SPEAKING IN TONGUES
By Robin A. Brace
The subject of speaking in tongues has probably caused more debate in the Church
during the last 50 years or so, than any other subject. Pentecostals (and
charismatics too) have sometimes claimed that if one does not speak in 'tongues'
there is no evidence that one has been 'baptized by the Holy Spirit'.
Is this really true? Let us consider the matter of 'tongues' in this article.
But before we even look at the New Testament we need to remind ourselves that a manifestation of 'tongues', or, speaking in an unknown language, has not been confined to the Christian religion. The phenomenon has also - quite widely - occurred among other religions. It is said, for instance, that when the priestess, or, Oracle, of Delphi became 'divinely inspired' she would speak in tongues. This signaled - to those present - the presence of a supernatural spirit which was giving her guidance.
I think that this fact alone should warn us to proceed with caution. From the presence of tongues in other religions we should begin to realise that tongues are not necessarily a sign of the presence, and guidance of, the Holy Spirit of God!
I would hope that the article reader would actually read all the Bible quotes in this article. After all, my intention here is to bring you clear biblical teaching.
In the New Testament, the arrival of tongues was a sign that God was about to start working with the Gentiles, Isaiah 28: 11-12, as well, of course, as being partly a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2: 28-29. But let us, first of all, stand back for just one moment and consider the Gifts of the Spirit in general.
The four primary lists of the Gifts in the New Testament are in
Romans 12: 6-8, 1 Corinthians 12: 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12: 28 and
1 Corinthians 12: 29-30. Yes, they are mentioned elsewhere too, in Ephesians 4: 11 and in 1 Peter 4: 11, but these do not appear to be the same sort of organised lists. It is important to notice that the section in 1Corinthians 12: 29-30 is actually another list, as the apostle Paul asks a rhetorical question about the list which he had just delivered. The first list of Gifts in Romans 12 does not mention tongues at all. The second three (all in 1 Corinthians 12) appear to list the Gifts in some sort of order of importance. The intelligible communication Gifts (how else is the Gospel ever received except through clear communication?) are now at the top of the list, with Prophecy having an important place (In the Greek, prophecy is a broad term, yes, it might include the clear interpretation of a tongue, but it would certainly include passionate preaching). But the important thing to note is that in these 3 lists of the Gifts - with an apparent descending order of importance - tongues comes last on all occasions!
This really sets the scene for Paul's approach to tongues. I
am continually very disappointed that many of those who shout the loudest about
the importance of tongues, have never closely studied the writings of the
apostle Paul in detail. Here, after all, is the New Testament writer who gives
consideration to the subject in some detail!
While Paul makes it clear that he himself had spoken in tongues, in general he appears somewhat less than enthusiastic about this particular Gift. We should note his comments in 1 Corinthians 14, for example;
"Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy (again, the Gk for 'prophesy' is broad and would include powerful and persuasive preaching; my insert) For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues but EVEN MORE (my emphasis) that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification" (Verses 1-5).
So Paul also makes it clear that God alone decides which Gifts go where and that we cannot demand any particular one! Carefully read 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11 !!
Now, we have to ask, how does this square up to the claim by some that if one has not spoken in tongues there is no sign that one has received the 'Spirit's Baptism'?? Indeed according to the New Testament it is the FRUITS of the Spirit, rather than the Gifts, which are a better indicator of ones standing before God! According to several Scriptures, it is only those who produce fruit who will enter God's Kingdom! But no similar promise is ever given with regard to the Gifts! (See Matthew 7: 15-19, Matthew 12: 33-37, Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43, Mark 4: 26-32, Luke 8: 5-8, 11-15, Luke 13: 6-9, John 4: 34-38, John 15: 1-8, 16. Romans 7: 4-6, Galatians 5: 22-23).
So we begin to learn the real place of the Gifts in the New Testament which places tongues at the bottom of 3 descending lists.
