What are tongues? Why does God give such a strange gift?
When people received the Holy Spirit in the New Testament it would appear that the fact that it had happened was obvious to everyone else. That is because they began to speak in tongues or they prophesied or operated in some other gift. I feel that they all operated in some gift. But if you disagree then we can surely say that most, or at the very least, many of them did. In other words, it was by no means limited or restricted. That was true then, and I suggest that it is still true today.
Let's now look specifically at what tongues are and why that particular gift was given and, in my view, still is given. We will then go on to look at the other spiritual gifts too:
Apostle Paul's explanation of how spiritual gifts operate
Let us look at 1 Corinthians chapter 14:
1Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. 5Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.
6But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? 7Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? 8For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?
9So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. 12So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.
13Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 16Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? 17For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.
18I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. 21In the Law it is written, "by men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to me," says the Lord.
22So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. 23Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
26What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation Let all things be done for edification. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 (NASB)
Take a close look at the passage above. Ideally read it and re-read it two or three times. Wouldn't you agree that what Paul is speaking about, and what he views as normal, is very different from what most of our churches are like today? Paul clearly saw the widespread and active use of spiritual gifts as being entirely right and proper. Yet, in most Western churches today, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is almost entirely ignored. At any rate, it certainly isn't practised.
It is glossed over and not even thought about, let alone preached on. If it was it would raise too many uncomfortable questions, such as "Why doesn't our church do these things?"
However, anybody who teaches that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not meant to be used by us will have great difficulties in explaining away what Paul says. Therefore, those people who hold that view generally ignore 1 Corinthians 14 entirely. That is why it is very rarely preached on.
Speaking in tongues, both in the New Testament and today, is not mere babbling or making gibberish sounds. The gift of tongues, when given by the Holy Spirit, should involve a real language, whether human or angelic. It will have complex and detailed structure, grammar and syntax, just like any other language. That is how the various foreigners present on the day of Pentecost all heard their own language being spoken.
The only foreign language I can speak, up to a point, is French. I once worked in France. However, if I hear a language like Russian or Chinese or German, even though I can't understand it, I can tell very clearly that the person is speaking in a proper language with clear rules and vocabulary. I know it isn't gibberish and that the speaker isn't just making up sounds by themselves. It is the same with the gift of tongues. It sounds like a real language. That's because it is a real language, whether human or angelic, just one that you don't know. But God knows it and He understands it.
However, I should add that that is not necessarily the experience of every person. I know people myself for whom tongues is very limited. That fact can make a person feel inferior or threatened, because what they have does not sound very fluent or extensive. I have no wish to suggest that anybody is inferior. That is the last thing I would wish to do. Yet, if what you have got so far is limited just to a few words or phrases, then please do not be content to stay at that level.
Ask God to give you more, so that you can begin to speak in tongues with the full fluency and range that is available to others. So, whilst I fully accept that nobody is inferior or second rate, that is still no reason for anybody to stay where they are. Instead, press on and seek for all that God has to offer.
When we speak in tongues, we are saying words which the Holy Spirit Himself puts into our mouths. We may be praying prayers that He wants us to pray, even though we do not know what we are praying about. We may also be praising God and worshiping Him in our spirit with a greater fluency and depth than we would be capable of in our own language using only our minds, if we were not aided by the Holy Spirit.
The purposes and benefits of the gift of tongues in particular
The gift of tongues has a number of purposes and benefits. Let us examine these:
a) Speaking in tongues enables us to praise and worship God with a depth and content that we could not achieve by ourselves.
b) The gift of tongues enables God to put into our mouths specific prayers and requests which we would never think of, or even know about, for ourselves. There could be a person for whom nobody is praying, or perhaps an urgent situation which needs prayer, but nobody is aware of it. Through praying in tongues God can then put prayers into the mouths of His people which would not otherwise be prayed. I believe many situations and people have been prayed about in that way and that God has then answered those prayers.
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; Romans 8:26 (NASB)
c) The gift of tongues, when used in private as part of our own devotional time, has the effect of strengthening us personally in our 'inner man' or spirit. We each have a spirit and the gift of tongues enables our own spirit to speak to God with a freedom we would not otherwise have, if we were confined solely to what our minds can think of. Remember, our spirit is not the same thing as our mind.
When we pray with our minds in our own native language, it is not the same as when we allow the Holy Spirit to enable our own spirit to pray. Praying in tongues bypasses our mind. This strengthens and benefits us as well as helping those other people or situations that we may, unknowingly, be praying for.
d) Tongues when spoken out loud at a meeting, are a supernatural sign. It can benefit another person if he hears someone speaking in tongues and recognises his own language being spoken. The same is true if the tongue is interpreted through the gift of interpretation. That is another of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Either way, the other person, who may even be an unbeliever, can then understand what has been said. That may get through to him and bring him to repentance and to faith in ways that ordinary speech may not achieve.
The late Derek Prince, a well known Bible teacher, told many stories of how non-Christians have visited a church and been amazed to hear people praying out loud in the visitor's native language, even though the person speaking does not know that language. The person is actually speaking in tongues, but the visitor understands it.
On one occasion a Welshman, who was not a Christian, was travelling abroad, in South America I believe, and went to a South American church together with some English speaking friends. A local man then began to pray out loud in tongues publicly. He didn't know it but he was speaking perfect Welsh. The Welsh speaking visitor was amazed and said to the English speaking person who had brought him that the man had been speaking in detai, in Welsh, about some sins which he (the Welsh visitor) had committed.
He was the only person in the room who knew what was being said, because he was the only Welsh speaker. It convicted him very deeply and he repented and believed. There are many other instances where things like that have occurred. It would occur even more often if more people believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today and allowed them to be used in churches..
e) Perhaps most important of all, tongues are also a supernatural sign or seal of approval. It is meant to demonstrate to you, and to others, that your conversion is real and has been accepted by God, that you really are a Christian and, therefore, have received the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts and in the letters of the New Testament it seems that they assumed that new believers would either speak in tongues or prophesy immediately when they received the Holy Spirit.
Therefore tongues was the main evidence they looked for, at least in the immediate sense. (Later on they would be looking for fruit to emerge in that person’s life.) Conversely, the absence of tongues or prophecy or any other gift, was generally seen as an indication that the person had not yet completed the process of becoming a Christian. Can you imagine how much offence would be taken if apostle Paul visited many of our churches today and began to challenge people as he did in Acts chapter 19? Paul would be thrown out of most churches today.