Gifts of the SpiritThe gift of Tongues
There are not many references to speaking in tongues in the New Testament. Mark 16:17 is a doubtful text. Acts 2:4, 10:46 and 19:6 are occasions of deep theological significance, and certainly do not establish the gift of tongues as a promise for all believers. 1Corinthians 12 to14 serves as an attack against the excessive use of tongues, and so is certainly not an exhortation for their general use. None-the-less the use of tongues is generally accepted within Evangelical circles and so we do need to examine this modern-day phenomenon.
Tongues in Acts
Luke, the writer of Acts, is very interested in the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in the context of proclaiming the coming/present Kingdom of God, Luke 16:16, Acts 1:3, 8:12, 14:22, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23,31. The Spirit is not only the power behind the proclaimed word, He is also the sign (initially overt) of the Kingdom's reality.
The sign of tongues in Acts evidenced the following truths:
1. A sign of the Kingdom's establishment
At Pentecost Peter was able to show that the Kingdom of God was a present reality. Christ is Lord, the ruling king. How could he prove this? How could the people be sure? The reality of the Kingdom for first century Jews was evidenced in the outburst of ecstatic prophecy. At Pentecost the disciples prophesied with wondrous words, just as Joel had once foretold.
2. A sign that all believers have entered into the Kingdom
The Spirit's coming upon the disciples (overtly) clearly showed their entry into the Kingdom. They were designated members of it through the Spirit. All those who believed Peter's message on the day of Pentecost joined the disciples in the Kingdom, although whether or not they spoke in tongues is not recorded. Yet the Kingdom was not just for Jews, but also for Samaritans, who similarly received the Spirit (overtly) and became members of Christ's Kingdom, Acts 8. Gentiles also received the Spirit (overtly), Acts 10, and even the members of the sect of John the Baptist believed and received the Spirit (overtly) and became members of the Kingdom. At all the key points when new groupings of people became members of the Kingdom, the Spirit came in an overt way, and the new members spoke in tongues. There is no evidence that each new convert spoke in tongues in Acts, all we can say is that it did happen at the crucial theological moments when a guarantee of widening membership beyond the Jews was needed.
The nature of tongues in Acts
In the book of Acts, tongues are revealed as a form of ecstatic proclamation. From a study of Acts we can say a number of things about this rather strange spiritual gift:
1. Without direction
Although the actual content was probably prophetic, the disciples in Acts 2 seem not to have directed their words to the crowd, but rather to God. The multitude in Acts 2:5-13 "overheard" the chorus rehearsing the mighty works of God. The tongue-speakers were oblivious to the crowd's interest, and only Peter responded by turning the occasion into an evangelistic opportunity. Their lack of awareness of the crowd, and their spontaneity, obviously provoked the comment about drunkenness. They were overcome.
2. Language form
From the use "other tongues" in 2:4, which were intelligible to the mixed audience, along with the brief description in Acts 10 and 19, it is not wholly clear whether the phenomenon was the same on each occasion. The case for "other tongues" applying throughout Acts (and possibly1 Corinthians) can be made strongly, but it would seem more natural to regard the absence of the adjective "other" in Acts 10 and 19 as indicating that the speakers were using their own language (however unusually). Admittedly Peter's words in 10:47 and 11:15 could be taken to mean that the occasions were identical, but his words do not demand this construction.
It would seem then that in Acts 2 the disciples spoke strangely in other languages, such that foreigners understood what they were saying, although they thought they were drunk. Probably individual disciples spoke in different languages, producing a confused babble. This was a highly theological occasion as it was a reversal of the curse of Babel and thus a demonstration of the dawning of the New Age.
On the other occasions of tongue speaking, it would seem they spoke in a similarly strange way, but in their own language. When Cornelius and his group spoke in tongues, Peter and his group understood what they were saying. They were "extolling God" Acts 10:46. When the disciples of John the Baptist spoke in tongues, Acts 19, their words were described as "spoke in tongues and prophesied", ie. spoke with understandable prophetic utterances in a tongue, a strange speech form.
Thus, except for Acts 2, when the disciples spoke in "other tongues", (other languages in a strange speech form) tongue-speaking was probably done in the language of the speaker, although in a strange way.
Peter in his sermon quotes Joel to explain the phenomenon witnessed by the crowd. "Your sons and daughters shall prophesy", v17, "I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy", v18. Content is described as "telling ... the mighty works of God", 2:11, "extolling God", 10:46, and "they spoke with tongues and prophesied" ie. there was proclamation associated with the tongue, 19:6. Thus they spoke of God's Kingdom as it relates to us now and in the future.
(Note: Prophecy does not mean "predicting the future". Biblical prophecy is similar to exhortation. It has a predictive strand, ie. the Kingdom is coming, but it centers on the "here and now". Prophecy proclaims the mind of God in the present moment.)
