Sign Gifts

Part One
The Gift Of TONGUES And Its Use

By Albert Blok

There are many differing opinions about the importance and use of tongues. Some believe that if one does not speak in tongues, that person is not saved. Others consider speaking in tongues to be a gift that is still important today, but they do not say that it must be done to be a born again Christian. Then there are other people who believe that speaking in tongues was a gift of the past and that this gift is, generally speaking, not in function anymore.

But what do we learn about speaking in tongues as we see it in the Bible? To start, we need to understand the meaning of the word “tongue” as it is used in Scripture.

The Word’s Use
The word “tongue” is used in several ways. It is applied to the muscle that we have in our mouth, as we see in the story of Gideon: “Every one that laps of the water with his tongue, as a dog laps …” (Jud. 7:5 KJV).

“Tongue” is also used to indicate speech or talking, as in Exodus 4:10 when Moses said, “I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” Similarly, Esther stated, “But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my tongue …” (Est. 7:4). James observed, as to our quickness in often talking unadvisedly, “The tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:5-8).

A third manner in which “tongue” is used is in terms of a specific, known and identifiable language. One example is found in Ezra 4:7, which says, “The letter was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue.” In Acts 2:7-11 the many foreigners “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.” From these verses we see that the third explanation of “tongue” is the one that applies to our study.

Three Occurrences
There is no example of anyone speaking in tongues in the Old Testament. Furthermore, it is interesting to notice that we have no account or indication that John the Baptist, the great herald of the coming Messiah, ever spoke in tongues. Nor do we have a record of the Lord Jesus doing so. It was however something that would come later, and the Lord Jesus in His parting message told His disciples that there would be those who would speak with new tongues (Mk. 16:17).

The first mention and time that we have of speaking in tongues was at Pentecost in Acts 2:4-11, a passage we already referenced. The Holy Spirit had come down and had baptized all the believers into one Body, the Church. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. What was the subject? It was the “wonderful works of God.” Although unknown to those who spoke them, the words were known to the listeners – the actual languages of every man in their own language.

The second time that tongues is mentioned is in Acts 10:44-46, and it is further explained in Acts 11:15. “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” (10:44-46). The newly believing Gentiles spoke in tongues, which were understood by the Jews as they recognized that they were magnifying God.

The third encounter as to the use of tongues took place in Ephesus, as recorded in Acts 19:1-7: “It came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”

In all three cases, when the people received the Holy Spirit they spoke in tongues. Each time there was a change or demonstration that God was working in a special way. In Acts 2 it was a new relationship: The Lord in heaven identifying Himself with a group of believers on earth, baptizing them together and thus forming the Church. At that time there were only Jewish believers.

The adding of Gentiles to the Church, and that equally in relationship with Christ, is noticed in Acts 10. They spoke in tongues just as the Jews had done on the first day, at Pentecost, showing that there was no longer any distinction between believing Jews and Gentiles. This may not be such an important difference to us now, but at that time it certainly was marked. Therefore we understand Peter’s explanation: “For as much then as God gave them the like gift [the Holy Spirit] as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” (11:17).

In Acts 19, certain men of Ephesus were looking for Christ to come as the Messiah, having understood only this much from the preaching of John the Baptist. It was a Jewish position. But since the preaching of John the Baptist, the Lord had been rejected and had gone to heaven. When they understood this they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. This took them from an Old Testament position to a New Testament one. God wanted to show the change by having them speak in tongues. We need to understand that this was a situation that occurred at that time, but it cannot be repeated because the teaching of John the Baptist has been replaced.

The Fourth Occurrence
It is interesting to consider that speaking in tongues is spoken of only four times in the Scriptures. The fourth and last time is in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and the subject is about gifts as given to each one individually as the Holy Spirit willed and gave. The emphasis of the teaching in these chapters in relation to the gift of tongues is the correcting of the abusive, incorrect use of this gift in the assembly of Corinth.

As we read these three chapters in the context of the entire first letter to the Corinthians, we quickly see that they were very carnal, desiring to satisfy their flesh. That group of believers had many difficulties. There was gross immorality, infighting, selfishness and a spirit of division. Among these believers were those who had the gift of tongues, as given by the Holy Spirit as He willed. However, they were using this gift incorrectly. From this example we see that speaking in tongues was not a sign of spirituality, as many teach today. It was not proof of someone being saved or an indication of being filled with the Holy Spirit, for a believer who is filled with the Holy Spirit could not use a gift in an incorrect way.

