The Sign Gift of Languages
The topic of “tongues,” or “speaking in tongues,” is mentioned in only three books of the NT: once in the earliest Gospel, in one verse, which is Mark 16:17; it is seen in the story of the early church in Acts 2, 10, and 19, and then we find it in one of the earliest epistles of Paul, the Corinthian Letter chapters 12, 13, 14. We will work inside each of these throughout this study because they will unmistakably guide us to a clear understanding.
So, what are they? What is the gift of tongues? Most will ask, “What is this ‘speaking in tongues’ that seems to be so prominent in Charismatic groups?” We need to ask the Scripture and Biblical history. This study is broken into 4 Parts. We will build a foundation in part 1 and 2 and then offer in part 3 and 4 further exegetical reasoning from the Scripture that is clear on this topic and will decisively point in no other way but to the truly Biblical position on “tongues.”
The four principle parts are:
Tongues are Exclusively Human Languages.
The Gift of Tongues (Languages) Was a Revelatory Sign Gift.
The Cessation of Tongues is Clearly Biblical and Historical
Tongues were not to have the prominent role given to them in the Corinthian church
Here is a biblical definition of the sign gift of languages:
Definition: The gift of tongues is the supernatural ability to speak previously unstudied, foreign, authentic human languages for the purpose of evangelism and edification of others.
Part 1 Tongues are Exclusively Human Languages
We will begin with a basic foundation here in Part 1 with 6 Clear Reasons How We Know that Human Languages alone are in View When It Comes to What Tongues Are in the NT. These 6 reasons demonstrate that “tongues” or languages incontestably refers to exclusively known human languages:
1. Let’s begin with the word, “tongues.”
What is this word? The main word used in Greek is Glossa γλῶσσα. The word refers to the tongue, but it also means “a language,” if plural glossais, “languages.”
The word Glossa refers to a clearly known, intelligent, human- communicative language.
We see this clearly in the context of the Bible when referring to the gift of tongues, or the gift of languages (as this study will mostly refer to it in this lesson). The old English and even modern English translation of calling this word “tongues” has simply compounded the problem.
It is the gift of languages.
The sign gift of tongues only refers to this type of language: a rational, known-human-language.
As we go forward you will see that it never refers to ecstatic gibberish or privatized babbling of any sort.
This word glossa remains defined as “normal human language” throughout the book of Acts and in the NT; both in context and linguistically. This is what the Scripture incontestably teaches concerning what “tongues” are in the NT record of the early church.
2. (Acts 2:4(glossa)-6, 8, 9-12) Dialektos is used here.
Dialektos is “dialect.” This is the specified sub-group of human language that spans across locations (i.e. Southern Drawl, or the Boston Accent.)
The Gentile-Jewish converts say in this text that they hear others praising God in their own dialects. Unquestionably and indisputably here, the gift of languages in their very origin in the church refers to known human speech.
Nowhere else in Scripture or in early church history, especially as recorded in the NT, do we get another definition, or another instance where a second sort of “unearthly-nonhuman” indistinct, language is what is imparted or comes to define what the gift of “glossais,” languages is for the early church.
3. 1 Corinthians 12:10. The word “Interpretation” here is hermenuo.
This is the normative word for translating human languages.
This word does not refer to someone arbitrarily translating babble or ecstatic non-sense into an extra-biblical meaning.
Interpretation, hermeneuo, is employed only where there is verbal grammatical structure to what is being spoken.
Hermeneuo (interpretation) is a straightforward word that refers to taking from one human language and being able to rearticulate and give its equivalent in another. The gift of hermeneuo was an endowed gift. It was not some speculative practice. It is a hermeneuo for a previously unstudied human language by the hearer.
4. 1 Corinthians 12:10, the word “kinds/varieties,” is Genos
This word refers to distinctive families, groups, ethnic, racial, or national kinds.
The world is filled with many “kinds” of languages.
