While I realize that many disagree with cessationist beliefs (i.e., that special revelation and its occasionally-accompanying sign-gifts such as tongues were limited to the apostolic era and have thus ceased), it is helpful for anyone to study the topic of speaking in tongues as it is involves multiple chapters in Acts and 1 Corinthians. I know it has been helpful for me, and these are some answers from my own study that I provided to my church while preaching through Acts 2. My intent is certainly not to argue with anyone or stir debate with those who disagree. I don’t expect to bring others to my convictions (though I would not object if that happened!). I simply hope to share what I and my church believe for the benefit of others. Whatever your position may be, if otherwise, perhaps you will find it helpful as well.
What were people saying when they spoke in tongues?
The speakers were speaking actual, human languages. Acts 2:1–13 provides an example of multiple tongues (languages) being spoken and lists them out. In the context of instructing the Corinthians, Paul states, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (1 Cor 14:10), implying that, whatever words they were speaking, and whether or not they had spoken the language before, they were being spoken in a meaningful, human language.
In 1 Cor 13:1, Paul supposes a situation in which he could speak in “tongues…of angels.” In doing so, Paul could have been speaking hyperbolically to stress the role of love as the motivation for using spiritual gifts—even if hypothetical but actually impossible angelic tongues could be spoken, even this kind of superlative tongue-speech is unprofitable if spoken for self and without love (cf. 1 Cor 13:1–7). Or, as he “heard things” in “the third heaven” and “paradise…which man may not utter,” the tongues of angels may be real, angelic languages but still impermissible for man to utter, even with the gift of tongues (2 Cor 12:2–4).
Acts describes in the content of tongues-speech in various ways. First, the content involved “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), which had to do with works such as the resurrection of Jesus and finding salvation through the Spirit in Him (cf. Acts 2:14–41). Second, the content had to do with “extolling God” (Acts 10:46). Most likely, the context of Acts 10 involved new converts extolling (praising) God for what they had just believed of the gospel as well (cf. Acts 10:34–43). Third, speaking in tongues is joined with “prophesying” (Acts 19:6). As Peter explained speaking in tongues in terms of prophecy (cf. Acts 2:17), and as it spoke of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), the content of tongues in Acts 19 likely involved prophesying in that they speakers were praising God for His mighty work through Christ for salvation as well.
Added to the above, Paul identifies the content of tongues-speech as “mysteries” (1 Cor 14:2). “Everywhere in Paul’s writings ‘mysteries’ were truths about God and His program that for a time remained hidden, but were at that moment revealed through the inspired writer (Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 13:2; 15:51; Eph. 3:3–4, 9; 5:32; Col. 1:26).” For one speaking in tongues, these truths about God and His program were not essentially different from the other mysteries Paul would reveal in Scripture after writing to the Corinthians. The difference is that, with tongues, the mysteries were spoken.
What was the purpose for speaking in tongues?
On a basic level, the purpose for speaking in tongues indicated to the speakers and others that the speakers had been given the Spirit (Acts 2:1–13 with 2:33; Acts 10:46 with 10:47; Acts 19:2 with 19:6).
Paul likewise taught that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Looking more closely at the examples of tongues as the gift involved unbelievers in Acts, we could say that, like other miracles (a miraculous gift in this instance), tongues signified to unbelievers that what was being said of God’s Word was true (Acts 2; cf. 1 Kgs 17:24; Acts 14:3; Heb 2:4). In the other instances, tongues signified to new converts and especially others that the new converts had indeed believed the gospel and had been accepted by God as His people (Acts 10, 19). They could not speak in tongues by the Spirit if they did not have the Spirit. Within the gathered assembly (the situation that Paul is addressing in 1 Cor 14), it seems tongues could have likewise verified the truth or the certainty of one’s conversion as long as certain guidelines were followed (cf. 1 Cor 14:27–28).
Though these passages are not exactly alike in every detail, each passage somehow involved unbelievers and speaking in tongues. Either unbelievers heard the tongues-speech and then believed, or unbelievers believed and then spoke in tongues to confirm their belief.
Are some Christians able to speak in “private prayer languages”?
A surface level reading of 1 Corinthians 14 leads some to the conclusion that Paul spoke of privately praying in tongues. After all, in the context of instructing the Corinthians about how to speak in tongues, Paul did mention that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor 14:2), that “the one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself” (1 Cor 14:4), that one can “pray in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:14), and that he could “speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor 14:28).
