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
In the list above, tongues are listed as the last of the gifts, with healing, helping, and administration all before the gift of tongues. Also, Paul goes on to state that not all can speak in tongues, nor do all have all of the gifts. The Holy Spirit distributes according to His will. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is again making a case to pursue love, and prophecy is a higher gift than tongues. In other words, all the other gifts can communicate through direct intelligible words, which are helpful for upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation of one another.
Tongues without interpretation are useless to the rest of the church and to any unbeliever who walks into hearing this. It brings about disorder and chaos and does not upbuild one another in any way because it is unintelligible unless there is an interpreter. All it does is bring disgrace to God. 1 Corinthians 14:23 says, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”
So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:12, “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” Again, verse 19 says, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
So to bring about order in the church, Paul then says in verses 27 and 28, “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.” Commands such as this are clearly being disobeyed in many churches and gatherings. We seldom see the gift of interpretation these days, but many are eager to speak in tongues. The Bible teaches that if there is none to interpret, they should keep silent because it does not benefit anyone.
In verses 2-4, we read that the one who prays in a tongue speaks to God and edifies himself. That means that if you pray in a tongue and there is no interpreter, then only God understands, and the speaker is encouraged and comforted. Paul then says in verses 14-16, says, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?”
Even in your private prayer in a tongue, it remains unfruitful unless you pray with your mind.
In conclusion, the purpose of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is for the upbuilding of one another and for being a witness to the ends of the world. The gift of tongues was the gift to speak an existing language to be a witness to other people. In the churches, if one had a gift of another language, someone else had the gift to interpret the words so the rest of the church would be blessed. If no one can understand, it is better not to speak it because it would bring confusion and disorder and becomes unfruitful to anybody. Instead, desire the higher gifts such as prophecy and all the others listed so that you can build, encourage, and console to glorify God and witness to the nations the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.