The question of tongues has been debated very heavily for the past 40 years. That in and of itself should cause one to pause when it comes to understanding the phenomenon that we have seen in the past 100 years. Without going into a lengthy church history what needs to be known is that the gift of tongues seemed to disappear with the passing of the apostles. There was one time early in the history of the church where a person claimed to have the gift and was later deemed to be a heretic
Early in the 20th century at a place called Azusa, there was a Bible teacher who taught his students how to get the gift. It is reported that they all began to speak with tongues one day in a so-called revival. Ever since that time, those on the Pentecostal side of theology have insisted on the gift being authentically used today.
I will attempt to answer 3 major questions for you, as I have taught the church, that help to better understand tongues from a biblical perspective:
- What is the gift of tongues?
- Who gets the gift of tongues?
- Is the gift still active today?
If these answers can be understood it will give clarity to what we see today and the validity of those who claim the gift. One note of caution – just because someone believes the gift today is real or does not, shouldn’t divide us. It’s not essential to salvation.
What is the gift of tongues?
We get our first introduction to tongues in the book of Acts 2. We will take a look at it below and my commentary will be in red. I will also highlight and or bold certain words for attention to better understand the text. Important to understand is that the Book of Acts is a historical record of the beginning of the church and the events or “acts” of the Apostles and or the Holy Spirit. As such, we don’t get church doctrine from Acts, we get that from the Epistles or letters that come from Paul, Peter, James, John, and the writer of Hebrews.
What we can do is understand what happened with each event for clarity if available on a subject. In this case, the 2nd chapter of Acts verses one is foundational in understanding what tongues are…
The Book Acts Chapter 2
1 When the day of Pentecost [a]had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire [b]distributing themselves, and [c]they [d]rested on each one of them.
We have a supernatural event accruing and do not miss it. There was NO wind!! It was the sound of “violent rushing wind” which would have been defining like that of a hurricane. Secondly, there appeared (out of nowhere) fire on top of each person (72 people in the room). But don’t miss the words “as of”, which means Luke is saying that it looked like fire. We know it was not the same fire we are familiar with because it didn’t burn them up.
Fact: They (all 72) were filled with the Holy Spirit. That means that they were controlled by the Holy Spirit. Once the Spirit had control of them, they began to “speak” with “other”, meaning something they didn’t do before, tongues. The word can mean your tongue, or as it was understood by context, another language.
5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own [g]language. 7 They were amazed and astonished, saying, “[h]Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we each hear them in our own [i]language [j]to which we were born?
People Speaking Unknown Languages
Now, verse 5 tells us that there were Jews who lived in Jerusalem that were not from Jerusalem. In fact they were Jewish people from “every nation under heaven”, which means that the Aramaic that was spoken at this time in Judaea wasn’t the only language they understood. These people were bilingual – all speaking the common Aramaic and whatever language they spoke in the countries they came from.
Next the crowd came together because of the noise they heard. That noise is either of a combination of the upper room wind sound and or the languages being spoken all at once. However, in verse 6, very clearly we are told that the crowd heard them speaking their own languages (the languages of the places they were from). Verse 7 is a confirmation that these individuals did not have the educational ability to speak multiple languages as attested to by the word “Galileans”. Most Galileans were not so educated.
Lastly, verse 8 completes the picture by indicating that not only were they speaking the language of each individuals home or originating country, but that it was “our own language to which we were born”. This is vitally important! The word translated “language” is not “glossa” which is Greek for tongues. It’s a word that means dialect. This is important because they just didn’t speak the language, but they spoke it like the place these people were born and raised in.
Think of it like this – if I were from Alabama and you were from the Bronx New York, we would both speak English. However, the way we speak would be different. The language would be the same but the dialect or how we would say it is different.
What follows is approximately 15 or 16 different areas which meant they were speaking 15 or 16 different languages and more when you break that down into dialect.
9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and [k]Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and [l]visitors from Rome, both Jews and [m]proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” 12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of [n]sweet wine.”
