Revealing the Mystery of Tongues

mouth2Last week we looked at the gift of discernment and how we need that in our lives and in our church. As we near the end of our study in spiritual gifts, we come to the most controversial, divisive gift there is. People have distinct opinions on the subject, but often their opinions are not based on the Scriptures, but on their upbringing, on what they’ve been told to believe, on what they’ve been taught. Most people have never personally examined the Scriptures to come to their own conclusion.

So grab your Bible for our last look at 1 Cor. 12:6-11.

We’ve got to lay a good foundation in order to understand the gift of tongues. There are three words used in Scripture to help us understand this gift of tongues.

  • Glossa: used for tongues like fire at Pentecost in Acts 2, the part of your body, a language, and a spiritual gift.
  • Dialektos: means a language or dialect.
  • Heteroglossos: means different tongues.

Even though you know and understand the definitions of these words, there is still one factor in understanding what the Scripture says – context. A good motto to follow is context is king in Bible interpretation.

Let’s look at some biblical examples.

  • Let’s look at Mark 7:33-35 first. You’ve got to look at the passage or you’ll miss it. From the context, it is obvious that Mark is talking about the part of the body – glossa.
  • Acts 2:3 says that tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost.
  • Acts 2:4 goes on to say that they all spoke with other tongues. This is the word heteroglossos. Verse 11 makes it clear that these other tongues are languages.
  • In Acts 2:6, 8 the languages the apostles were speaking was understood by the different groups of people present at that time. The Greek word here is dialektos.

Just from these examples, you have to know the definition and the context in order to properly interpret the passage. One of the best principles is to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

Let’s look at Mark and Acts in a little more detail.

  • In Mark 16:17, Jesus said. “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues.” One of the signs of belief in Christ was speaking in tongues. Here’s a big BUT. He didn’t say that everyone would speak in tongues.
  • In Acts, tongues of fire came down on the disciples. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. The people there heard about the mighty deeds of God in their native language.
  • Look at Acts 2:6-11. The apostles had not learned those languages. Keep in mind that this is the beginning of the church. As the Holy Spirit took residence in the hearts of believers, He gave them gifts according to Eph. 4:8. This is the first time anyone got spiritual gifts so the idea of getting spiritual gifts sometime later in your spiritual life is simply not true.
  • The next mention of tongues is in Acts 10 where Peter preaches to some Gentiles at the home of Cornelius. The Spirit fell on them and they were saved and, “They were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.” (Acts 10:46)
  • The last time tongues are mentioned in Acts is in chapter 19. Paul was in Ephesus and came across a group of John’s disciples. They had an incomplete understanding of Christ. As Paul filled them in, “The Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.” (Acts 19:6)

So why is this topic so controversial? I think it comes from an inaccurate examination of the Scriptures. We know from 1 Cor. 12 that the Holy Spirit does NOT give ALL believers the gift of tongues. Gifts are given at the moment of salvation for the common good of the body of Christ. It is true that God did place tongues in the church according to v. 28. There’s no debate there.

The first three verses of Chap. 13 tell us that if we exercise our gifts without love, it profits nothing. Look at v. 1 briefly. Some people use this verse as a proof text that tongues is an angelic language. Here’s the thing. In every instance where angels spoke in Scripture, they used a human language, so I wonder why there would be a “secret” language? These three verses simply tell us that exercising our gifts without love is not good. Look at the definition of love in vs. 4-8a. Keep this definition in mind as we proceed.

Paul makes the statement that tongues will cease. Look at 1 Cor. 13:8b-13. I hope you noticed a very important contrast in this passage. The contrast is between now and then. Now is when knowledge and prophecy are partial and the then is when the partial will be done away because the perfect will come. No other mention of time occurs in this chapter. The perfect will come.  I talked about the perfect way back in part 7 of this series, but let’s do a quick review. Perfect is the same as mature in Ephesians 4:13 which says, “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.” And in 1 Corinthians 14:20 where Paul says we are to be mature in our thinking.