Clearly tongues is not straightforward prophecy. The Joel reference puts it in the framework of dreams and visions, ie. in the area of the mysterious. The listeners were mystified by the messages, and only responded after hearing Peter's sermon.
It is significant that Luke quotes Joel 2:30-31 (Acts 2:18-20) to further explain what was occurring. The imagery used here refers to God's judgment upon the nations. It is repeated in Joel 3:14-15, and is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for the capture of Babylon, Isaiah 13:10, and the destruction of Egypt, Ezekiel 32:7.
In what way is tongues a sign of God's judgment upon the nations, upon those who are against his people?
i] It is quite possible that their content is judgmental. They announce the end time, Joel 3:9,16. Note how Jesus describes the primary role of the Holy Spirit with regard to the world. The Spirit has a judgmental role, John 16:7-11. Therefore now is the time to call on the name of the Lord, Acts 2:21.
ii] The mysterious nature of tongues puts it in the same class as Jesus' parables. Jesus' parables were judgmental, they condemned, Matthew 13:10-17. Only those who had eyes to see understood their mystery. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 similarly reminds the Corinthians that God's judgment is witnessed in the removal of a clear word from God. Thus mysterious prophecy is for a rebellious people, not for believers, v22. For this very reason Paul argues against the use of tongues in a church service. They are a sign of judgement not blessing.
So in Acts we are given a significant sign of the Kingdom's coming and entry into it, not only by Jews, but by Gentiles as well. The sign was foretold by Joel in 2:28-32. In response to the outpouring of the Spirit there would be an outbreak of prophecy in dreams and visions. Tongues were a powerful mysterious message from God announcing the dawning of the end times and His judgment upon the nations.
Tongues in 1 Corinthians.
1. Of limited value
It would appear that, among other things, the Corinthians were guilty of attaching too much importance to the experience of tongues. Paul's method of coping with their exaggerated assessment of tongues is to:
i] Withdraw the distinctive title and replace it with "gift";
ii] Give it a low place in the general scale of gifts, 1Cor.12:8-10, 28;
iii] Show how all the gifts complement one another, 1Cor.12:14-26;
iv] Show it is worthlessness without love, 1Cor.13;
v] Promote the gift of prophecy for the church's sake, 1Cor.14;
vi] Show how useless it is to think and speak indistinctly, 1Cor.14:6-19;
vii] Warn his readers that a hidden word from God is a word of judgment. It is like "a dark saying" or parable that hides the truth from the eyes of the unfaithful one, 1Cor.14:20-22;
viii] Show that a possible convert can be turned away by tongues, 1Cor.14:23-25;
ix] Regulate carefully its use in public, 1Cor.14:26-33.
2. A gift for some only
However widespread or limited the phenomenon of tongues might have been in the opening decades of the Christian church, Paul's argument seems to indicate that it was not everybody's experience in the church at Corinth. Furthermore, however profitable the experience might be to the individuals who enjoy it, it is completely without profit to the Christian assembly, unless by interpretation or translation.
3. Closely related to prophecy
In 1 Corinthians 14, it is interesting to note the way Paul treats prophecy and tongues. It is obvious that the two gifts have much in common, and therefore Paul is able to persuade the Corinthians to develop the more edifying gift of prophecy. It would seem that, in a state of general excitement and enthusiasm, a believer could pass from one gift to the other, from the intelligible to the unintelligible. Thus Paul tries to direct the Corinthians toward a more beneficial form of ministry (prophecy, or at least interpreted tongues), in the interests of edification and evangelism, 1 Cor.14:20-25.
As to the tongue phenomena itself, the data is not wholly clear. What is clear is that the tongue-speaker is not aware of what they are saying, ie. they do not comprehend its meaning, unless they have the additional gift of interpretation, 1Cor.14:13-14. What is also clear is that no hearer can understand without the gift of interpretation, 1Cor.14:2-7, 16-17.
5. The same phenomenon as Acts
At first glance it would seem that tongue-speaking in Corinth has taken a step toward the unintelligible. Yet it is quite possible that there is little difference between the Acts situation and that of Corinth. The same word is used to describe the phenomena, and we do need to remember that Luke, the author of Acts, was an integral member of Paul's missionary team. In Acts, as in 1Corinthians 14, there is a close relationship between tongues and prophecy. Therefore, as with the Acts situation, the general drift of the tongue can be understood, eg. it is possible to know whether a person speaking in a tongue is praising or cursing Jesus, 1Cor.12:3, yet the strange form of presentation leaves the hearer (as well as the speaker) confused. So, says Paul, if the church is going to get anything out of it, there must be an interpretation.
