Does God Still Give the Gift of Speaking in Tongues? Part 1
In 1 Corinthians 14 the apostle Paul spends some time teaching the church in Corinth about the spiritual gift that is commonly known as speaking in tongues.
In the phrase “speaking in tongues,” “tongues” just means “languages.” So in modern English, “speaking in languages” is actually a much better way of referring to this gift. And in modern English versions of the Bible too “speaking in languages” is a better translation of the Greek.
Nevertheless, because the phrase “speaking in tongues” is so widely used, I will stick with this term in this article. And when referring to an individual example of using this gift, I will use the term “speaking in a tongue.”
WHAT THIS GIFT IS
When someone speaks in a tongue, they speak in a language that they don’t understand with their mind. The person’s spirit connects with their mouth to form words that have meaning, but their mind is not involved.
Paul describes this situation in the context of prayer in 1 Cor 14:14:
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive.”
THE PURPOSES OF SPEAKING IN TONGUES
In 1 Cor 14 Paul refers to two purposes of speaking in tongues.
Tongues for strengthening the individual Christian
First, he says that this gift is used for personal spiritual strengthening.
In verses 4-5 he states:
“4 The person who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the person who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I wish that you could all speak in tongues . . .”
Paul is explicit here that speaking in a tongue serves to build up a Christian who uses it. And he is clear that he would like all believers to be able use this gift for this purpose.
Similarly, in v. 18 he says:
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”
Again, Paul stresses the usefulness of speaking in tongues for the purpose of personal spiritual strengthening.
Tongues for strengthening the local church
The second purpose that Paul gives for speaking in tongues is to strengthen the local church.
In v. 5 he tells his readers:
“The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church might be built up.”
Here Paul is thinking of a situation where someone speaks a message from God in a tongue and then interprets the incomprehensible language into language that those listening can understand. The result will be that the listeners are built up in the faith.
Similarly, in v. 13 he tells his readers:
“Therefore, the person who speaks in a tongue should pray that he can interpret.”
And then in v. 27 he says:
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be two or three at most, in turn, and someone should interpret.”
This use of speaking in tongues referred to in verses 5, 13 and 27 is really the equivalent of a prophecy. In a prophecy, a prophet speaks a message from God to the listeners in language that they can understand. In a tongue plus interpretation, the same result is achieved in two stages. A Christian speaks a message from God out loud in an unknown language, and then either the same believer or another interprets this into understandable language.
This is all extremely mysterious. Personally, I have no idea why God would ever want to use this method of tongue plus interpretation, when it might seem that a simple prophecy would suffice.
INCREASE IN ACCEPTANCE OF THIS GIFT
In most of church history, the majority view among Christians has been that God ceased giving the gift of tongues at some point in the first century.
A big change came at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, with the origin of the Pentecostal movement. Since then, an increasing number of believers have accepted that God still gives this gift today. In fact, I think it would be right to say that at the present time a sizable majority of evangelicals worldwide accept that God still gives this gift.
Nevertheless, there remain more than a few Christians who deny that He does this, and they use various arguments to try to make their case.
I believe strongly that God does give the gift of tongues today, and in what follows I will argue for this position.
When thinking about any topic, the most important thing to do is see what the Bible has to say about it. Scripture is our God-given “Manual for the Human Life,” and what it teaches is key. So we will begin with this.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10
A good place for us to start is 1 Cor 13:8-10.
Here the apostle Paul states:
“8 . . . if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when what is complete comes, what is partial will be done away with.”
In this passage Paul is referring back to the gifts of the Spirit he has been talking about in chapter 12. He clearly believes that a time will come when speaking in tongues, prophesying and other gifts will no longer be used. And he seems to imply that this will happen “when what is complete comes.”
Those who claim that God no longer gives the gift of tongues (and some other gifts of the Spirit) today often argue that the time Paul is referring to in this clause is the point at which the New Testament was completed.
This, however, is simply not a credible interpretation of the passage. “When what is complete comes” is certainly not referring to any experience that can be found in this world of ours. Rather, it has in view a time after Jesus has returned to earth.
