THOUGHTS ON THE GIFT OF SPEAKING IN TONGUES
It is probably the case that those who believe that the gifts of tongues and healing are available and practised today, outnumber those who do not. The growth of charismatic “churches” is phenomenal, whereas those who simply preach the word of God find little interest on the part of the public in the Western world, and their numbers, generally speaking, are dwindling. Faced with this situation, there might be a strong temptation to adopt the methods of the charismatic movement, with its excitement, music, dancing, and drama. Examined in the light of Scripture, however, Pentecostalism is found wanting, and has nothing to offer those who wish to glorify God in the way their meetings are conducted. Believers have no mandate to entertain the world; nor are they required to adopt methods which appeal to the natural mind. Rather, they are charged to preach the word in the light of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus to judge the living and the dead, 2 Timothy 4:1,2. The use of carnal methods will only produce carnal professors, who have no real life, and who only continue coming to meetings because their desires are catered for.
We will look at the subject of Pentecostalism under the following headings:
(a) The purpose of the gift of tongues.
(b) The nature of the gift of tongues.
(c) The cessation of the gift of tongues.
(d) The modern claim to have the gift of tongues.
(e) The cause of the present tongues movement.
(a) THE PURPOSE OF THE GIFT OF TONGUES
Confirmation of Christ’s presence in heaven
The resurrection and exaltation of Christ was confirmed on the Day of Pentecost by things that could be seen and heard, Acts 2:32,33. The seen things were the tongues of fire that sat upon each of the apostles. The heard things were the spoken tongues or languages which the apostles were miraculously able to use when speaking to the foreign Jews who had gathered at Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.
Note that Peter quotes from Joel 2 in his address on that occasion, not because all the events that passage mentions were coming to pass then, but because Joel spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and also the opportunity to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation. Those two things, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the salvation of some in Israel, were what were relevant at that time. Note also that Peter does not quote from the Old Testament passage which expressly speaks of tongues, namely Isaiah 28:11, because that was not so appropriate at that time.
Confirmation of the preaching of the apostles
The prophecy of the Lord Jesus in Mark 16:17,18, was that certain signs would follow them that believe. What had been foretold indeed came to pass, for when Mark summarises the book of the Acts for us in verses 19 and 20, he writes in the past tense, and then ends with the words “confirming the word with (by means of) signs following”. So the signs manifested in apostolic days were a confirmation from the Lord in heaven that what was preached was indeed God’s word.
With this agree the words of Hebrews 2:1-4, where the writer identifies three lines of testimony. First, that of the Lord Himself when here, as He spoke of “so great salvation”. Second, when those who heard Him confirmed to others what they had been taught, and third, when God bore witness to both these testimonies by enabling signs and wonders to be performed, giving added proof that what the apostles preached was of God.
Confirmation that non-Jews have received the Holy Spirit
Apart from the initial pouring out of the Spirit on Jews only in Acts 2, there were certain groups that were dealt with separately by God, because they were special cases.
The Samaritans.These were potentially a cause of friction amongst the believers, if they allowed the enmity between themselves and the Jews to spill over into their new life in Christ. “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”, John 4:9. Hence in Acts 8:14-17, Peter and John are sent to Samaria to personally and directly lay hands on those who had believed from amongst the Samaritan nation, that they might receive the Holy Spirit after a delay. That delay was not normal, since the moment a person believes and receives the gospel the Holy Spirit is given. We know this from Galatians 3:2, where the apostle indicates that the Spirit is given when a person hears in faith. (The indwelling of the Spirit of God is never presented to us in the New Testament as something that can be earned, but rather the gracious gift of God the moment true faith is exercised). But the Samaritan situation was not normal, given the bad relations between the two nations, so an unusual procedure was followed. And because the apostles themselves laid hands on the Samaritan believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit, they did not need confirmation of the fact, and therefore we do not read that the Samaritan believers responded by speaking in tongues. They may have done so, but we are not expressly told.
The Gentiles.Peter had needed a vision from the Lord to convince him that it was indeed the Lord’s purpose to call Gentiles to faith. He had taken certain believers with him on his visit to Cornelius in order that they might be fellow-witnesses of what took place. This was a wise precaution, for afterwards Peter was criticised for his actions. These fellow-believers who accompanied Peter were astonished that upon the Gentiles the Holy Spirit had been poured out, Acts 10:45. But how did they know this? Verse 46, beginning with “for” as it does, tells us that they knew they had received the Spirit “for they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God”. Hence, again, the speaking in tongues is audible proof of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples of John.In Acts 19, the apostle Paul came across disciples of John the Baptist, who did not know that the Holy Spirit had been given at Pentecost. Having heard of the Lord Jesus from Paul, they believed and were baptized. Having received the Holy Spirit by the laying on of his hands, they spoke with tongues and prophesied. No doubt this was a great encouragement to them, confirming that they had been right to cross over from allegiance to John to faith in Christ, a step John would have encouraged, see John 1:35-37; 3:25-30.
