The Purpose of the Gift of Tongues

We must be very cautious to not get so caught up in an experience that we forget why we are experiencing it to begin with. People who are professing to be speaking in tongues focus on the experience and seldom talk about the purpose for which they are doing so. It is not until we understand the purpose of the gift of tongues that we can understand why this gift is not still relevant today.

The gift of tongues is unique. It is unlike any other spiritual gift. While the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, discerning of spirits and even faith helped to edify the body of believers, the gifts of healing and working of miracles helped to bring people into the body of Christ, primarily Jews. The gifts of healing and the workings of miracles are what we refer to as sign gifts. The very first gift that we see given was performed by the Holy Spirit Himself on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. This was the gift of tongues. Tongues were also a “sign” gift, but it was not a sign for just anyone. It was primarily used as a sign for the Jews. We should note that this gift only occurs three times in the book of Acts. The first appearance of this gift occurred on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Jews were present in this instance. The second appearance of this gift takes place in Acts chapter 10 and again Jews were present. The third and final time this gift appears in the book of Acts we read yet again that Jews were present. Notice the following chart taken from the Bible Knowledge Commentary on the New Testament, page 408:

Passage Tongues - Speaker Audience Related to Salvation Purpose
2:1-4 The 12 Apostles and others Unsaved Jews After Salvation To validate (for Jews) the fulfillment of Joel 2
10:44-47 Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) Saved Jews (Peter and others) who doubted God's plan The same time as salvation To validate (for Jews) Paul's message
19:1-7 About 12 Old Testament believers Jews who needed confirmation of the message The same time as salvation To validate (for Jews) Paul's message

Paul confirms the significance of this by his statement that the gift of tongues was not useful for the believer at all, but was a sign for the unbeliever:

1 Cor 14:22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. NIV

Marks Gospel states:

Mark 16:17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues;… NIV

The gift of being able to speak in an unknown language is certainly a unique gift from God. The purpose of that gift however was a sign to the unbelieving Jews (See chart above). In the three examples of the use of tongues that are found in Scripture (Acts Chapters 2, 10, 19), we see that this gift was used to confirm the message to a Jewish audience and/or participants. There is nothing in these passages that reveals that the people speaking in tongues ever asked or prayed specifically for the gift. These passages never suggest that this gift was ever used for personal self-edification nor does it mention any feelings or emotions involved in the exercising of this gift. The Bible clearly speaks to the purpose of the gift, not how it felt. This does not coincide with the teaching of tongues today. The purpose of tongues as a sign to the unbelieving Jew is overlooked and the emphasis of the benefits of the personal experience are proclaimed. They teach that people are to seek and expect this gift. They emphasize the “power” that one is supposed to feel when the Holy Spirit takes control of your tongue. These false teachings of man are simply trying to entice the lusts of the flesh. Man wants to feel good and this experience is supposed to do just that. However, Paul clearly teaches the opposite in 1 Corinthians 14.

Tongues had a specific purpose. They were not given for us to have a special language with which to speak to God. God has given everyone the ability to talk to Him in their own native language, for the reader that is probably English. No Scripture commands or compells us to pray to God in a language that we cannot understand. Every person in the Bible that communicated with God or His angels always had the ability to understand them in their own language and they were able to speak in their own native tongue. There are no examples in Scripture to suggest that God desires for us to speak to Him in a secret language that the speaker is unable to interpret. There can be no communication when only half of the party understands the conversation and there is Scriptural evidence to suggest that it is necessary. In fact Paul tells us just the opposite. He says, "Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me." (1 Cor 14:9-11)

Speaking in tongues, as it is taught today, is a man made doctrine that is read into the Scriptures. The Bible never speaks about the emotions involved with speaking in tongues, therefore in order to believe this doctrine, you must assume that people who spoke in tongues had a certain feeling or blessing involved. Scripture is silent about emotions or spiritual benefits from speaking in tongues. The Bible does not tell us that tongues enriches our spiritual life. The Scriptures never talks about how is makes us feel. We do a grave injustice to the Word of God to add to it our own interpretations, desires or agendas.

