The answer to the question posed by this article depends first of all on what we understand by the phrase, ‘speaking with tongues’.
We could spend a great deal of time looking at what people in the 21st Century believe it means in various religious groups. But we have invariably found that the safest course is to go straight to the Bible and find out exactly what it teaches concerning this gift of the Holy Spirit, the ‘speaking with tongues’ that is mentioned throughout the New Testament. For the Bible is the Word of God and we can be sure that God would not be the author of confusion or misunderstanding on this or any other subject.
Did you know that the practice of ‘speaking with tongues’ is not mentioned in the Old Testament? It is not even mentioned in the prophecy of Joel (he was the prophet who foretold the pouring out of the Spirit of God in New Testament times). None of the founding fathers like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David or the prophets of old could speak with tongues, so we can discover immediately that it is not essential for salvation. For we know they will be in the Kingdom of God because of what Jesus said to the disciples:
“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out” (Luke 13:28)
Notice that all these people will be in the Kingdom of God. Being in the Kingdom is not dependant upon ‘speaking with tongues’.
Even more importantly, there is no mention of Jesus ever speaking with tongues. It is just not there in the gospels! On no occasion is he ever described as speaking with tongues – and yet other churches would say that the gift is a vital way for a Christian to communicate with God. Jesus spoke directly to God in prayer and we, today, have the same facility – we also can talk to God in prayer in whatever language we are able to speak. So immediately we can see that those who would say that we cannot be saved unless we can speak with tongues have some pretty difficult questions to answer.
So where did the practice come from and what did it achieve? We accept emphatically that Jesus promised the apostles that they would be imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit when he had ascended to heaven. For example, he promised the disciples:
“The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).
Notice that in this verse Jesus is speaking specifically to his disciples and to them he promised the Comforter or Helper – the gift of the Spirit – which the Bible tells us is the power of God. And notice what is promised in the verse: it is the ability to bring to mind accurately all that Jesus said. So when the apostles started recording in written form all that Jesus had said, they were able to do this accurately and truthfully. But nobody else can do that now. We remember what Jesus said because they wrote it down accurately and we can read it.
We can depend on the New Testament as an inspired account which contains the exact words of the Lord Jesus and the writings of Paul and others, precisely as they spoke or wrote them. And that matters because they spoke on behalf of the Lord God of Heaven. In other words, we can completely depend on the accuracy of the New Testament, indeed of the whole Bible, as the wholly inspired word of God because of that gift of the Holy Spirit.
The gift was more than the ability to record the words of Jesus accurately. It also conferred the ability to perform miracles and to speak with tongues. Though Jesus himself did not speak with tongues, he promised that this would be part of the power of the Spirit that would be given to the disciples. They were to be given signs that marked them out as the genuine apostles, as Jesus explained:
“These signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover … And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs”(Mark 16:17-18,20).
It would be interesting to look at each of these signs, but in this series we are examining the gift of ‘speaking with tongues’, and we notice that Jesus specifically says that the disciples would speak using new tongues. And that promise is referred to again in the Book of Acts, in these words:
“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8).
Notice again that the Holy Spirit is the same thing as the power of God, and it was to be part of the apostles’ work to witness the truth of Jesus from within Israel right to the uttermost parts of the earth. In other words, they would be given the tools they needed to preach the gospel in many different lands, and one such Spirit-aided skill would be the gift of tongues.