Some believe speaking in tongues is a necessary proof of salvation, because of what took place in Acts 2 and 10. However, the people who spoke in tongues in Acts 2 had already believed in the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Instead, what happened at Pentecost was the beginning of the Church. Likewise, the Gentiles in Acts 10 spoke in tongues when the Holy Spirit fell upon those who heard the Word, showing that they were now received in the same manner as the Jews had been – this did not take place as a proof of their individual salvation. There are many other examples in Scripture of individuals who never spoke in tongues at their conversion, such as Saul of Tarsus, Lydia of Philippi and the jailer in Philippi and his family.

As A Sign Gift
It is important to notice that speaking in tongues is placed last in the list of gifts (1 Cor. 12:7-10,28). Rather than having the desire to speak in tongues, believers are admonished to seek the gift of prophesy (14:1-5).

As stated before, it is important to see that the gift of tongues is only used in New Testament Church times, not in the Old Testament. The sign gifts, of which tongues would be considered part, were for the confirmation of the message of the gospel: “If the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” (Heb. 2:2-4).

Although signs were a demonstration and verification of the work of God in the preaching of the gospel, the gift of tongues was principally a sign and proof to the unbelieving Jews of the truthfulness of the new message that was being proclaimed: Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith. We see this in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22: “In the law it is written, with men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear Me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” Paul, as directed by the Holy Spirit, said that tongues were a sign to the unbelievers – the ones under the law, the people of Israel. So the purpose of tongues was to show the unbelieving Jews that God was now working in a special way, different than before.

One may wonder why this would apply even in Corinth, but we know that Jews were scattered all over and Paul’s practice was that he would reach out to his own people with the message of the gospel in almost every place he went. This was the case in Corinth too, where “he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (Acts 18:4).

Concluding Thoughts
In the correct understanding of Scripture, there is a principle of “first mention.” This principle is that unless clearly indicated otherwise, the significance of the word is to be interpreted by its first use, which in this use of “tongues” means a specific, known and identifiable language. This is clearly understood in the passage of Acts 2 where various languages are named. In Acts 10 and 19 the hearers understood what was being said, so in all three cases it was an identifiable and understood language. There is no justification to think otherwise. Considering this, the practice by some to utter unintelligible sounds and noises with the pretext that they are speaking in tongues has absolutely no Biblical justification or support and thus must be dismissed as something that is artificial and false.

As we read through the book of Acts we see that the miracles and sign gifts diminished rapidly as time passed. Historically we read nothing about the use of tongues after Acts 19, only 27 years after Pentecost. There is no further mention of the use of tongues except for the corrective letter to the church in Corinth.

It is important to notice that Peter, James, John and Jude were all present at Pentecost and personally experienced what happened that day. All wrote letters, which we have in the New Testament, but none of them wrote about tongues in their letters even though they did speak about the Holy Spirit (collectively a total of 27 times).

Peter in 1 Peter 2:2 told us that we are to grow and be built up. How, by tongues? No, but by the pure milk of the Word.

Paul wrote 13 or 14 letters and in only one of these letters did he write about tongues. It was in one of his earliest letters – 1 Corinthians – and when he did it was in a corrective way.

The gift of tongues was used in praise or prayer (Acts 2, 10; 1 Corinthians 14:2,14), and for edification (v.26), but there are no occasions in Scripture to suggest its private use. It was for public use before unbelieving Jews with the application of perfect love, as put forward in 1 Corinthians 13, to verify the message of the gospel of grace by faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Look for the conclusion of this Series next month.


We do not find speaking in tongues in the Gospels, other than in the prophecy of the Lord Jesus in Mark 16:17. In verse 14 the Lord reproached the Eleven for their unbelief and hardness of heart. He then gave them the commission to preach the gospel to all the creation, indicating the consequences for the hearers and the signs that would follow those who believe (vv.15-17). The Eleven went forth and the Lord fulfilled His promise, confirming the word by the signs following it. Notice these points: Signs were only given as confirmation of the word, it does not say signs would follow all believers, and the promise in this passage was given only to the Eleven.

——H. L. Heijkoop (adapted)