Paul then sets a limit of no more than 3 being involved in tongues during any worship service (1 Corinthians 14: 27). Moreover, these 3 are to make their contribution in sequence and not all together (1 Corinthians 14: 27,30). But before any worshiper decides to speak in tongues (this is something which the speaker has complete control over in the New Testament) he is to ensure than an interpreter is available. Quite obviously, if you are going to be able to secure an interpreter, you know that you are going to be speaking a human language. The miracle being that the congregation will be aware that this is a language which the speaker had not learned, and in this language, God is being praised. But the rule is: No interpreter - no tongue! If there is a tendency for too many to want to speak in a tongue, some of those who would speak should, instead, pray for the power to interpret (1 Corinthians 14: 13).
When the tongue has been interpreted it becomes a prophecy,
but it must then be evaluated by the leaders who are able to 'discern between
spirits'. Since God is not the author of confusion, it would follow from this
that where a congregation's leaders are not present, tongues should not occur!
From all of this, and from the occasions of tongues recorded in Acts, especially the first Pentecost manifestation - see Acts 2: 1-10 - the conclusion starts to become pretty inescapable that these were definite human languages in just about every case! Notice how often these tongues occurred in a scenario in which 'Gentiles' are mentioned. Several languages could have been involved here.
In fact, only two things (although, I agree, they are not necessarily minor things) suggest that they might occasionally not be recognisable human languages:
a. The modern pentecostal/charismatic phenomenon.
b. Paul's highly enigmatic comment in 1 Corinthians 13: 1.
He said this;
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but
have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal" (By the
way, all quotes from the NKJV).
What on earth did Paul mean? What are 'the tongues of angels'?
The short answer is; Nobody knows!
Now, of course, I am aware that some will be screaming at me here, saying something like; 'I know what Paul meant - he meant...' But wait; can you really establish that from New Testament Greek, or is it just the tradition of your denomination? I am always prepared to change how I explain things , but I need scriptural authority first! Museltof Countercult and Apologetics are non-denominational; we do not exist simply to 'rubber stamp' what denominations have said! We insist upon examining everything in the light of Scripture, indeed I have even been prepared to upset a few of my reformed friends by pointing out that we can now say that Calvin (great man that he was, and I remain his staunchest admirer) was nevertheless undoubtedly wrong in one or two areas.
But back to this tricky Scripture of 1 Corinthians 13: 1;
There are certainly strong advocates for the argument that Paul was simply using hyperbole here. That is, he was using an exaggeration in order to make a point. Its a bit like the wife who accused her husband of loving his 3 cars more than loving her. He makes an exaggerative response in order to assure her of his love; 'I not only love you far more than my 3 cars, but I love you more than every car in the universe!' The comment is only meaningful as a reassurance. The man is never going to be able to test every car in this world, never mind any imaginative cars of the universe! This comment by Paul comes at the start of the 'love chapter' - 1 Corinthians 13. He could have meant something like, 'Though I speak with all of the tongues in the world - and even any tongues outside of the world - if I do not have love, it would all be meaningless'. That is possible, though - to be frank - 'the jury is still out' on this one. We don't know exactly what he meant.
Of course, many claim that Christians should expect a 'second blessing' after an earlier commitment to Christ and that this so-called 'second blessing' will lead to speaking in tongues. Some see this 'second blessing' or 'baptism with the Holy Spirit' occurring in Acts 2 on that momentous Pentecost. They argue that these people were not really commissioned to go forth with the Gospel until that Pentecost. In that much, they are right, since that is when the Holy Spirit first empowered the Church. But this was the starting of the mission of the Church under the New Covenant; this was always going to be a momentous occasion! This was no 'second blessing', which we must also seek today. We do not stand at the beginning of the New Testament Church era as they did! Others say that we see this need of the 'second blessing' in the Book of Acts where followers of John the Baptist had not yet received the Holy Spirit (The reader may wish to look up Acts 19: 1-6, as an example of this). But this is no 'second blessing'. These people had been disciples of John the Baptist and they had repented under his ministry of looking forward to the coming of Christ, but they were apparently ignorant of much of what had happened since. Paul decided to re-baptize. He undoubtedly explained all about Christ. They received the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was something of a unique figure. He was both the final prophet of the Old Covenant and also the inaugurator of the New Covenant. (Although, of course, the New Covenant did not really commence until that curtain was torn). There was undoubtedly a problem among a few who had been John's followers, but who were somewhat ignorant of what happened later. This was the particular problem. Paul did NOT say, 'Oh, you just have to hang on for the second blessing' No. He explained what had happened since, undoubtedly talking about Jesus and the coming of the Spirit, and decided to re-baptize.
