SPEAKING IN TONGUES
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF SPEAKING IN TONGUES?
The gift of tongues is given:
- As a sign for unbelievers. “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” (1 Cor 14:22). This is clearly seen in Acts 2:4-12 when tongues-speaking resulted in a large crowd of unbelievers being attracted to hear the hear gospel.
- For personal edification. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Cor 14:4). Apparently tongues edifies the spirit, rather than the mind, for the tongues-speaker does not know what he is saying: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor 14:14); “he utters mysteries with his spirit.” (1 Cor 14:2)
- For the edification of the church, when accompanied by interpretation: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” (1 Cor 14:5).
HOW PREVALENT WAS THE GIFT OF TONGUES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH?
The book of Acts records three occurrences of the gift of tongues over a twenty-year period:
Tongues in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-13).
Fifty days after Christ’s resurrection, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit first indwelt believers. About 120 disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Holy Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).
Tongues in Caesarea (Acts 10:44-48).
Seven years later (about AD 38), in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, Cornelius and his whole household were converted as Peter preached to them. They “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:47) and began speaking in tongues and praising God. This miraculous outpouring of the Spirit was a sign for Peter and the Jewish Christians that God had made salvation available to the Gentiles as well.
Tongues in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7).
About thirteen years later (c.AD 51), Paul encountered twelve disciples of John the Baptist and preached to them about their need to place their trust in Jesus the Messiah. They were “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.5), after which “the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues” (v.6). This was another important watershed in the early church’s development, as it signified the incorporation of John’s disciples into the Christian church and the harvesting of the seeds of repentance that John had faithfully sown.
Apart from these three instances, there is no evidence of tongues-speaking in the remainder of the book of Acts. In particular, there is no mention of new converts speaking in tongues at their conversion; the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (2:41), the Ethiopian eunuch (8:37), Saul (9:1-9), the “great number” in Antioch (11:21), the “multitude” in Iconium (14:1), Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and their households (16:14,15,30-34).
When the 26 conversion accounts in the book of Acts are analysed, only about 12% of those converted are recorded as speaking in tongues. An argument for tongues being universal and normative in the New Testament church cannot be mounted from the book of Acts.
Tongues In Corinth
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul discusses the use of tongues in public meetings. Exactly how tongues came to be in the church at Corinth is unclear. It may be that some tongues-speaking Christians from Jerusalem migrated to Corinth during the period of persecution following Stephen’s death (Acts 8). Some may have received the gift through the laying on of Apostolic hands (Acts 8:17-18; 2 Tim 1:5).
1 Corinthians 12:1-3 also seems to suggest the possibility that there were false manifestations of the gift of tongues at Corinth: “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:1-3). Apparently, Paul felt it necessary to say this due to the possibility of someone seemingly “speaking by the Spirit of God” and cursing the name of Jesus.
Although the gift of tongues was normal in the New Testament church, it was certainly not normative. If the historical narratives are taken at face value, tongue-speaking was quite rare. Indeed, the inclusion of tongue-speaking accounts in the narrative appears to indicate their exceptional nature. An argument can be mounted that if tongue-speaking is still a valid gift for the church today, we should expect it to follow the same pattern of exceptional and rare occurrence, rather than the apparent universality of the gift as proclaimed in some churches.
But is the gift of tongues still available today? Does God continue to grant this gift to his people? Or was it a special sign that only accompanied the initial birth of the church on earth?
That is the topic of next week’s post.