SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Much interest is being shown in contemporary religious circles with regard to this subject, and I have been asked to give this Bible Study in hope of clarifying the situation from a Biblical point of view. The Bible is our only true standard of judgment, therefore the burden of my remarks this evening is based upon Scriptural exposition. The existence of popular personalities who may differ from this is of little concern, and the wave of modern interest in the “tongues movement” carries with it very little consequence. God has revealed His mind in His Word, therefore “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:20.)
Speaking with tongues is referred to some twenty-five times in the New Testament (Mark 16:17, Acts 2:4-11, 10-46,1 Corinthians 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2. 4, 5, 6, 13, 14, 18,19, 22, 23, 26. 27,29). It is taken from the Greek word “glossa”, and is known in many places as “glossolalia”.
It must be remembered that only Old Testament Scripture was in the possession of the Church in apostolic times, and this was written in the Hebrew tongue originally. Hebrew was largely a “dead” language, the Jews then speaking in Aramaic (the language used by Jesus Christ), with Gentile peoples speaking in other tongues, such as Greek, etc. The Hebrew language was understood by the learned, and it was necessary for them to convey the sense of Biblical truth to the common people. Hence we have prophets, priests, scribes, doctors of the law, etc. referred to.
On the day of Pentecost God sovereignly saw fit to use the apostles, Galileans, (Peter the fisherman, Matthew the publican, etc.), unlearned and ignorant men (Acts 4:13), for the dissemination of the gospel amongst the great concourse of people from many quarters visiting Jerusalem at that time, devout men out of every nation under heaven (Acts 2:5). With the outpouring of the Spirit of God was given an especial ability to speak in all languages represented, so that every man heard the gospel preached in the language wherein he was born. No one nation could boast over another, and thus did God hide pride from man by the gift of tongues to cover every language, and thereby established witnesses from every nation of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How glorious are the works of God, for in His wisdom and almighty power He accomplishes His gracious purposes to all the world by miraculously overcoming the impediment of the confusion of languages incurred through man’s pride and presumption at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-10). The many tongues spoken by the human race is a perpetual reminder of the pride of man’s heart under the Fall. From Acts 2 it is plainly understood that the gift of tongues there practised by the apostles was in the use of other languages for the spread of the gospel. Herein was the fulfilment of the promise given at the great commission, Mark 16:17. The wisdom of God in bestowing the gift
of tongues on the apostles is apparent when it is remembered that preaching and teaching were the only means of communicating the gospel to the masses at that time, and when witnesses of every nation and tongue were established to teach in their own language, God’s purpose in the gift of tongues was accomplished, and in due course, discontinued.
When the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word as Peter spake to the assembled company at the behest of Cornelius, the Gentiles were heard to speak with tongues and magnify God (Acts 10:46). This was an identical gift of the Spirit with Acts 2, “As I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, AS ON US AT THE BEGINNING” records Peter (Acts 11:15), so they spake in languages extant at that time.
The twelve men at Ephesus, referred to as “disciples” and most probably Jews, having received the baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 19:3), were apparently ignorant of the gospel concerning the actual death and resurrection of Jesus Christ together with His ascension into glory, until the apostle Paul was enabled to lead them forward. It is written, “And when Paul laid his hands upon them” Â— a solemn sign of consecration under the law Â— “the Holy Ghost came upon them”, not in regeneration, for they were disciples previously, but in gifts which bore fruit in “speaking with tongues and prophesying”. They then became teachers of the gospel in several languages consistent with the purposes of God through them at Ephesus, and maybe elsewhere.
