Tongues. 1 Corinthians #25 (1 Cor 14:1-25)

…to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:10)



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This week we come to the oft-maligned, oft-spoken about, gift of tongues. Simply put, the gift of tongues is a gift which God gives to a believer, that allows that person to speak out, or pray in, a language unknown to that person.

Just like there are apparently three distinct kinds of prophecy, the New Testament seems to describe three distinct gifts of ‘tongues’:

a. When someone speaks out in tongues, others hear it as a language belonging to another part of the earth (i.e. Chinese). Its use here is in evangelism and missions. The first use of tongues that the New Testament records was on the day of Pentecost, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit. They spoke out in tongues, and people from all over the civilized world heard them speaking in their own dialects. Both the wonder of this phenomenon and the message it contained, brought many people to faith in Jesus (Acts 2:1-13). This was a gift from God, for the apostles had not known the languages they were speaking.

b. A special word from God to a group of believers. In the case of this kind of gift of tongues, It must be accompanied by an interpretation. There is no way the special word can be understood without the interpretation. This is the ‘normal’ public use of tongues. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 14:13 and 14:27-28. Apparently, at times, believers were inspired to speak out loudly in tongues. Then they, or someone else present, would receive the meaning of what was said, from the Lord. I know that several people in our church have witnessed this at times in a powerful way.

c. A private, spiritual “prayer language.” This is the ‘normal’ private use of tongues. It is useful here if the individual is at a loss for words to pray or praise with, or for prayer for a very difficult situation, or simply to help draw a person closer to Jesus. Scripture describes this in Romans 8:26-27 (the Spirit interceding with intercessions that are beyond our capability to express) and in 1 Corinthians 14:1-18, where Paul clearly describes tongues as prayer from the Spirit, not the mind, which builds up the individual Christian and should not be used in public assemblies.

In general, most of the gifts described in this passage do not “belong" to individuals, but are given to us to bless other people with. It seems that the gift of tongues is a little bit different. The fist two gifts of tongues (see a. and b. above) are gifts that are given on a situation-by-situation basis. For example, Ted Hilpert received the gift of interpretation of tongues once, but he would not describe himself as an Interpreter. The gift was given him in just one specific instance, and has not been given since. Years ago I met a retired Lutheran Pastor named Herb Mirud (who has since gone to be with Jesus) who prayed out loud in tongues on a mission trip to Mongolia, and the Mongolians heard him speaking their language. That was the only time such a thing happened for him.

However, the third kind of tongues – the personal ‘prayer language’ that builds up the individual believer, appears to be given to those who have it, for life. The reason for this is that it is an a gift that builds up the individual so a person can use it anytime. It might also be used by one person to pray for another, and again, this can happen anytime the person decides to use it. It is a grace of God given to people to help them pray with their spirits, and not just with their minds.

There is great value in God’s gift of tongues to the church, but for some reason, tongues has been one of the most controversial topics in the church for the past forty years or so. Tongues has been maligned by all sorts of people, misunderstood, and misused. I believe this has happened in large part because of the persistent rejection of the Bible’s teaching about tongues by many charismatic and Pentecostal churches. I believe that if we who accept the supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit, taught and practiced the scriptural principles given concerning tongues, other Christians and churches would not be so quick to malign the work of the Spirit in this way.

Charismatics and Pentecostals typically make two errors regarding tongues. The first, and most dangerous theologically, is the belief that the gift of tongues is the sign of a sort of “second salvation". Some Pentecostals teach that if you do not speak in tongues, you have not been ‘fully’ saved. This view proposes that there are two stages of salvation. They would say (and I do NOT agree) that Faith in Jesus is the first, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is the second. For them, exhibiting the gift of tongues "proves’ that you have been fully saved (in both stages). There is absolutely no Biblical justification for this teaching. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses tongues as an example of a gift that not everyone has. In 1 Cor 12:30, Paul asks, “Do all speak in tongues?” The question is rhetorical, because answer in Paul’s mind is obviously “no.” A teaching related to the ‘second salvation’ falsehood, is the idea that if a person does not speak in tongues, he/she has not received the Fullness of the Holy Spirit (or the ‘Baptism’ of the Spirit). This false teaching is answered by the same scriptures I have just mentioned.

I believe that the pervasiveness of the “second salvation" idea is one of the reasons why tongues has caused so much confusion and strife. People who hear this kind of false doctrine are naturally upset, for the teaching implies that if you do not have the gift of tongues, you are not a ‘complete’ Christian, or at the very least, you are a lesser Christian. Those who know they are saved, (but have not been given tongues) come out of an experience with this kind of church with a distaste for the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in general, and for the gift of tongues in particular.

