Speaking in Tongues: For Real? Who May and What’s the Point?

A Controversial Gift

The subject of speaking in tongues is probably one of the most controversial of Christian subjects and elicits all sorts of reactions … it’s probably the most widely discussed phenomena in Christian experience and has resulted in many messages and books both for and against.

For those who don’t speak in tongues it can often sound mysterious and even frightening. So let’s try and discover what tongues are all about.

A New Gift

The first thing to note is that they are a ‘new covenant’ phenomenon. The promise of Jesus was and is, “these signs will follow those who believe … they will speak with NEW tongues” In other words tongues they didn’t know, and hadn’t learned.

Secondly, the subject of speaking in tongues occupies quite a few verses in the New Testament, more than some other topics, so maybe we should sit up and take note!

Since the early 1900’s there has been a resurgence of speaking in tongues through the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

Their Origin

There has been considerable debate as to the origin and nature of tongues. They have been viewed as:
• Gibberish, baby language.
• Purely psychological – a form of primal speech, the result of some kind of emotional deficit.
• Angelic speech.
• Human languages that they had picked up. The miracle of Pentecost was simply that they were speaking praises to God in the common language, as opposed to the religious language of the temple which was Hebrew.
• Demonic, some even say it’s ‘the language of hell.’
• Still others would say, how can you possibly know whether the tongues people speak in today are the same as in the Bible – the problem with that is you could say that about any experience related to the Bible.

A Word about Words.

The Greek noun glossa (“tongue”) along with the verb laleo (“to speak”) combine to makes “glossolalia,” which means to “speak with tongues.” Translations of this vary considerably. The ESV translates it literally as “speaks in a tongue,” whereas some now use the word “language/s.” Sometimes they also add various interpretative adjectives to help us understand what is meant, i.e. “unknown” (1 Cor 14:2,4 KJV), “ecstatic” (1 Cor 14:5 NEB), and even “strange” (1 Cor 14:21 NIV, NAS, ASV, ESV), and by doing so the translators emphasise something of the supernatural and unusual nature of the gift, and the difficulty in describing it!

The Bible simply says that their origin is in and through the Holy Spirit, not a state of mind or emotion. On the day of Pentecost they spoke in tongues as the “Spirit gave them utterance” or “enabled them,” (Acts 2:4). On each subsequent occasion they occurred because the Spirit was at work (Acts 8, 10, 19 also 9 with 1 Cor 14). They are says Paul a “gift of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4, 10, 11), and should not be despised.

Many turn to 1 Corinthians to find reasons NOT to speak in tongues, but no-where in 1 Corinthians does Paul forbid it, or suggest that tongues/other languages are demonic. Paul understands them as meaning-ful utterances and not useless babbling.

They operate then in the spiritual dimension. As those who are part of the materialistic West we are more accustomed to operating in the material realm. But God is Spirit, and speaking in tongues are a gift of the Spirit that operates through the human spirit – they flow out of the spirit, by the Spirit, bypassing the usual faculty of the mind (1Cor 14:14, 15).

Their Nature

Some see a difference between the tongues in Acts and those in 1 Corinthians – in Acts they were particular known languages, in Corinthians they appear to be unknown, or even non-human languages.
Many studies of tongues focus on the Pentecost experience and deduce certain things from it i.e. that they were recognised therefore all tongues should be recognised, arguments which don’t work so readily in the other accounts in Acts.

“They spoke with other tongues … they all heard them in his own language/dialect.” From this two options face us:
• They spoke a variety of recognised human languages, and the people recognised them.
• They spoke in an unknown/spiritual language and there was a miracle of hearing whereby they each heard them all speaking in their own language.

The problem with the second is there is no suggestion in the text that the Spirit came on those who heard them and performed such a miracle of hearing. So Acts 2 has to be known languages, but when you turn to the other occurrences in Acts that is not so easy to ascertain! It has to be read into the text.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, or multi-cultural, and therefore a place of many languages. As William Baxter Godbey describes it, “It was really a mammoth mongrel of all nationalities.”