When we turn to Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, the gift of tongues is referred to in chapters 12, 13 and 14 of his first epistle. A consideration of the geographical situation of the place is useful. It is situated between the Ionian and Aegean seas, the capital of Achaia, the seat of the Roman proconsul (Acts 18:12) famed for its commerce, architecture and brassware. Attracting many by its trade and trade-routes, the cosmopolitan community would speak in many languages. To Corinth also would be attracted some of the Jews banished from Rome under the decree of Claudius whereby Jews were forced to quit Rome, and some of them at least would carry with them the knowledge of ancient Hebrew. The influences from the above situation would lead to sectarianism, insecurity, and a superficial sense of values both socially and morally. These found their way into the church at Corinth, and against such Paul was constrained of the Holy Ghost to pen his first epistle. The doctrine of “the church” is the theme unto which he constantly brings them, and shews them how unbecoming are their practices in view of the glory, excellency and purity of the church as it is in Christ Jesus. In the first chapter he instructs them with regard to the confusion produced by a sectarian or party spirit, their identification with personalities or earthly names though they be instruments used of God, and not with Christ. After declaring his preaching in chapter 2, he seeks in chapter 3 to set them down again unitedly upon the One Foundation (v.ll).
In chapter 5 he deals with the uncleanness which was reported amongst them, and exhorts them to church discipline that the leaven be purged out before the whole church becomes contaminated. And so on.
In chapter 12 he deals with the matter of spiritual gifts, in order that through ignorance their church should not be overcome of evil, or held in bondage by the presence or prevalence of an evil spirit amongst them. The general principle is that whatsoever gift is bestowed upon any individual by the Spirit of God it is for the common good. The gifts and offices of the church are given and established by the great Head of all things Christ Jesus to the church, for its good, edification and vitality, each individual member contributing according to the exercise of the gift given in its measure unto him or her.
The offices and gifts administered were not all permanent, i.e. while the earth remains; some were temporary, and the office of apostleship together with certain temporary gifts were given at the beginning of the gospel era for the founding of the church, the spread of the gospel, the seal of Divine approbation upon the work transacted in the name of Jesus Christ. These, in a short time, ceased. The offices and gifts are not all given in chapter 12:28, but a fuller (if not complete) list is located in Ephesians 4:11, with regard to the growth of the church through the ministry of the Word unto edification, and maturity.
It must be noted that in I Corinthians 12:8-10 nine gifts are named, and eight in verses 28-30. In both cases tongues and interpretation are placed at the end. In Romans 12:6-8 seven spiritual gifts are enumerated, and in Ephesians 4:7-11, five, but in neither is mentioned tongues or interpretation. “Divers kinds of tongues” (I Cor. 12:10) comprehends many languages, for some spoke in tongues not native to them, lacking the ability to convey the meaning of that which was spoken in the language of the church concerned or people whom they addressed. This defect was supplied by the gift of interpretation. The interpreters conveyed the sense to edification. Gifts were distributed that no one member constituted the whole body, but as each contributes his share they then make up an entire and perfect body. In the true function of the gospel church there is a dependence upon one another, with no occasion of proud boasting, base envying, contempt of brethren, ambition, etc. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to covet earnestly those gifts appointed to edify. They were exulting in the exercise of lesser gifts such as tongues, interpretation, healing of body or mind, whilst the gifts to edification for the spiritual benefit and enlargement of the church were being grossly neglected.
He comes to the excellence of charity in chapter 13 of I Corinthians, saying in verse 1, you are proud of speaking in differing languages, but I say “Though I speak, not only with tongues of men, but of the very angels in heaven, which would be
supernatural indeed, and am dispossessed of love, I am nothing better than an empty and vain sound with no lasting value.” He preaches up the excellence of charity, which was wanting at Corinth. Through pride certain of them drew attention and admiration to themselves by the exercise of languages and interpretation, and were thereby counted greatest, proving a weakening disease spiritually. The glory of the church is not found in mental, physical or vocal abilities, however useful in their place, but in the exercise of the inward graces of the Spirit. Humility and love are inevitably found in such cases. Even prophecies fail in due time, tongues will cease, knowledge shall vanish away, but love endures eternally. Gifts of the Spirit have their essential uses for a time, but only love is to remain. Faith, which is vital to salvation, abideth for the present, but will give place one day; hope also, as Joseph Hart records (Gadsby’s Selection No. 792) :
Faith will to bliss give place;
In sight we hope shall lose;
For who needs trust for things he has
Or hope for what He views ?
