In dealing with the Corinthian church, Paul makes the following declaration, “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Cor. 14:4). In other words, when one speaks in an unknown language, he teaches only himself because only he and God understands what is shared. However, when one prophecies, which is to say when one preaches the word, he then instructs the church. Paul also shared that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, not believers, and prophecy is a sign to those who believe, not the unbeliever; therefore, the church should focus on prophesying or preaching the word.
Paul recognized that a church full of people uttering words of nonsense was an ineffective witness for Jesus Christ. Therefore, he framed the proper use of tongues in the church. First, since tongues are a sign for unbelievers, unbelievers ought to be present; otherwise, it serves no useful purpose since tongues are not a sign for believers. The second is to have no more than three people speak in a different language during a worship service. Third, an interpreter must be present to translate for the church. When that framework was put in place, it made it difficult for someone to substantiate their claim of speaking in tongues.
But does the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues apply to the times in which we live? It seems that some religious sects claim that speaking in tongues is widely used in modern-day while others maintain the gift is not for today and no longer imparted by the Holy Spirit. Those on the latter side of the question often refer to the book of 1 Corinthians, where Apostle Paul writes to the struggling Corinthian church about the importance and essential need for abiding love.
In the opening passage, Paul uses hyperbole to accentuate his point on abiding love. He writes, “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). In part one of this study, we recognized that the Corinthian church held the gift of tongues in high regard and above all other spiritual gifts. A vast majority of people were claiming to have the gift of tongues, which only served to cause confusion, chaos, and division in the church.
Therefore, Paul centers his opening argument on speaking in tongues. Paul notes that even if he had the gift of tongues yet he was absent of love, people would only hear blah blah blah when he spoke. For example, if someone always refers to you as a friend in public but never gives you the time of day, that person’s words are empty. On the other hand, if that person calls you a friend out of love and spends time with you, those words are precious and meaningful.
Many say that verses 8 through 12 signify that the gift of tongues is not for the present-day. In these verses, Paul writes, “Love never fails, but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know, in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8). But what is this “perfect” to come? Some say it refers to the completed Holy Bible; others say it relates to the established church; still, others say it is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote, “Love never fails,” meaning God’s sacrificial “agape” love has not, nor will it ever fail, and in fact, it will endure forever. However, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass, as there will be no need for them in the eternal presence of God. Paul also wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Based on that understanding, “when the perfect comes” points to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it maintains that the Holy Spirit can still grant the spiritual gift of tongues to whomever He so chooses; after all, He is God, but is it a gift still in use today?
To answer that overarching question, we must refer back to the book of Acts and consider the original purpose of tongues. It was to be a sign and to allow people of various languages to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in their native language. The miracle was both in the message and its method of delivery. It came through men who had no foreknowledge of the words each was speaking. It was a powerful tool to reach people through people when news traveled mostly by way of conversation.
Today, we have the complete canon text of the Bible translated in nearly 700 languages, and the gospel has spread throughout the world, with Christians proclaiming God’s word to all who have an ear to listen. The need for speaking in tongues diminished when God put His written word in the hands of man through various languages. Therefore, the gift of speaking in tongues is not needed, nor does it appear to be a gift given by the Holy Spirit in modern-day.
The gift of tongues was a sign for unbelievers, not believers who choose to follow Jesus Christ not by way of a sign, as it were with His disciple Thomas (John 20:24-26), but by their faith. Jesus, in response to Thomas’s doubt, said, ““Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29)
The importance of what Paul taught the Corinthian church, and the church today as well, is that the perfect love of God, a love He so freely expresses to the world through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross – shall endure forever and that should be the focus of the church — love.