What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues?Speaking in tongues is classified as a spiritual gift among others in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. "To each (believers in Jesus Christ) is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (the purpose). For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom . . . to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues." The Greek word translated "tongues" means literally "languages."
The first miraculous manifestation of the gift of tongues is described in Acts 2:1-4. To the amazement of the crowd in Jerusalem, the disciples were proclaiming the wonders of God in a language they had not learned. Knowing that the disciples were all Galileans, the people asked in amazement, "And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?" (Acts 2:7-11). The gift of speaking in languages unknown to the speaker was the outward sign that the Holy Spirit had now been given to all believers, just as Jesus had promised in John 14:15-20 and Acts 1:4-5. Once the main purpose for this miraculous gift had been accomplished, its predominance began to subside. The book of Acts shows that in each instance, the gift of tongues was for the purpose of validating that the Holy Spirit had indeed come from God.
Tongues today are often a cause of confusion. Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 14:10: "There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning." A "tongue" without meaning is not a spiritual gift. Each of the gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good, so it doesn't stand to reason that a person would stand up in a worship service and speak unintelligibly "for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Therefore, God gave the gift of interpretation of tongues alongside the gift of speaking in tongues. Most of what passes for speaking in tongues today is simply gibberish, languages "without meaning" as Paul described them. The Apostle Paul himself said that in the church he would "rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:19). In today's churches, where everyone speaks and understands the same language, it doesn't seem logical that someone speaking another language that no one understands could be edifying the body of Christ, even if it is "interpreted."
First Corinthians 13:8 mentions the gift of tongues ceasing, although it connects the ceasing with the arrival of the "perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10. What is meant by "the perfect" is unclear from the text. Many believe it is the perfect and holy Word of God, translated into all the world's languages, which make the gift of tongues obsolete. Some also point to passages such as Isaiah 28:11 and Joel 2:28-29 as evidence that speaking in tongues was a sign of God's coming judgment. Either way, Scripture does not conclusively assert that the gift of speaking in tongues has ceased.
Certainly God can use this or any gift in order to communicate His Word to a person of another language. However, if the gift of tongues (languages) is for the church today, there would be no need for training missionaries in language schools to speak the languages of the peoples they minister to in foreign lands. We could simply seek out those with the gift of tongues and send them to the nations that speak that tongue. Clearly, God is not doing this. It seems that the majority of believers who claim to practice the gift of speaking in tongues do not do so in agreement with the Scriptures mentioned above. Whatever is practiced in churches today, it seems rarely, if ever, to be the biblical gift of tongues as it was practiced in the early church.
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