The little too that’s known,
Which, children-like, we boast,
Will fade, like glow-worms in the sun,
Or drop in ocean lost.
But love shall still remain,
Its glories cannot cease,
No other change shall that sustain,
Save only to increase.
If such eminent graces as faith and hope are thus to have an end, need we stumble to consider tongues, interpretation and healing to be set aside when God’s sovereign use of them was completed ? Tongues and healing have been described as “the childish toys of the infant church”, but when she grew into maturity with the completed canon of Scripture (Old and New Testaments), the sacraments, established church order and fellowship, regular ministry of the Word, etc., such childish things were put away. Geo. Whitefield wrote to the Fetter Lane Society on 12th June, 1739, thus : “But, alas, what need is there of miracles, such as healing sick bodies and restoring sight to blind eyes, when we see greater miracles done every day by the power of God’s Word? Do not the spiritually blind now see ? Are not the spiritually dead now raised and the leprous souls now cleansed, and have not the poor the gospel preached unto them ? And if we have the thing already which such miracles were only intended to introduce, why should we tempt God in requiring further signs ?” (Geo. Whitefield by A. Dallimore, page 348). The apostle Paul says, “But when I became a man, I put away childish things”.
Chapter 14 opens with an exhortation, “Follow after love”. The want of this excellent grace had occasioned the abuse of other
gifts, and had set in motion pride, ambition, lust for admiration or creature applause, based upon the lesser gifts which were of a temporary nature. He commends prophesying before tongues, for it is more useful for edification,
(vv. 2 and 3). He states his reasons for the preference. Speaking in an unknown or foreign language called forth creature admiration at Corinth, it inclined to the glory of men rather than the edification of the church. A person speaking in an unknown language does not speak to men, for they do not understand, they hear his voice but his speech is not understood. God understands all languages, but none of his hearers understands him though he speak in the spirit (by exercise of a spiritual gift) mysteries, deep doctrine or theology, dark sayings profound in their true signification. Prophecy is valuable only when spoken to those who understand the language in which it is expressed. A person may speak in a language which he alone understands, but the purpose of prophecy is for the common good to edification, exhortation and comfort of the hearers.
(v. 4) How misdirected then is the personal and introspective exercise of speaking in tongues, or language which is of no benefit to the church, and how preferable is prophecy by contrast!
(v. 5) He again stresses his preference for prophecy in this verse, leaving room for speaking in languages as God’s gift (e.g., to speak in tongues as at Pentecost) for the benefit of the church. Here we find the introduction of “interpretation” as an accompaniment of speaking in tongues so that what is spoken may be generally understood, thereby proceeding to the edification of the church. To speak by prophesying was direct, but to speak in tongues was indirect, needing interpretation, which occupied more time, two persons being involved.
(v. 6) The apostle proposes himself as an example. What profit will you derive from speaking with tongues except use is made of revelation, knowledge, prophesying or doctrine ? To stand and use unknown and unintelligible speech, not spiritually edifying, is to no profit Â— it is a terrible waste of valuable time and opportunity. Ignorance is man’s ruin, therefore God has given revelation, knowledge, prophesying, and doctrine for man’s enlightenment, but of what illuminating benefit is speaking in an unknown language ? It leaves you still in darkness and ignorance.
(v. 7) He then turns to musical instruments, without life, giving
sound (such as the gospel possesses), and says these are controlled
of men to convey a meaning, the trumpet also (v. 8) must give a
“certain” Â— a distinguishable Â— sound, otherwise men will not
prepare themselves for the battle.
(v. 9) So likewise ye, your speech will be absolutely meaningless
except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood. You
will be wasting your breath.
