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Tongues in the Bible mean “languages.” God gives all the gifts of the Spirit for a practical need. So, what was the need for the gift of tongues?
The gift of tongues was given for the purpose of evangelism. Jesus told His followers, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). But how could the apostles go out preaching to all the world when they spoke only one or two languages? In order to fulfill the great commission, He promised to give them a unique gift from the Holy Spirit. It was a miraculous, supernatural ability to speak foreign languages they had not formerly studied or known for the purpose of spreading the Gospel “And these signs shall follow them that believe; … they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17).
There are only three actual examples of speaking in tongues that are recorded in the Bible (Acts chapters 2, 10, and 19). Let’s examine them carefully to find out the purpose of this gift:
1-Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven [divided] tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
Why did the Lord wait until Pentecost to bestow this gift? Acts 2:5-11 gives the answer: “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? … We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”
The day of Pentecost was a Jewish holy day that fell 50 days after Passover. Devoted Israelites would come from all over the Roman empire to worship in Jerusalem. God chose this timely opportunity to bestow this gift of tongues upon the disciples so they could preach to the visiting Jews in their native languages. At least 15 different language groups were represented in the crowd that day (Acts 2:9-11). As a result, thousands of these visitors were converted.
Some say that the gift of tongues is a “heavenly language” understood only by God or those with the gift of interpretation. But the Bible is clear in Acts chapter 2 that both the disciples and those listening understood what was being preached “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).
2- Acts 10: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46).
This verse tells us that Cornelius was Italian, while Peter was a Jew and spoke Aramaic. Because there were obvious language barriers at this meeting, Peter most likely began to preach through an interpreter. But when the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his household, the Jews with Peter could understand the Gentiles speaking in languages other than their native tongues. The record is that the Jews heard them “magnify God” in these languages (v. 46).
3-Acts 19: “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).
The only times the gift of tongues was associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is when people from more than one language group were gathered together, thus creating communication barriers.
It is clear that the purpose for speaking in tongues is not to babble unintelligible sounds, but rather to communicate the word of God. This is why Jesus said, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
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