A Controversial Gift
As exhibited in the recent Strange Fire Conference in the United States, the subject of speaking in tongues is probably one of the most controversial of Christian subjects and elicits all sorts of reactions, from the genuine and beneficial, to gibberish and unhelpful, all the way through to being demonic and dangerous, and as such 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 or even frightening, though on closer inspection maybe it shouldn’t.
Tongues have been viewed as:
- Gibberish or baby language.
- Purely psychological – a form of primal speech; the result of some kind of emotional deficit.
- Angelic speech.
- Human languages that have been unconsciously 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 would even go so far as to 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.
The first thing we should note is that speech and language are the gift of God, Genesis and the story of Babel makes that clear, and I don’t think for one moment that cessationists would call what happened at Babel gibberish or of the devil.
The second thing is that there are an estimated 7000+ languages in the world of which 90% are used by less than 100, 000 people, and over 1,000,000 share 150 – 200 languages between them, and 46 languages have one particular people group (figures from the BBC). That is an amazing number of languages!
These kinds of figures tell us something about the amazing nature and complexity of language, with their varying sounds and articulation. So, when people judge the gift of tongues as simply gibberish, I wonder whether they have ever taken the time to listen to some of the languages around the world, where it can be far less easy to hear a distinction in tones and phrase when compared to say the English language.
A NEW GIFT
The first thing we should note about the gift of tongues is that it is a New Covenant phenomenon, the Old Testament knows nothing of them even though some have tried to find them in Hannah’s prayer in Samuel. The promise of Jesus was and is, “these signs will follow those who believe … they will speak with NEW tongues” In other words they would be tongues they hadn’t heard of before, didn’t know, and hadn’t learned them, either consciously or sub-consciously.
Secondly, the subject of speaking in tongues occupies quite a few verses in the New Testament, far more than some other topics, so maybe we should sit up and take note! One might ask if God had not intended them to be for today, why would he have inspired the writer to give that amount of time to them and allow those particular manuscripts to be preserved for us today – documents which give no hint of their ceasing at the end of the apostolic era.
Since the early 1900’s there has been a resurgence of speaking in tongues initially through the Pentecostal movement which resulted in a major evangelistic thrust into the nations, and later the Charismatic movements as people in the historic denominations, of which many were struggling and in decline, began to have fresh encounters with God and an abundance of new life began to break out.
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, and though some turn to 1 Corinthians to find reasons not to speak in tongues, 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, and are not reliant upon the mind. The problem for those who are part of the materialistic West is that we are more accustomed to operating in the intellectual and 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 whether known or known (1 Cor. 14:14, 15).
Some see a difference between the tongues in Acts and those in 1 Corinthians – At Pentecost 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.
In Acts 2 we read that, “They spoke with other tongues … they all heard them, each in his own language/dialect.” From this two options face us:
- They spoke a variety of 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.
Now we must allow the text to do the work, and the problem with the second is that there is no suggestion in the text that the Spirit came on those who heard them and performed such a miracle of hearing, the text tells us that the Spirit came upon the speakers and the miracle was in the speaking! The languages they spoke were recognisable and identifiable.
Now when you turn to the other occurrences in Acts there is no doubt that these are spontaneous, unlearned languages/tongues, again no miracle of hearing but miracles of speaking, but it is not so easy to ascertain that they were recognisable languages, that has to be read into the text – not a good thing to do.
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.” In such a context it would seem very unlikely that someone entering the church at Corinth would have had any problem with people speaking in different languages/tongues, and they certainly would not have thought that they were out of their minds, and it would not have caused the type of chaos that Paul was dealing with. The Tongues in Corinth to all intents and purposes do not appear to have been recognised human languages from their known world. Paul even refers to the possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels.
Taking Scripture as a whole it seems that tongues could be human, angelic, or other/spiritual tongues all miraculously enabled by the Spirit. For this reason the translators use phrases like ‘unknown’ or ‘strange.’ Paul himself also refers to the ‘tongues of angels.’
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. On the day of Pentecost, they were not preaching but magnifying or praising God, and when it came to the preaching it says that Peter stood up and preached the gospel, explaining the dynamic of what was taking place out of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel.
Some have noted Paul’s comments that they should seek the greater or higher gifts as meaning that tongues were at 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 being 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. They are full of 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 does not say “I speak in more languages.” He certainly gave time to speaking in tongues even though as the next verse shows he did not understand what he was saying. When did he do it? At home, privately.
3. They are for the edification of others. 1 Cor 14:26 speaks of bringing “a tongue” to the corporate gathering of the church. There are some differences among pentecostals and charismatics as to how this works out. 1. Some would say that ‘tongues’ is no more than thanksgiving or praise to God, “If you bless (praise/thank) in the Spirit only, how will the person who is ungifted be able to say Amen to your giving of thanks, since they do not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough.” (1 Cor. 14 16). Taking this approach the corresponding gift of interpretation is always interpreted as that individual’s response in praise or thanks to God. 2. Others take a much broader view. ‘Mysteries’ (14:2) it is pointed out are more than giving thanks or praise to God, they are about God and his glorious purposes, and calling upon 1 Cor 14:3-5,6,13-17 view tongues when interpreted 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.
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). This wasn’t a wish, it was a strong desire. 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.
So tongues are a part of the New Covenant blessing of God, they are miraculous, varied, and extremely beneficial when used according to Scripture.
Why not seek God for the gift?
Maybe you have the gift, and you’ve not used it in awhile, then be encouraged to stir it up.
What place does it have in your life?
What place does it have in your church?