If advocates of the 'second blessing' teaching were correct, Paul would surely have carefully explained this point in his highly theological epistles. On the contrary, he says that there is 'One Baptism'......
"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your
calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is
above all, and through all, and in you all" (Ephesians 4: 4-6).
There is only one body of Christians. These do not all belong to any one denomination, of course, nor do they need to. They are already genuinely unified through all being led by the Holy Spirit of God. None of them are perfect - yet they remain one group in the sight of God, since - at some time - they have committed themselves to God by personally appropriating Christ's sacrifice. There are not first class and second class Christians with the first class ones having received a 'second blessing' - a teaching which is nowhere upheld in Scripture! Those who may try to convince you of this will - of course - place themselves in the superior group, which already tells you that pride may well be a problem for some of them.
The other thing I have noticed about this is that those who
try to push this point are usually generally not very knowledgeable about the
Scriptures in general. In other words, one can quickly perceive that they argue
from a weak theological base.
But don't many - if not all - Christians have occasional incredible experiences of a sudden deep closeness to God, perhaps accompanied by an incredible feeling of peace and assurance, in short, do not many Christians have ecstatic experiences? Yes. They surely do. Even in his prison cell, Richard Wurmbrand the Lutheran Pastor imprisoned for his Christian beliefs in iron-curtain Rumania, shouted and jumped for joy and sang hymns when he realised that an angel was with him! These experiences of a sudden ecstasy of God's closeness are, in the light of the New Testament, best described as being 'filled' with the Spirit. We cannot legislate for such occasions. Sometimes they come suddenly and unexpectedly. Those present at Pentecost in Acts 2, were filled with the Spirit (Acts 2: 4), Peter was filled with the Spirit as he began addressing the Sanhedrin in Acts 4: 8, the apostles were filled with the Spirit when they prayed for boldness in the face of persecution in Acts 4: 31, Ananias prayed for Saul to be filled with the Spirit at the beginning of his work for God in Acts 9: 17, and Paul was suddenly filled with the Spirit when he confronted Elymas the sorcerer in Acts 13: 9. And Paul certainly encourages us to seek to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5: 18. (Again, one would like to think that the reader is checking these scriptural references; after all - my opinion is unimportant, we seek to establish good New Testament doctrine here).
Surely fillings by the Spirit were especially prevalent during
some of the great Christian Revivals of more recent centuries. I believe that
fillings by the Spirit can account for certain things which pentecostals and
charismatics have seen and experienced - but probably NOT for all of their
experiences! These are not 'second blessings' which must occur if we are to be
genuinely converted. Some deeply converted Christians don't seem to have them.
During some of the great Revivals, some who apparently became filled with the
Spirit had been Christians for many years!
I am informed that an ungodly bedlam of yelling and shrieking does also break out in some meetings and the presiding minister, lamentably, allows it to continue! This only brings shame on any who would call themselves by the name of Christ!! Again, 1 Corinthians 14: 33 tells us that 'God is not the author of confusion'.
If you are a leader in such a congregation let me strongly
urge you right now to read through the apostle Paul's guidelines regarding
tongues; everything is to be done decently and in good
order with only one such speaker active at a time! If nothing is being
interpreted, an immediate halt should be called to the proceedings! I am
here assuming, of course, that the tongues experience of today is always the
same as the experiences which Paul was familiar with. But, most likely, it is
often not the same!