For each of these passages, however, one should remember that the entirety of 1 Cor 12–14 has to do with the assembled church and not what to do in a private, isolated setting. Paul’s repeated point in 1 Cor 14 is that the Corinthians were to do what edified the assembly (1 Cor 14:5, 12, 19, 26). With this necessary contextual element in mind, speaking or praying in a tongue to God alone should be understood as a misuse of tongues—an interpreter was necessary to make known to all the mysteries given by the Spirit, and the assembly would thus be edified (cf. 1 Cor 14:5). If an interpreter was not present, the one who could have spoken in tongues was to remain silent (1 Cor 14:28), be personally built up by silently contemplating the mysteries he could have otherwise spoken (1 Cor 14:4, 28), and let edification prevail through prophecy instead (1 Cor 14:5, 19). To clarify, tongues could certainly have involved praying in a tongue (cf. 1 Cor 14:14), but only in the assembly. The gift of tongues was meant to edify others.
Should missionaries witness in tongues?
In Acts 2, unbelievers heard the mighty of acts of God being declared in their native languages (Acts 2:8–11), which eventually led to the salvation of many (Acts 2:41). Moreover, Paul declared that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Should we attempt today to speak in tongues to unbelievers as a sign that what we say is true, which may lead to their salvation?
As a cessationist, I would obviously answer no to the question of whether or not missionaries should witness in tongues. But even if we set cessationism aside, the book of Acts describes this kind of thing only once in all of its 28 chapters (Acts 2). In Acts 10 and 19, it is not even the missionaries who were speaking in tongues. A well-known hermeneutical axiom is helpful here for Acts 2 (and Acts 10 and 19 for that matter)—“the descriptive is not necessarily prescriptive.” Stated another way, “narrative is not necessarily normative.”
If anything, this sign-gift fits with the overall theme of Acts—how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). People spoke in tongues in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–13), maybe further to Judea and Samaria (compare Acts 8:14–17 with 10:44–48), yet further to Caesarea (Acts 10:44–48), and yet even further all the way to Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7). The gift of tongues verified that the Spirit was given to believers in Jerusalem and others as the gospel spread to new and further geographic regions.
Should new converts to speak in tongues once they believe the gospel (e.g., Acts 10:44–48 and 19:1–7)?
Again, as a cessationist, I would answer no. But, along the lines of how we just answered the last question, if we build our expectations for new converts according to narrative descriptions alone, we should also include the instances of people being saved without speaking in tongues immediately thereafter (e.g., Paul in Acts 9, the Philippian jailer in Acts 16, etc.). Even for the book of Acts, speaking in tongues is not a uniform element for those who come to Christ.
Some try to narrow tongues-speaking and conversion to what happens on the frontiers of the gospel in a way that parallels Acts 10 and 19. But again, even with cessationism set aside, this claim is at best making a narrative normative, albeit in a limited way. It may keep tongues and any related excesses out of established congregations and isolate the gift to the ends of earth, but we have no direct instruction to expect this kind of thing. Narrative is not necessarily normative.
Does speaking in tongues have anything to do with reversing the judgment of tongues in Genesis 11?
Some suggest that the confusion of tongues at Babel in Gen 11 is “reversed” through tongues breaking the language barrier in Acts 2. The table of nations in Gen 10 likewise finds a parallel in the languages listed in Acts 2:8–11. And just as language was confused in Gen 11 to spread man over the earth, so also Acts 2 gives unity in language through tongues to take the gospel to every end of the earth to which man has spread (cf. Acts 1:8). Or, a softer conclusion, maybe Acts 2 showed the judgment of Gen 11 being not actually but only “symbolically broken” and will be “realized finally” at “the fulfillment of kingdom expectations (Rev. 5:9).”
As interesting as these parallels may be, Acts 2 does not explicitly identify its events as a reversal of the judgment of Gen 11. Moreover, it does not even record everyone (whatever their spiritual state) speaking one, singular language, which would have been a full reversal of Gen 11. Many languages persist today as they did in Acts 2. That tongues are no longer spoken today is further evidence (for the cessationist) that Gen 11 has not been reversed as well.
No study is complete without looking at the Scriptures for yourself, but hopefully the above can be an introductory guide in studying this difficult topic. If nothing else, what an amazing gift it was for some to speak in tongues, edify others, and show the spread of the gospel!