(v. 10) There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world
with every one having its use to whosoever may understand its
signification; so with languages, they are of use and meaning only to those who understand what is being said. Therefore
(v. 11) except an understanding of the voice is present, we are foreigners one to another. (The term “barbarian” was commonly used by the Egyptians and Greeks for those who did not speak their language.) By the use of an unknown tongue we merit the reputation of a barbarian, which surely is not to be coveted.
(v. 12) He acknowledges their zeal of spiritual gifts, and exhorts them to excel to the edification of the church.
(v. 13) “Wherefore” Â— on this account or for this reason Â— let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. Tongues without interpretation are useless to the church, but through interpretation the use of languages edifies a larger body of hearers. Pray then for the gift of interpretation for the spread of the gospel, for the common good.
(v. 14) To pray in a foreign tongue, i.e. use the Hebrew language whilst praying before Greeks, my spirit prayeth Â— I spiritually engage in devotion before God, but there is no communication to others, therefore my knowledge and use of a foreign tongue renders me unfruitful.
(v. 15) I will pray with my spirit Â— breathe out my innermost desires before God, and I will pray with intellect or intelligibly so that others may appreciate what I am saying. So also with praise.
(v. 16) Unless the unlearned are able to follow your expressions they will be unable to add their “Amen” when you return thanks, so all fellowship in prayer and praise will be utterly lost unless you make yourself plainly understood.
(v. 17) You may most certainly give thanks well, but your neighbour is not edified.
(v. 18) Paul, tempering his assertion with God-glorifying modesty, claims the pre-eminence in speaking with tongues. He was obviously a multi-linguist.
(v. 19) Five words spoken intelligibly are preferable to ten thousand which cannot be understood.
(v. 20) He reproves them for their childish sense of values, exhorting them in malice to be children, but in understanding to be grown up. Pride, ostentation, ambition, envy and malice thrive on ignorance, and evidence spiritual immaturity. The more grown-up we are spiritually, the greater our humility, and spiritual growth is consistent with the increase of knowledge in spiritual things, the development of the spiritual understanding. What an important part is played by “edification” !
(v. 21) The apostle then quotes Isaiah 28:11, 12, saying that the introduction of other tongues in Israel was a sign of judgment and bondage. Why then should the Corinthians be so desirous of speaking in other languages ? Where peace and unity are experienced in the church, all believers speak the same language.
(v. 22) Tongues were a sign to the unbelieving Jews that the
Lord was turning to the Gentiles. Some of the branches of the olive tree were broken off according to the severity of God against their unbelief, and the wild olive was being grafted in. (Romans 11:17-25). Prophesying serves the church unto edification, and this the Corinthians were neglecting.
(v. 23) If unbelievers or the unlearned came into the church assembly, and you all were speaking with tongues, i.e. unintelligibly, would they not lawfully conclude it to be a house of madmen ?
(v. 24) But if all prophesy, and there come in such an one, and all distinctly speak the same language, testifying of the same truths, the unbeliever will see decency and order in this, and will have interest and patience to be instructed, convinced of their knowledge and his ignorance. He is thereby judged of all to his conviction and condemnation.
(v. 25) The light reveals darkness, and the secrets of the heart are made manifest by the light, whereby the pride of the flesh is brought low, and a voluntary acknowledgement that God is with you and in you of a truth.
(v. 26) The apostle asks the question, “How is it then, when you assemble, you lose sight of God’s purpose in so doing” Â— the edification of the whole church ? But prompted by ostentation one has a psalm, another a doctrine, another a tongue, another a revelation, another interpretation.
(v. 27) If any man speak in a foreign language, or two, but at the most three, let them do so separately, one after another, not attempting to speak all together, for that would be of no value, just noise and confusion. One only should interpret or give the sense. The limitation imposed by this verse is appointed to frustrate proud and ambitious persons who would monopolize the assembly by speaking in foreign languages.
