The church in the first century was faced with a unique problem: in the absence of God’s written word (the New Testament was not yet completed), how could they determine what was authoritative and what was not? In other words, how would they know someone’s spoken message was from God Himself? The answer: the ability to perform miracles confirmed that God’s word was true and authoritative (cf. Heb 2:3-4). One of the most sensational and convincing miracles of the first century was the ability to speak in tongues. Sadly, however, many in our day have misunderstood the purpose and nature of the miracles in the Bible. Let’s examine the topic of speaking in tongues from a Biblical perspective.
Purpose — In Acts 2:4, we have the first record of miraculous tongue speaking. The apostles were granted the ability to speak with, “other” or “different,” tongues. In contrast to what is claimed today, however, it seems evident that the apostles were speaking in actual human languages (cf. Acts 2:7-11). The result? Amazement and curiosity among those who witnessed this miracle (Acts 2:12). The apostles’ sudden ability to speak a language they had never before studied got people’s attention, and Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-39) pierced their hearts with the gospel message. Tongue speaking was ameaningful sign to unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor 14:22), not the stringing together of meaningless syllables. The ability to speak in tongues helped convince others that what early Christians said was true!
Limitations — Many today claim that all Christians automatically have the ability to speak in tongues. This does not appear to have been the case in the first century, however. Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions in 1 Cor 12:30, “Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” The implied response to all these questions is negative. Further, Paul says that he wishes that all the Christians at Corinth had the ability to speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:5). The ability to speak in tongues was, therefore, not a universal gift. Instead, miraculous power had to be received from the laying on of the apostles’ hands (cf. Acts 8:17; 19:6). Those who claim to be able to speak in miraculous utterances today must have first come into contact with one of the original apostles! Such are the limitations of any miraculous gift.
1 Corinthians 14 — The context of 1 Cor 14 indicates that the worship assemblies in Corinth had degenerated into a spiritual “free-for-all” in which the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were being abused and causing confusion (cf. 1 Cor 14:26-33). Paul’s message to the Christians at that place was that they should only speak in tongues when there was an interpreter present (cf. 1 Cor 14:5, 13, 28). When one sees so-called worship assemblies today that are characterized by disorder and confusion, one has to ask, “Is this not the very problem that the apostle Paul was trying to correct?” The ability to speak in a language one has never studied is indeed a miracle, but as Paul predicted, the time for miraculous tongue-speaking has ceased (cf. 1 Cor 13:8-10).