Mature can mean complete, adult, full-grown, of full age, perfect, or whole. Because 1 Cor. 13:8 says, “tongues will cease,” some teach that this gift has already ceased in and of itself because of the completion of the canonization of Scripture. In context, the perfect cannot be the Word of God, nor is it the Second Coming of Christ. The context is the exercise of gifts with love within the body of Christ – the church.

It is possible to prophesy in part and know in part, but is impossible to speak in tongues in part. That doesn’t make sense. The complete, perfect, whole, full coming is what will “do away” with the partial. That makes sense. There won’t be a need for the partial when the whole or complete has come. Since there is no other time except the “now” and “then” in this chapter, and since the statement about tongues ceasing is in the middle of the section about prophecy and knowledge being done away, it is reasonable to understand that this will all happen at the same time.

These gifts will cease and be done away, as will all of the gifts at the culmination of the church, when it is perfect, complete; when it is full. This also lines up with Ephesians 4 that teaches we’ll use spiritual gifts “until” we reach the fullness of Christ, the mature or complete or perfect man.

The foundation is laid and hopefully we’ve cleared up the controversy so Paul now goes on to explain why prophecy is superior to tongues. Look at 1 Cor. 14:4-33.

There’s not enough space to go through this verse by verse, so let me give you the highlights. This chapter is a continuation of chapters 12 and 13. Paul begins with the instruction to, “desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Desire is plural so this is direction for the church, not for individuals. The church is to pursue, but really desire prophesy. One that prophesies does so for edification, exhortation, and consolation. The contrast is that tongues would only be understood by a few because most would not know the language. Prophesy benefits the whole body. The one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself unless there is an interpreter – that’s the only way the body would be edified.

Tongues does not profit the body like knowledge, prophecy, or teaching because no one will understand, unless there’s interpretation. Paul provides the example of musical instruments. Distinct notes must be played or else it just sounds like noise. No one prepares for battle until the distinct bugle call is made. The same is true for tongues. If the tongue doesn’t speak things that are clear, it’s like speaking into the air. Paul says that all languages have meaning. If the one hearing it doesn’t understand the language, then it’s like he’s a barbarian.

Paul exhorted the Corinthians to abound in edification of the church which is in direct contrast to the edification of individuals. In v. 14 Paul mentions praying in a tongue. Like the angelic language mentioned earlier, this verse is used as a proof text for a special prayer language. You’ve got to look at vs. 14-17. If the church doesn’t understand what is being said, it is useless.

Paul said he was glad he spoke in tongues, but would rather speak five words with his mind than 10,000 with his spirit.  10,000 is the largest number known at the time – infinity. Paul wanted to use words in the church that everyone understood. It is not mature thinking to believe that everyone should have the gift of tongues.

Tongues is a sign to unbelievers. Paul said, if you walk into a church where everyone is speaking in tongues and you don’t have the gift, or you’re not saved, you would conclude that everyone in there is crazy. Seeing an entire congregation speaking in tongues is not a sign of spirituality, but a sign of madness. On the other hand, prophesy will convict the heart of a lost man and will cause him to fall on his face before God. When the church is assembled, everything should be done for edification. So why do some people believe the mark of spirituality is speaking in tongues? Tongues is a sign not to show how spiritual you are to your Christian friends, but it is a sign to UNBELIEVERS.

So how are tongues used? Paul is very clear. There should be two or three at the most. They should speak in turn, and there must be an interpreter. If there is no interpreter – then the person must remain silent.

What about prophecy? There is an order here too. Again, two or three are to speak. The other people and other prophets are to pass judgment.

I believe tongues most likely would be used to bring the Gospel to unreached people. It’s a sign to unbelievers. Here’s the bottom line. I believe tongues are still active, but not the way some say. There is no such thing as ecstatic utterances. Tongues in Scripture was always a known language.Tongues is a supernatural ability to speak a language not learned.

Don’t let people try and convince you that speaking in tongues is a mark of spiritual superiority – it’s not. Tongues is a spiritual gift given by God to some believers – not all – for the common good of the body.


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