rom the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement, one of the most distinguishing features of our faith has been speaking in tongues. Tongues marks Pentecostalism as a distinct movement within Christianity.
However, as Pentecostal churches have become more accepted, and more mainstream, this distinctive has sometimes gone by the wayside. Some see this as a relatively unimportant development, while others view it as undermining our claim to be a Spirit-directed movement.
What is at stake here? Are we talking about something of great significance to our Christian walk and witness? Or is it simply a nice “extra,” but not all that important? I contend that tongues is extremely valuable to a Christian’s spiritual life. So let’s consider the value of speaking in tongues.
Foremost among the reasons tongues is important is its efficacy in prayer. What is prayer but communicating with our Father? We should remember that the second person of the Godhead is called the Logos, the Word of God. This indicates that communication—expressing thoughts and concepts—is at the heart of God’s relationship with people. Consequently, all prayer is a participation in the divine life.
We pray to the Father, as prompted by the Spirit, through the person of the Son. Now take this up a notch. When we pray in tongues, the very words we speak are prompted by the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Godhead. The words of our prayers are the very words (logoi) of God. We are praying God’s own words to the Father through the Son. How much more powerful, and intimate, can prayer be than this?
However, praying in tongues is not only a means of intimate communication with God; it is also a vehicle for direct, unimpeded prayer. In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul wrote, “One who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (ESV).
The phrase “no one understands him” is very strong in the original language. “No one” indicates no exceptions; it excludes every individual universally. No person knows what is being spoken. But aren’t some of the tongues being spoken human languages? Yes, but not all. Remember there are tongues of angels, as well as of men (1 Corinthians 13:1). The Spirit can actually give you an angelic language.
Now think of this—God the Word, who created language in the first place, is still the Creator. So when you pray in tongues, it is possible you are speaking a language God fashioned just for you, and no one but God himself can understand—no human, no angel, no demon, not Satan himself. Talk about direct, unlimited, and unhindered prayer!
Since tongues are not grounded in our knowledge or ability to speak, but rather is Spirit-directed, then when we pray in the Spirit we are praying what God desires to be prayed. This means the gift of tongues is an invaluable tool in intercessory prayer. We can pray for someone without knowing all the circumstances or details of their need, but the Holy Spirit knows. And He can pray through us exactly what needs to be expressed in prayer.
I personally have found tongues to be a great help in praying with people in church altar services. I can pray for them in tongues, confident that the Spirit of God is praying just the right thing for them. I don’t have to understand their situation, or hear an explanation of their need; the Lord knows. And He can use my quiet pleas in the Spirit to intercede appropriately on their behalf.
In many ways, Pentecost is the reversal of the tower of Babel. In the plains of Shinar, people who should have scattered over the face of the earth in obedience to God were forced to separate when their speech was divided into many languages (Genesis 11:1-9). Multiple languages were the sign of the judgment of God.
At Pentecost, people from many scattered lands were brought together to celebrate the Festival of Weeks. Here God provided one people (the Jews) with the ability to speak in multiple languages (Acts 2:1-4). This was a sign of God’s grace. The Lord was indicating that the Good News of the Messiah was not for one nation, Israel, but for all nations. Every nation, and every language, was to bear witness to the Gospel. Tongues is a token of God’s love for all nations, all people.
It is no wonder, then, that tongues is a uniquely New Testament gift of God. All of the spiritual gifts are evident in the Old Testament—prophecy, miracles, healings, words of knowledge and wisdom, discernment. Yet, it is only in the New Testament that we see tongues manifest—the global Gospel is reflected in a globally oriented gift.
In his teaching on tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:21, Paul refers to the words of Isaiah 28:11 as a prophecy about tongues. In the next verse, Isaiah 28:12, the Lord refers to His offer of rest for His people. Isaiah’s prophecy ties the two things together.
Does this mean tongues can function as a means of rest, of relieving stress from our lives? This does seem to be the case. One university study found that following a worship experience where people prayed or worshiped in tongues, there were several days of measurably lower stress levels and less of a tendency to an arousal of stress. Other studies show that speaking in tongues facilitates a sense of peace, calmness, and a more positive attitude toward life in general. Perhaps this is one aspect of Paul’s emphasis on tongues as edifying, or building up, individual believer (1 Corinthians 14:4).
There is one characteristic of the gift of tongues in operation that is somewhat hard to describe. Have you ever been in a worship service where someone prays in tongues and you immediately see a powerful move of the Spirit? Whether it happens openly before the whole church, or quietly among a few people around the altar, a release of power accompanies praying in the Spirit.
Indeed, I have seen waves of dynamic spiritual power sweep through a congregation when someone has prayed in tongues. If you think about it, this only makes sense. If God responds to prayer, then how powerfully will He respond to the prayers of the Holy Spirit offered through the obedient heart and lips of a child of God?
We do not have the space to investigate all the ways in which the gift of tongues benefits the believer. This includes its value in praise and worship, its usefulness in spiritual warfare, how God speaks to the church through tongues and interpretation, and tongues as a sign for unbelievers. Suffice it to say that the gift of tongues has great value in the Christian life.
While tongues is not required for salvation, or to be an effective Christian, it is important. If it were not, would God have given this gift to the Church? I do not believe the Lord arbitrarily dispenses “handouts” to His people. When He gives a spiritual gift, it is because it has value, purpose, and significance. This includes the gift of tongues, which makes individuals and churches more effective in serving Christ.
As Spirit-filled believers, we should treasure this irreplaceable and precious gift God has given to us. Speaking in tongues is not only part of our heritage as Pentecostals; it is also a wonderful birthright from our inheritance in Christ.