The first occurrence of speaking in tongues occurred on the day of Pentecost in  Acts 2:1-4. The apostles went  out and shared the gospel with the crowds, speaking to them in their own  languages: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11). The Greek word  translated tongues literally means “languages.” Therefore, the gift of tongues  is speaking in a language a person does not know in order to minister to someone  who does speak that language. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14, Paul discusses  miraculous gifts, saying, “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?” (1  Corinthians 14:6). According to the apostle Paul, and in agreement with the  tongues described in Acts, speaking in tongues is valuable to the one hearing  God’s message in his or her own language, but it is useless to everyone else  unless it is interpreted/translated.

A person with the gift of  interpreting tongues (1  Corinthians 12:30) could understand what a tongues-speaker was saying even  though he did not know the language that was being spoken. The tongues  interpreter would then communicate the message of the tongues speaker to  everyone else, so all could understand. “For this reason anyone who speaks in a  tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says” (1 Corinthians  14:13). Paul’s conclusion regarding tongues that were not interpreted is  powerful: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to  instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians  14:19).

Is the gift of tongues for today? First Corinthians  13:8 mentions the gift of tongues ceasing, although it connects the ceasing  with the arrival of the “perfect” in 1  Corinthians 13:10. Some point to a difference in the tense of the Greek  verbs referring to prophecy and knowledge “ceasing” and that of tongues “being  ceased” as evidence for tongues ceasing before the arrival of the “perfect.”  While possible, this is not explicitly clear from the text. Some also point to  passages such as Isaiah  28:11 and Joel  2:28-29 as evidence that speaking in tongues was a sign of God’s oncoming  judgment. First Corinthians 14:22 describes tongues as a “sign to  unbelievers.” According to this argument, the gift of tongues was a warning to  the Jews that God was going to judge Israel for rejecting Jesus Christ as  Messiah. Therefore, when God did in fact judge Israel (with the destruction of  Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70), the gift of tongues would no longer serve  its intended purpose. While this view is possible, the primary purpose of  tongues being fulfilled does not necessarily demand its cessation. Scripture  does not conclusively assert that the gift of speaking in tongues has  ceased.

At the same time, if the gift of speaking in tongues were active  in the church today, it would be performed in agreement with Scripture. It would  be a real and intelligible language (1  Corinthians 14:10). It would be for the purpose of communicating God’s Word  with a person of another language (Acts  2:6-12). It would be in agreement with the command God gave through the  apostle Paul, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should  speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter,  the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (1  Corinthians 14:27-28). It would also be in accordance with 1 Corinthians 14:33,  “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the  saints.”

God most definitely can give a person the gift of speaking in  tongues to enable him or her to communicate with a person who speaks another  language. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in the dispersion of the spiritual gifts  (1  Corinthians 12:11). Just imagine how much more productive missionaries could  be if they did not have to go to language school, and were instantly able to  speak to people in their own language. However, God does not seem to be doing  this. Tongues does not seem to occur today in the manner it did in the New  Testament, despite the fact that it would be immensely useful. The vast majority  of believers who claim to practice the gift of speaking in tongues do not do so  in agreement with the Scriptures mentioned above. These facts lead to the  conclusion that the gift of tongues has ceased or is at least a rarity in God’s  plan for the church today.