If this were the case it would seem very unlikely that someone entering the church at Corinth would have had any problem with people speaking in different languages, and they certainly would not have thought they were out of their minds, and it would not have caused the chaos Paul is dealing with.

Tongues then in Corinth may not have been recognised, or even human languages.

Conclusion: Taking Scripture as a whole it seems that tongues could be both human and ‘other/spiritual tongues.’ For this reason the translators use phrases like ‘unknown’ or ‘strange.’

Their Purpose

Some have held (particularly cessationsists) that the gift of tongues was for the purpose of evangelism, but there is no clear evidence that this is the case, either from Scripture or church history – this was no short cut to learning new languages.

Some have emphasised Paul’s comments that they should seek the greater or higher gifts as if to suggest that tongues was the bottom of the pile. I don’t think for one moment that was Paul’s intention rather that in the gathered community they should seek that which is beneficial to all.

1. They are a witness of the Spirit’s presence. They are frequently experienced after the reception of the Spirit. Pentecost is the prime example. In Acts 10:45, 46 it is the speaking in tongues that is a witness that the Spirit has come to the Gentiles.
2. They are for personal edification. It has meaning-ful content. For Paul this was the main benefit of the gift. “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,” (1 Cor 14:4,14-17,28), he utters “mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). Paul himself says, “I thank God that I speak in (other) languages/tongues more than you all,” (1 Cor 14:18). Note, he doesn’t say “I speak in more languages.” The next verse shows that he did not understand what he was saying. When did he do it? At home, privately.
3. They are for the edification of others. Some have suggested that ‘tongues’ is no more than thanksgiving or praise to God, but scripture seems to say otherwise. ‘Mysteries’ is more than thanks or praise. Together with the gift of interpretation of tongues Paul puts them on a par with prophecy, which means that they can be a means of edification and encouragement – they can express revelation, blessing, giving thanks, prayer, praise and the prophetic (1 Cor 14:3-5,6,13-17; Acts 2). 1 Cor 14:26 speaks of bringing “a tongue” to the corporate gathering of the church.
4. They may be used to worship God. Luke refers to the speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost as proclaiming “the wonderful/magnificent works of God,” and in Acts 10:46 he describes them as “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” The context of 1 Cor 14:15 “I will sing praise with my spirit,” would seem to suggest singing praises in tongues, and some would also see such praise in the spiritual songs of Eph. 5:18 “Be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs …”. Speaking in tongues is very often connected to exuberant praise.
5. They are a sign to unbelievers. Un-interpreted tongues can also function as a form of judgment to the unbelieving since they will not be able to understand what’s going on (1 Cor 14: 21-23). The reference here is to the Assyrian army who invade Israel speaking another language, but Israel didn’t recognise what God was saying/doing. The context here has to do with clarity, with understanding.
6. They are useful in praying. What some would refer to as their ‘prayer language.’ Paul speaks of ‘praying with the spirit’ (1 Cor 14:14, 15; poss. Rom 8:26), which taken in context can only mean praying in tongues, a means whereby we may go beyond the rational intellectual approach to prayer and enter a mode of prayer directed and enabled entirely by the Spirit. Many testify that they are more spiritually aware when praying in tongues; more aware of God’s presence.

The ‘Mechanics’ of Speaking in Tongues

1. Who may? – Paul says, “I want you all to speak in tongues …” (1 Cor 14:5 ESV). Every Christian may.
2. It is spiritual not natural. In normal speech the mind working through the understanding enables the tongue, but when someone speaks in tongues the words are not from the speakers understanding but the Holy Spirit. They flow from the human spirit as opposed to the mind.
3. How? Some people fear that if they speak in tongues they will lose control, but 1. “They spoke as the Spirit enabled them.” So it wasn’t made up, coerced, forced or psychological, but by the Spirit. Welling up. 2. Paul says , “I will pray with the spirit … I will sing with the spirit.” Our will is not neutralised.

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