We see then that various special groups are dealt with by God in ways that are not regular. Since they are special cases, they do not provide precedents for today. Believers today receive the Holy Spirit the moment they believe, and do not need any to lay hands on them before this can happen. Nor is the supposed speaking in tongues of some today, any evidence that they possess the Spirit of God. After all, the devil-worshipping “Whirling Dervishes” of the Middle East utter sounds indistinguishable from modern tongues-speaking!
Confirmation of God’s judgement on unbelief
God had warned Israel of the penalty of unbelief, namely that a foreign power would carry them away, and they would hear strange languages spoken by their captors, Deuteronomy 28:45-51. He warned the people again of this danger in Isaiah 28:11. The judgement fell when the Assyrians took the ten tribes into captivity. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:21,22, used these Scriptures to show that tongues-speaking was a sign from God to those who believe not, just as the “tongues-speaking” of the Assyrians had been to unbelieving, idol-worshipping Israel in Isaiah’s day.
Contribution to the advance of the truth
The gift of tongues also met a very practical need, both in evangelism and in the assembly. Those who went forth as evangelists would be greatly helped if they could speak the dialect of the people they were amongst. Whilst it is true that Greek was the language of many in the world at the time, it was by no means universal. The spread of the gospel was an urgent matter, and for this reason the Lord Jesus promised that those who went forth in His Name after His ascension would be able to speak with “new tongues”. This means that the tongues were new to those speaking them, and would enable them to immediately communicate the gospel in distant parts. How useful this would be in our day, when so many people still have not heard the name of Christ. Yet nowadays those who go forth to unknown regions need to painstakingly learn the language of the people they hope to reach.
The gift of tongues would also be of great use in the assembly gatherings, for so much new truth was being discovered, as the apostles and prophets unfolded the full range of truth which Christianity makes known. In a company of believers where different languages were spoken, those who did not speak the language of the minority would be greatly helped if there were there those with the gift of tongues present, who could tell them what the main speaker was saying.
Clearly the things that are confirmed by the gift of tongues were new at the time. The gospel of a crucified and risen Christ; His ascension to heaven; the pouring out of the Spirit on the Gentiles; the particularly grave sin of rejecting a Saviour who had been received back into heaven, these were all fresh and different matters, and God graciously confirmed their reality by the exhibition of miracles. Once this confirmation has been done, it does not need to be repeated, or else doubt is cast upon the original confirmation, and upon the Scriptures which record it.
(b) THE NATURE OF THE GIFT OF TONGUES
The word used for tongues is the normal word for either the physical organ of the tongue, by which we articulate language, or the language itself. So the gift of tongues was the Spirit-bestowed ability to speak in a language that had not been learnt, and to do so as if it was one’s own native language. As we have seen from the meaning of the word “new” in Mark 16:17, the tongue was new to the person speaking it, it was not newly-invented, some sort of “Spirit-language” not heard before.
We see this on the Day of Pentecost, for Luke was careful to list in Acts 2:5-11 the various nationalities of those present in Jerusalem. They heard the disciples speaking the wonderful works of God, (for the preaching of the gospel came later, when the apostle Peter gave his first address), and were amazed that they all heard preaching in their own language. There was no need for the interpretation of these languages, for each nationality could gather around the disciple who was speaking in their own dialect. Those who were saved could now go back to where they lived and preach the gospel without the gift of tongues, to those whose language they spoke naturally.
The languages were real languages. The apostle wrote to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am nothing”, 1 Corinthians 13:1. Notice he says “men and angels”, not “men or angels”. In other words, he has not a choice of the tongues of either men or angels, as if they are different, but a simple option of speaking with the tongues that both men and angels speak. For when we read of angels speaking to men, they do so in the language of the person they are addressing. There are those who try to explain the fact that the “languages” spoken in charismatic meetings are unintelligible, by saying that they are the tongues of angels, and therefore we should not expect to understand them This is pure evasion, for the apostle makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14:11 that if a tongue is not understood it is worthless.
(c) THE CESSATION OF THE GIFT OF TONGUES
As we have seen, the primary purpose of the gift of tongues was to confirm certain things. Those things being the genuineness of the gospel message, the certainty that Christ has been received into heaven, the availability of full gospel blessing to the Gentiles, and the prospect of judgement upon the nation of Israel for refusing their Messiah, not only when He presented Himself in person, but also, subsequently, when He was presented in the gospel.
