The practice of speaking in tongues has a long history amongst professed believers in Jesus Christ. In the 1780s, John Wesley, the first to propagate Methodism, placed great emphasis on the spiritual experience that every Christian ought to have after conversion. He called it perfect love, and meant a kind of “sanctification” or “second work of grace.” A famous revival preacher, Charles Finney (1792-1876), took the idea a step further and claimed that the experience spoken of by Wesley was equivalent to baptism of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals modified this idea and asserted that the evidence after baptism of sanctification by the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues. It is the sign that every true believer must possess, the mark of purification and holiness. All believers should be baptized by the Holy Spirit, according to Pentecostals, and, in fact, we should all expect it. In its statement of fundamental beliefs, the Assemblies of God website states, “All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the normal experience of all in the early Christian Church. With it comes the [endowment] of power for life and service, the bestowment of the gifts and their uses in the work of the ministry” (http://ag.org/top/beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths). There is a great distinction made by most charismatics between the two kinds of miraculous tongues spoken by the believer. First, there is a spirit language that is meant only for communication between the believer and God in prayer. Second, there is an infinite variety of languages used in public, such as was seen on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. These languages, while actually human and intelligible in the scriptural examples, are mostly unintelligible mumblings and sounds in examples found today. Some Pentecostal groups even have to work hard to discourage the use of animal noises and inane outbursts of laughter from those who claim to be speaking in tongues. Benny Hinn has even stated, “You have so much today that is pure flesh, yet people have labeled it as the Spirit. It's not the Spirit, because it's not centered on Christ. It's pure emotionalism. Some of what is happening today, some of these manifestations where people are barking, making sounds of animals - I can tell you, that is not the Holy Spirit. It is purely demonic. The Holy Ghost does not bark. Only a devil barks. If somebody barks in my meeting, I'll cast the devil out of that man” (www.bible.ca/tongues-defend-manifestations.htm).
Speaking in unintelligible sounds dates back many years, even to the ancient Greek religions. It was especially common in the cult of the Thracian Dionysus as well as the Delphic Phrygia, the Bacides, the Sybils and others. Over the past two hundred, many religious cults have engaged in tongue speaking, such as the Huguenot peasants of France beginning around 1685. Many of these were children, in fact! The Jansenists, also of France and dating from 1731, were said to have uttered their spirit languages in an unconscious state. The Shakers and early Mormons also practiced tongue speaking regularly. With so many claiming to speak in tongues, who do we believe? To where do we go for evidence or authority? Or is the very fact that these “tongues” are unaccompanied by more credible miracles evidence enough to denounce those who practice such things? The most important question of all is: Does God even give us the power to speak in tongues today, and do we need Him to? Let us carefully examine the role of tongue speaking in the New Testament and see if this phenomenon was given to Christians for a specific purpose during a limited time period.
“And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues, they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Pentecostals often use this passage to assert that tongue speaking is a sure sign of a believer, and that all believers should expect to receive this ability after conversion. There are a few points about this scripture, however, that ought to be considered before applying it so broadly. First, the word “new” is considered in modern English to mean “novel” or “having never been in existence.” It is because of this interpretation that Pentecostals and others see no problem with the inscrutable mumblings of modern day tongue speakers – they are, in essence, speaking brand new tongues, just as the verse states. But a more accurate Greek interpretation of the word “new” would lead us to conclude that the languages to which Jesus is referring are not novel, but simply unfamiliar to the speakers. This is exactly what we find in Acts 2, wherein the Apostles speak in languages new to them, but familiar to the listeners.
Second, if these verses apply to all Christians, then why do not all of the signs accompany so vast a group of individuals? If every Christian should expect tongues at conversion, then every one also ought to expect the signs of miraculous healings, etc. But not every Christian did speak in tongues, even in the first century. “All do not speak with tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:30). “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues…” (1 Corinthians 14:5). The Ethiopian eunuch speaks in his own language at his baptism (Acts 8). Not one of the Christians in Samaria spoke in tongues or performed miracles until the apostles came and laid their hands upon them (Acts 8:14-18), even though they had been legitimately converted and had the evangelist Philip in their midst.
The next scripture that is often referred to is Acts 2:1-13, which is the first time the Holy Spirit comes upon Christians for the purpose of imbuing miraculous gifts. “They were all together in one place” (2:1). The “they” can only be referring to the apostles because the “eleven apostles” were the last people spoke of in the context. We must remember that our chapter and verse divisions did not exist in the original writing, so the continuity of person, place, and thought must be considered in every passage. It was only the apostles who were given miraculous gifts at this time. They were the only ones speaking in tongues, not the entire congregation of believers. Peter stood up “with the eleven” (2:14) and began speaking. It was to Peter and the apostles that the crowd asked their question (2:37), so it was only these men who were speaking in tongues.
