What is the Gift of Tongues?

Early in 2016, I wrote an article pertaining to the periods in my life where I pretended to speak in tongues.

In many ways, this gift is very much still a mystery to me (hence the name of this blog post).

Now before we dive in deeper, I only have one request…

For a moment, I humbly ask that you forget about every experience you may or may not have pertaining to this gift.

I don’t say this to suggest that you should listen to my every word without hesitation. I only say this so that we can objectively look at the word of God, without having any biases concerning this gift.

In simpler terms:

If you don’t believe in tongues, put your experiences behind you and please keep reading.

If you do believe in tongues, put your experiences behind you and please keep reading.

Let’s dive in:

1. The Day of Pentecost

The “Day of Pentecost” refers to the event when the early disciples of Jesus Christ experienced the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way.

What was so supernatural about it?

Well for one they heard something like a “mighty rushing wind from heaven” (Acts 2:2), flames of fire rested on every individual gathered in the room (Acts 2:3) and lastly they all spoke in tongues! (Acts 2:4).

This is as supernatural as it gets lol.

Let’s pause here for a moment.

Now the word “tongue” simply means “a language”.

Thankfully the use of this term is not too foreign to us (for example, the phrase/ question “What’s your native tongue?” is a common use of the word tongue in our day and age).

So the question is, what tongue/ language were the disciples speaking on the day of Pentecost?

According to a multitude of eye witness’s from every nation, the disciples were speaking in various native languages of other nations (Acts 2:5-8).

What were they declaring in these various languages?

“The mighty works of God” (Acts 2:9-11)

What made this act such a supernatural experience was the fact that these disciples did not know the languages they were speaking in.

For example, imagine if one day, in the midst of individuals who only spoke Mandarin, I began preaching the gospel in Mandarin, when in reality I only know English.

My sudden ability to declare the works of God in a language previously unknown to me is what makes this gift so special.

Here are some things we can take away concerning the “The Day of Pentecost”:

  • The disciples supernaturally received the Holy Spirit and declared the mighty works of God in various native languages
  • This was affirmed by a multitude of devout men from every nation (Acts 2:5-6; Acts 2:9-11)
  • The first occurrence of tongues in scripture, was a spiritual utterance of known languages

2. What about Unintelligible Tongues?

Now when I say “unintelligible” I simply mean a language which can not be understood by humans of any kind (i.e., a language not of this world)

This is where the controversy lies.

Is the gift of tongues only limited to utterance of known languages (as observed in the Day of Pentecost)?

If that’s the case what about the use of unintelligible tongues we often hear in today’s church?

Let’s look at some scriptures for answers.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul emphasizes on the goodness of spiritual gifts (one of them being the gift of tongues 1 Corinthians 12:7-10).

He then goes on to emphasize the importance of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-4.

In essence, Paul teaches that despite how good these spiritual gifts are (the gift of tongues, the gift of prophecy, the gift of knowledge, the gift of faith) if they are practiced outside the context of love, they serve no value.

With that being said, lets focus our attention to 1 Corinthians 13:1 to see Paul’s teaching on tongues.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal

1 Corinthians 13:1

Notice he mentions two “types” of tongues in this passage.

1. The Tongues of Men

Recall that the word “tongues” simply means a language.

Also recall that apostle Paul wrote briefly about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:10, henceforth we know the “tongues” being referred to in the passage above is not mere speech but rather an emphasis on the gift of tongues.

Lastly, recall the details from the events of Pentecost–> when the disciples spoke in various languages of other nations (i.e., of men) which were foreign to them.

Henceforth, we can safely assume that the “tongues of men” being referenced in 1 Corinthians 13:1 refers to the supernatural gift of uttering the mighty works of God in native language (foreign to the speaker) as observed on the Day of Pentecost.

2. Tongues of Angels

Before breaking this down any further, let’s remind ourselves of the question we are trying to answer.

What are unintelligible tongues? Are they Biblical?

With these questions in mind, let’s consider the “tongues of angels” (aka the language of angels).

It’s good to point out that this is the only verse in all of scripture that mentions “tongues of angels”.

Moreso, if we want to get nitty-gritty, every single moment an angel spoke in scripture, there was no mention of what their native tongue was.

Nevertheless, the tongues of angels must be foreign to all other languages on earth (i.e., tongues of men), otherwise why would Paul make the differentiation? .