Verse 11 is interesting because it confirms that what was being said was also understood. Being Jews they knew about the “mighty deeds of God”, so this was probably not new for them. However, to hear someone speak a language they didn’t know just like they were from your home town was supernatural. Then to have them speak about the God’s mighty deeds confirmed that what was going on was indeed from God.
This act led them to the perfect question – what does this mean? This is a set up for Peter’s sermon about Christ and the conversion of so many to Christ on that day. Not everyone there was Jewish. So, in verse 13 “others” were mocking, not understanding what was going on and chalked it up to being drunk.
Let’s recap and conclude the answer to the first question:
According to the above passage of Scripture, the first time we see the gift of tongues in action we can factually note the following:
- The Holy Spirit Controls the Gift – We know the gift did not show up until the Holy Spirit came upon the people in the upper room. The gift did not manifest until they were “filled”/under the control of the Holy Spirit.
- Tongues are Known Languages – it’s clear that they spoke in understandable languages that matched the listener’s birth home.
- The Gift is – The ability to speak another language that one is not capable of speaking without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
If those three premises are true, then we can say confidently that when we see someone who appears to be babbling incoherently today, that is not the gift. Anyone who teaches someone how to “get the gift” is wrong because that is controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Speaking in Tounges Happens Again
Let’s look at two other events or “acts” where tongues are concerned in the Book of Acts:
Acts 1024 On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and [t]worshiped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” 27 As he talked with him, he entered and *found many people assembled.
Let’s establish where Peter is and who he is speaking to… Caesarea is a Roman province. Cornelius is a gentile, not a Jew. Up until this point the gospel has been spread only to Jewish people. Peter through a vision and a visit from an angel been prompted to find Cornelius and upon coming into his house there are many people (gentiles) awaiting his arrival.
Now, let’s skip down to where Peter preaches the first sermon to the gentiles and take note of what happens:
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the [ag]message. 45 All the [ah]circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Peter began the same basic sermon he preached on Pentecost. Notice that before he could finish the Holy Spirit interrupted and “fell” on the listening Jews. This amazed the Jewish believers (circumcised believers) because the Holy Spirit indwelt the gentiles like the Jews (that’s what poured out means – to anoint).
How did they know the Holy Spirit had been poured out on them? Because they – the gentiles – began to speak to the Jewish believers in their home born languages which these Jewish people would have recognized as the same kind of event that took place with them on Pentecost.
Next thing Peter does not finish his message he confirms the reception of the Holy Spirit as it occurred to the Jews previously. So, he basically says who or what Jew can argue with baptizing these gentiles. Seems pretty straight forward but many have tried to make a doctrine out of this event.
Is Speaking In Tongues a Requirement for Salvation?
- Some argue that this means no one is saved until they speak with tongues. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the event in question. Paul has been converted and his ministry is to the gentiles, so why not send him instead of Peter? Because as far as the Jews are concerned at this point, Paul is an outsider who persecuted the church. But Peter is a leader and one of the original Apostles, his confirmation that gentiles can be saved will be received by the early church which up to this point was all Jewish.
- They were simply praising God, therefore like on the Day of Pentecost tongues must be used for praise. Again, missing the context of the event will lead you to add it to the previous event and make 1 plus 1 equal 4. The Jewish people in Acts 2 were speaking to other Jewish people. They praised God so that a connection to the supernatural event would be attributed to God. The Gentiles are praising God for the benefit of the Jews’ presence. Think a moment… The Jew wouldn’t expect the Gentile to praise God, let alone have the same gift that was manifested on the Day of Pentecost. Further confirmation for the Jews that this was of God.
The Book of Acts Chapter 19
Next let’s consider Acts 19 where Paul runs into some of John’s (the Baptist) disciples and introduces them to the Holy Spirit:
1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether [a]there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized [b]in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 There were in all about twelve men.
In this instance, you have disciples of John the Baptist. They were looking forward to the coming Messiah. They were Jewish and had repented (changed their mind about the coming Savior and their sin that would be taken away) but that repentance was to a better life lived against sin, not to Jesus being the one who would die and take away their sins. So, Paul informs them that the Messiah has come and they placed their faith in that.
