The Greek word γλώσσα (glóssa) means tongue or language. A Tongue may refer to the physical organ (Mk 7:33, 1 Cor 14:9, James 1:26). It may also mean ‘the language used by a particular people in distinction from that of other nations.’ This is how it applies to Acts 2:11; Isa. 66:18; Dan. 3:4, 5:19. When used this way, it refers to a common language people speak, like English or Luganda or Chinese, or a language that is unintelligible to man.
The gift of tongues, in scripture, would refer to the unlearned ability to speak in other languages by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, either for evangelistic purposes or personal edification. Evangelistic tongues are human languages that a believer speaks the gospel in without prior learning, to a people group that can understand him/her. An example is what happened at Pentecost in Acts 2:4 (and what Christ refers to in Mark 16:17).
The Epiphany on Pentecost Day
The tongues at Pentecost were evangelistic. As many devout Jews and proselytes of Judaism had gathered in Jerusalem from many nations and tongues for the Pentecost Feast, God poured out His Spirit on His people, as a sign for the New Covenant He was making with the new Israel. On Pentecost day, the Jews used to remember God’s giving of the Law of Moses on Mount Sinai, fifty days after they left Egypt, which were fifty days after the Passover. On this day God made a Covenant with Israel (Exod. 19). Now, fifty days after the celebration of the Jewish Passover and fifty days after the death and resurrection of Christ, God makes a New Covenant with the new Israel.
Just as there were ‘thunderings and lightnings,’ loud sounds of trumpets and trembling as well as fire and smoke and earthquake (Exod. 19:16-18) on the inauguration of the Old Covenant, the same happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost. God was making a New Covenant with His people, and His presence was witnessed by great sounds from heaven, and ‘tongues as of fire.’
The Sinai Covenant was marked with the preaching of holiness and a summon to repentance (Exod. 19). On this occasion, God recounted His goodness to Israel and His good works of redemption. It was an evangelistic appeal to the house of Israel, to enter into a covenant with God.
At Jerusalem also, God’s presence and purpose are witnessed evangelistically. The Apostles through their preaching (in tongues) recount the goodness of God (Acts 2:11), and Peter summons people to repentance. He calls them to see the work of God in their midst, and enter into a covenant with God (Acts 2:22-39).
On Sinai, the Covenant was exclusive to the Jews and those who renounced their gentile identity to live as Jews. In Jerusalem, the characteristic of the New Covenant is that it brings together ‘every tongue and nation and tribe’ (Rev. 5:9). For this reason, those who preach this new message speak in tongues, or languages of Gentiles, preaching the gospel to them. Thus, the crowds, amazed at what was happening asked:
‘“Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? How is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”’ (Acts 2:7-12).
The tongues in Acts 2 thus were evangelistic. And let me also add this, that Pentecost happened once, and shall never happen again. The reason being, as I explained, that Pentecost signifies the making of a Covenant between God and a people, first with Israel, and then, with the church. There is no longer any people category excluded from the two covenants, with which God will make a promise of redemption. We should learn from Pentecost, but we must never expect a repetition of the Pentecost experience. After the cross, God is no longer making covenants with men or nations.
On Tongues for Personal Prayer
Paul by far and large dwells on evangelistic tongues in 1 Cor. 14, or, as he refers to them, ‘a sign’ to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22).
In 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul explains spiritual gifts and their place in the body of Christ. He also instructs us on how to walk in these gifts, in corporate worship. Paul begins by emphasizing that all gifts come from God, and for God’s work in the body (1 Cor 12:46). They are not personal amusement toys, and it’s not up to me and you to choose which gifts we want. We are not God. Secondly, the analogy of the body helps us learn that no single person is the whole body, and therefore no single person should expect to possess all the gifts (1 Cor 12:7-11).
It is God who chooses who receives the gifts, and He decides based on His infinite wisdom and knowledge of the need the body has. Because God is all-knowing, He knows which gift is needed where and when, and He provides these gifts for the edification of the body.
Paul’s emphasis on gifts to the Corinthians is that we must choose corporate edification above individual tastes and preferences. For this reason, He emphasizes that we must exalt love above everything else, including faith and hope (1 Cor 13). In love, we are to seek to edify others more than ourselves. And this has profound implications for how we exercise every gift, including that of tongues for personal prayer.
The key word here is ‘personal.’ Paul says that if one has a tongue which he believes should be spoken publicly (in the conscious presence of any church member in a corporate gathering), let him interpret what he says (1 Cor 14:13). This way, those who hear your tongues can understand what you just said and give glory to God. Do not speak in tongues loudly unless you are willing to interpret what you just expressed. Personal prayer should be private, not public.
‘If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.’ 1 Cor. 14:27-28
Tongues for personal prayer should be kept secret, between you and God. No one else needs to hear your prayer, for no one else but God is supposed to answer your prayer. If it is not for the congregation, keep it to yourself, or home.
Why This is Important
I have had many people tell me how they have been looked down at for not speaking in tongues. One friend of mine in South Korea informs me how the charismatic church she is part of continually insists that she speaks in tongues, arrogantly telling her how she is suppressing the Spirit of God. ‘They make me feel like am not a Christian (as) they keep reminding me about tongues. They told me that I need to go to the next level in my intercession by asking God to speak in tongues.’
Many believers have the same experience, being caused to doubt their salvation because they do not pray in tongues. But this is very wrong and unbiblical. As we noticed, tongues for prayer must be private and not public. So, no one but God should even know whether you speak them or not.
But also, the measure of our spiritual growth is not whether we speak in tongues or not. The test is the fruit of the Spirit; love, kindness, patience, wisdom, purity, joy, longsuffering. The church at Corinth was so arrogant about their speaking in tongues that Paul was prompted to rebuke them. He said: I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church, I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:18-19).
One other thing. We saw that it is God who chooses which gift to give to who, depending on need. We also saw that no single member of the body should expect to have all the gifts, which plainly means that there is no individual gift everyone will have (apart from salvation), and no one has all the gifts. Be content with what God has given you, and stop being greedy or looking down on others who do not have the gift you have. If you have any gift, it is for the benefit of those who do not have it. And if it is for your individual edification, keep it private.
I conclude by beseeching us to heed the warnings of scripture. Therefore, if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant (1 Cor 14:23, 33, 37-38).
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