Great claims are made of the gift of speaking in tongues today. Among them is the belief that tongues are heavenly prayer languages, or the languages of angels. Is this true? Is it Biblical?
We can search the Scriptures with a fine tooth-comb, and not find one example of angels speaking or praying in tongues. They speak the language of those they are talking to. Even in the book of Acts, in which apostles and disciples are filled with the Spirit, angels were only heard to speak the language of the hearers.
When an angel released Peter and other apostles from a jail one night, shortly after Pentecost, the angel simply said:
“Go, stand in the temple courts, and tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:19-20).
No mention is made of a heavenly language here, and the apostles understood every word that was said, as we do when it’s translated for us. Peter did not talk back to the angel in tongues. There was no mysical discussion. Instead the angel drew attention to the one important message of the new Christian life: he said nothing about tongues.
Later an angel appeared to Philip, and instructed him to “Go south to the road-the desert road-that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” Acts 8:26). Again, there are no mysterious tongues spoken here-just plain, understandable instruction.
You can find other similar examples in the book of Acts, considered to be the time of the Church’s greatest infilling and empowerment of the Spirit-but no examples of angels speaking in any unknown tongue. Equally significant, or even more so, is the record of Revelation, in which John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who was inarguably filled with the Spirit, records no example whatsoever of angels in heaven speaking languages he did not understand. You would think that here, in heaven, this spirit-filled man of God would have a discussion in some amazing heavenly language with the Lord or with the angels who passed on the prophecies, if that were normal or even possible-but it didn’t happen.
THE TONGUES OF ANGELS
By this time some of you are recalling that Paul wrote of speaking in languages of angels. Here’s the verse in question:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Angels may indeed communicate in their own language, but notice that Paul is not saying that he does speak in the languages of angels, he is speaking of a hypothetical. The focus of his discussion is love, not tongues. He is saying “Even if I could speak in the tongues of angels, but fail to love, I would be nothing”. The same thought continues in following verses:
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (verses 2-3).
Paul didn’t claim to fathom all mysteries and all knowledge-he was speaking hypothetically. It doesn’t matter how spiritual you seem to be, or think you are, says Paul: if you don’t act in love, you are nothing at all, and you are fooling yourself.
TRANSLATE A HEAVENLY LANGUAGE?
Consider this. Paul told the church at Corinth that all tongues spoken openly were to be translated:
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:28).
If, then, all tongues were to be translated, how could a supposedly superior heavenly language be translated into plain old earth-language? Would it not be diminished and lose its power and some of its meaning? Would it not be better to speak the human language in the first place? How would anyone benefit from the heavenly words if they had to be shrunk to the constraints of human language?
CESSATION-NOW AND THEN
The question of cessation of the gifts is a hot one, and some people get very upset over the mere mention of it. Those claiming the gift of tongues insist that the gifts did not cease in the first century, and that it is wrong to suggest that they did. Alright, we will assume for the sake of this discussion that tongues did not cease and have not ceased. In this case, what did Paul mean when he said that tongues will cease?
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away (1 Corinthians 13:8).
No matter which way you look at it, Paul is saying that tongues will cease. But how can tongues cease, if they are the languages of angels? Will angels cease to exist? Will they stop speaking? Will there be no verbalizing in heaven? No, the fact of cessation-whenever it was or will be-diminishes the supposed power of tongues. Tongues are not the force that is being claimed of them.