Believers are deeply divided on the subject of tongues, and I have learned over the years that once they become devoted to the practice of tongues—as they understand it—there is little chance of changing minds. However, I will do my best to respond to a recent question about the subject. It is not my desire to "put down" any believer, nor to make light of their beliefs, knowing that we will all stand and give account of our lives before the Lord Jesus Christ (ROM 14:10-12; 2CO 5:10). At the same time, “knowing … the terror of the Lord” (2CO 5:11), we must strive to get it right in all things. Let me make just a few points, which if we submit to the Word, and truly honor the context, are inescapable.
1. Tongues was the least valuable of all the spiritual gifts (1CO 12:27-28).
This is evident from the list given by Paul in 1CO 12:27-28. This is evident from the word "appointed," which is tithemi, defined by Thayer’s Lexicon in this verse as, “to set with design, in a certain arrangement or position.” Paul is building on the fact that “God has set [same word in Greek] the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased” (1CO 12:18). Some gifts, therefore, are of greater value than others as far as edification of the body is concerned. This is also confirmed by the fast that Paul begins, in 1CO 12:28, with gifts that are listed as “first ... second ... third.” The last gift mentioned is tongues.
2. Not all believers are gifted with nor intended to speak with tongues (1CO 12:29-30).
Although those who speak in tongues today often use it as a “proof” of salvation, Paul makes it very clear in 1CO 12:29-30 that it is no more right to say this than to say that all should be apostles, or prophets, or teachers.
3. Tongues—along with prophecy and knowledge—are declared by Paul, in distinction from the other gifts, to be temporary in nature (1CO 13:8).
We may disagree on the timing of their cessation, but to deny that Paul declares them temporary— as opposed to the other gifts—is to disregard the clear statement of Scripture. Once we begin to “read into” Scripture what we want it to say, and disregard its clear declarations, all further discussion is worthless. These gifts are said to “fail ... cease ... vanish away.” The word used in the original for “fail ... vanish” is actually the same, from katargeo, meaning “to be rendered null and void or powerless.” The word translated “cease” is from pauo, meaning, in the middle voice, “to cease of itself” or “to cause itself to cease.”
4. The context makes clear precisely what Paul means regarding these gifts (1CO 13:9-11).
Paul does not leave us to guess about his meaning here. The following context is explanatory of what he means, as the introductory “for” implies. In 1CO 13:9-10, he deals specifically with “knowledge” and “prophecy” (note that both are named). The spiritual gift of knowledge supplied a “part” of the puzzle of New Testament revelation. Other “parts” were supplied by the spiritual gift of prophecy. In other words, Paul supplied a “part,” Peter supplied a “part,” James supplied a “part.” John supplied a “part,” but none of them had the “whole” picture. By the way, the word “part” here is from meros, “a part, portion, or division of the whole” (Thayer). Paul combines it with the preposition ek, meaning “a part out of the whole.” When each of those chosen to add to the revelation of New Testament truth had supplied their part, the “whole” was formed. The “perfect thing” is to teleion, meaning “the completed thing.” The first definition of teleios in Thayer’s is “brought to completion; fully accomplished; fully developed.” In the context, it is inconceivable to take the “whole” or “perfect thing” as being any other thing than the sum total of the “parts.” Thus, the gifts of “knowledge” and “prophecy” would cease after they fulfilled their purpose of bringing the completed Bible to us. The whole context is not talking about Jesus coming, or the heavenly state, but of the importance and function of spiritual gifts. Specifically, it addresses the passing away of three temporary gifts.
Paul then goes on to include tongues, using his own life as a metaphor for the Church. As a child, Paul spoke like a child, precisely because of his limited understanding and the content of his thought. In other words, limited knowledge and understanding led to a form of speaking that was appropriate for the time but, with increased learning, this manner of speaking would of itself “pass away.” As Paul became mature, he “put away” his childish speech. The word “put away” is precisely the same word (katargeo) used twice in 1CO 13:8. In other words, in precisely the same way that Paul’s growth to maturity through increasing knowledge and understanding brought him to put away childish speech, so the fulfillment of the gifts of prophecy and knowledge—resulting in the completed Canon of Scripture—would cause the exercise of the gift of tongues to “vanish.”