The context of verses 8-13 confirms this. In these verses, Paul contrasts a present state and a future state. The present state involves knowing in part and seeing indistinctly. The future state, which begins when what is complete comes, involves knowing fully and seeing face to face. Paul is clearly contrasting the present experience of Christians with our future state of existence. So “when what is complete comes” is definitely referring to a time after Jesus has returned to the earth.
Therefore, when Paul says that partial things like speaking in tongues will be done away with “when what is complete comes,” the most natural way of taking his words is that this gift will continue until Jesus returns.
It is true that Paul is speaking very concisely here. And it is true too that his main focus in this passage is not on precisely when the gifts of the Spirit will cease being used. I am not saying that this passage proves outright that God still gives the gift of tongues today. But Paul’s words certainly fit better with this gift continuing until Jesus returns than ceasing centuries ago.
1 Corinthians 14:1
Another verse that points in the same direction is 1 Cor 14:1. Here Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth:
“Pursue love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts . . .”
The “spiritual gifts” Paul refers to here certainly include the gifts he has listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, one of which is speaking in tongues.
The first thing to note about the command to desire spiritual gifts in 14:1 is that it must have applied to all Christians in around 55 AD, when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Clearly, this command was given to all the Christians in Corinth. And there is no reason whatsoever for thinking that Paul or God would have wanted anything different in other churches at that time. We should therefore have no doubt that when Paul wrote this letter God wanted all Christians to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, including the ability to speak in tongues.
Next, we need to give due weight to an argument from probability:
If we consider the rest of the New Testament, it contains hundreds of commands that would have applied to all Christians at the time they were written. I am not aware of a single one of these that no longer applies to Christians today.
If it is correct that every other NT command that applied to all Christians at the time of writing still applies today, then, all other things being equal, it is highly probable that the command in 1 Cor 14:1 also still applies. And this argument from probability carries considerable weight, although I accept that it doesn’t prove outright that God gives the gift of tongues today.
Even if I am mistaken about other NT commands that applied to all Christians when they were written, and there are a few that no longer apply today, the number of these is surely very few. So the argument from probability would still carry some weight, although admittedly not nearly so much.
Another relevant passage is Acts 2:16-18. Here Peter, referring to the speaking in tongues that occurred on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given, quotes the prophet Joel:
“16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘And it will be in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.’”
Peter is saying that the events of the day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now come into effect.
This passage refers explicitly to prophesying, visions and dreams. I will say something about what the passage suggests about these things before moving on to talk specifically about speaking in tongues.
First, we need to note the time reference in this passage. It says that God will pour out His Spirit, and prophecies, visions and dreams will take place, “in the last days.” The last days here is the period of time that began with the giving of the Spirit and will end with the return of Christ.
When this passage says that God will pour out His Spirit “in the last days,” and that this will involve prophesying, visions and dreams, the most natural way of taking the words is that these activities will take place throughout the last days. If they occurred only in the first century, then the pouring out of the Spirit in the way that the passage describes would only have happened in the very first part of the last days. And that does seem a rather awkward interpretation of the text.
Furthermore, to think that prophesying, visions and dreams no longer occur today also fits poorly with what we know as “salvation history.”
This is a term that refers to how God’s overall plan for human beings has unfolded in various ways in different periods of history.
For example, the calling of Abraham and the giving of the Law at Sinai involved radical new departures from what had come before.
Later, the ministry of John the Baptist brought something radically new, as did the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The day of Pentecost was also a huge change from what had come before. On this day the Spirit was given, in fulfillment of Old Testament promises of the New Covenant.
Crucially, however, since Pentecost there has been no critical point in salvation history. We are still in the same New Covenant era that began on that day.
In view of this, it would be unexpected, to say the least, if God no longer spoke through prophecies, visions and dreams. After the Spirit had descended on the day of Pentecost, this would be like Him deciding to partially reascend to heaven part-way through the New Covenant era.
There are two good reasons, then, for thinking that prophesying, visions and dreams continue today. Firstly, “in the last days” most naturally suggests this. And secondly, today we are still in the same period of salvation history that began on the day of Pentecost.
Of course, the revelation that God gives in prophecies, dreams and visions today is not remotely on a par with biblical revelation. Nor does it have universal application. Instead, it just concerns specific situations that individual Christians or individual churches are facing at the time.
