Speaking in Tongues

MANY PEOPLE HAVE overlooked the main feature of the Day of Pentecost, namely, the impartation of the Holy Spirit of enlightenment and understanding to the waiting disciples of Christ. This event was necessary for the establishment of the Early Church. Of the three signs given, speaking with tongues—the miraculous gift of the ability to speak in foreign languages—is remembered most by Christian people. However, it was only a means to an end; it was temporary, and soon to pass away. See I Corinthians 13:8.

On the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection, a great number of Jews had come to Jerusalem from other countries and areas of Israel. Ten days after our Lord’s ascension to heaven, the apostles, too, were assembled with other disciples—120 in number (Acts 1:15)—in obedience to Jesus’ instruction to tarry “in the city of Jerusalem” until they would be endued with power from on high. (Luke 24:49-52; Acts 1:4) Many other devout Jews had come there in order to celebrate the special festival of Pentecost. Acts 2:5 describes them as “devout men, out of every nation under heaven.”

The nations represented were: “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea and Cappadocia. In Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.” (Acts 2:9-11) When the apostles started to speak in other languages some confusion occurred; but it gave place to amazement and marveling as those assembled recognized the languages of their homelands, and they said, “Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue [native language], wherein we were born?”—vss. 7,8

The Greek word here translated ‘tongue’ is dialektos, which means ‘dialect’, or ‘language’. In verse 6, the same Greek word is translated ‘language’, which, of course, is the meaning of the word. The word dialektos occurs in other places; for example we find it in Acts 21:40 and Acts 22:2, where we are told that Paul addressed the Jews in Jerusalem “in the Hebrew tongue [language].” Dialektos, when it is used in the Scriptures, invariably refers to a normal language.

However, there is another Greek word used in Acts 2:4,11, and also in I Corinthians 14:12-14. It is the Greek word glossa. Strong’s Concordance defines this word as ‘the physical tongue’. Professor Young defines the word as both ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. Strong’s also says that the word, by implication, means ‘a language naturally unacquired’. This Greek word, glossa, therefore means ‘a foreign language’, that is, one that was not a person’s native language. This is made completely clear in Acts 2:11, where the listeners expressed their amazement that they were hearing the apostles’ account of the wonderful works of God in their own languages. Many of the translators of the Bible understood this matter clearly.

But the translators of the Authorized [King James] Version did not understand, because they inserted in italics in a number of places in the 12th and 14th chapters of I Corinthians, the word “unknown.” It is very clear in the Scriptures that the languages used, far from being ‘unknown’, were languages well known to the various hearers, the ones to whom they were addressed. This applies to the word dialektos, and also to the word glossa. They both clearly mean normal languages. The word glossa is used throughout the Book of Revelation; for example, John says that God redeemed us from every kindred and tongue and people and nation and has endowed us with understanding.—Rev. 5:9

Why was the particular gift of the knowledge of foreign languages needed by the Early Church, as well as the ability to speak in those languages? Although all those present on that occasion were Jews, many of them had lived for so long in the countries mentioned that they had forgotten the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Furthermore, it is clear that many of them had been born in those other lands (Acts 2:8), and the language with which they would be more familiar would be the foreign language “wherein” they “were born.”

God’s plan required that the message of Truth be sent forth to all nations. Therefore, he made it possible for each person who heard the Gospel message of Christ being preached by the apostles to understand, and to take that message back to their fellow countrymen.

Thus it was that Christianity in its purity was established and spread abroad. We now know why this unique miracle was needed at that time. We can also see that there has been no need for such a miracle since. Once Christianity was established the people would be able to spread the message abroad without this miraculous aid. When necessary the messengers could take time to learn a foreign language, as is done at the present time. The peculiar circumstances that existed at the very beginning of the Christian era were special to that early period and have not existed since that time. They definitely do not exist now, nor will they at any time again. The need for the miracle in the beginning, for the message to be understood and accurately spread abroad, ended.

What should our reaction be to the claim of some that they or others have a special gift of ‘tongues’ today? We should explain that at Pentecost, and for a short period following, a particular purpose was served, and God chose to exercise the miracle for that specific purpose. Even at that time, we understand, there were some who misused the gift and simply created disorder and confusion. (I Cor. 14:1-19) The Apostle Paul deplored this development, and condemned it. In the church at Corinth there were some who had the gift, but did not have the wisdom to use it wisely when there was a genuine purpose to be served.

Paul pointed out that the gift of tongues would cease (I Cor. 13:8), and this happened. When the apostles had all finished their courses in death, and all others had passed away on whom the gift had been conferred by the apostles, the gift of tongues disappeared forever.

It is significant that, whereas Peter and the other apostles did ‘speak with tongues’—with the specially bestowed gift of the knowledge and use of foreign languages—Paul was the only one of the apostles who mentioned the matter in his writings. Peter and James did not; nor did John. It is very clear that the miraculous ‘speaking with tongues’ of the Early Christian era was a unique gift intended only for the very special circumstances during the earliest days of the church. It is clear that the practice ceased, as the Apostle Paul foretold that it would. There was a logical purpose for its use in the Early Church; but there is no logical purpose for it now, nor is there any Scriptural authority for its use now. In fact, to practice tongues today is actually detrimental to the worship of God.

Those who claim to have the gift today, admit that neither they nor their hearers understand what is being said. When asked what is the value of such a conversation, they respond: ‘God would understand’. Certainly, there is no need to communicate with God in any particular language. God hears and understands the prayers of his people whatever the language used by the one praying.

How gratifying it is to know this!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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