One of the most prevalent phenomena amongst professed believers today is the miraculous ability to speak in tongues. Most Pentecostal groups assert that this manifestation of the Holy Spirit is the sign of salvation and that every believer should expect to be touched by God in this way. It is the power of the Spirit literally indwelling the converted person and making Himself known through the mysterious spirit tongue that, more often than not, even the speaker does not know.
But is this “manifestation” real? Does God really give us the power to babble in unintelligible “angelic” languages, or do we even need this power today? Let us pick up where we left off in the first part of this lesson series and consider the necessity of miraculous tongue speaking today, and especially its relevancy to the believer.
Is speaking in tongues necessary anymore?
We will find in the Bible that there is no other reason for miracles than confirming the Word in the minds of unbelievers. The power of the Holy Spirit is not used to satiate curiosity, and would cease to be perpetuated at the close of revelation. No new revelation means no need for more confirming miracles. Right? Such would be the logical position that every Christian ought to take. What is so interesting about modern day miracles, especially tongue speaking, is that those who practice such things try to use the Bible to confirm their validity, when the original intent of miracles was to confirm the Bible! “After [the Gospel] was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Hebrews 2:3-4). Is there anywhere here where an alternative purpose for miracles is described? “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by signs that followed” (Mark 16:20). Without new revelation, there is no need for miracles. Is there ever an example in the New Testament of believers utilizing the power of tongue speaking for anything other than confirming the message of the Gospel to unbelievers? Even Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 14:22 that speaking in tongues does not edify believers, but only finds usefulness as a sign to unbelievers. Contrary to this obvious exhortation, though, most Pentecostals do not use their “powers” to confirm the message to unbelievers. If anything, the tongues that are spoken only make the speakers look foolish in the eyes of the world (1 Corinthians 14:23). Because the tongues are only inane babbling, they do not teach unbelievers, edify believers, or confirm anything. Compare modern day tongues to the miracle performed in Acts 2, in which the unbelieving listeners actually heard intelligent, clear speech by the apostles.
The point would be that speaking in tongues is no longer necessary for Christians or unbelievers because its sole purpose has now been completed by something more thoroughly adequate. In the first century, there was no complete Bible available for people to consult. Matters of doctrine would be in constant contention without a proof text or inspired word guiding Christians. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to understand that in the meantime – in the days before the close of the scriptural canon at the death of the last inspired apostle – God would confirm the words of His message with signs and wonders, as is evidenced by the above scriptures, and others (2 Corinthians 12:12, Acts 14:3). The same is true today, friends. If one were to come into our midst and preach words not found in the Bible, we would expect some confirmation of those words (all things being equal and Bible verses to the contrary aside). Without confirmation, such as a noteworthy miracle or prophesy, we would have no choice but to decry that prophet and cast him out (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
Consider some of the Bible verses that confirm this point:
· “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature, which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). There was a very important purpose for those who held the positions of apostle and prophet, as well as those who taught and led the flocks. “For the equipping of the saints” indicates that all things done by these workers would have to do with the furtherance of the education or edification of Christians for a definite time. Certain jobs would be unnecessary when the time would come for maturity, that is, when the completeness of the Bible was brought forth there would be no more need for divine direction at the hands of apostles and prophets. With the Bible finished, we do not need miracles (“childish things” according to 1 Corinthians 13:11) because we have the Word to guide us into all truth, everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). The reason why we have not done away with teachers, evangelists, and pastors is because those offices are still needed. While apostles and prophets were offices directly related to the completing of the Bible (miraculous confirmation, predictions, inspired documents), preachers and pastors are for the purpose of propagating the Bible, which is a job that will always need to be done (Matthew 28:18-20).
· “… If there are gifts of prophesy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away…” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). No matter how necessary miracles were in the first century, a time would come when they would no longer be useful to God and the church. When the Bible would be completed, and all Christians would have equal access to the fully revealed message of salvation, all of the gifts, tongues, and miraculously revealed knowledge of the Holy Spirit would be completed and done away with. It is not that I deny the power of the Holy Spirit, or the miracles performed during the time it was appropriate, but God knows exactly what He is doing. He knew that miracles were once necessary, but would not be for long. And if we think we need miracles still today, then we are merely reaching for childish things, and are not mature in our faith. Indeed, Christ Himself warns us about those who constantly seek signs and miracles; “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4). That signs refers to the preaching of Jonah, which means that miraculous signs would not accompany Christians forever. The time would come when no signs would be given at all, and the evil and unrighteous people of the world would have nothing to base their opinions on except the Word.
Consider a few points from 1 Corinthians 13 and compare the qualities of tongue speaking with those of the Bible. First, we are told that miracles would “fail” (1 Corinthians 13:8), and yet the Bible would never fail us, and Jesus promises that it will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). The miracles are only the “partial” of God’s revelation (1 Corinthians 13:9), but the Bible is the complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:3). The miracles of the first century were childish (1 Corinthians 13:11), but the “word of righteousness” is “mature” (Hebrews 5:12-6:2). With the miracles, the apostle Paul only “knew in part” and “dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but the Bible is the fully revealed, clearly defined message of light (Romans 16:25, Hebrews 4:12). The miracles would not “abide” (1 Corinthians 13:13), but the Bile abides forever (1 Peter 1:23). With this in mind, who would want tongue speaking?