In verse 6 we see Paul laying his hands on them and then they received the Holy Spirit. So, let’s recap something before we deal with this act of laying hands. The Jews received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in chapter 2. The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in chapter 10, however, before chapter 10 we have the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit in chapter 8:14 – 17.
The Samaritans are half Jewish and half gentile so you can see the progression from Jew, to half Jew half gentile, to finally the gentiles. The only group left are John’s disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit. So, here is confirmation that they to are part of the same family of faith.
Now, with this passage we see this laying on of hands. As an Apostle Paul was endowed with special gifts that Jesus passed down to some individuals including His Apostles. The Holy Spirit being received through his laying on of hands was a “marker” for something new entering into the church. In this case these “left out” brothers from Paul.
The Book Of Acts Supports Biblical Doctrine
Up to this point, we are looking at specific acts of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to note once again that we do not use Acts for doctrine, we use it to support doctrine. In this case, the gospel spread just like Christ commanded:
Acts 1 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be [c]witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
And that the gift is speaking another language so that the hearer recognizes the language as if from their own neighborhood. It’s supernatural because the speaker has never studied the language and can’t speak it.
Who Receives The Gift of Speaking in Tongues?
There is only one letter that Paul writes, and it’s the only letter in the New Testament that gives us doctrine on tongues. 1 Corinthians beginning in chapter 12 and ending in chapter 15. A careful examination of these chapters, especially 1 will clear up any misunderstanding about tongues. Let’s begin with the foundational Scriptures about tongues and about spiritual gifts in general:
1 Corinthians 12
1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: 2 You know that[a] you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb[b] idols, however, you were led. 3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus [c]accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
One of the most missed Scriptures on this subject is verse 3. Some of the Corinthians were claiming the gift of tongues by speaking in another language that they did not know but were in fact cursing Jesus not praising Him.
This manifestation of a demonic influence has been recorded in the 20th century. Individuals in church suddenly bursting out in a language recognizable to some or all of those attending hearing them curse Christ.
4 There are [d]diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works [e]all in all.
Verses 4 – 6 are indicating that the Holy Spirit, the Lord (Christ), and God (Father) are in control of gifts, ministries, and activities of the Christian life. Not, the Christian, which means no one can claim to learn these things, they are led by God. So, no gifts are learned or can be taught, they are in fact gifts to be received.
7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:
KEY VERSE: According to verse 7, what is called the manifestation of the Spirit, which we know from verse 4 is a reference to spiritual gifts, is for the profit of all. This means that a spiritual gift is not for an individual’s edification (building up), but instead is for the church’s edification. Therefore, no gift is used selfishly.
Spiritual gifts are given so that the local church body and the universal church body can strive and continue. Just like your hand doesn’t exist for itself, it’s there for the entire body to benefit from.
8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gift of healings by [f]the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to other different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
We have here mentioned 9 gifts and 9 times each gift is said to be given to individuals, not the entire Body of Christ as a whole. So, everyone doesn’t get all these gifts including tongues. Who get’s the gift is determined by VS 11, whomever the Holy Spirit decides to give the gift to.
Another topic is the fact that this list is a list of what could be determined as temporary gifts. That is gifts bestowed upon individuals in the early church only… that’s another topic for another time.
The next section of chapter 12 is Paul’s explanation of this by using the human body as an analogy of how spiritual gifts work for the Body of Christ, each gift contributing to the body and not itself. Also, you will note that tongues and the interpretation of tongues is always listed last. This gift is least important of this list.
Let’s recap… Clearly in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians we find that not everyone gets the gift of tongues.
- The gift is given to whomever the Holy Spirit decides to give it.
- Secondly, it is a gift and can not be taught, which means it will only manifest itself when the Spirit wants it to do so.
- Thirdly, the gift is for the church body and not the individual.
- Is the gift still active today?
