Around us today there are those who claim to be able to speak with tongues, a gift which was used in the early days of the Church. I believe, however, that the Biblical gift of tongues has ceased, and therefore is not practised today. There are four reasons for holding this view.
Scripture expressly states that tongues would cease
Paul, writing to the Corinthians around AD 59, stated categorically: "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away" (1 Cor 13.8-10).
In this chapter Paul contrasts three spectacular gifts prophecy, tongues, and knowledge with love. These gifts will cease, whereas love "never faileth". It should be noted that the verse does not say that the gift of tongues would cease "when that which is perfect is come". The arrival of "that which is perfect" marks the end of what is described as being "in part" prophecy and knowledge. The gift of tongues is dropped in v.8 and is not referred to again in the chapter.
The verbs used and voices employed in referring to these three gifts are important and instructive. With reference to prophecy and knowledge, the verb katargeo is in the future passive voice. This means that prophecy and knowledge will be stopped by something outside themselves. In contrast, with reference to tongues the verb used is pauo in the future middle voice. This means that tongues will cease by themselves, or stop themselves. The illustration of a rolling ball may be helpful. If I stoop down and stop a rolling ball with my hand, this is the action relating to the cessation of prophecy and knowledge. If however the ball is allowed to roll until it gradually slows and stops of its own accord, this is the action describing how tongues would cease. In other words tongues would peter out and gradually become inoperative. It should be noted that the verb pauo denotes a final cessation.
It can be seen, therefore, that Scripture specifically states that tongues would peter out at some point before prophecy and knowledge. The gifts of prophecy and knowledge would continue until stopped by the arrival of "that which is perfect". There is considerable debate over the meaning of the phrase "that which is perfect" but it should be appreciated that this has no connection with the cessation of tongues.
The purpose for which tongues was given no longer exists
The purpose of the gift of tongues is clearly stated by Paul. "In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe" (1 Cor 14.21-22).
Four important points are made in this passage. First, the gift was a sign gift. Second, it was a sign to unbelievers. Third, it was a sign to unbelieving Jews ("this people"). Fourthly, it would not be heeded but would be followed by judgment.
In the transitional period covered by the book of Acts, God was graciously extending to the nation of Israel an opportunity to repent and believe the gospel. It was indeed "to the Jew first" (Rom 1.16). In order to assure the nation that this "new" message was in fact genuine and originated in the God of the Old Testament, signs including speaking in tongues - accompanied the message. In every recorded instance of tongues in the book of Acts (chs.2, 10 and 19) Jews are present and their reaction to the gift of tongues was noted.
Despite the accompanying signs and wonders recorded in Acts, the book ends rather abruptly with Paul in a Roman prison virtually closing the door to the nation of Israel and indicating that God was turning to the Gentiles (Acts 28.25-29). Paul refers to this elsewhere as national blindness due to Gods governmental dealings with Israel (Rom 11.25). Their failure to believe the gospel, attested by signs and wonders, led to the judicial blinding of the nation a state that will persist until the Rapture.
Now that the gospel has turned predominantly to Gentile nations, the purpose for which the gift of tongues was given no longer applies. It was by nature a temporary sign given to the nation during a period of special treatment and privilege.
In charismatic circles it is commonly taught that the primary purpose of tongues is self-edification through "spirit prayer". I believe this to be a complete misunderstanding of Pauls teaching on the subject in 1 Corinthians 14.
Inspired and secular historical evidence confirms that tongues ceased
The last Biblical account of tongues speaking in the book of Acts occurs in ch.19 (AD 56). The gift of tongues is only specifically mentioned in one New Testament letter, 1 Corinthians, and the last reference is in ch.14 (AD 59). Seventeen epistles were written after AD 59 not one mentions the gift of tongues. When the writer to the Hebrews refers to the sign gifts which accompanied the apostolic witness he does so in the past tense: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?" (Heb 2.3-4). There is no Biblical reference to tongues-speaking after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Secular history also confirms that tongues ceased in apostolic times. Chrysostom (345-407) in his Homilies of First Corinthians wrote of ch.12: "The whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer takes place". Augustine (354-430) wrote regarding tongues: "These were signs adapted to the time. For there behoved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That the thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away".
Before the comparatively recent rise of the charismatic movement, speaking in unintelligible utterances was practised only by heterodox groups that held fundamental error. As we have seen, the cessation of the genuine gift was final and Scripture in no place hints at its revival in this dispensation.
Modern "tongues" bear no resemblance to the genuine Biblical gift
A careful study of references to the gift of tongues in the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles will confirm that in each and every case tongues was the ability to speak in a human language previously unknown to the speaker. What passes as the gift of tongues in charismatic circles today bears no resemblance to the Biblical gift of languages. The idea that tongues was some kind of spirit, angelic, or heavenly language is not borne out by Scripture. Almost invariably today tongues-speaking is not in a human, intelligible language and is not understood by the speaker or hearers. Modern "tongues" are almost entirely unintelligible utterances something experienced in ecstasies of other religions.
In summary, I believe there was a definite purpose for the Biblical gift of tongues. It related to a period of special treatment of Israel and was chiefly a sign to that nation. As the nation rejected the gospel, the gift of tongues was gradually phased out and no longer exists today. Some may argue that because God is the same He can impart the gift of tongues today if He wishes. This is of course true, but the same logic could be applied to other mighty acts of God such as drying up the Red Sea, providing manna from heaven etc. Scripture teaches that God not only has power He also has a purpose and a programme. To be continued.