THE PURPOSE OF THE GIFTS OF TONGUES
God does not do anything by chance; everything He does is purposeful (Prov. 16:4). When the Charismata are given out at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives and uses them for a purpose, and it is this purpose which we look at now.
Gifts are stated first of all as being given for the building up of the universal Church of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:7). This is definitely much needed in the early church while the Scriptures were still in the process of inscripturation, and the Church was still small and weak set in a hostile environment (both the Jews and the Greeks detested the Gospel). The Gift of Tongues therefore was also meant to be used to build up the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we can see one way it was used was in drawing the attention of the Jewish Diaspora in Acts 2 by its undisputable miraculous nature so that Peter could give his first Christian sermon resulting in the salvation of 3000 Jews.
As we look at the Gift of Tongues, besides functioning as the most visible manifestation of Spirit baptism (Acts 10:44-47; 19:4-6), one important purpose can be seen in 1 Cor. 14:22a:
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, .... (1 Cor. 14:22a)
The context of 1 Cor. 14 shows Paul attempting to correct the immature Corinthian Christians in their abuse of their gifts, and especially the Gift of Tongues. As we have seen earlier, Paul gave them instructions of how to exercise the gift so as to build up the Church. 1 Cor. 14:22, however, sits right in the middle of his instructions, seeingly breaking up Paul's line of thought. Furthermore, it doesn't make much sense in such a context, for didn't Paul say that if unbelievers enter and all [the believers] speak in tongues, the unbelievers will be convinced that the Corinthian believers were out of their mind? (v. 23) So how can Paul state that they are a sign for unbelievers since Paul clearly tell the Corinthian Christians that their exercise will conversely convince the unbeliever that they are mad and subject the Gospel to scorn? (We will discuss the part about prophecy later)
To answer this question, it would be helpful to retrace the stated apperances of tongues through Scripture. In Acts 2 at Pentecost, tongues were the acknowledged miraculous sign which cause the unbelieving Jews from the Diaspora to be amazed and perplexed (Acts 2:12). In Acts 10, tongues functioned as the symbol which prove that the Holy Spirit has converted even the Gentiles. In Acts 19:1-7, tongues were given to mark the entry of Old Testament devout Jews who weren't around and thus missed out the birth of the New Covenant community. In all three accounts, only Acts 2 has anything to say about being a sign for unbelievers, whereas Acts 10 and Acts 18 function more as the visible manifestation of being baptized by the Spirit (at conversion), and we would therefore look at these two passages in more detail.
Juxtaposing Acts 2 with 1 Cor. 14:22a shows us that tongues are a sign to unbelievers that something miraculous was going on. No doubt these Jews may have heard the pagan priests mutter in false tongues and general gibberish and chants, but this was truly someting astonishing because it was in their own tongue, something they can understand, and the words that came out were words of praise to God. These tongues attracted their attention and they were perplexed at what this miracle meant, paving the road for Peter to give his Pentecostal sermon to a receptive audience.
From this, we can see that tongues seem to function as a sign to those unbelievers whose native language it is, as in Acts 2, that 1 Cor. 14:22a hold true. This therefore help us to understand more clearly what Paul is trying to say in 1 Cor. 14 in general. For since tongues are meant as signs to unbelievers, in the sense that the unbelievers who understood it will be astonished at this undisputed miraculous feat, the proper use of tongues as a sign to unbelievers occurs only when such people are around to witness this true miracle. Tongues therefore are a sign in a manner similar to other miracles, to put forth the truly miraculous as support for the fledgling church which would find it hard to expand to other cultures speaking other languages from a base of around 500 Jews and 0 Gentiles at the time of Pentecost (1 Cor. 15:6).
The reason why Paul regulated the speaking of tongues in the Corinthian church is due to their abuse. Whereas tongues were meant to be use as the Spirit leads as a sign to unbelievers, especially those from other cultures who were visiting, the Christians at Corinth were abusing their Gift of Tongues as a sort of spirituality contest, and thus all were speaking in tongues to prove their spirituality. With such chaos, unbelievers who enter will think that the church is a madhouse instead of a church, and therefore tongues are not functioning as the sign it was meant to be in such situations, earning Paul's stern rebuke for their abuse of their gift.
The giving of tongues could also function as a sign that Christianity is for the world, and certainly the book of Acts traces the outward spread of Christianity from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and onwards and outwards into the gentile world. Church Tradition also tell us of the deaths of the various Apostles in various places, from India to Ethopia to Britain (Foxes' Book of Matyrs Chapter 1), which proves the missionary focus of the Christian faith. Incidentally, the gift of tongues will prove most handy then, for unlike now when we can learn almost any language we desire to, the vast diversity of languages in the areas the Apostles ministered to was almost certain to create insurmountable difficulties for the proclamation of the Gospel unless the Holy Spirit enabled the Apostles to preach and teach in tongues there, and interpret that particular tongue too. And in those days, you can dream on about even finding someone who can translate between Hebrew and let's say Sanskrit, and even if there were, they were all employed by the kings and rulers of nations.
We can therefore see that tongues have a variety of purposes, but mainly based on them being signs pointing to a larger reality. They function as signs to unbelievers by their miraculous nature to point them to God (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 14:22a), as definite signs of regeneration and conversion showing God's manifestation of the global scope of His Kingdom (Acts 10:44-47; 19:4-6), and they pracically aid Christians in the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the earth without having to learn other languages, especially the apostles who are destined to move and minister in various diverse areas, cultures and languages.
With this settled, let us look into the pertinent question: "Are the Gift of Tongue for today or not?"
[to be continued]