Although v. 17 makes no explicit mention of speaking in tongues, it makes sense to think that what this verse implies about prophesying, visions and dreams it also implies about the gift of tongues as it is described in 1 Corinthians. There are two reasons for this:
First, speaking in tongues is precisely the thing that leads Peter to quote Joel’s prophecy. It is true that the kind of speaking in tongues in Acts 2 is not exactly the same as either of the kinds of tongues mentioned in 1 Cor 14. And it is true too that the day of Pentecost was a unique event. Nevertheless, it is a fact that it is tongues that leads Peter to refer to God’s pouring out His Spirit.
Second, the pouring out of the Spirit that Joel prophesied surely involves all the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10. And speaking in tongues is on that list.
It is reasonable, then, to think that what the verse implies about prophesying, visions and dreams it also implies about the gift of tongues as it is described in 1 Corinthians. So, because the verse most naturally implies that prophesying, visions and dreams continue throughout the Christian era, the same is true of speaking in tongues.
Summing up, then, Acts 2:16-18 counts as biblical evidence that God still gives the gift of tongues today.
The Longer Ending of Mark’s Gospel
Another relevant text for our purposes can be found in the so-called “Longer Ending” of Mark’s Gospel.
We know that in the first centuries of the church, this Gospel circulated with a number of different endings. The earliest surviving copies of Mark end at Mark 16:8. However, most old copies of Mark contain the Longer Ending that a majority of English-speaking readers of the Bible will be most familiar with, ending at what is known as Mark 16:20. There are also copies that have a variety of other differences and additions.
In the Longer Ending there is a passage that refers to speaking in tongues. The text that is commonly referred to as Mark 16:15-18 reads as follows:
“15 And He [Jesus] said to them [the eleven], ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. 16 The person who has believed and has been baptized will be saved. But the person who has not believed will be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will expel demons, they will speak with new tongues, 18 with their hands they will pick up snakes, if they drink anything poisonous it will in no way harm them, and they will place their hands on those who are ill and they will get well.’”
Discussion of which ending or endings of Mark should be considered Scripture is complex. Personally, I prefer the view that this passage shouldn’t be regarded as Scripture. But I don’t want to get into a long analysis of the issue here.
Instead, let’s look at this passage under two scenarios, firstly assuming that it is Scripture and secondly assuming that it isn’t.
So, first, let’s suppose that the passage I have quoted should be regarded as Scripture.
If we do this, it should be clear that the passage strongly implies that speaking in tongues is something that continues throughout the Christian era:
In v. 15 Jesus refers to evangelism in “all the world” and “to all creation.” So from His point in time He is clearly thinking about evangelism that will continue on long into the future around the world.
Therefore, when in verses 16 and 17 He refers to “the person who has believed” and “those who have believed,” by far the most natural way of taking His words is as a reference to Christians of all times and places. Those who say that in these verses Jesus is speaking only of Christians living in the first century or thereabouts are taking an extremely unnatural interpretation of the text.
Verse 17 says that speaking in tongues is a feature of those who believe. (This doesn’t mean that it is a feature of all who believe, simply something that many Christians do.) So, because those who believe are Christians of all times and places, speaking in tongues is something that we can expect to be a continuing activity of the church.
If these words are Scripture, then, this passage strongly implies that speaking in tongues is something that we should expect in every century of the church.
Second, let’s assume that this passage is not Scripture.
If we do this, it still seems reasonable to regard the passage as quite strong evidence that speaking in tongues continues throughout the Christian era:
Importantly, there is no doubt that in the last 2000 years large numbers of Christians have understood the passage we know as Mark 16:9-20 to be part of Scripture. In fact, it seems highly likely that most believers have regarded this passage as Scripture.
The vast majority of these Christians have known nothing about early copies of Mark or even that this Gospel once circulated with a variety of endings. Most, or at least very many, Christians in the last 2000 years have been led to believe that Mark 16:9-20 is Scripture, and they have accepted this in good faith.
It is surely very unlikely that God would have allowed so many Christians to have an ending of Mark’s Gospel that misled them. If He had, then through no fault of their own they would have been reading as Scripture something that was actually misdirecting them. But we would expect God, in His love, not to have allowed this to happen.
So even if Mark 16:9-20 is not Scripture, it makes sense to think that it contains good Christian teaching.