This is further confirmed by Paul's reference to the “mirror” (1CO 13:12). This is a common reference to the Scriptures (see 2CO 3:18 and JAM 1:23). When the mirror is incomplete, we can only see “in part.” The word “then” is a time word (tote), referring back to “that which is perfect [complete]” (1CO 13:10) . With the completion of the N.T. Scriptures, “then” we will no longer see dimly, but “face to face.” The usefulness of partial measures will be gone. To follow any other interpretation is to force a meaning on “that which is perfect” that is foreign to the context and violates the flow of Paul's argument.
5. The temporary purpose of tongues is revealed (1CO 14:20-22).
After establishing the superiority of plain teaching over tongues (1CO 14:3-5, 8-9, 19), Paul shows God’s purpose for the gift of tongues. Reaching back to the metaphor of his childhood (1CO 13:11), he urges them not to be children in understanding, but rather to be mature. He then quotes ISA 28:11-12, a prophecy about tongues over 700 years before Christ. From this prophecy, Paul concludes that tongues are a sign—not for believers—but for unbelievers. Specifically, it is a sign for unbelieving Jews (see ISA 28:11“this people” and ISA 28:14“this people in Jerusalem”). Earlier, in ISA 28:9, the indication is that He will speak to “those just weaned from milk” (i.e., small children) in the language of infants (thus Paul’s reference to childhood in 1CO 13:11). And what is the message being proclaimed? If you read the context of all of Isaiah 28, it is easy to see that it is a message of judgment on Israel. And what is the reason and timing for this judgment? It will be “in that day the Lord of Hosts will be for a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty to the remnant of His people” (ISA 28:5), when “I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (ISA 28:16). The day would come when Christ would come to His own, and His own would receive Him not. When He came, He offered “rest to the weary” (ISA 28:12; MAT 11:28-29), and “yet they would not hear” (ISA 28:12). All of the prophets had spoken of Christ's coming, and of His rejection by His own people. They had also spoken of the great judgment which would follow, of which Jesus spoke in Luke 21 specifically, which we now know as the siege of 70 AD and the subsequent desolation of Israel. Of this rejection and coming judgment, tongues was a sign of warning to the Jewish people. What other purpose could Paul have had in mind in quoting Isaiah 28, especially when verses 17-22 so clearly speak of Israel's destruction? Again, to simply disregard Paul's quote in 1CO 14:21, when he is building his whole argument upon it, is to abuse Scripture in favor of a personal preference.
If, as Paul declares, “tongues is for a sign,” and specifically a sign to unbelievers, and this fact rests on the truth of Isaiah 28, which speaks of God speaking to “this people” (Israel) with “stammering lips and another tongue,” what other possible meaning could such a “sign” have, if not the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and all Israel, which is precisely what Isaiah declares? I can find no other honest conclusion.
6. Finally, there are “tests” for every gift, and we are to “test the spirits whether they are of God” (1JO 4:1).
There are two specific tests we may apply to the gift of tongues. The first is content, and the second is obedience. The test of content is by use of the gift of interpretation (1CO 14:5, 13, 2-28). It is only by the interpretation of what is said that the gift can be tested and verified. It is interesting that with the widespread speaking of tongues today, there seems to be no believers gifted with interpretation. The second test is of obedience. In this chapter, Paul lays down several non-negotiable requirements for the speaking of tongues, at least in the assembly. First, there are not to be more than “two or … three” at most (1CO 14:27). Second, they are to speak “in turn.” Third, there must be an interpreter (v 28) and, finally, if there is no interpreter, there are to be no tongues (v 28). Paul concludes that if anyone thinks himself to be spiritual, he will acknowledge that these are “commandments of the Lord” (v 37). I have yet to find a single congregation, in travelling over 45 countries of this world, where tongues are spoken in accordance with these very clear instructions. My only conclusion is that what we are seeing today (after an absence from the earth for 1,900 years), is not the biblical gift of tongues.
Let me conclude by saying that it is no problem to me if some believer chooses to speak in tongues. Their issue is not with me, but with the Lord. We each get to choose our path, and we will each answer for the way we choose. I leave that between them and the Lord. Although there is much more that can be brought forward as evidence (for example, the testimony of the early church that these gifts did in fact cease after the first century), hopefully, these brief observations will be helpful to all.