We see this undeniably in Acts 2. Paul says here in 1st Corinthians that there are a variety of languages that can be given with the sign gift of “tongues.”
This verse itself, speaking of plural or many “kinds” of human languages as given, and as we witness in the book of Acts, actually blows apart the one dimensional, non-miraculous, linguistic non-sense or humanly created gibberish observable in certain Christian movements that have sprung up in the last one hundred years.
They are not employing any distinctive “kinds” of known human language, as is being stated here in the text. Rather, linguists and those who study phonetics and human speech report only the employment of mental and emotional charades filled with amorphous sounds.
This is simply not what the gift of tongues is in NT history.
5. 1 Corinthian 14:7-11 Diastole, a distinction, a difference.
Paul is clearly arguing here that the gift of languages (of tongues) has to have grammatical structure for it to be understood; it has to have a characteristic distinction from just blubbering sounds that have no true verbal construction; it has to have linguistic building blocks that all true and genuine languages have on earth.
(The Corinthian church was abusing the gift of languages, making it prominent among them and showing off with it. Chapter 14 of Corinthians is actually Paul’s corrective to get them on the right path. Corinth was surrounded by and housed many mystery cults and religions that also used ecstatic, indistinct babbling in their worship. As we will see, Paul instructs them that interpretation has to happen and it happens with distinct human language.)
6. Mark 16:17(signs) Two Greek words for new: Kainos, “new” as in something unprecedented and Neos, which would mean “brand new,” or “new born.”
Mark 16:17 uses Kainos. Therefore, Jesus is not referring to “new” languages as in: never ever heard of before, or languages that are brand new to the earth.
“New tongues” refers to the activity of something unprecedented in history but not the language, only the miraculous activity involved.
Unquestionably and unmistakably this refers to what we see in the NT record: authentic human languages that are already exist, are established, are available and in use in the world previously unknown and unlearned to the speaker—but will now, for the first time, unprecedented—be miraculously endowed to those who have never learned or spoken them before and as Jesus says, it will be for a “sign.”
Before moving to point 2, here are 2 final thoughts in summary:
(1) The “gift of glossais,” the gift of languages, refers only to rational human languages with linguistic structure, verbal grammar, and where a true and consistent translation/interpretation of the message was possible and nowhere a translation developed by an arbitrary creation of its meaning as is so common in certain Christian movements, if a translation among them is given at all.
(2) The nature and function of “tongues” experienced by the Apostles in Acts 2 are no different than the “tongues” Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12,13, 14.
There are not two kinds of “tongues.”
There is not a form of languages that is ecstatic bubbling’s filled with amorphous sounds that are non-miraculous, humanly created, and then another form of rational human languages.
The gift of languages only refers to authentic, known human languages miraculously endowed to those who have never studied or learned them previously.
Part 2 The Gift of Languages Was a Revelatory Sign Gift
1 Corinthians 14:18-22 cf. Isa. 28:11-12.
Paul affirms right in the very heart of chapter 14, the broadest chapter on languages, how the gift of languages is a sign fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and it absolutely refers to legitimate human languages becoming the judicial indicator of judgment to come for an Israel who won’t hear God in their own Hebrew tongue.
This is what is said in Isaiah 28:11-12. It is a sign to the Jews. I will speak to “this people.”
Who is being referred to as “this people?”
It can only be the nation of Israel.
Now, Isaiah’s prophecy actually had partial fulfilment in history when the Assyrians came through Israel. They spoke their barbaric language in conquering Israel and yet the Israelites still did not turn to God. This is a military judgment that fell upon Israel and was led by King Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:3-6).
The Apostle Paul now, in 1st Corinthians 14, by the Holy Spirit, affirms the completion of this prophecy with the sign gift of languages occurring now in the early church among the Jews and Gentile converts and it was serving as a sign. The Gentiles and believing Jews are now miraculously using various human languages previously unknown to them, to praise God, and their voice will be heard among unbelieving Israelites as an indicator and a witness that the nation has refused the voice and language of Jesus who spoke to them in their native tongue. Paul clearly says this right in the heart of chapter 14.