We saw above that if we take this passage as Scripture, it strongly implies that speaking in tongues is something that continues throughout the Christian era. Therefore, even if we don’t take the passage as Scripture, because it apparently contains good teaching it still supplies us with quite a strong piece of evidence that we should expect speaking in tongues today.
One passage that is often said to show that God no longer gives the gift of tongues is Heb 2:3-4, where the author writes:
“3 . . . how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? This salvation was first announced by the Lord, and then it was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 while God added His testimony by signs and wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.”
Those who say that the gift of tongues has ceased often argue in this way:
In this passage the author wants his readers to understand what an enormously important thing the Christian message of salvation is. To help him make his point, he says that in the time of the first generation of Christians God testified to the truth of this message by signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Spirit. However, if the author believed that these things still occurred at the time of writing, we would expect him to have concentrated on God testifying to the message by them in the present rather than in the past. Therefore, this passage strongly implies that gifts like tongues no longer existed at the time of writing.
It is certainly true that the author’s intention in this passage is to stress how important the message of salvation is. And I do admit that this argument isn’t one that should be quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, there are a few points to make here.
(1) The passage is too indirect and brief for us to reach clear conclusions on what the author believed about the existence of tongues and other gifts at the time of writing.
(2) It is possible that the author felt that after mentioning Jesus and the first generation of Christians, he had done enough to make his point.
He begins by telling them that no less a person than Jesus began announcing the message. And then he goes on to say that people who heard Jesus themselves were the ones who passed on the message to the author and the readers. He also notes that God accompanied this passing on of the message with miracles and gifts of the Spirit to help validate it.
Maybe having said all this, he thought that he had said enough to make his point that the message of salvation is extremely important. If so, then potentially he could have chosen not to move on to speak about the time of writing, even if he was aware that God was still giving gifts of the Spirit like tongues in his day.
(3) I think it is quite possible that at the time this letter was written, miracles and gifts of the Spirit may have been a lot less common than they were earlier in the first century. And this could have motivated the author in Heb 2:3-4 to focus on miracles and gifts among the first generation of Christians.
I will say something about the frequency of tongues throughout church history in part 2 of this article.
(4) In Heb 6:5 the author refers to Christians generally as people who have “tasted . . . the powers of the age to come.”
This could well suggest that gifts of the Spirit like tongues were ongoing at the time of writing.
(5) Even if this passage does more naturally seem to suggest that the gift of tongues had ceased at the time of writing, we need to beware of drawing conclusions based on one or two proof texts.
A good example of the dangers of this can be seen in Col 1:19-20, where Paul writes:
“19 For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him [Christ], 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace by the blood of His cross – whether things on earth or things in the heavens.”
In this passage Paul explicitly says that God was pleased “to reconcile all things to Himself.” And the “all things” he has in mind are described as “things on earth or things in the heavens.” There can be no doubt that he is including human beings in what is talking about. So the most natural reading of this passage is that all human beings will be reconciled to God through Christ.
However, Paul cannot have meant that, since it would contradict so much else in his letters (e.g., Rom 2:5-9; 2 Cor 2:15-16; Gal 6:8; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess 1:10; 2 Thess 1:6-9).
Instead, he must mean that all things will be reconciled to God apart from one unexpressed, exceptional group of beings, comprising some people and some angels, that will experience eternal destruction.
The most natural reading of Col 1:19-20 is therefore not the correct one. And the same could potentially be true of Heb 2:3-4.
Of course, the number of biblical passages where the most natural reading is not the correct one must be relatively few. If God had inspired the Bible in such a way that the correct meaning was usually at odds with the most natural sense of the words, we would be in real trouble when trying to learn things. Thankfully, He hasn’t done that. A large majority of the time, passages should be taken at face value. And we can be confident that the most natural reading of most passages on any given topic will be in line with the truth.
So, even if Heb 2:3-4 most naturally seems to suggest that the gift of tongues has ceased, it is still the case that several other passages most naturally suggest that this gift has not ceased, as we have seen.
There are other Bible passages that have some relevance for the topic we are considering, but I have given the most important of them. The above discussion has shown that on balance the Bible fits better with the position that God continues to give the gift of speaking in tongues than with the view that He ceased doing this long ago.
The second and final part of this article can be found here.
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