The second error, committed by almost every charismatic church I have ever been in, is the rejection of Paul’s instructions for the use of tongues in worship. Throughout 1 Corinthians 14, Paul instructs us about tongues, its use and its place. Paul sees it as of great value in the life of the individual, but of little value in either the small group or large group unless interpretation is present. There is nothing unclear about his instructions:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-or at the most three-should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. (1 Cor 14:27-28)

Charismatic churches across the board have willfully ignored this clear instruction as well as the reasons the Bible gives for the instruction. Let us examine the reasons given for being careful about the use of tongues in public:

a) An episode of tongues without interpretation is unintelligible, and is of no value for

building up the church as a whole (1 Cor 14:2,4, 6-17)

b) Tongues without interpretation are disastrous for evangelism (1 Cor 14:23).

c) Many people speaking in tongues simultaneously, and/or without interpretation is disorderly, and does not reflect God’s character, or the Holy Spirit’s desire for order in worship (1 Cor 14:33).

And yet, if you step into virtually any Charismatic worship service, at some point, you will hear the whole congregation speaking out or singing out in tongues, all at the same time. Many people describe this as a beautiful sound of praise. Sometimes, I am inclined to agree. But that does not deal with what Paul teaches here. I have heard people say that since everyone is praising God, this is just fine. That argument makes no sense to me. It is in contradiction with all three points made by these passages (above). Paul writes:

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Cor 14:15-17)

His final thought about the matter is this:

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. (1 Cor 14:27-28)

I sometimes wonder if many charismatic churches even know that these verses are here! Don’t get me wrong. I believe the gift of tongues is a wonderful blessing from the Lord. I personally have the third gift of tongues (the “prayer language” gift). I use it regularly. Paul says, “now I wish that you all would speak in tongues…” and I agree that it is a valuable thing. But it seems like Charismatic churches try to “prove” that they are charismatic by abusing and misusing this gift, and it grieves my heart. If you are right about something, but you resort to telling a lie in order to prove your point, in the end you only hurt your cause, even though you are correct. Charismatic churches are right to value the gift of tongues. But they hurt the work of the Holy Spirit when they so flagrantly ignore what the Bible says about where, when and how the gift is to be used. Since so many churches have flagrantly ignored scripture’s instruction in this manner, is it any wonder that the gift causes controversy?

However, simply because tongues has been misused, does not negate the fact that God offers a true gift, and the gift has great potential for benefit. Understanding the good side of tongues is just as important as being aware of the dangers.

Jackie Pullinger was a missionary to Hong Kong in the 1970s. She ended up working with many heroin addicts. She didn’t know anything about helping people kick the heroin habit. So she prayed for the addicts to receive the gift of tongues (the prayer-language gift), and then told them to pray in tongues for 15 minutes a day. When they did that, they were able to come out of addiction with no additional help.

Another friend of ours prayed in tongues to help when she experienced panic attacks, which can’t be tamed by logic. Others use it to strengthen their prayer life, or in spiritual warfare.

But I think there is even more to it than that. Paul writes that tongues is also a “sign for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). What is that all about? I think it is a little like this. If you hear a group of people speaking in a foreign language, it is an indication to you that those people come from another place. Now, not all Christians, speak in tongues, but many do. This is a sign that all Christians are citizens of another place. We don’t actually belong here. Once Jesus owns us, we “ain’t from around here” any more. Our true home is in heaven (Hebrews 11:13-16).

While I don’t believe that the gift of tongues is given to all Christians, any more than the gift of prophecy, I do believe that many could have it, if they simply ask. After you ask, you need to give God your voice. What I mean is, go someplace private, and open up your mouth and vocalize. If God has given you the gift of tongues, you’ll find sounds that seem to be words coming out. Don’t worry too much about what language it may sound like.

I have heard dozens of languages in my lifetime. About one third of the world’s languages come from the Island of New Guinea, where I grew up. When you don’t know them, some of them sound like people just pretending to talk a foreign language – but they are really communicating with each other. So, when you first start praying in tongues, you may feel like it couldn’t possibly be a real language that God understands. I say, if earthly languages can sound funny, so can heavenly ones.

One time someone approached a pastor I knew and said, “I don’t get this gift of tongues. When I hear people praying in tongues, it sounds to me like baby talk.”

The pastor said, “Yeah. I think that’s exactly what it is.” His point was, even if that’s all it is, isn’t that great? Parents and grandparents love to hold a little baby who babbles and coos at them. I think God loves to hold us, even if that’s what we’re doing to interact with him when we pray in tongues.

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