The gift of languages had a very unique and specific historical purpose. It was serving as the indicator for the Jews that judgment would come to them for their rejection of the Messiah. This would come to pass in 70 AD.
Therefore, 1 Corinthian 14:22 speaks of the sign gift of languages as ultimately being a sign to the unbelievers. Who are they? Paul confirms in Verse 21 by quoting Isaiah 28 who they are: “…this people,” which can only mean the Jewish nation.
The Apostle Paul and Peter both affirm this reality of the gift of languages. In Acts 10:44-46, it says that the circumcision (the Jews) heard the uncircumcision (the Gentiles at Ephesus), “heard them speak and magnify God,” which (1) certifies again that tongues were a revelatory sign and (2) that it was obviously communicated miraculously in a known human language because as the context in Acts 10 says, they understood it and they were amazed. This was an enormous sign to the Jewish people. (cf. Acts 19:6-8a) The gift of tongues was a revelatory sign.
Sadly, this central and high historical purpose of the gift of languages, as was prophesied to happen, is cheapened and reduced in certain Christian movements to, at times, mere privatized, emotionalized babbling that is mainly doted as the hallmark for spiritual prestige and spiritual maturity yet has absolutely nothing to do with it being a revelatory sign to unbelievers, particularly the ones it was meant for, the Jewish people.
Furthermore, the deep biblical heart of the miraculous gift of languages is that it is a revelatory sign gift for evangelism. The scan of Scripture reveals this intention. In Genesis 10 we find 70 scattered nations in the Table of Nations whose languages were baffled in Genesis 11. In Genesis 46:27b we find 70 Israelites entering into Egypt. This figure corresponds in God’s plan with the Table of Nations as is clearly communicated in Deuteronomy 32:8. In Luke 10 and Matthew 10 we find Jesus sending out His “70.” Once we arrive at Acts 2 we clearly have a “Genesis 10 reversal” among the nations because there in Jerusalem were Jewish travelers who as the text shows come from the North, South, West and East (Acts 2:5-10). God’s plan for evangelism is at the very heart and is the driving purpose of the miraculous gift of languages in the 1st Century.
The clearly humanly created, non-miraculous, amorphous babblings passed off today as a Holy Spirit gift in certain churches can only be an obvious counterfeit and does not have anything to do with the biblical sign gift of languages.
Part 3 The Cessation of Tongues is Clearly Biblical and Historical
Did the gift of tongues cease to occur in the past, in the first century? Are they still around today?
Before answering this it should be stated that we cannot look to the Charismatic or Pentecostals to answer this question, because what they call “speaking in tongues” and what they practice as “speaking in tongues” is not even remotely close to what biblical tongues are in Scripture.
Even if the sign gift of tongues did not cease, the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are not going to be the reason why we should believe they did or did not cease because again, they are not practicing anything that is what biblical” tongues” are, in shape or form or practice.
They do not even come to close to matching it. If they did not cease then we would see people speaking in distinctly rational human languages, previously unstudied, and there would be Jews present to hear the fulfilling prophetic message.
The non-miraculous humanly created amorphous sounds extolled in these groups can be produced by anyone. They are no miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit.
We know that the biblical gift of languages did cease and rightfully so, seeing that they did complete their purpose before the turn of the 1st Century as prophesied.
During the period following the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD), we find Christianity becoming largely Hellenized, meaning it was more and more Gentile in community. It moved aggressively forth and away from Jerusalem even carrying with it subtle tones of anti-Semitism toward Jewish synagogues and Jewish practice. The revelatory sign gift of languages would not have any profitable use once the Jewish nation was scattered and was deemphasized in the outreach of the Church that now spread into widely Gentile populaces, especially into the 2nd Century. History itself, both secular and church history, incontestably confirm this factor.