In order to understand the primary reason for the gift of tongues it is essential that we understand that Acts 2 is the beginning of a new dispensation. We must first realize that the Nation of Israel (Jews) were God’s chosen vessel through which the blessings of God would come to this earth. Through them we received the Law of Moses and through their lineage came Jesus the Christ. They were the salt of the earth (Matthew 5). They were the light unto which the Gentile could see the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through all His riches poured out on them. Although the Old Testament prophets did not understand this new dispensation of grace, they were searching for it intently (1 Peter 1:10-12). This new dispensation called together both the Jew and Gentile, so that the Gentile as well as the Jew could be a part of the wonderful grace of God. This gospel would extend to everyone. Surely the gift of speaking in foreign tongues signified or testified to this fact. It helped usher in the dispensation of grace. The gospel was to start first with the Jews then reach to the Samaritans going forth from there unto the Gentiles:

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." NIV

This is exactly what happened! First we have the outpouring of the Spirit on only the Jews (Acts 2), then the Samaritans (Acts 8), and then the Gentiles (Acts 10). Take a close look at the first Gentile Conversion.

The event surrounding the first Gentile conversion is one that deserves some attention. Before the conversion of Cornelius (a Gentile) in Acts 10, God had to prepare Peter for the event. As Peter was praying, he had a vision that something like a sheet was lowered down from heaven and it contained both clean and unclean animals. We know that the Jews were not allowed to eat unclean animals. In this vision God tells Peter to “kill and eat.” Peter declared “Surely not, Lord!” This happened three times. God told Peter not to call unclean what God has made clean. This vision was to reveal to Peter that his message was also for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews. Notice what he says later about his vision as he approached Cornelius:

Acts 10:28 He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. NIV

The message of Peter is very important. Not only does he share the gospel, he reveals the truth that God’s plan is available to the Gentile as well as the Jew.

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." NIV

Then, read what happens next:

Acts 10:44-46 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. NIV

The circumcised were the Jews. They could hear with their own ears the tongues that were being spoken. This gift of tongues was a sign proving to them that what Peter was preaching was from God, and that God was indeed opening the door for the Gentiles. There was no doubt for those who were present. Remember, the Jews believed that Gentiles were unclean and this new revelation was not something they were ready to quickly embrace. In fact this event with Peter stirred up quite a bit of confusion. Read what happens next:

Acts 11:1-3 The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." NIV

Even after hearing that the Gentiles received the Word of God, they still criticized Peter for going to the Gentiles, regardless of the result! As we read the account, Peter had to explain everything to them, including a very important part, notice what he said:

Acts 11:15-17 "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" NIV

The Gentiles were given the same gift of tongues that the Jews were given on the day of Pentecost at the beginning of Acts 2. We find this confirmation significant in that God is unifying a people unto Himself both Jew and Gentile and is signifying it with tongues. It takes us back to Genesis chapter 11 where God used languages to cause division. Now He uses them to bring unity in Christ. What better sign than to allow them to understand foreign languages. And it is important for God to give a sign, for Jews required a sign:

1 Cor 1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: KJV [NIV, NKJV - request a sign, NASB - ask for a sign, ESV- demands a sign]

The Jews specifically asked for a sign of the Christ on several different occasions.

John 2:18 Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? NIV

In the case of the Gentile conversion, the sign gift of tongues served its purpose. Notice what the Hebrew apostles and disciples said to Peter after he explained to them that it was God who poured out His Spirit on these people in the same manner that they had received it; accompanied by the same gift of tongues.

Acts 11:18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." NIV

So we see then that the purpose of the gift of tongues is not for self-edification, but for a sign to the Jews to reveal that the unification of both the Jew and the Gentile was taking place. This gift has served its purpose and is no longer needed today. All of the gifts of the Spirit had a purpose and that purpose has been fulfilled. (See our paper Purpose of the Gifts for further explanation) These things are no longer needed today, for today we have a more sure word of Prophecy, the Scripture (2 Peter 1:19-21).

For an in depth study on this topic please read our page titled "Spiritual Gifts."

Print Page