The Purpose of Tongues

By Irvin Himmel

When Paul stood on the stairs of the castle following his arrest in Jerusalem, he addressed the people in the Hebrew tongue (Acts 21:40). Daniel and his friends were taught the tongue of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4). Moses forewarned that the Israelites’ failure to hearken to God would result in a nation’s being brought against them from the end of the earth, “a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand” (Deut. 28:49). A “tongue” is a language.

As Jesus was sending forth the apostles to preach the gospel to every creature, He promised that signs would accompany the believers. One of these signs was: “they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17). Any language which one has never spoken would be for him a “new tongue.”

On the first Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ, the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, “and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4). This speaking in tongues was miraculous. The apostles were empowered by the Spirit to speak in tongues “other” than what they ordinarily spoke: they had not studied the languages which they began using.

These tongues were “new” in that the apostles had not spoken them previously. However, they were not new to those who heard. The multitudes were amazed “because that every man heard them speak in his own language.” They asked, “Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?” (Acts 2:6-8).

The “new tongues” promised by Jesus were “other languages.” This supernatural gift was a “sign” to the unbelievers that the apostles of Christ were indeed men of God. They were not using unintelligible gibberish or mere ecstatic utterance. Such a miracle had never been witnessed previously. The effect was to draw the attention of the hearers to the marvelous truths being declared by Peter and the other apostles.

Supernatural tongue-speaking was a gift that could be imparted through the laying on of the hands of an apostle. This is illustrated in Acts 19:6. After certain people at Ephesus had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, “and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”

Paul discussed tongue-speaking, along with other miraculous endowments, in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14. One having this gift might be moved by the Spirit to speak in a tongue foreign to all who were present. In that case an interpreter would be needed, hence some had the miraculous gift of interpretation of tongues. In the absence of an interpreter, the one empowered to speak in a tongue (foreign or unknown to those present) was to keep silent (1 Cor. 14:27, 28).

The purpose of tongue-speaking was clearly expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14-22.

Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not . . .
Miraculous tongue-speaking on Pentecost confirmed to unbelievers that the apostles were inspired or moved by the Spirit of God. Tongues were a sign that the Holy Spirit was being poured out. They were useful in gaining the attention of unbelievers and in producing conviction. In a similar way, when the Spirit “fell” on Cornelius and his house (Acts 11:15), they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 10:44-46). This was a direct outpouring of the Spirit, not an impartation through apostolic hands. Nevertheless, it gave witness that God put no difference between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15:7-9).

A “sign” is a token, mark, indication, attestation, or verification of something. The signs mentioned by Jesus in Mark 16:17-18 were for the confirmation of the gospel. So the apostles “went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20).

Miraculous tongue-speaking signified to the world (unbelievers or outsiders) that the gospel message was from God, not man. Matthew Poole sums it up in these words in his comments on 1 Corinthians 14:22: Tongues are “for the confirmation of the truth of the doctrine of the gospel; signifying that the doctrine which was so delivered in every nation’s language, must be from heaven, from whence the first ministers must have their power to speak . . .”

Supernatural tongues, like other special gifts to confirm the word, were “done away” when the perfect revelation of God’s will came (1 Cor. 13:8-10). R. L. Whiteside wrote the following in 1941:

The apostles did not know the full will of God right at the beginning of their inspiration. Revelation was made only as they needed it — some one day and some another. To one was revealed a part and to another a part. All of that ceased when the full revelation was completed. We have the results of their inspiration. Since the perfect will of God has been revealed, there would now be nothing for an inspired man to reveal. That which is perfect has come; hence, that which was in part has been done away (Annual Lesson Commentary, 279).

Prophecies, tongues, and miraculous knowledge belong to the apostolic age. They served their divine purpose and have ceased.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 7 p14  April 6, 2000