This is a hotly debated question. The following has been my answer to this question and is in line with most conservative scholars…
Let’s look at the chapter that tells us how spiritual gifts are to be used in love. 1 Corinthians chapter 13, commonly called the love chapter is not Paul’s explanation of love. He writes it as if it is already understood, however, he is attempting to get the Corinthians to understand that spiritual gifts are to be used in love.
1 Cor. 131 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body [a]to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
When Paul says the tongues of men and of angels, he is not giving license to those that babble uncontrollably to claim they are speaking an angelic language. He is using hyperbole to emphasize the importance of his point. Literally he is saying that even if he could speak in the languages of men all over the world, and even if he could speak in the language of whatever language the angels speak, without love it’s nothing but noise. In other words, it’s meaningless. So it must be done with love.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not [b]puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, [c]thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
In the late 1980’s into the 90’s we saw a sudden surge of tongue speaking in the charismatic and holiness full gospel church movement. People began to say that you were not saved if you didn’t speak in tongues, that you did not get some kind of second blessing, that you were less of a Christian. They became puffed up with pride in their tongue speaking as some kind of necessity for being a Christian. None of that jives with verses 4 – 7 and didn’t jive with the way the Corinthians were acting with regard to spiritual gifts.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is [d]perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
This section of Scripture gets miss interpreted by people that say it says that tongues have stopped. It doesn’t say that. It says at some point tongues will “cease”. In the original text this is written in the middle voice which means tongues would cease in and of themselves. The Greek word for “cease” is to make idle or inactive, not disappear or fade away. Notice that prophecies will fail and knowledge will vanish away. Tongues are said to be made idle or inactive. This means that when not needed they won’t manifest; it’s not saying they just go away for good.
In verse 10 we see that when something “which is perfect” has come, then what’s done in part will be done away with. In verse 9 we are told that what’s done in part – prophecy and knowledge – is done in part. So verse 10 is not addressing tongues because they may become inactive and go active when needed.
So, big question: When are tongues needed?
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The context of the next section of Scripture is in reference to Spiritual gifts, in general these fantastic gifts listed in chapter 12. In the early church, it was like a child. As such it needed these “childish things”. When it matured it would put these things away.
Why? Because in verse 12 at this point, the church looks into a dimly lit mirror and can only know in part because it can’t see the whole. But “then” it shall know just as it is known. When does the church mature so that it can see itself?
10 But when that which is [d]perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
In verse 10 we have something which is “perfect” coming. This is a noun that could refer to a person, event, or a thing. Some believe it’s the 2nd coming of Christ, which would mean that we still have people prophesying and getting words of knowledge still today. The event would also be the Second coming with the same consequences.
However, if it’s the coming of Christ then we have no need for the Bible. The church would depend on the spiritual gifts of prophecy and knowledge to guide us as the early church had to do. Let’s consider the third option – the coming of the complete Bible.
Once the we had our Bible, the completed Scripture, there is no need for knowledge or foretelling. All we need to know is contained in the completed Scriptures. The word perfect does not have to mean perfection in the traditional sense, it can mean complete in that something wasn’t complete at this time and would be at some point in the future.
Once you have a Bible, these gifts would fade or simply fail – for good. A mature church would put them away and replace them with the Word. Makes sense for these miraculous spectacular gifts listed in chapter 12. But, how would I know if tongues are active or not?
Chapter 14 is the key to understanding the true usage of the gift of tongues. In Corinth there was a definite issue with the gift and a few others because of self-pride. We see it in the church today, people wanting a “showy” gift so that others would envy them and their “holiness” or maturity in God.
What Paul does in chapter 14 is regulate the gift of tongues and prophecy in a way that no one could fake them. It was common practice in pagan religions there in Corinth to emotional lose control in worship and begin to babble uncontrollably as a sign that you were somehow possessed by the God you were worshiping. Falling to the ground and shaking while foaming at the mouth were very common.
