What is the gift of speaking in tongues?

The phenomenon of speaking in tongues finds its roots in the biblical narrative, notably in the events of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:1–4. During this event, the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, communicated the message of the gospel to a diverse crowd in various languages, eliciting astonishment from the listeners. As stated in Acts 2:11, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

The Nature of Tongues

In the biblical context, the term “tongues” refers to languages, indicating that the gift of tongues involves speaking in a language unknown to the speaker, yet understood by the listener. This notion is reinforced by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12—14, where he discusses miraculous gifts. Paul emphasizes the importance of intelligibility in communication, stating in 1 Corinthians 14:6, “Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?”

Interpretation of Tongues

In the Corinthian community, the gift of interpreting tongues played a crucial role in facilitating understanding. Those with this gift could comprehend the message conveyed in tongues and convey it to others. Paul underscores the significance of interpretation in 1 Corinthians 14:13, urging individuals to pray for the ability to interpret tongues. Furthermore, he emphasizes the superiority of understandable speech over unintelligible tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:19, stating, “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Contemporary Relevance

The question arises: Is the gift of tongues relevant in contemporary times? While some interpret passages like 1 Corinthians 13:8 as suggesting the cessation of tongues, the matter remains open to interpretation. Additionally, some argue that tongues served as a sign of impending judgment, citing verses such as Isaiah 28:11 and Joel 2:28–29. Nevertheless, the fulfillment of their primary purpose does not necessarily entail the cessation of the gift itself.

Criteria for Tongues Today

If tongues were to manifest in the present-day church, adherence to biblical principles would be paramount. Tongues would need to be real languages, utilized for conveying God’s Word to speakers of other languages, and exercised orderly within the church, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 14:27–28. Any manifestation of tongues should promote harmony and understanding, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 14:33.


While God retains the ability to bestow the gift of tongues for the purpose of cross-cultural communication, contemporary observations suggest a decline in its occurrence. The discrepancy between modern practices and biblical guidelines leads some to conclude that the gift of tongues may have ceased or become rare in the present-day church. However, the ultimate disposition of this gift remains subject to interpretation and theological debate.

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