A vastly experienced Pentecostal minister, now retired, had a very interesting conversation with me about two years ago. According to this man, tongues can take three forms and he had witnessed all three during his ministry;
a. Emotionally-induced tongues. (No, I don't have a clue what that means, I am simply quoting the man).
b. Tongues due to demonic activity.
c. The genuine Spirit-led activity.
This man was able to recount a clear example of class 'b';
During a service, a man had yelled out on odd accasions in a 'tongue'. It was assumed that it might have been a shout of joy or a praise of God in a tongue.
When the service had finished and the man had left, another man approached the minister and said, 'I think you should know that that man was yelling out in my own native language and he was cursing God for all he was worth!!'
Such instances should caution all of us to be careful. The very fact that tongues are not unknown in other religions should warn us that they could be due to demonic activity - yes, apparently even during a Christian service!
The above example also shows that a tongue in a recognisable human language is not necessarily of God!
So, in the light of the points raised in this article, let me attempt to draw some conclusions (though I fear in the case of this particular subject, that will not be easy).
I think that we can fairly confidently make the following 8 assertions;
1. 'Unknown tongues' is not a purely Christian experience; similar occurrences have also occurred in non-Christian religions, especially during periods of frenzy.
2.In the New Testament, tongues appear to signal both the arrival of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church, and the commencement of God's active working with the Gentiles.
3.There are strong indications that most (indeed, if not all) New Testament instances of tongues refer to definite human languages which a Spirit-filled individual could suddenly speak/understand despite (apparently) never having studied the language (obviously, some would question this).
4.Tongues were/are one of the Gifts of the Spirit, yet possibly quite low on a list of most desired Gifts, according to Paul.
5.We cannot claim or demand any particular Gift. God alone decides which Gift goes where.
6.While the various Gifts enable the Church to function, it is the fruits of the Spirit which are a better indication of one's walk with God.
7.A 'second blessing' or, second stage of conversion, accompanied by tongues, is not taught in the Scriptures, though a 'filling of the Spirit' during which Gifts could be more in evidence, does appear to be taught.
8.Any assertion that tongues were
intended as proof that one has received the Holy Spirit is completely
These, then, are eight conclusions which one can surely draw from the scriptural evidence.
But what of the reader of this article who may be actively involved in tongues experiences right now - what advice would we give?
This part is simpler because the apostle Paul has given some good advice which should be followed. Does your minister scrupulously observe these guidelines?
Are there no more than 2 or 3 such speakers in any service? Do they only speak in sequence?
Are things done decently and in order and without confusion? If interpreters of the tongues are not active, is the whole thing immediately wound up?
Are tongues continually sought at the expense of preaching etc? (Don't forget Paul shows that prophecy is a greater Gift than tongues!). Is your service prone to descend into a noisy chaos? Are you - personally - more interested in seeking a 'tongues experience' than you are in increasing your Bible knowledge or in other areas of Christian development?
In honestly answering these questions - and then committing the matter to God in prayer - the reader should hopefully be able to make a wise decision.
We must all realise that we are all ultimately responsible for how we handle the priceless knowledge of the gospel which has been entrusted to us.
Frankly, there may be times when we may need to move away from a particular fellowship, if we feel that biblical standards are not being applied.
What if the reader has never spoken in tongues? This is easier: Don't seek them! There is no reason to seek a particular Gift which God has chosen not to freely give you! Always remember that in the list of Gifts in the New Testament, the spectacular ones are in a great minority!
