The crowds in Jerusalem were amazed on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples spoke in tongues. Many thought they were drunk. Peter, however, knew that it was the work of the Holy Spirit and when he saw what was happening, his mind went directly to the words of the prophet Joel (2:28-32). Peter could see clearly that the tongue-speaking had a very practical function at Pentecost. With fifteen nations represented (2:9-11), it was clear that the gospel was being opened out to “all flesh,” (Acts 2:17), for “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Three thousand souls were saved.
Only two other events in the book of Acts record the use of tongues: the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-11:18) and Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). These two events are directly related to the spread of the gospel beyond the Jewish nation, as the Lord had promised (Acts 1:8). The only other place in the New Testament where we read of the use of tongues is in the city of Corinth (1 Corinthians 12-14). There are many wrinkles in the details of the Corinthian use of tongues that need to be ironed out; at this point, however, it is the purpose of tongues that we want to determine. Harmonising the purpose of tongues at Pentecost and the Corinthian phenomenon is no easy task.
Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia, in southern Greece. It was a major shipping port, and a wealthy city noted for its commerce and culture, and for the arts and architecture. But Corinth also had a reputation of immorality.
The Church at Corinth was established during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18:1ff), after the arrival of Silas and Timothy (Vs. 5). Paul remained there for about two years, and many were converted both Jews and Gentiles. There is no doubt that the Lord blessed the Church of Corinth under the apostle’s ministry (1 Cor. 1:7). But the Church in Corinth soon revealed that it was spiritually immature; it harboured division, immorality, spiritual pride and heresy. From Paul’s letters also we know that there were a number of areas of theology and practice on which the Corinthian Christians were confused—the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11), the role of women in the church (1 Cor. 11, 14), the resurrection (1 Cor. 15) and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14).
It was the Corinthian misuse of the gift of tongues with which Paul dealt most extensively. The spiritual pride, childishness and selfish abuse of the gift of tongues found no shelter in Paul’s letter. His tone was clearly negative, pointed, at times stinging and chastising.
But it is in this first letter to the Corinthians, that we get the “only direct and specific Scriptural statement regarding the purpose of the gift of tongues.” Towards the end of a long discourse on spiritual gifts, the apostle said (1 Corinthians 14:20-22);
“Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. 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…”