If you bring that type of worship into the church (the Corinthian church was a gentile church made up of former pagan worshipers), then you could justify it by calling it tongues. If you don’t understand spiritual gifts, you would convince yourself and others that it was simply between you and God and no one can tell you how you and God relate to one another. So, a competition to see who was most holy broke out with tongues, prophecy, and knowledge.
These three gifts could be faked without any way of verifying their authenticity. So, Paul begins addressing the notion of tongues being for the individual and not for the church body’s edification…]
1 Corinthians 15
1 Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; [a]for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.
I’m not sure of too many passages of Scripture and in particular VS 2 that have been more misinterpreted to fit someone’s insistence that they can speak in tongues. And not even in a known language, but just babble. Understanding this paragraph will help even the most ardent believer in the gift to take pause and reevaluate their thinking.
In verse 1 Paul begins by saying the gift of prophesy is the one you may want to desire the most. Why? Because in verse 3 he says one SPEAKS edification (building up), exhortation (encouragement), and comfort to men. Not to self (love is not selfish), not for self-edification (love doesn’t’ seek its own) but is for others.
Look at verse 3!! The tongue speaker edifies himself! The one who speaks in a language everyone can understand edifies the church as they are supposed to according to chapter 12 verse 7. In fact, according to verse 5 of this chapter no one should speak in tongues or an unknown tongue unless there is an interpreter that can speak to the church so all can be edified.
But wait!! What if I am of the belief, as or many, that I am speaking to God and not to men as verse 2 says? Well, let’s pay close attention to verse 2. If you do speak in an unknown tongue, either in public or in private, and say you are speaking to God, then no one, including yourself, knows what you are saying. So, it becomes a mystery spoken in the “spirit”, not “Spirit”. In other words, it can’t be by the Spirit you are speaking because it’s not edifying the church which is the use of a spiritual gift.
Paul is being sarcastic here. He is saying you are in error if you think that because you are babbling that you are speaking to God. No, you are speaking a mystery that no one understands, including yourself. Therefore, you can’t even claim self-edification.
The importance of interpretation can’t be understated and Paul did his best to emphasize this in the next section:
6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without [b]significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a [c]foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are [d]zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the [e]edification of the church that you seek to excel.
Let’s net this out because it’s straight forward… if you speak in a language that no one understands, you become a foreigner to those you are speaking to. No edification, its worthless. A spiritual gift is for the edification of the church.
Another justification for tongues is praying in tongues…
13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.
18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Now, admittedly Paul is dealing with what is done in a public service meeting with other Christians, but the application is to prayer of all kind. First, he says that if you have the gift of tongues, you need to pray that the Spirit gives you the gift of interpretation as well. Stay tuned and we will get into that gift down below…
He says that to pray with another language, my spirit may be praying, but I don’t understand what I’m praying. Spoiler alert: Prayer is more for us than for God. I get comfort when I understand what I’m saying to God in the context of what He says to me via His word. If I don’t know what I’m saying, I won’t know what God has spoken to me in His word.
So, Paul basically says don’t do this, speak in the language of the people (and yourself) so that there is understanding. Even if you speak in another known language and give thanks to God, no one can agree with you because no one understands what you said. By the way, no one would pray in another language that the people in the room with them wouldn’t understand. It’s unfruitful…
Tongues as a sign?
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
21 In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord.
22 Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. 23 Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are [f]out of your mind? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. 25 [g]And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.
So, Paul begins this section by appealing to the Corinthians to not be children, in that children are selfish and they need to understand they are not to use tongues for self. To prove his point he pulls out Isa. 28:11 – 12 where Isaiah announces judgment upon Israel in the native Hebrew language. The people would not receive what he told them so God said he would use men of other tongues (Assyrians) who will come in and with a foreign language to execute judgment.
Now the context is important because VS 22 is one of the most difficult verses in all of Scripture to get a handle on because it clearly says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers and prophesying is for believers. But, verse 23 and 25 seem to say the opposite. Tongues will cause people to say they are out of their minds and prophesy will convict them and lead to possible conversion supposedly because they would understand what is being said.
