Appendix: Are Tongues for Today?

Lesson ▪ 2000
Tags: Holy Spirit; Tongues; Pentecostalism; Cessationism
Excerpted from The Holy Spirit in the New Testament
Related Resources: A Balanced Approach to Spiritual GiftsPaul’s Directives in 1 Corinthians 14


If asked if to explain whether tongues are for today, most Christians would probably respond in terms of their own observation and experience. These, however, are inadequate starting points for discussion. This excursus will examine the New Testament to answer six fundamental questions pertaining to tongues.

Do Tongues Occupy a Prominent Place in the New Testament?

The New Testament authors do not seem to place great emphasis on the matter of speaking in tongues.

  • Tongues are mentioned specifically in only 3 of the 27 books of the New Testament: Mark, Acts, and 1 Corinthians. The authenticity of Mark 16:9-20, containing the book’s only reference to tongues (v. 17), is seriously questioned by many scholars. Acts refers directly to tongues only 4 times (2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6). In addition, it is narrative of historical events rather than a treatise of theological truth. 1 Corinthians, while containing an extended discussion of tongues and spiritual gifts, is obviously corrective. These texts can scarcely be the foundation for a major biblical doctrine.
  • The book of Acts mentions the Holy Spirit approximately 50 times. Given that tongues are named only 4 times, it is evident they are not the primary expression of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
  • There are more than 100 references to the Holy Spirit in the latter half of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation). Yet tongues are named specifically in only 3 chapters of a single letter (1 Cor 12-14). Other ministries of the Spirit (e.g., sealing, indwelling, filling, fruit-bearing, empowering, and interceding) seem to be more prominent in the later New Testament.
  • The New Testament contains several “lists” of spiritual gifts. It is significant to note that only 1 of these passages mentions tongues, and there it occupies last place (1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30). Three other spiritual gifts passages omit any reference to tongues (Rom 12:6-8; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 4:10-11).

What Were the Tongues of the New Testament?

The tongues of the New Testament were known languages of the time.

  • The Greek word glossa, which underlies references to tongues, admits several meanings: the organ of speech (e.g., Lk 16:24; Phil 2:11; Jas 3:5ff); the language of a people (e.g., Acts 2:11); and, by extension, a people group (e.g., Rev 5:9; 7:9).
  • The Jews visiting Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost acknowledged that the disciples were speaking in their own languages (Acts 2:6, 8, 11).
  • While many scholars (e.g., Louw and Nida 389; Haarbeck 3:1080) distinguish the tongues of 1 Corinthians from those of Acts, there is no clear warrant for doing so. Paul implied that tongues convey meaning, though it may not be understood by the hearer. Tongues are, nevertheless, languages of some sort (1 Cor 14:6-13). They are not merely ecstatic speech (cf. 1 Cor 14:2).
  • David Lowery concludes: “The same may be said of the meaning of the word glossa elsewhere in the New Testament. Whether it was used literally of the physical organ [. . .] or figuratively of human languages [. . .], it nowhere referred to ecstatic speech. If it is reasonable to interpret the unknown with the help of the known, the obscure by the clear, then the burden of proof rests with those who find in this term a meaning other than human language” (537-38).

What Was the Purpose of Tongues in the New Testament?

Tongues accomplished several purposes in the New Testament:

  • Tongues attest to the credibility of the Christian faith (Mk 16:17; cf. Heb 2:3-4).
  • Tongues attract the attention of unbelievers, especially Jews, giving visibility to the apostolic message (Acts 2:4ff; 1 Cor 14:21-22; cf. Is 28:11-12).
  • Tongues provide visible evidence of the conversion of Gentiles and others whose salvation might be called into question (Acts 10:44-46; 19:1-6).
  • Tongues enhance the speaker’s own relationship with God (1 Cor 14:2, 4, 14).

Does the Modern Pentecostal Movement Demonstrate That Tongues Are Valid Today?

The modern tongues movement generally does not conform to the following New Testament guidelines:

  • Believers should not be expected to possess the same spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12, esp. vv. 7-11, 28-30).
  • All spiritual gifts, including tongues, are to be used for the benefit of the whole church, not the individual believer (1 Cor 14:1-5, 12, 26; cf. 1 Cor 13:1-7).
  • All messages spoken in tongues should be interpreted (1 Cor 14:5, 13, 27-28).
  • The exercise of the gifts in the church should be orderly (1 Cor 14:23, 27, 40).
  • Women are to exercise restraint in the public exercise of their gifts (1 Cor 14:34-35).

Does the New Testament Indicate Whether Tongues Would Persist?

The New Testament gives some indication that tongues would fade off the scene.

  • Paul specifically stated that tongues would cease (1 Cor 13:8). While there is much debate as to when this prophecy was or will be fulfilled, the fact of the prediction remains. Myron Houghton and Donald Launstein discuss in some detail the timing of the ceasing.
  • The final third of Acts omits any mention of tongues.
  • There is no mention of tongues in the later books of the New Testament, including Paul’s later epistles, the general epistles, and Revelation.
  • The miraculous confirmation of the apostolic message seemed to be fading by the time Hebrews was penned (cf. Heb 2:3-4).
  • Some of the purposes of tongues lost relevance after the first generation of Christianity. First, Gentiles achieved acceptance in the Christian community early in the apostolic period. Second, the establishment of churches around the Roman Empire, coupled with the writing of the New Testament, established Christianity’s credibility. Third, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD scattered the Jews and diminished their identity (Launstein 6).
  • Tongues were not prominent in the post-apostolic period. The church fathers wrote relatively little concerning tongues and other gifts of the Spirit. While some of them seemed to recognize the continued validity of tongues, others (such as Chrysostom and Augustine) denied it vehemently. At least some of the post-apostolic concern with supernatural gifts was associated with a controversial prophetic movement known as Montanism (Hunter; Rogers, Jr.; Wright).
  • It is not contrary to God’s nature for Him to deal with believers and mankind in general in different ways over the course of time. In particular, miracle-working does not seem to have been common through biblical history. Most miracles performed through human agency occurred in one of three periods: Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, and Jesus/apostles.

If the Gift of Tongues Is Not Present Today, How Can the Charismatic Movement Be Explained?

Modern tongues may be ecstatic speech associated with a religiously-induced trance.

  • Ecstatic speech is not indicative of a revelation from God. Members of heretical sects and even non-Christian religions have been known to experience phenomena similar to modern charismatic tongues. Studies indicate that Christian ecstasy is not linguistically different from that found in other religions (Goodman).
  • “Tongues” surface where people expect them to occur. This stands in contrast to the New Testament, where Jewish and Gentile believers spoke in tongues without having been taught to seek them out (Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-46).


The tongues of the New Testament were apparently contemporary languages uttered supernaturally by those who had never learned them. The purposes of tongues included establishing the credibility of the Christian message; attracting the attention of unbelievers; and providing a visible sign of conversion. The New Testament does not indicate that tongues occupied a prominent place in the life of the early church.

Both biblical and extra-biblical evidence suggest a cessation of tongues early in the life of the church. The modern Pentecostal movement fails to conform to New Testament prescriptions for the exercise of the gift. Modern “tongues” may be ecstatic speech associated with a religiously-induced trance.

Learning Objectives

  1. To survey the biblical data concerning the gift of tongues.
  2. To assess modern Pentecostalism in the light of biblical principles, historical data, and linguistic study.
  3. To encourage participants to adopt the cessationist view of tongues.