The secondary purpose was to facilitate the understanding of the new truths made known in the gospel by as many people as possible at the outset, so that the word could spread rapidly, without being hindered by language barriers. That this issecondary is seen on the Day of Pentecost, when many disciples made known by the use of the gift of tongues “the wonderful works of God”, but the apostle Peter alone, and apparently without the use of that gift, preached the gospel.
Now that the truth regarding Christ has been confirmed, there is no need for the gift. If confirmation has been made of a certain matter, it would throw doubt on the means of confirmation if it needed to constantly be present. Once the truths of Christianity had been fully made known, and, whilst the apostles were still on earth, was written down as a permanent record, there was no need for the temporary confirmations.
So it is that the apostle Paul foretold that “tongues shall cease”, 1 Corinthians 13;8. And cease they did, for in the days of a well-known “church father”, Chrysostom, in the 4thcentury, it was not possible to find the gift being exercised. Chrysostom searched high and low for those who were speaking in tongues, for he wished to record the phenomenon. He was unable to do so. Most modern charismatics admit this to be the case, and claim that the gift has reappeared. There is nothing in Scripture, however, to lead us to think that this will happen.
(d) THE MODERN CLAIM TO HAVE THE GIFT OF TONGUES
It is an historical fact that sign-gifts did cease. The onus is upon those who claim to perform miracles and speak in tongues today, to prove from Scripture that their return at the end of the age is to be expected. They should also offer evidence that what they do is identical in character to the signs of the apostolic age, and is accompanied by a strict adherence to apostolic doctrine and practice.
The reasons we have the details of the regulation of the gifts of tongues and prophecy are three in number. First, so that in the days when they were being exercised they could be practiced in an orderly way. Second, so that the principles which are to operate when any gift is exercised can be set out. And third, so that spurious claims to have the gift may be tested and exposed.
In order to test the genuineness of modern claims, we need to ask some searching questions. If the charismatic movement fails to match the New Testament pattern that prevailed in apostolic days, then it must be firmly rejected. For only that which conforms to the word of God should be practised by believers, this being the test of faithfulness to the Lord.
The following things may be asked about the modern tongues movement:
1. Are the tongues that are spoken genuine languages? When linguists have scrutinised the content of what is said, they have found that the normal structure and grammar of a human language is absent. The charismatics will counter this by saying that the languages are angel languages. We have already mentioned that this is not the case. The purpose of tongues-speaking was to edify, and to speak in tongues when no-one could benefit would be a waste of time. There was no point in speaking in a tongue if there were none present who spoke that language. In fact, this seems to have been part of the trouble at Corinth, for believers with the gift of tongues were speaking in a tongue purely for show, with no practical benefit at all.
2. Are the tongues interpreted? The gift of tongues was to be used in partnership with the gift of interpretation of tongues. And the one with the latter gift was a different person to the one with the former gift, as 1 Corinthians 12:10 indicates. This avoided imposters claiming to speak in tongues, and then interpreting their own utterances. The apostolic instruction was that if no-one was available to interpret the tongue, then the speaking should stop, for 1 Corinthians 14:28 reads, “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God”. Those who claim the genuine gift should be able to show that this is the way the gift is used.
3. Is is claimed that the gift of tongues is for all believers? The gift of tongues was not distributed to all believers. The list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 shows that different gifts were given to different believers, just as different parts of the human body have different abilities. The idea that all believers should seek this gift is foreign to the New Testament.
4. Do charismatics believe that possession of the gift of tongues is a sign of the possession of the Holy Spirit? Since the gift of tongues was not given to all believers, yet all believers possess the Holy Spirit, it follows that to lack the gift of tongues is not a sign that the Spirit is absent from that believer. It simply means that the Spirit has not distributed that gift to that particular believer. Of course Peter knew that Cornelius and his friends had received the Spirit, because he heard them speak with tongues and prophesy. As he possessed the gift of discerning of spirits, Peter could tell that these gifts were genuine. Clearly Cornelius and his friends, by receiving the gifts of tongues and prophecy, were being prepared for a ministry of teaching the truth of God to others, once the apostle had gone away.
5. Is it taught that the gift is for private use, as well as in a company of Christians? The gift of tongues was given so that the assembled company of believers could be edified. It was not a gift for private use in personal devotions. Nor has it any connection with the matters spoken of in Romans 8:36, where a believer is unsure what to pray for, and so the Spirit of God who knows the mind of God comes alongside and helps in that situation with “groanings which cannot be uttered”. If they cannot be uttered, then they clearly are not the tongues-speaking that were in use when the apostle wrote those words, since they wereuttered.