I believe the key is found in the first part of verse 23. Notice the words, “if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues”. What he seems to be saying here is that if everyone is speaking in another language then an unbelieving person would only hear noise, not understanding what is being said it would seem that everyone is out of their mind. Therefore, the significance of the gift would be nullified and no longer a sign.
So, what is the sign? Back in verse 21 Paul used the passage from Isaiah where God attempted to warn the people threw a language they would understand. Then he sent in foreigners with a different language as a sign of the coming destruction. Now, when an unbeliever hears the gospel in a language he can understand, he may reject it. Then if he hears it in his language from where he comes from as in Acts 2, then tongues act as the miracles done by Jesus and the Apostles as a sign that the gospel was real. But this can’t take place if the whole church is babbling!
Let’s decompress for just a quick moment. Don’t miss the significance of this section. Paul just intimated that when tongues are done properly, they are for the unbeliever as a sign, not a sign to a believer. But how would that edify the church? Simple, look back at Acts 2 and remember how tongues were a miraculous way of getting all those unbelievers to listen to Peter prophecy so they would be convicted and converted.
The church would use tongues as a means of evangelism for those who spoke another language. Someone speaking to them about God in their native tongue as if they grew up there with them is a miracle or a miraculous sign that this must be from God.
This makes the next section make even more sense. Remember there are people in the church faking the gift by babbling, some are speaking another known language but cursing Christ. Now we find out that if an unbeliever comes into the service and speaks another language the gift will be a sign to them that the prophesying it from God. How in the world do you stop the foolishness? Regulated it out of existence.
Rules For Speaking In Tongues
Paul had a problem. He had a gentile church full of ex pagan believers who had babbled as a sign of their “sanctification” to a false God and were bringing that same mentality into the church. People were jumping up prophesying about anything but who was to say what was real and not real. How do you stop this destructive behavior?
1 Cor. 1426 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for [h]edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. 33 For God is not the author of [i]confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
I’m only dealing with tongues here. Paul gives a simple set of rules that will regulate the use of a spiritual gift. Think about that for a moment… Remember back in chapter 12 the same Paul said that the Spirit is the one who gives and controls the gift. How can Paul regulate the Holy Spirit?
He’s not!! He knows these people do not have the gift. But they think they do, so look at the rules:
- No more than 3 can exercise the gift.
- Only 1 person can interpret what is beings said so the speaker can’t interpret for themselves.
- Each person must go one at a time, no speaking over each other.
It is my contention that once these rules were adopted the gift ceased at Corinth.
Conclusion About Speaking In Tongues
When we take the emotion out of the subject and look objectively at the gift we are confronted with some basic truths:
- The gift is speaking another known language that the speaker could not speak and has never studied.
- The gift is to speak in the dialect of the one hearing the speaker so that the person speaking sounds like they are from the “hood”.
- The Holy Spirit gives the gift to whomever He determines needs it and can only be exercised like any other spiritual gift when the Holy Spirit determines the need.
- The gift was used as a miraculous sign to confirm to unbelievers that the gospel was from God and they should heed the message of judgment would come.
- Paul regulated in the church to stop all the faking that was taking place.
Speaking In Tongues Disappears
Some final thoughts… historically the gift disappeared with the Apostles according to the writings of the early church fathers. There was one instance of a claim from an individual who was later deemed to be a heretic. For almost 2000 years no one claimed or claimed to have seen the gift in action until April 1906 when a black preacher by the name of William J. Seymour in Los Angeles, California began a revival on Azusa Street.
The revival lasted into the year 1915 and was characterized by healing miracles and speaking in tongues. This launched what we now know as the Pentecostal movement of the church. So for almost 2000 years we have nothing and then suddenly everyone is doing it at Azusa, and none of it lined up with Scripture.
The gift literally would cease in and of itself. Could it manifest again? Sure, but it would be as a sign to an unbeliever who wasn’t able to hear the message in the native language of the speaker or to show the unbeliever that the message being spoken was supernatural. In essence, it would be very rare that it is needed.