When God poured out His Spirit for the first time, as recorded in Acts chapter 2, the believers spoke in tongues—languages they did not know—as God gave them the ability to speak. But why?
Why did God use tongues at all? He could have demonstrated His power in any number of ways: like a flame of fire, a giant cloud, an angel choir, or a meteor shower. After studying scripture, I have discovered that God sent tongues to the believers who received His Spirit as a sign of judgment. Contrary to some charismatic doctrines, tongues are not the supreme blessing but a powerful word of warning and damnation.
Tongues are a sign of judgment
Israel stopped listening to God’s prophets. He sent men and women to speak to them in their own language and they kept on sinning, ignoring God. So, He said He would speak to them again, but in a language they did not understand (Isaiah 28:11-12). While this was initially fulfilled when Assyria took over, it met its full completion on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
Corinth, a church obsessed with speaking in tongues, deserved a tongue lashing from their founder. While they thought they had reached the peak of spirituality because they spoke in tongues, Paul told them the real meaning of this gift when quoting from Isaiah:
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 (I Corinthians 14:21-22, KJV)
When believers speak in tongues in worship, it is God’s reminder to Israel that they rejected Him. Although the person speaking in tongues reaps great spiritual benefits from this experience, they are at the same time giving a reminder that Israel needs to repent. Speaking in tongues will continue until Israel does again hear their Lord at His return, then spiritual gifts will vanish away as the new era begins in Christ’s presence (Isaiah 10:20-22; 24:13; 29:6; Zechariah 12:10; 13:6-9; 14:4; Matthew 24; Romans 9:27; 11:4-5; I Corinthians 13:8, 10; Revelation 7:1-8).
Moving beyond tongues
New believers speak in tongues when they receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4, 10:44-46, 19:6). We continue to speak in tongues in worship to the Lord and when praying at His leading (Romans 8:26; I Corinthians 14:2, 4, 15, 18). Although I speak in tongues daily, I know it does not benefit others. Some people thing they are being super-spiritual at church when they speak in tongues. While such a person is having a good time in the Lord, no one else can say “Amen” to those words. If you want to help someone else spiritually, pray that God would speak through you in known words, just as He spoke through the prophets to Israel.
It’s like this: you want your friend to understand the good time you had at the barbeque. But when you say, “Wow, we had some of the best barbeque ribs ever!” your friend does not share in the experience. You might stir their appetite a little, but you certainly do not fulfill it. If you really want your friend to experience the same thing you did, marinade some more meat, take it to the grill, and serve up a plate of finger-licking joy. Now, your friend is not depending on the scent of your experience.
When ministering to others, you do not need to speak in tongues to impress them. Paul warns that such things will make them think you are crazy. Instead, he says, pray that God would speak through you in the voice of prophecy, so they can be built up by what you are saying.
Sometimes the church would rather hear speaking in tongues because it does not hold us accountable and we do not have to do anything because of it. However, when God speaks through prophecy, He convicts our hearts and challenges us to live right. In your church, bring the voice of God. You can speak in tongues all you want on your own time, but when you are with the body of believers, seek blessings from God that build up the others and help everyone grow in Christ. Read I Corinthians 14 and pray that God would use you in gifts that strengthen everyone, not just yourself.