The Real Nature and Use of Tongues

The Real Nature and Use
of Tongues

Zane Hodges

Through the gracious permission of Dr. John Walvoord, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra, we are able to make available to our reader’s this article by Zane Hodges (Dallas Assembly) which appeared first in that periodical. The article presents the problem relative to speaking in tongues and indicates a proper biblical approach. We trust that other articles in future numbers will provide help that some feel necessary in this matter.

If it should be urged that, despite all that has been thus far said, the passage nevertheless does not confine the sign to an unbelieving Jewish nation but refers to all unbelievers, two remarks can be made by way of reply. First, the expression “this people” clearly delineates the concept of the Old Testament passage and the assumption that on this point Paul departs from the thought of his proof text is entirely gratuitious and without foundation in the context. But second, and just as decisively, unless the phrase tois apistos be taken as a reference to the Jewish people distinctly referred to in verse 21, it is difficult indeed to comprehend the thought of verses 23-25 which follow. For in these verses the Apostle plainly teaches that the average unbeliever who enters the assembly, upon hearing them all speak with tongues, will say that the Christians are mad (v. 23). Indeed, he goes on to assert, it is prophecy which will bring to such an one the conscious realization of the presence of God in their midst. But if the tongues be truly a sign to the generality of “them that believe not” (v. 22), it is hard to perceive why it should not have been the specially appropriate gift to exercise on any occasion when an unbeliever might be present. The solution to this apparent contradiction in thought is most naturally found by adhering faithfully to the precise significance of the Apostle’s citation from the Old Testament. Tongues were given as a sign to the Jewish people only, from which it follows that the average heathen visitor to the Christian assembly (far more likely to be a Gentile than a hostile Jew) would be exposed to a phenomenon never intended for him in the first place. On the other hand, the intelligible use of prophecy for the edification of the assembly, perfectly understandable to a Gentile visitor, would be likely to have powerful side effects, searching him, and begetting within him the fear of God.

The Real Nature and Use of Tongues

Right here it is necessary also to observe that it is a highly fallacious view of the nature of the so-called glossalalia of the New Testament which supposes that tongues consisted of anything other than known languages of the world (If the expression “tongues of men and of angles” (1 Cor. 13:1) be appealed to, it is sufficient to note that the first three verses of the chapter have a pronounced hyperbolic character. While angels no doubt have languages of their own, the Apostle no more implies that he expects the readers to use them than that he expects them to give their bodies to be burned v. 3). The word unknown frequently coupled with the word tongue in the Authorized Version is italicized to indicate that there is nothing in the original to correspond to it and, indeed, its insertion by the translators was infelicitous in the extreme. For the Greek word glossa (“tongue”) meant no more in such a setting to the Greek reader than does our English word “language.” If, then, at every occurrence of the word tongue or unknown tongue the English reader will simply substitute the word language, a much clearer concept of this spiritual gift will be achieved. There is no trace of scriptural evidence that to the Jews, for whom the gift was intended, tongues were ever heard as incoherent, incomprehensible, babbling. It is evident that on the Day of Pentecost, for example, to the great Jerusalem multitude all that was being said was perfectly intelligible — without an interpreter — for these Jews exclaim: “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” (Acts 2:8, 11).

If all the evidence of Scripture is carefully put together certain conclusions concerning the gift of tongues will become apparent. From the very first this charisma consisted of languages known and spoken by Jews of the dispersion, so many of whom were present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). The prominence of the gift in the Corinthian assembly is easily accounted for by the fact that Corinth was at this time a thriving commercial centre where there was also an appreciable Jewish element (cf. Acts 18:1-17) (Cf. also article on “Corinth,” New Bible Dictionary, p. 252). Obviously, due to the natural Jewish aptitude in commercial affairs, Corinth would be just such a city as would exhibit a polyglot Jewish community many of whom might be resident only for a time in connection with specific ventures. (What seems to be a predictable Jewish practice of planning a year’s residence in some city to “buy and sell and get gain” is alluded to (James 4:13). If, then, as is natural to suppose the affairs of commerce in Corinth resulted in Jews of various linguistic backgrounds flowing in and out of the city, no surprise is occasioned by the fact that many languages — unknown to the average Greek Corinthian who might visit the assembly — were supernaturally present there that they might be properly utilized in the gospel witness to the race for whom they were a sign. (That the gift of tongues was capable of having limited evangelistic results is sufficiently proved by the three thousand converts on the Day of Pentecost, while the mass of the city fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and remained in unbelief.)

Obviously, as in the case of any other spiritual gift, the possessor of the gift of tongues could utilize this gift at will. Accordingly, in addition to its primary function in witness to Jewish visitors or inhabitants at Corinth, the gift might be employed in prayer (1 Cor. 14:14-16) or simply in speaking in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:2, 27, 39 etc). But here also lay the danger of its abuse for, outside of its proper Jewish context, the average believer in the assembly might not know “the meaning of the voice” and might be unedified when the gift was used (cf. 1 Cor. 14:6-11). Indeed, so used, the gift might be no more than a means of vain display. However, once the Apostle has placed the gift in its proper perspective by reminding the Corinthians of its basic purpose (vv. 20-22), he is then prepared to restrict its use in the assembly and to stipulate its nonuse there altogether unless there were an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27-28). A sign-gift for an unbelieving nation had indeed its proper sphere, but the controlling principle within the Church was the building up of the saints. To this end, tongues would have to be harnessed and directed if they were to be employed in the Church at all, “Let all things be done unto edifying” (1 Cor. 14:25).


It remains then only to inquire whether, in view of its biblical purpose, the gift of tongues is still being given to the Church today. The question is, is God still giving signs to the Jewish people or has the gift, like that of an apostle, been withdrawn by virtue of having fulfilled its function? That its purpose has ended and it has therefore been withdrawn, is the conclusion which is forthcoming from such a passage as Luke 21:20-24. From this Scripture it is clear that the destruction of Jerusalem (accomplished in A.D. 70) was to signalize the fact that God’s attention was being directed to the Gentiles until their times (Greek kairos, “seasons” or even, “times of opportunity”) should be fulfilled. The agelong treading down of the holy city conutitutes a visual lesson in history that, so long as it continues, God’s purposes with the Jews as a nation are in abeyance and His purposes with the nations are predominant. That the period between the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and the prophesied destruction of the city in which He died was so long, is but a tribute to the matchless patience and forbearance of God toward His ancient and erring people. The temporary flourishing of the sign-gift of tongues during this period in accordance with Old Testament prophecy—so to speak, a final gracious effort to rouse the nation to repentance —can only be rightly understood if it is seen as a parting token of Jehovah’s love for the earthly seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The failure of the modern tongues movement to display any discernible consciousness of the plain biblical purpose of this gift stands as a powerful argument against the movement’s genuineness and validity.