But let’s begin with the Apostle Paul who confirms that this would be so.
The gift of languages is mentioned in only one of the earliest Epistles of Paul, written more than likely in the early 50’s AD. In his letter to the Corinthians, he makes the statement in chapter 13 that “where there are prophecies…where there is knowledge…they will fail/vanish away.”
Prophecies and knowledge both revolve around speaking gifts. They pertain to the ability of communicating effectively God’s Truth. The Corinthians coveted these gifts. They proudly exalted them. This is why Paul is pointing out in 1 Corinthians 13 that love was the better way, and for the people to make sure that they desire and practice love first over all spiritual gifts.
Now then, concerning “prophecies and knowledge” he says these will:
καταργηθήσετα Katar-gaath-seta Katargeo—be made inoperative; they will fall.
Now, this word is found in the passive voice, which means something is going to act upon these gifts to bring them to a close. Something will stop them.
Verse 10 tells us what acts upon these gifts to end them and that is when the “Perfect” has come—the Perfect is when we reach the whole mature person. Paul is more than likely referring to our glorified state when we are in our full stature in Christ beyond this present life and in the future kingdom (Daniel 9:24b). (He infers this clearly in verse 12.) Hence, the gifts used to both understand and communicate as they are now known will no longer be needed as we now know them.
Now, when he says, “whether there be tongues (glossais, the gift of languages), he does not use the word, nor the same voice in the Greek Katar-gaath-seta that he did with knowledge and prophecies. He writes that “whether there be tongues (glossais, the gift of languages), they will”:
παύσονται powsahntai – be completed; accomplished. Now, this word is used in the middle voice when Paul writes it, which refers to the fact that something does not act upon it, such as the “Perfect,” which will act upon knowledge and prophecy, but that the miraculous gift of languages will cease in itself when it is completed in its purpose.
The “perfect” has not come to this world or to us [in this world] and so notice how Paul in verse 9-10 leaves out the gift of languages but only refers to knowledge and prophecy; and this is because these two essentially continue today.
We are still learning and teaching the Word, and we are still “forth-telling” or preaching the Word, and awaiting certain biblical prophetic fulfillment (Revelation 1:1; 19:10b).
While these are still only done in part, they will be done away with beyond this life and in God’s Kingdom.
However, Paul says that the gift of languages will stop when its purpose is accomplished. This is incontestably communicated in the context and in the language of 1 Corinthians 13.
Therefore, we must connect this truth congruently (line it up on top) to the previous foundation we have laid down from Scripture regarding what the gift of languages is:
(1) they are authentic, known, human languages miraculously given in the early church and
(2) they are clearly given as a revelatory sign gift primarily for the unbelieving Jews—therefore,
(3) it is entirely biblical to view the miraculous revelatory sign gift of languages as temporary in nature and temporary in function in the early church and have ceased to be given or have a usage today.
Again, nowhere do we see the literal, verifiable biblical sign gift of miraculously speaking in known, rational human languages previously unstudied, by those who claim the gift of “tongues” happening anywhere in the world today, at this time, in history, in the clear purpose as it was originally intended to serve.
Pentecostalism’s or Charismatic practice of irrational babblings should not even be brought to the argument because what they do and call “tongues” is not even close to the Scripture or early church history as regards the actual gift of languages.
(Moreover, because what these churches do is something that can be produced by anyone, those engaged in this counterfeit practice are convinced that it is legitimate and that it is truly the biblical gift spoke of by the Apostle. This makes it difficult to communicate the truth to them and so we must have patience and understanding. What is happening in these groups though is humanly produced; anyone can perform these amorphous sounds and therefore, anyone can be easily duped to believe that it is a spiritual occurrence. At the same time, anyone can offer an interpretation of their own making as well. No miraculous activity is happening nor is required to pass off either as real.)