Henceforth, the tongues of angels are unintelligible (foreign) to humans.

However, we must ask ourselves another tough question.

Was Apostle Paul speaking in hyperbole or a literal sense?

His statement “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…”, indicates that there is a possibility of the two types of languages.

For example, a statement such as: “If I walked to Mars but refused to gaze at the beauty along the way…”, doesn’t indicate that me walking to Mars is a plausible reality.

Thankfully, the certainty concerning “the tongues of men” are confirmed from Acts 2:5-8, however there are no other scriptures which discuss “the tongues of angels” to affirm its certainty .

So what’s the verdict?

Are the tongues of angels a certainty? Or did Paul simply use it as a hyperbole?

Here is what we are certain of: The tongues of angels aka tongues unintelligible to humans, are a possibility , given the context of 1 Corinthians 13:1. The gift of tongues pertaining to tongues of other foreign languages, is a certainty based on Acts 2.

Well let’s look at another scripture to provide more context concerning unintelligible tongues.

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.

1 Corinthians 14:1-2

Apostle Paul here continues emphasizing on the necessity of pursuing love before prioritizing the gifts of the Spirit.

Verse 2 is where things get interesting. He states that one who speaks in an unknown tongue speaks mysteries onto God for no one understands Him. Further in verse 9, Apostle Paul continues this thought by emphasizing on tongues that are not intelligible, stating: “how will anyone what is said?”

So initially, when I read these verse, I thought clearly that it provided evidence to fully justify the profession of unintelligible tongues.

However, this interpretation is often challenged as we read further into the chapter:

10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.

1 Corinthians 14:10-11

The scripture above in essence states that if I do not understand a language in this world, I am foreigner to that language.

So when Paul spoke earlier about uttering tongues onto God (not men), was the mystery only in the fact that the tongue was a worldly language foreign to the speaker?

For example;

Lets say a brother in Christ began speaking tongues in Mandarin among a group of English speaking Christians. To the congregation, he would be uttering mysteries in the Spirit, assuming no one understood Mandarin. In such a case, this brother would be speaking to God and not men (as we see in 1 Corinthians 14:2).

All this to say, the evidence of 1 Corinthians 14:9-11 brings about an argument that the unintelligible tongues discussed in verses 1-2 are worldly languages foreign to a congregation.

So what should we do with all this information and slight uncertainty?

I believe there are 4 certainties to draw on this discussion.

1. The gift of tongues is a good spiritual gift.

2. The gift of tongues is a real spiritual gift.

3. We can say with certainty, that the gift of tongues is a supernatural form of uttering the mighty works of God in a native language foreign to the speaker (Acts 2:11). However, given the context of 1 Corinthians 13:1 (and lack of supporting scriptures mentioning the tongues of angels), we can not say with certainty that the gift of tongues encompasses the “tongues of angels”. In other words, the tongues of angels is either another variation of the gift of tongues (by which the works of God are manifested in an angelic language) or a hyperbole given by Paul the apostle under the inspiration of God to prove a point on the topic of love.

With all this being said, I believe we should take it upon ourselves to really focus on the 4th point:

4. We are encouraged to desire/ seek after Spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1)

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy”

1 Corinthians 14:1

What we know to be certain is that pursuing love, and earnestly desiring after spiritual gifts is a good thing.

As Christians we have the privilege and freedom of desiring spiritual gifts (the gift of tongues being one of them) and earnestly asking God to manifest them into our lives.

So our action? Earnestly ask God for spiritual gifts for the common good of the church, whiles pursing love. Don’t be like me and attempt to forcefully practice a gift simply to appease others. Genuinely desire them, and ask God with the right intentions.

God in his sovereignty will appoint every believer a gift through the Holy Spirit according to His will (1 Cor 12:11).

Moreover, the answer to the question “Are there spiritual tongues which are unintelligible?” will become clear to those who bear the gift, for He is not a God of confusion.

For me, since I personally do not posses the gift of tongues (in any variation), the unintellgible question remains a mystery to me.

What is certain is that all gifts have been provided by God for the common good of the church. So let’s pursue them with this vision in mind.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Comments

  1. I appreciate this balanced interpretation. It’s very important to address the tough questions rather than gloss over them.

    I pray that our glorious Father would continue to fill you with the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him (Ephesians 1: 17).

    Like

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