It has been claimed that Mark 16: 17 indicates that today's
Christians should be expected to speak in tongues. But is this what this
Scripture is really saying? Lets read it:
"And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues" (NKJV throughout)
Certainly, on the face of it, that appears to be clear enough. However, a cardinal rule of good scriptural exegesis is that all Scriptures on any given subject must be taken into account before there can be any sound attempt at establishing doctrine. This means that verses like this one should only be considered alongside any other Scriptures which discuss not only tongues but the Gifts of the Spirit in general. Moreover, since - without question - the apostle Paul wrote the bulk of New Testament theology, we especially need to check any relevant references from his writings. But the starting place must be context; we need to fully take into account the verses surrounding any Scripture which is to be scrutinized!
Now, in looking at this particular Scripture, the first thing which we need to do is to get the whole quote! To get the full sequence, we need to start in verse 15:
"And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover"(Mark 16: 15-18)
Now we have the full sense of this quotation we can start to consider it a little more deeply. The resurrected Christ was about to be taken up into heaven (the very next verse) and the final verse of this book states that the disciples did indeed go out and commence their post-resurrection ministry of preaching the gospel with,
"...the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen"
So the signs appeared immediately at that time.
Now please let us notice that there are three distinct sections to this:
1.The gospel is to be preached to every creature. (Verse 15)
2.Those who believe will be baptized and saved, but those who reject the message will be condemned. (Verse 16)
3.The signs will - please note - follow- believers. The classical Pentecostal position actually turned this on its head by picking on just one of these signs (tongues) and by claiming that this sign identified true believers.
So this one sign attained a
paramount importance which is not the case in the Scripture. It tended to say,
'No sign - no believer'. But in Mark 16: 15-18, tongues are just one thing which
would tend to follow believers (at least at that time). The Scripture already
establishes the believer's presence; it does not say that if the believer does
not do this or does not do that, then they are no believer! Moreover this one
sign (tongues) is apparently no different to the other ones, so if one should
say, 'Today the believer will be found to be speaking in tongues' - I could
answer, 'Today the believer will be found to be drinking deadly substances and
surviving', or, 'Today the believer will be found to be getting bitten by
venomous snakes and surviving' . But any attempt to do any of these things would
plainly amount to tempting God. (Matthew 4: 7). Indeed, let us also note that
none of these things are things which one would necessarily seek, rather, they
are things which would be evidenced among believers! In an ideal scenario, who
would choose to cast out demons? No. It is best not to encounter them (in our
day we witness the sad spectacle of ministers apparently affected by spiritual
vanity who ignore biblical advice and develop "deliverance ministries" going out
of their way to seek confrontations with demons). Who would choose to encounter
sick people who are in need of healing? No. It is best not to encounter sick
people. We don't like to see sick people. Who would wish to be bitten by a
venomous snake? Who would wish to take poison? No. The whole point is: these
things will be evidenced among God's people! To 'evidence' something, or to
notice it, is not the same as to seek it.
We have a very good example of the protection against venomous snakes which was granted to the apostles in Acts 28: 3-6;
"But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, 'No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.' But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god"
Now did Paul actively seek this encounter with the viper (adder)? Of course not. To have done so would amount to tempting God. And of course exactly the same principle would apply to the drinking of deadly substances. We begin to see, then, that there is a big difference between things evidenced among believers and things to be sought after.
So, at least in the day of the apostles, tongues would be one of the things which would tend to be denoted among the followers of Jesus. In other words, there would be times when - in a less than ideal situation with people from several nationalities present - God would miraculously grant the Gift of being able to speak/understand 'other tongues.'
Do we begin to understand why Paul would place tongues at the bottom of a list of desired Gifts? (See 'Tongues'). It was an important Gift in some situations, but not as important as prophecy, for example, as Paul clearly shows.
This is why Paul could say;
"Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe." (1Corinthians 14: 22)
Hopefully the reader is beginning to understand how absurd it is for any to insist that one should 'seek a tongues experience' in our day. Is that saying that tongues experiences no longer occur? Not necessarily. But to say that one should seek a tongues experience in order to 'prove' that one is a believer is - from what we have seen - a bit like insisting that one should seek a poisonous liquid experience. No, I am not saying that they are the same. Tongues - if it is of the Holy Spirit - would be a wonderful Gift of God. But the point is, these were things which would be evidenced - not sought after!
Tongues, then, would tend to attract the attention of unbelievers, while prophecy (the broad Greek word 'prophetes' includes inspired preaching) would be of more interest to those genuinely walking with God.
Why, then, do we usually not see these 'signs to follow' today?
The testimony of the early 'church fathers' is important here, since they obviously lived very close to the time of the apostles. They remarked on the diminishment of these signs during their day and an 'age of miracles' which was then passing away.
If one looks very closely at the Bible one finds that God has mostly only used an abundance of miracles to mark out important biblical eras, and the coming of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles was paramount among these.
The teaching that frequent spectacular miracles marked the 'signs of an apostle' (an apostle being a direct witness to Jesus' earthly ministry), has good biblical authority. Look up; Acts 5: 12-16, Acts 14: 3, Acts 15:12, Acts 19: 11, 2 Corinthians 12: 12 and Hebrews 2: 3-4.
However, recognising this fact should not then lead us to the extreme position of cessationism. Cessationism would say that no spectacular gifts/miracles should be expected between the completion of the biblical canon and the events immediately preceding Christ's return to earth. In fact, there is abundant evidence that while the age of the apostles has now obviously past, God has occasionally revived some of these spectacular Gifts, especially during some of the great Revivals, and also (apparently) where the gospel has gone into areas of the world formerly completely closed to it.
Cessationism is a very biblically dubious position to adopt and I have occasionally been concerned to note that some cessationists even, at times, seem to doubt examples of clear and outstanding answers to prayer. They are sceptical of anything which could be miraculous; this is a position which is seriously close to the scepticism of unbelievers!
So Mark 16: 17-18 should not necessarily be seen as a 'norm'; these signs tended to follow, or be noticeable around, the preaching of the gospel in the first century and have occasionally been apparent since. To insist that these (and other spectacular signs) must follow is not a prerogative which is ours to take! That is in God's hands alone. What we must do is the first part; preach and publish the gospel to every 'creature.'
|Speaking in tongues was
primarily a sign to unbelievers that something supernatural was
occurring. That is, people could see that someone who had no knowledge
of their language, was actually fluently
speaking it. Thus they had to acknowledge God's power and they were
blessed and convicted by what they were hearing in their own language,
especially as it was being spoken by someone who in the natural, didn't
know their language.
Paul commanded that everyone should not exhibit this gift at the same time in a church meeting lest an unbeliever entering the church think everyone was crazy. But unfortunately, this does indeed happen in many meetings today as a result of either ignorant or weak church leaders.
Is it necessary to speak in tongues to be a Christian, or to be saved, or to be a good or effective Christian?
Has the gift of 'speaking in tongues' ceased? Is it not in existence today? I can find no substantive bible verse to indicate that the gift of speaking in tongues has finished, although I do believe that it's importance was more relevant to the time following Christ's departure to heaven when the church was first starting and growing and being established, than it is now.
I personally think that the majority of tongues speaking today is borne of emotionalism and hype, but not all. I believe that one who truly has this gift will mainly just experience it and use it during private prayer, particularly during times of intense prayer about something very important to that person, or during times of particular gratitude to Christ and appreciation of His salvation and blessings.
As such, it should probably not play a very prominent part in a Christian's life. As Paul said, what would be the good of speaking thousands of words in a language unknown to the speaker, if the speaker didn't have love. But unlike some, I would not risk offending the Holy Spirit by dogmatically stating that the gift of speaking in tongues is not for today and thus no longer a valid experience.
If you do speak in tongues in a responsible manner, mainly in private, and it is a spiritual benefit to you, then thank God for it.
If you don't speak in tongues, don't waste energy and time continually trying to. Instead, ask God to show you what your gifts are, and how you can use them for His glory.
My two cents worth .......... Keygar!
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