6. Is the supposed gift exercised in the context of obedience to other commands in the New Testament? The chapter which regulates tongues-speaking also gives instruction about the silence of the sisters in the assembled company. The scripture is clear, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law”, 1 Corinthians 14:34. They are also required to have covered heads in the gatherings- is this the case in charismatic circles?
7. Is the gift used in an orderly and godly way, or is there confusion and disorder in evidence? Charismatic meetings are not noted for their sober and quiet godliness. A friend of the writer has been in a marquee with two thousand people speaking in tongues at the same time! Is this what is described in the New Testament, which says, “Let all things be done decently and in order”, 1 Corinthians 14:40? The Scripture is clear that gifts must be exercised in a controlled way, with “the spirits of the prophets subject to the prophets”, 1 Corinthians 14:32.
8. Are the other gifts that were given in New Testament times in evidence as well? For instance, the Lord Jesus not only referred to those who would speak with new tongues, but also “they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”, Mark 16:18. This verse goes on to speak of the healing of the sick. Why is it that there is so much emphasis on this latter thing, but less on the first part of the verse? It would be a brave person who would drink deadly poison now, but in those early pioneering days, when evangelists went to distant parts, sooner or later they would drink something fatal; yet God had made provision for them to not be harmed, so that the work of the gospel could proceed with speed.
9. Are those who claim this gift marked by separation from the corruption in Christendom, or are they scattered throughout all its branches? The truth is that tongues speaking is one of the things that unites denominations in an unholy alliance, so that instead of testimony to the purity of Christian doctrine, there is confusion and error.
10. Are those who engage in tongues-speaking marked by deep insights into the word of God? Or is there an emphasis on the superficial, with entertainment and drama foremost in the meetings?
11. Are charismatic meetings noted for their emphasis on the Lord Jesus, who in all things should have the pre-eminence, Colossians 1:18? Or is the Holy Spirit to the fore, whereas His proper ministry is to glorify the Lord Jesus in the gatherings of Christians.
12. Does the emphasis on tongues and healing maintain the balance discernible in the New Testament epistles? There is much there about the fruit of the Spirit, and the spiritual blessings in heavenly places that are the common possession of all believers. The stress on dramatic gifts is not evident in the early days of the church. What was emphasised was the need for growth in Divine things to the glory of God, so that intelligent worship could be offered to Him. This is not achieved by an obsession with the possession of the gifts of tongues and healing.
Taking all these questions and answers together it becomes clear that the modern charismatic movement is found badly wanting when it is examined in the light of apostolic doctrine. As such, those who wish to please their God will avoid association with it altogether.
(e) THE CAUSE OF THE PRESENT TONGUES MOVEMENT
The question remains, how shall we account for the tongues-speaking of modern times? If the activity is not the same as that of apostolic times, how does it come about?
We must remember that there are four sorts of influence in the world. First, there is the power of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of true believers, enabling them to do the things they would otherwise not do, and to not do the things they would otherwise do, Galatians 5:17.
Second, there is the power of Satan. He can enable men to work miracles, as Moses and Aaron discovered in Pharoah’s palace, Exodus 7:11,12. And in the future he will empower his agents to work lying wonders and miracles in support of his deceptions, “And then shall that wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish: because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved”, 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10. His power is strong at this time too, and he can enable those in league with him to do that which baffles the mind, and which are deeply mysterious.
Third, there is the power of the human mind, which is able to affect others in strange ways. Hypnosis is one of these powers, where a person gives himself over to the will of another, who makes him do what he pleases. The things that happen in Charismatic meetings when the so-called Toronto Blessing is experienced, are a case in point. A skilled hypnotist can make his subjects laugh uncontrollably, fall to the ground, see bright lights, feel washed clean, all simply by exercising the power of hypnosis over them. If the atmosphere is one of expectation that this will happen, with mind-numbing music and constantly repeated songs, then these things are very likely to happen.
The fourth influence is the mind of the person himself, for there is such a thing as auto-suggestion, where a person may convince themselves that it is possible to exercise charismatic gifts such as tongues-speaking, and given enough determination, they actually appear to happen. This is especially the case if he is constantly told that unless he speaks in tongues he does not possess the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, people can become desperate.
If, of course, there is a mix of Satanic power, hypnotic power and auto-suggestion, then strange things are almost bound to happen. But let none dare to say that such activity is of God. The only proper course for a true believer is to keep well away from such goings on, and meet with those who, despite being small in number, are intent upon the study of the Word of God and its practice. This is the only safe way, for the Word of God informs the mind, and then affects the heart, and guides the will, to God’s praise.