“And they were each one hearing them speak in his own language” (2:6). It was not that the miracles was occurring in the ears of the listeners, or else the text would not have indicated “tongues of fire.” They would have to be “ears” or “hearers.” The tongues were languages that were understandable and clear, for the listeners knew what the message was about (“speaking of the mighty deeds of God” [2:11]).
“And how is it that we each hear them in our language to which we were born?” (2:7-11). Some have tried to argue that there should not have been a need for miraculous because everyone in the audience was bilingual, that is, Greek was the universal language of the first century. But it is more spectacular to witness the apostles speaking in different languages, especially considering the fact that they were Galileans – a people to which cosmopolitan education was not usually attributed. “They are full of sweet wine” (2:13). Amazingly, some have gone to this verse to justify some of the peculiar physical activities witnessed at Pentecostal worship services. Some believers who are overcome by the Spirit stumble around on stage as if drunk, while babbling in tongues. Explaining this phenomenon, one writer states, “A person appears to have had too much alcohol to drink and may stagger, weave back and forth when they are walking, laugh, be unable to speak, or to walk unaided. In Acts 2:13, on the day of Pentecost, Peter exhorts the gathered crowd that the ones they were observing who appeared to be drunk, were not drunk at all but were reacting to the visitation of the Holy Spirit” (What’s Going On? An Extraordinary Visitation of God, Shirley Elenbaas). It is not that the apostles were acting drunk on this occasion, for this would be in direct opposition to other exhortations not to be drunk (Ephesians 5:18), but simply that their critics and detractors accused them of being drunk because of the spectacular and jarring message of the Gospel. How ridiculous would it be for God to command us “not to be drunk with wine, but filled with the Holy Spirit,” so that we can act like we are drunk with wine?
What is the purpose of speaking in tongues?
This is a central question of absolute importance on this subject. If there was a definite purpose for the miracle of tongue speaking, then we can know for sure if we still need it today. If that purpose has application to the needs of the Saints for all time, then it is certainly conceivable that God would give such a gift to all generations of faithful believers. But if there is no purpose for it now, then we must dismiss it as fake, for God would not administer anything of such great value without a reason.
According to the Bible, the purpose for speaking in tongues was to prove the words of prophets and apostles. Consider this example: “You must wear red sox to be saved! Let’s say a man walks up to you and says, “You got to wear red sox to be saved.” Your first question would be, “Where in the Bible does it say that?” He replies, “This is new revelation!” You are not convinced because you have no way of being sure he really is a prophet from God. But then he takes you down to the hospital and heals everyone inside! Each time he heals another, he says, “God is confirming to you that my word, ‘You must wear red sox,’ is true!” Having witnessed this, you would have no choice but to conclude that God had added the requirement of wearing red sox! The Miracles confirmed the message of the man to be genuine!” (www.bible.ca). The purpose of the miracle was to confirm the new revelation, and without that miracle there would be no basis for following it. The same is true of the first century, wherein the Lord and all of His disciples began preaching new revelation about the Gospel. If no miracles had been performed, then our only conclusion would be that Jesus of Nazareth was an impostor, a fake.
We will find in the Bible that there is no other reason for miracles than confirming the Word in the minds of unbelievers. The power of the Holy Spirit is not used to satiate curiosity, and would cease to be perpetuated at the close of revelation. No new revelation means no need for more confirming miracles. Right? Such would be the logical position that every Christian ought to take. What is so interesting about modern day miracles, especially tongue speaking, is that those who practice such things try to use the Bible to confirm their validity, when the original intent of miracles was to confirm the Bible!
“After [the Gospel] was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Hebrews 2:3-4). Is there anywhere here where an alternative purpose for miracles is described?
“And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by signs that followed” (Mark 16:20). Without new revelation, there is no need for miracles.
“Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). Each time the apostles went to a new city, they did not have complete New Testaments to hand out or refer to. They only had their inspired words. How could any sensible person just “take Paul’s word for it” with so weighty a message? Without miracles, it would have been unreasonable for anybody to obey the Gospel because there was no Bible to provide proof. The proof needed to come from somewhere else.
“The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12). The signs of a true messenger of God – one with the ability and responsibility to provide new revelations and proofs of the Gospel message. Now that we have these signs and wonders written down for us, and all of the inspired literature of the true apostles, we need no more revelation and no more miracles.