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While in seminary, I took a required Greek course on 1 Corinthians.  As part of the requirement for the course we had to right position papers on three topics that were prominent in the Corinthian church and letter:  divorce and remarriage, the role of women in the church, and the sign gifts.  The thinking of the professor was that these were topics that we would need to understand and have a firm position on before we entered formal ministry.

Was he right!

It wasn’t long into my pastorate before I faced all three of those issues and all of them have been recurring topics in my teaching and counseling ministry.  No chapter in the New Testament deals with one of those topics — tongues — as clearly as 1 Corinthians 14.  A few years ago I put together a summary of that chapter and the broader biblical perspective on tongues.  This is not a comprehensive study, but simply an overview that synthesizes what I (and our church) believe about tongues. (You may also download this as a one-page PDF.)

1. The Nature of Biblical Tongues

Biblical tongues were literal languages.  The tongues of Acts 2:4 are defined in Acts 2:6, 8, 11 where it is clear that visitors from foreign countries heard the Gospel in their native, foreign languages.

Biblical tongues were a lesser gift (1 Cor. 14:1-4).  It was not mentioned in any of the listings of gifts in Romans, Ephesians, or 1 Peter.  In fact, Paul wrote some 12 letters after 1 Corinthians and never again referred to this gift.  It was a gift that could be misused for selfish purposes (1 Cor. 14:4).

Biblical tongues were a temporary sign gift that ceased after the apostolic age (1 Cor. 13:8; Heb. 2:3-4). The statement in 1 Cor. 13:8 is “tongues, they will cease.”  “They will cease” is in a form (middle/reflexive) that should be translated “they will cease themselves.”  In other words it cannot be suggested they will continue until the time of Christ when He will bring an end to them. In that case the verb would need to be in the passive voice (“they will be caused to cease [by God]”). The middle voice suggests they will cease of themselves because their need has been fulfilled.  In addition, Hebrews 2:4 suggests fairly clearly that early in the church, there had been apostolic validation by these sign gifts (“signs and wonders”), but that they had generally ceased by the time of the writing of Hebrews.

Biblical tongues were restricted by clear guidelines (1 Cor. 14:27-34).

  • No more than three people were to speak in tongues at a service (v. 27)
  • The speaking was to be done in turn, with only one speaking at a time (v. 27)
  • The tongues were to be interpreted; if there was no interpreter, there was to be no speaking of tongues (vv. 27-28).
  • Women were not permitted to speak in tongues (v. 34).

Biblical tongues are not a “prayer language” or “angelic language.”  The phrase “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) is hypothetical — there is no suggestion that this is a real language.  Likewise, the “groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26) refers to the communication of the Holy Spirit, not men.  These groanings are divine communication between the members of the godhead that are unintelligible to mankind.

2. The Purpose of Biblical Tongues

Biblical tongues (and other sign gifts) authenticated the message of the apostles that Jesus is the Messiah,” before the completion of the Canon of Scripture (2 Cor. 12:12).  With the completion of the canon (the Bible) there was no longer any use for an authenticating sign; the Bible is the authority in verifying the message that God’s servants proclaim.  Tongues were a sign gift belonging to the infancy stage of the church (1 Cor. 13:10-11; 14:20; 2 Cor. 12:12; Acts 1:21-22).  By the time the early church had begun to “age” and mature (near the end of the NT Canon), miracles were already looked at as something in the past (Heb. 2:3-4).

Biblical tongues were a sign to unbelieving Jews (1 Cor. 14:21-22).  This sign was actually a manifestation of the judgment of God on Israel’s unbelief, given to evidence to Israel that they were being punished by God.

Biblical tongues were to be used to edify the whole body, not for personal use (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:4).