At any rate, regarding the true biblical sign gift of languages, history also confirms the reality of “tongues” ceasing in the 1st century.
Before the end of the 1st century we do not find the gift of languages being exercised among the churches in the surviving writings of the Church.
In the letter of Clement to the Corinthians, a letter that dates from the late 1st or possibly early 2nd century, and ranks as one the earliest of surviving Christian documents outside of the New Testament—there is not even one categorical mention of the gift of languages among the letter’s many topics.
Throughout the writings of the early church fathers we only find the fathers writing of the gift of tongues as rational human languages that were limited to some in the early church and have since concluded in the history of the church. By the 4th Century AD, we read St. Augustine writing in his commentary on Acts 2,
“In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues’, which they had not learned, ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance’. These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.”
As was said before, the modern Charismatic and Pentecostal practice is not what biblical languages are as is clearly shown in Scripture and history. It is also important to remark upon the Pentecostal/Charismatic practice as recent in origin in modern American church history and confront it as undeniably unbiblical. The strange fire that they call “tongues” as being a Holy Spirit gifting all had its beginning in 1901 and 1906 with two events that became the fountainhead for what they continue to do today that is passed off as the gift of glossais. However, it is of recent origin, and simply does not match nor model the gift of the 1st Century gift of languages described in the NT.
Part 4 Tongues were not to have the prominent role given to them by the Corinthian church.
Chapter 14 in the Corinthian letter is principally a corrective chapter that points out the ultimate inferiority of the gift of languages as well as confronts the manner in which the Corinthian churches practiced it. This gift in the NT was not to have the prominent role the Corinthians were apparently giving it.
Interestingly enough, certain church movements today give their non-miraculous, humanly created practice a high profile, if not the highest profile in their spirituality.
1 Corinthians 14 gives clear directives for the proper use of the biblical gift of languages in the Corinthian church. It is the only epistle in the NT that deals with this. Apparently, as with so many of the other gifts being misused, abused and misunderstood at Corinth, the gift of languages was also being treated the same way.
The Corinthian church evidently had many negative behaviors and false ideas about the use of gifts and about the Christian life in general.
In 1 Corinthians 12:1-2, Paul points out their previous way of life.
Corinth was a city surrounded by many mystery religions and pagan cults that prided themselves on abilities and spirituality of all sorts, some being the practice of euphoric babbling. It is easy to see that a proper context is available and needed when reading chapter 12-14. This chapter confronts counterfeit and incorrect ways of worship in the Corinthian church. It can be contended that Paul was giving restraint to it.
Paul clearly points out the inferiority of the gift of languages when it comes to edification in the church. It was clearly not to be prominent, even though, as we have already observed, certain Christian movements who think they are practicing Biblical “tongues” put their counterfeit at the forefront.
Paul designates the inferiority of the gift of languages on 3 levels:
- It is an inferior means of edifying communication if not interpreted 1-12
- It is an inferior method of praise (not to be used selfishly) 13-17
- It is an inferior method of evangelism if without an interpreter (18-25)
- Furthermore, the gift of “tongues/languages” is nowhere taught “how to speak in tongues,” nor is it commanded anywhere that those gifted should teach others. Yet, some modern groups go as far as publishing material to give instruction on how to speak in their version of “tongues.
- The biblical sign gift of languages is a supernatural gift. No human exertion, initiation, or training is commanded in Scripture to aid in acquiring it as is often found in certain Christian groups.
Paul then provides guidelines for its proper use because the Corinthians were violating the purpose of this gift.
Again, these guidelines are generally neglected in many of the false practices of certain Christian groups counterfeit practice:
1. No more than 3 should speak (27)
2. These should go one at a time (27b “each in turn”)
(a) Not in a group,
(b) Not done all at once
3. If there is no one to interpret the language than do not speak at all (28)
This is the only difference that occurs between private and public “tongue-speaking”—that it can and should be interpreted.