1 Corinthians 14 and Tongues
One of the most interesting and confusing texts dealing with miraculous tongues is found in 1 Corinthians 14, in which Paul describes the most appropriate way of handling the spiritual gifts during times of assembly. What we must consider, though, is whether or not the tongues discussed in this text are the same thing being practiced today by modern religious groups. “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). As Paul mentioned quite clearly in the previous chapter, spiritual gifts were only given for a limited time, until Christians attained to the unity of the Gospel through the written word. At its completion, Christians would only need the Bible, for it contained everything necessary to understand fully the revealed mystery of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:1-5). Until then, though, Paul exhorts the Christians to seek spiritual gifts. As long as they were available, it would behoove believers to take advantage of them. In the end, though, the greatest pursuit we can undergo is love, for it lasted longer than miraculous gifts, and continues to last today. Christians are not perfected by miracles, nor do they lead to complete spiritual maturity. Love, on the other hand, is infinitely more powerful than any sign or wonder!
It is clear from the following verses that prophesy was the more desirable gift for the Christians in Corinth, for it was more applicable to their situation and more necessary for edification during the assembly. Tongue speaking had little use in a congregation where everybody spoke the same language. For the apostles in Acts 2:2-13, the tongues helped them amaze the diverse crowd of people – men and women who spoke dialects and languages from all over the world. Even though Greek was the universal language, it was still a sign to behold for Jews from all over the globe to hear the apostles preach in their native tongues. In Corinth, though, it is doubtful that anything but Greek was ever spoken, except in passing. Therefore, tongues were unnecessary and served only as an opportunity for some of the Christians to be edified, not everybody. “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Corinthians 14:2). This verse has been abused by many. Some take it to be the undeniable proof text in favor of the inane babbling of modern tongue speakers. Today, more often than not, the speaker simply begins making loud noises that are unintelligible and benefit nobody – these are referred to as “heavenly” or “angelic” languages. It is a conversation between God and the speaker solely. The problem with this, however, is that Paul strictly warns against this kind of activity throughout the context. Even if miracles were possible today, it is wholly inappropriate to perform them during church when everybody present speaks the same language. Without interpretation, it benefits nobody (14:9, 13, 27-28). “For no one understands” does not mean that the language has no human meaning, just that nobody present understands. If everybody at the church in Corinth spoke Greek, and one were to begin speaking in Arabic, obviously nobody would understand. “In his spirit he speaks mysteries.” We should not get hung up on the word “mysteries” because the same is used to describe the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed through the apostles (Ephesians 3:3-5).
“One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Corinthians 14:4). Again, the point is being clarified that tongue speaking does not edify in a situation that involves people who all speak the same language already. Prophecy, however, can be applied to all people, and can be interpreted simply as speaking the words of God by inspiration. What the early Christians had to decide, then, was how best to edify the congregation as a whole. The same applies to today – for example, does it edify the church as a whole to preach every sermon about the same general topic? Of course not, though it may be a subject that needs to be taught. Would it edify the entire congregation if a man came before the church to lead a prayer and spoke it silently to himself? In the same way, in a situation that needed no miraculous tongues, that gift would be fruitless and would waste the church’s time.
“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues…” (14:5). This means that not everybody had this ability. Modern Pentecostals claim that the manifestation of tongue speaking is the undeniable sign of the spiritually mature believer. Every converted person should expect tongues. Yet here is an example of Christians in the first century, at the peak of age in which miracles were being performed, unable to perform this act. Were they not saved, then?
“Yet even lifeless things, either flute or hard, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (14:7-8). The point cannot be any more simple than that. A musician who wishes to convey an idea through his or her music uses an instrument to play distinctive motifs and melodies. Some music makes us happy, some makes us sad. But without distinction and clarity, the music is meaningless. Do any of us feel passion as result of the sounds produced by a guitar in the hands of a toddler? Also, if a bugler is preparing the army for a certain maneuver, he must make distinctive calls to convey the message properly. Otherwise, the army falls into confusion. “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air” (14:9). Unless the modern day tongue speaker can precisely speak a foreign language formerly unknown to him, and present a message that is clear and edifying, his or her deed is a hoax. What benefit is there to all of today’s peculiar and unintelligible “tongues”?
“There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning” (14:10). Every language has some meaning in the minds of human beings somewhere. And even in our world’s multiplicity of languages and dialects, not one of them means nothing. There is no tribe or nation that speaks incessantly in meaningless babbling. “If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will e a barbarian to me” (14:11). Which means that even languages of the miraculous tongue have to have meaning – they cannot just be babbling or animal noises. Paul makes the point here that if one speaks in a tongue and it does not edify the church by being clearly explained, it only creates a barrier between the listener and the speaker. “Barbarian” was a favorite derogatory term used by Greeks to describe non-Greeks. The intimation, therefore, is that unclear tongue speaking only brings reproach upon the church, and is an ugly blot on the reputation of a believer in the eyes of others, even his own brethren.
The point that Paul is trying to make is that miraculous tongues had a specific purpose, and that it is unnecessary in the setting of a congregation that speaks the same language. What we must strive for constantly is the edification of the church, not the self-aggrandizement of those seeking attention. If there is not clarity in speech and meaning, then there is no benefit, no education, no glorification of God. Senseless babbling does no good (14:16) and only leaves everybody else confused. More important than anything else is the reputation of the Lord’s church, and how we act around people of the world. Foolishness in matters of spiritual gifts makes us look bad (14:22-25), and it is clear that this finds great application today. To the modern day tongue speaker, it should be made clear that they have proven nothing by their deeds. Without interpretation, the words of a tongue speaker mean nothing (14:26-31).