What is the gift of speaking in tongues?

The gift of tongues is a God-given ability to speak another human language without ever studying or growing up in the language.  The gift of tongues is a miraculous ability.  The Bible has several references to people who had the gift of tongues.

The Bible's Example the Gift of Tongues

The first mention in the Bible of people having the gift of tongues is found in Acts 2:1-4 during the Jewish festival of Pentecost.  The apostles were instructed by Christ to wait in Jerusalem to be empowered by the Holy Spirit.  On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem who had come from all parts of the world.  Each nationality and tribe heard the Apostles speak in the language or dialect from which they had traveled.  The Apostles, however, were local fishermen, who had never traveled or studied foreign languages.  

“We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11

Although there are other occasions in which people spoke in tongues (languages), Acts 2 is the only chapter where the nature of the tongue is described.  

Regulating the Gift of Tongues in the Church

The Church in the city of Corinth was have a lot of problems, including the unrestrained and chaotic use of the gift of tongues.  Paul mentions several times the importance of speaking intelligibly in order to help people.

“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).

1 Corinthians 12:1 through 1 Corinthians 14: is an extended discussion about regulating how tongues should be used in the church.  The gift of tongues was designed to help people understand a word from God even if the evangelist normally didn't speak the language of the person listening.

“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).

The Gift of Interpreting

Similar to the gift of tongues is the gift of interpreting (1 Corinthians 12:30).  Normally to be able to interpret for another speaker, the interpreter needs to study or grow up speaking two languages.  The gift of interpretation is a super-natural capability to understand a foreign language in order to tell the listener what is being said.  

The End of the Gift of Tongues

The gift of tongues was given by God to call the attention of the Jews to the fact that new prophets were on the scene in Jerusalem.  Every person in the Bible who was able to perform miracles was given their amazing abilities in order to authenticate that their message was indeed from God.  For example, Moses, who wrote the first five books of the Bible, performed many miracles.  Later, men like Elijah and Elisha spoke authoritatively for God and had the ability to perform miracles.  The Apostles, who were delivering a new message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which would eventually become the New Testament, also had the divine seal of authority from God, namely the ability to perform miracles, including the gift of tongues.

First Corinthians 13:8 says that gift of tongues would cease along with the completion of the revelation of God given through the apostles.  No new messages need to come from God today since the collection of books of the Bible is complete.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10  Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  (9)  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  (10)  but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

Does the gift of tongues as seen today match the Biblical example?

Those who claim to have the gift of tongues today often have a very different form of tongues than that found in the example of Acts 2.  Random vocal sounds are attributed to being "a heavenly language".  No trace of grammar, vocabulary or similarity to any known langue can be found.  How different that what we find in scripture, “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).

I speak in tongues

I went to Mexico as a missionary in 2006 where I studied for over a year every day with many hours of practice.  If I had been given the gift of tongues, I would have saved a lot of time and frustration.  Acts 2 is not the normal experience for today since we have a full Bible.