The following is reproduced from a letter written in response to questions on the subject of tongues. While much elaboration has been made on the subject, it remains necessary to clarify these issues for the contemporary situation, with particular regard to the Ghanaian Christian community in Accra, from which region the questions came to me.
The first record of the use of tongues is found in Acts 2. There, the brethren are gathered on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Christ, in one accord. Suddenly the Holy Spirit filled them in a most expressive way, and they began to speak in tongues.
The chapter records that these tongues were intelligible to Jews and converts from all over the empire. In fact, these observers noted that they heard and understood that the apostles were speaking the wonderful works of God.
An important truth then is that tongues are human languages. They can be spiritually induced, and will be intelligible to speakers of that language and to people whom have received the gift of interpretation.
NB: The tongues were used to testify about God, not to pray.
The Gifted Centurion
The second case is in the tenth chapter of Acts. Here, the story of Cornelius is related. Cornelius was a centurion. He no doubt spoke Latin. Peter, who was sent to minister to him, was doubtless a Jew, who spoke Hebrew. How was Peter to perform his task?
Well, Christ had earlier intimated a very important fact related to understanding tongues. In Mark 16:17, He revealed the following:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; – Mark 16:17, KJV.
Peter had no need to worry, and as he discovered, God was faithful when he went to do the work. As he shared the word of God with Cornelius, they began to speak in tongues, magnifying the name of the Lord. This convinced Peter that they had no doubt understood his Hebrew, and were now expressing in new tongues, various spiritual truths about God in confirmation of this.
We must only show that here as well, the tongues are of the same nature as the apostle experienced at Pentecost. The fact that Peter and those who came with him understood that they magnified God in these tongues indicates this.
But more finally, Peter’s report to the brethren back in Jerusalem seals the matter. In Acts 11:15 he reports that the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household “as on us at the beginning”.
The Ephesian Disciples
The last instance of the use of this gift is found in Acts 19, where Paul visits the Ephesian disciples. These had earlier been baptized unto John’s baptism, that is, John the Baptist’s, baptism. The following extract from Matthew Henry helps clarify this point:
“They own that they were baptized unto John’s baptism– eiv to Iwannou baptisma that is, as I take it, they were baptized in the name of John, not by John himself (he was far enough from any such thought), but by some weak, well-meaning disciple of his, that ignorantly kept up his name as the head of a party, retaining the spirit and notion of those disciples of his that were jealous of the growth of Christ’s interest, and complained to him of it, Joh 3:26. Some one or more of these, that found themselves much edified by John’s baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, not thinking that the kingdom of heaven, which he spoke of as at hand, was so very near as it proved, ran away with that notion, rested in what they had, and thought they could not do better than to persuade others to do so too; and so, ignorantly, in a blind zeal for John’s doctrine, they baptized here and there one in John’s name, or, as it is here expressed, unto John’s baptism, looking no further themselves, nor directing those that they baptized any further.” MHC
Paul instructed that they receive the baptism that any disciple of Christ would have baptized them unto: that unto the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. After this, Paul laid his hand on them in prayer, and God heard and answered, and they received the Holy Spirit and spoke in new tongues, prophesying, or preaching. Again, Matthew Henry gives useful commentary:
“God granted the thing he prayed for: The Holy Ghost came upon them in a surprising overpowering manner, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied, as the apostles did and the first Gentile converts, Ac 10:44. This was intended to introduce the gospel at Ephesus, and to awaken in the minds of men an expectation of some great things from it; and some think that it was further designed to qualify these twelve men for the work of the ministry, and that these twelve were the elders of Ephesus, to whom Paul committed the care and government of that church. They had the Spirit of prophesy, that they might understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God themselves, and the gift of tongues, that they might preach them to every nation and language. Oh, what a wonderful change was here made on a sudden in these men! those that but just now had not so much as heard that there was any Holy Ghost are now themselves filled with the Holy Ghost; for the Spirit, like the wind, blows where and when he listeth.” MHC
I have endeavoured to stay completely away from what tongues are not. This is indeed what they are:
- A gift of the Holy Spirit;
- Consisting the spiritual impartation of languages not already spoken by the gifted;
- Whose purpose is for preaching (prophesying) unto others and testifying to the power and goodness of God;
- Which can be interpreted by gifted people and understood by speakers of the language (1 Corinthians 14:13, Acts 2:7 – 11).
It should suffice then to make clear what they are not, vis-a-vis what they are:
They are not:
- Non-human languages (this concept has no Biblical origin)
- Whose purpose is for praying to God (ostensibly so that the Devil and his minions can’t understand, a not very intelligent view, given that the Devil carried our his early obedience and subsequent rebellion in heaven in the heavenly, angelic tongue, and subsequently attended heavenly meetings and spoke in that same tongue [Job 1:6 – 12]. If tongues are angelic languages, the devil knows them, who disputed Michael over the body of Moses [Jude 9]);
- Which can be spoken simultaneously by more than three people, let alone by thousands (1 Corinthians 14:23, 27);
- Or left uninterpreted (1 Corinthians 14:27, 28);
- And which form the defining characteristic of true Christians (1 Corinthians 12:7 – 11, 1 Corinthians 14:5).
I hope that this brief outline will help to clarify the matter of what the authentic gift of tongues is.
King James Bible
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible