Friday, September 7, 2007

Re-visitng What the Bible Says ABout Tongues pt. 2

This is the second post in a two part study on the issue of tongues. The article is written by Darrell W. Sparks, Pastor of the Dearborn Baptist Church of Aurora, IN.


“… Every man heard them speak in his own language …” (Acts 2:6d)

What is the gift of tongues? Simply put, the gift of tongues is the ability to speak in a human language that one has never studied or learned. While the gift of tongues is never actually defined in Scripture, it is clearly described in Acts 2:4-12. People from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa were present, and each one heard some of those one hundred twenty members of that first church preach the gospel in their own language. Later, Paul affirmed this evangelistic purpose of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:22 when he wrote, "Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not."

The “sign” was, no doubt for Jews who, according to 1 Corinthians 1:22, " … require a sign." How were tongues a sign to unbelieving Jews? 1 Corinthians 14:21 is a quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12. The prophet Isaiah was predicting judgment upon Israel, in the form of foreign invaders. Jeremiah 5:15 says, "I will bring a nation upon you ... whose language thou knowest not." In that sense, the gift of tongues was a sign to unbelieving Jews that judgment was coming because of their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. It happened in A.D. 70. The Romans leveled Jerusalem and God's judgment came to the Jews. Tongues then were a judgment upon Israel and a blessing to Gentiles who were permitted to hear the gospel in their own tongue. They signified that God had begun a new work that encompassed the Gentiles. The Lord would now speak to all nations in all languages. The barriers were down. And so the gift of languages symbolized not only the curse of God on a disobedient nation, but also the blessing of God on the whole world. Tongues was therefore a sign of the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. With the establishment of churches, a new day had dawned. God would speak in all languages. But once the period of transition was past, the sign was no longer necessary.

The Bible never states that the “tongues” in 1 Corinthians is any different from the “tongues” in Acts. Thus, there is only one kind of tongues. The “Law of First Mention” is generally a sound hermeneutical principle. The “Law of First Mention” basically states that when something is defined at its first occurrence or mention in the Bible, you can take it that same way in all subsequent mentions unless otherwise explicitly stated. For example, I don't need to know what baptism means in 1 Corinthians if I know what it means in the gospels.

The first and only time that anything like a definition of tongues is found in Scripture is in Acts 2[1]. Clearly, the meaning of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language. For a brief moment, what God had done at the tower of Babel - confounding the languages - was reversed, so that men from all over the world would hear the gospel message and a declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The second occurrence of speaking in tongues happened in Acts 10:43-46 at the house of Cornelius. The Lord repeated Pentecost, so to speak, at the house of Cornelius so that all would know that the church was to include Gentiles as well (see Acts 11:15-17). What happened in Acts 10 was the same thing that had happened in Acts 2 – “… on them, as on us at the beginning. The expression of the gift of tongues, then, in Acts 10, was identical to what happened in Acts 2 – the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language. The only other occurrence of tongues in the historical books is in Acts 19. Based on the paragraph that begins in Acts 18:24, I believe that these men were not saved until this moment. Thus, tongues again is associated with evangelism. The speaking in tongues here is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost and at the house of Cornelius. It is noteworthy, that whenever tongues appear in the Book of Acts, there is always at least one apostle and Jews who are present. After Acts 19, the only other mention of tongues in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and not in any other epistle – even those which make reference to spiritual gifts – Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Peter.

Why was the gift of tongues present at Corinth? With Corinth's unique position on the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, sailors and citizens from all over the Mediterranean world would either live or work there. Ships would often dock on one side of the isthmus, have their cargo carried four miles overland to be put on other ships in order to avoid the treacherous sailing around the land mass. The world came to Corinth, and God graciously gave many in that church the gift of tongues for the purpose of spreading the gospel.

Thus, even if a sound exegetical argument could be made from 1 Corinthians 13:8ff for the continuation of supernatural sign gifts, the gift of tongues would simply mean that there would be some missionaries who would not have to attend language school because they had been gifted by God to speak in a language they had never learned! Are there any such missionaries?


[1] Actually, the first mention of tongues is in Mark 16:17 (some have questioned the manuscript evidence for the final paragraph of Mark – it is missing from the older manuscripts but found in later ones). I am not an authority on manuscript evidence. Assuming, as I do, that it is indeed part of the canon of Scripture, I observe that it is not defined in this text. The Lord Jesus simply promised that believers would, among other signs, speak in new tongues without explaining exactly what that means. This promise of the Lord Jesus was fulfilled completely during the first century. If we demand that verse 17 is still for today, we must also demand that verse 18 still be for today.

“…Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not…” (1 Corinthians 14:22)

Among the many problems present in the church at Corinth included the misuse of spiritual gifts. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul addressed the subject of spiritual gifts – their proper use and their potential misuse. 1 Corinthians 14 amounts to a list of guidelines for the proper exercise of the gifts of prophecy and tongues.

The forty verses that comprise I Corinthians 14 make a comparison between these two gifts - prophecies and tongues.

Remember, the Corinthian church had something that we do not have. There were still apostles, men who had visibly seen the resurrected Christ, when Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. There are no apostles now. We have something that they did not have. There was no New Testament then. There is a complete New Testament now. The Corinthian church existed during a time in which supernatural sign gifts were available; we do not.

Paul's writing to the Corinthian church in chapter 14 about prophecies and tongues is similar to Paul's writing in chapters 8 -10 about eating meat offered idols. It deals with a specific problem that that church faced but one that we do not presently face. However, there is still plenty for us to learn from I Corinthians 14. This chapter has some practical principles about life in the church - about our edification of each other and our witness to unbelievers in the assembly of the church.

To understand this chapter it is necessary to make a few general comments.

First, there are three basic truths about tongues that this chapter teaches:

  • Their position- Tongues are secondary to prophecy (vv. 1-19).
  • Their purpose- Tongues are signs to unbelieving Jews (vv. 20-25).
  • Their procedure- Tongues should be done systematically and orderly (vv. 26-40).

It seems that this alone reveals the error the modern day Charismatic Movement. In the mind of most Charismatics, the gift of tongues is not secondary; it is the most sought after, the most desired "gift"[1].

The modern Charismatic Movement often does not obey the clearly stated commandments of I Corinthians 14 (v. 37b). For instance, the most that could speak tongues in an assembly was two or three (v. 27) and then only one at a time and an interpreter must be present or there should be silence (v. 28). According to verse 34, women were forbidden from speaking in tongues and prophesying in the assembly. In general, the assembly was not to be chaotic, but orderly. Although I cannot speak about every charismatic church or service, generally speaking, from my limited knowledge, these commandments are not adhered to in the modern charismatic movement. I conclude therefore that since they do not follow the clear commandments of scripture, it only reveals that the modern day tongues movement is in doctrinal error.

There are a few statements which, if lifted out of I Corinthians 14, and read alone will give a very sympathetic sound to tongues. For example, I Corinthians 14:5 - I would that ye all spake with tongues - sounds good alone. But you should understand that Paul is wishing the impossible (see 12:11:30) for the purpose of emphasis. Verse 18, taken alone sounds sympathetic to tongues. I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.” In context however, it is clear that all Paul is saying is that God had supernaturally empowered him to speak in foreign languages as he traveled proclaiming the gospel and that he was qualified to comment on tongues. The only other verse that sounds sympathetic to tongues is a phrase from verse 39 - "and forbid not to speak with tongues." Paul is making a concluding, summary statement to the effect of, "If you meet all the standards that I have stated and follow all the commandments and guidelines that I have written, then I do not forbid you to speak in tongues.

Some people take the some of the words of this chapter and describe tongues as for private devotional use and personal worship (vv. 2-4, 14a-b, 28b). Exegetically, that is not what the text says. There is nothing in this text to support the idea that there is a different kind of tongues taught in 1 Corinthians than taught in Acts 2. Tongues was an evangelistic gift so that unbelievers could hear the gospel in their own language. I Corinthians 14:22 declares that tongues are for a sign to unbelievers.

The entire purpose of any spiritual gift is not to worship God but to minister to others for God (12:7). The problem arose when the Corinthians began to use their gifts indiscriminately and for their own benefit. They would speak in tongues when no one else there could understand. They would pray in tongues. So 1 Corinthians 12-14 is Paul's correction and can be summed up as 1) you must never use tongues when no one can understand you. Either be quiet or make sure an interpreter is present. 2) You must use tongues to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers.

Those who use statements in 1 Corinthians 14 to make tongues a private devotional language, in fact, are saying the exact opposite of what Paul is saying in 14:13-19! (This private prayer language idea also hints of Gnosticism’s secret knowledge). Paul says that praying in tongues without understanding makes one's mind "unfruitful" (v. 14). Is that the desired effect? He further says that he chooses to pray with his spirit and his mind. Now if he just said that praying in a tongue makes his mind unfruitful, and if he now says that he chooses to pray with both his spirit and his mind, the only conclusion one can draw is that Paul is saying it's better to pray with words and a fruitful mind than to use the gift to express what you don't understand. He even goes so far as to call them "children" in their thinking for their use of the gift in this way (v. 20a).

Thus, the statements in verses 2-4, 14a-b, 28b are intended to be sarcastic. It can be hard to see sarcasm in the Scriptures but it is definitely present. 1 Corinthians 14:36 is an obvious example. 1 Corinthians 14:2 is also sarcasm, not a prescriptive or normative statement with almost imperative force. That simply doesn't jive with rest of the chapter, especially after he just told them to grow up in chapter 13! In all candor, Paul's statement in 14:4 that the one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself ought to be enough to settle the argument. In the verse immediately preceding it and in the one immediately following it, Paul contrasts this use of tongues with the superior motive of edifying, encouraging, and comforting others. Where in Scripture are we ever told to use our gifts to edify ourselves? This is akin to Satan's first temptation of Christ, that He use His power to satisfy Himself? Yet Jesus' life was so others-centered that He never got angry for how He was treated. He never asserted His rights. He never used His miraculous power to satisfy or comfort Himself. Why would we ever think that God has given us gifts to give us the warm fuzzies? I love the Holy Spirit, and I am offended by those who want to reduce Him to “a buzz.” (By the way, I am not alone in this understanding of the passage[2].)

In these verses Paul is saying that the whole purpose of spiritual gifts and the whole purpose of speaking is to communicate something that can be understood by everyone who hears it. Why speak in the presence of the assembly something that everyone cannot understand and why speak in private words that you yourself cannot understand? Paul is not commending their tongues as a private worship language but criticizing their tongues as, at best, something which only God can make any sense of.

1 Corinthians 14 is not promoting tongues as a private prayer language or anything else. It is promoting edification, understanding, and order in the church as a powerful means of witnessing to the lost.

The Scriptures clearly teach that there is only one kind of “tongues” as a gift of the Spirit. It is the supernatural ability to speak in foreign language. The gift of tongues was never intended to be a private prayer language; its purpose was always exclusively evangelistic. With the end of the apostolic era and the completion of the canon of Scripture, the gift of tongues ceased.

[1] In attempting to better understand the other view, I picked up at the bookstore a couple of booklets. One is called "Why You Should Speak In Tongues" and the other is "The Bible Way To Receive The Holy Spirit". Both of these booklets state that tongues was the most desirable gift.

[2] John Stott, John MacArthur, Hershael York, Paige Patterson, and others

1 comment:

Elevator said...

As with the last post, I agree with the overall point of the sermon-- that the charismatic movement abuses and manipulates the concept of tongues. But once again, I must take issue with some of the micro-interpretation. I'm not going to go into depth but the "sarcasm" argument is somewhat of a stretch, more importantly it is conjecture. It sounds good. Heck, it might even be right, but you can't come close to proving it. It would be better to present it as 1 option among many of how to understand the passage. The overall point of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is that the Corinthians are wasting a lot of time and creating a lot of division and chaos because of their focus on tongues rather than love, tongues rather than prophecy, tongues rather than the building up of a unified body. That is the message. Preach that message! Even the simplest of people can read the chapter and realize that Paul is wanting the Corinthians to greatly downplay and check their use of tongues in favor of more important things. Also, "the Law of First Mention"... that usually doesn't apply from one book to another book. It does usually work within a particular book, or a particular writer (Paul usually uses his terms the same way throughout his letters). Thus, this "law" is once again a weak argument. It would be more helpful to talk about the usage of the term "tongues" in the 1st century. Tongues was something that occurred in and around the 1st century (approximately 2nd century B.C. to early 2nd century A.D.) not only among Jews and Christians but other groups as well. Christians seem to have had a similar understanding of it as other groups did-- it was a sign, it gave a person supernatural ability to speak another language, it represented the "secret" revelation from the divine to humans, only the "spiritual" could obtain such a gift.