Interpretation in chapter 14 is not an option, it is commanded.
Paul is emphatic in asserting that the “languages” should not be done without an interpreter. (28)
Now surely every gift will have some element of personal benefit, however, self-edification is not the goal of any spiritual gift (1 Cor.12:7) and Paul makes it clear that the gift of tongues is ultimately superfluous and unprofitable publicly if it does not edify through proper interpretation.
The Corinthians loved to show off spiritually. This was their vice all along.
The bottom line of this chapter is that the intended use of the gift of languages involved either the translation of the message (by an interpreter) for general edification in an orderly manner, or the translation of the message (by the hearer who heard it in his own language) for the evangelistic sign to unbelievers.
Many think that what Paul says in 14:2-4 and 28 means that the gift of languages is a private prayer language.
However, it is not some angelic heavenly language as we have already undoubtedly pointed out in the previous points.
Paul is again showing the Corinthians that if it cannot be used for the edification of others, which all spiritual gifts are meant for according to 1 Cor. 12:7, then do not do it.
However, if the biblical gift of languages as it was used then can be used for edification through interpretation then do not forbid it.
Some of the inadequately interpreted passages drawn upon to support the view that “tongues” is a secret heavenly privatized prayer language are:
- 1 Corinthians 14:2 The statement: “Does not speak to men but to God” is explained and illuminated in the context that without proper interpretation God is the only one who knows what is being said in the foreign human language. The phrase that “he speaks to God in mysteries,” means exactly what the verse and context is clarifying: if there is no proper orderly interpretation then the tongue-speaker is saying things unknown and are shrouded in meaning from those who do not speak the language, thus in effect is unbeneficial.
- 1 Corinthians 13:1 is the Apostle’s hypothetical argument being developed (see verse 2-3 to clearly see the conjectural nature of Paul’s argument).
(1) if it is an angelic language, how come angels always spoke human when on earth?;
(2) Why would humans (who are the Imago Dei “image of God”) need angelic language to communicate with God? Why didn’t Jesus tell us this when he taught on prayer?
(3) Also, why would it then “cease” if it is an angelic heavenly prayer language (verse 8) seeing we are going to be in “heaven” among angels one day?
Clearly, this is Paul’s conjectural argument as we see in the following verses that support the same.
- Romans 8:26 is usually prostituted to affirm this view of a heavenly language. However, the text clearly states nothing of the sort, nor speaks of a miraculous event performed by us:
(1) The Holy Spirit is the one interceding for us, and not us with human babblings.
(2) It also says that the Holy Spirit helps us with “groanings”—stegnamos στενάζομεν which are wordless sighings (no verbage applied!) and,
(3) the text further states that these “groanings, sighings “cannot be uttered”— ἀλάλητος ala-lay-tos…that is, they are not expressible with words, verba, rhema, logos! Therefore, nothing is spoken here through us as babblings toward God etc. This verse has nothing to do with the Biblical gift of languages and especially has nothing to do with the modern day non-miraculous activity in certain Christian groups.
The revelatory sign gift of tongues was a temporary supernatural ability to speak previously unstudied foreign, authentic human languages for the purpose of evangelism and edification of others at the infancy of the church.
It is quite wonderful and enormously beautiful when understood for what it really was in church history.
The manifestation of ecstatic, emotionally induced human babblings does not bear any resemblance nor model, nor have anything in common in any way to the miraculous sign gift of languages that occurred in the early church as we read in the NT. It is a practice that is counterfeit in form and established on the shaky ground of Charismatic history that is recent in origin. There were many new cults and false teachings that sprung up in religious American history in the 18th and 19th century. This is just one of them.
People or churches who utilize intense emotional environments, and zealously promote group acceptance by way of spiritual prestige, and aggressively lead their people in psychologically driven counterfeit manifestations must be viewed from a biblical perspective as doctrinally suspect.
We must lovingly challenge this false practice and guard ourselves from its deception.