(v. 28) He here insists upon an interpreter, otherwise speaking in tongues is useless to the church. If there be no interpreter the tongues speaker must remain silent, worshipping God in his own spirit, but by no means employing his gift or ability to be elevated in the sight of others with no advantage to edification generally.
(v. 39) Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, for this is preferable and more useful, and forbid not to speak with tongues, in so far as their use may prove to be for the edification of the church. In modern times the knowledge of Hebrew and Greek have proved most useful to an enlarged understanding of the original Scripture manuscripts, and of the mind of God according to the tongue in which the Bible was originally inspired. This is most desirable, and should be encouraged. The distribution of Scripture in all languages should be encouraged, and the dissemination of truth to the whole world by all lawful means should receive our support.
The gift of tongues was a God-given ability to speak in other
languages, whereby the gospel was conveyed in a tongue not natively spoken or necessarily understood by the speaker, but perfectly intelligible by those to whom God directed it, as in Acts 2:8. The gift of interpretation was added where necessary, so that the sense may be understood by hearers of different languages. These were sovereign and miraculous methods used of God for the spread of the gospel in the days of the early church.
There is positively no Scriptural support for the kind of gibberish, incoherent and unintelligible noises exercised within the modern tongues movement. Scripture is being wrested in an attempt to introduce superstitious, mystical inventions of the devil, suitable to stimulate the fallen imagination and pride of the human heart, calling forth the admiration of the spiritually simple and ignorant. The progress of the modern tongues movement is attributable to the profound ignorance of certain professing people, and their neglect of a prayerful study of God’s Word and ordinances. It seems to indicate the second-childhood of the gospel dispensation that such weird practices can ever gain interest, let alone support.
The pre-eminence of attention given to what was ever a “lesser” gift shews the activity of him who has ever sought to turn the world upside down.
The prominence of women in the modern tongues movement again indicates its unscripturalness (I Corinthians 14:34). One evil quickly leads to another.
The Scriptural concept of a New Testament church is lost by the professed “direct revelation” of modern tongues speakers and interpreters. The status and authority of the Bible itself is relegated to second place.
There is no historical record of the “gift of tongues” after the inspiration of the New Testament to complete the Canon of Scripture. The testimonies of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom and Augustine (A.D. 311-600), known as the “Fathers”, make no mention of tongues, although they wrote extensively on every major New Testament doctrine and practice.
The Corinthians were aiming at “shew” rather than “usefulness”, and the exercise of speaking in other tongues or languages undermined the glory, stability and fruitfulness of the church. Proud persons were dominating proceedings by speaking in foreign languages. It is know that some Jews held to the use of Hebrew in worship, especially when praying or singing psalms. The cosmopolitan nature of Corinth tended to the admiration and conceit of those possessing an ability to speak in other tongues.
Glossolalia is not unique to the Christian religion. It is professedly practised by non-Christians, and in modern times it is reported amongst Mohammedans, Eskimos, and the pagans of
Tibet and China. God is not the author of such religion and practice.
The twelve disciples of Jesus Christ were early instructed in the plainness (lack of superstition) of the gospel at the first miracle in Cana of Galilee (John, chapter 2). The waterpots employed were large, open-necked vessels containing 20-30 gallons apiece, used by the Jews to cleanse their hands before eating. The changing of the water into wine was simply the blessing of Christ Jesus resting upon things done by the servants in accordance with His command. All present were thereby convinced of the simplicity of gospel ordinances, and the absolute lack of anything mystic or of a superstitious character. The introduction of “groves” (Exodus 34:13), witches or wizards with their mutterings (Isaiah 8:19), in the Old Testament (all sympathetic with idolatry, heathenism, mystic and superstition) ever thrived in a time of spiritual decline and ignorance, with departure from God.
The saints taught of the Spirit of God, humbled under His mighty hand, established in the faith of God’s elect by living and vital experience would echo the sentiments of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:20, “But we have not so learned Christ”.