Are tongues only given for proclaiming the gospel in an unknown language?
No, tongues are not given for evangelism at all.1 They are given to extol the mighty works of God,2 for giving thanks, for singing, for prayer,3 for the edification of the Church,4 and for a sign for unbelieving Israel.5 They were only derivatively evangelistic at Pentecost because they, along with the sound of the mighty rushing wind, were the miracle that drew the attention of the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival. When the Jews began to wonder after and/or mock the manifestation of this gift, it provided the opportunity for Peter to explain what the sign of this miracle meant. So, tongues were not given at Pentecost with evangelistic purpose, they simply provided the occasion for the gospel to be preached. If this were not the case, one would expect to find other examples of tongues in Scripture, where they were used to proclaim the good news of Jesus among those who spoke a language other than that which was spoken by spoken by the evangelist.
Are tongues actual languages?
They certainly were at Pentecost. Luke informs his readers, that the tongues were not only known languages, but they were particular dialects of languages. In other words, the miracle not only allowed the 120 disciples to speak foreign languages, but they were able to speak those languages with the precision of a proper accent. However, this does not demand that tongues were always known human languages. In the oft disputed verse of 1 Cor 13:1 Paul writes, “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.” (NIV) While cessationists are quick to call these “tongues of angles” hyperbolic language — which certainly fits the context of vv. 2 and 3 — this does not exclude the possibility that such a heavenly language exists. At least no more than the hyperbolic language of verse 3 would exclude the giving of all of one’s goods away to the poor, or giving one’s body up to martyrdom by fire. Given that such an angelic language is not verifiable, and since 1 Cor 13:1 is ambiguous at this point, the question of whether Christians can speak in this language is impossible to answer this side of heaven. However, one is left wondering what the language of heaven may be?
Are tongues given as a private prayer language?
Tongues were not given exclusively for the sake of praying in private, but this is one of the legitimate manifestations of the gift. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor 14:18—19 NAS)
In response to this text one may inquire, if Paul thanked God that he spoke in tongues more than the they, yet he would rather speak five words in an understandable language rather than ten thousand in an unknown tongue, where did Paul speak in tongues more than the Corinthians? If he was limiting his tongue speaking in the assembly, where, how, and to whom was Paul speaking?
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1 This does not exclude the possibility that tongues may be given for this purpose, however, a case for evangelism cannot be made from Scripture.↩
2 Acts 2:11↩
3 1 Cor 14:16—17↩
4 Provided that the language is interpreted (1 Cor. 14:5), otherwise, the gift only edifies the one speaking (14:13—17).↩
5 1 Cor 14:22↩