The descriptive term, "speaking in the spirit", given to tongues by Paul in 1Corinthians 12:1 and 14:1 (wrongly translated as "spiritual gifts" in most Bibles), underlines the mysterious nature of the gift. Tongues consist of spiritual utterances (Gk. neuter), ie. utterances of a highly spiritual nature, of God, therefore mysterious and marvelous.
7. Varied in form
Although Paul describes tongue-speaking in the singular, 14:2, 4, ie. speaking in a certain tongue, he also uses the plural ie. speaking in "different" tongues. In the list of gifts in Chapter 12 of 1Corinthians, the plural is used. "To another" is given the gift of "various kinds of tongues". He doesn't call it the gift of speaking in "a tongue". So in the Corinthian situation, where some members had an ongoing gift of tongue-speaking, there was a variety of forms. On some occasions a person may speak with a tongue, he may say 5,000 words in that tongue, 14:9. On another occasion he may speak with a different tongue. A gifted tongue-speaker has a variety of ecstatic messages.
8. Of personal value
Paul states that tongue-speakers edify themselves, 14:4, but are not necessarily able to interpret the tongue, 14:13. Their words are directed Godward, 14:2. Such words are also irrelevant to the listener. The experience is therefore a blessing to the tongue-speaker, and only to the congregation when the tongue is interpreted, 14:5.
Paul implies that the tongue-speaker is aware of the content of the tongue. They may not understand it, but know what they are to say. Paul commands, therefore, that if the tongue-speaker has been unable to line up someone to interpret the tongue, then they must keep quiet, 14:26-28. A gifted tongue-speaker can control the delivery of their tongue.
So tongues are prophetic utterances in a form not easily understood. Yet, unlike Acts, where certain people were overcome at conversion and spoke in a tongue, we now see gifted tongue-speakers speaking in different forms, knowing what they are about to say, and able to control the delivery. To make tongues useful for the church, we see the development of regulations toward interpretation.
Why are tongues unintelligible ? There are a number of possibilities:
i] An unfamiliar language, ie. a foreign language. 1Cor.14:6-23 may give some hints in this direction.
ii] Nothing more than vocal sounds, ie. a non-language, or a non- earthly, heavenly language.
iii] Confused delivery, ie. involving spontaneity, excitement, and incoherence.
iv] An unfamiliar picture language, ie. the use of "dark sayings", mysterious descriptions, 1 Cor. 14:2.
The form of tongue-speaking used in the apostolic church was probably a mixture of iii and iv, along with i, particularly at Pentecost. It was a prophetic utterance shaped by visions and dreams, Acts 2:7. Wild, mysterious declarations of God's intentions, now and in the future, couched in strange phrases and picture language. The ecstatic manner of delivery probably distinguished it as a tongue, while varied content distinguished the different kinds. Thus a gifted tongue speaker would have a repertoire of visionary declarations, all of which would require interpretation. A simple definition of tongue-speaking would be ecstatic prophecy.
Ecstatic prophecy is unlike formal prophecy in its frenzied delivery and its lack of clarity. Both Old and New Testament prophecy is distinguished by a clear presentation of the truth. "The spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets." Moses is regarded as the prime example of a prophet. All true prophets follow his example, and Jesus, the greatest prophet, similarly followed in the footsteps of Moses, Deut.18:15-19.
In the Old Testament, ecstatic prophecy tended to function in the background, although it was not equated with false prophecy, 1Sam.9, 10. Some of the great prophets were, at times, ecstatic. Isaiah's temple experience was certainly an ecstasy, and Ezekiel was without a doubt ecstatic. Some of his visionary prophecy is typical of ecstatic prophecy, and certainly required interpretation. The apocalyptic literature of the Bible, eg. Zechariah, Daniel, and Revelations, has adopted features of ecstatic prophecy and formalized it, eg. visions and dreams interpreted by angels. The ecstatic prophet entered a state beyond self, 1Sam.19:24, 1Kings18:28, either spontaneously, or induced by music, 1Sam.10:5, 2Kings 3:15, or dance, 1Kings 18:28.
In the New Testament, both John and Jesus use the formal prophetic role. They give a clear declaration of God's word. In Acts and Corinthians we see an outburst of ecstatic prophecy (tongues), which, although valid, Paul seeks to limit because of its limited value in comparison to prophecy. It would be better for ecstatics to prophesy, than speak in tongues.
In the years 100 A.D. to 200 A.D. the role of the prophet was well defined. The prophet was to give a clear declaration of God's word, strong exhortation based on Biblical truths. That word was, at times, specific, at other times, general. Consider this prophecy by Ignatius, "Do nothing without the bishop (elder, administrator). Keep your flesh as a shrine of God. Love union. Flee divisions, become followers of Jesus Christ as He also was of the Father." Ignatius gave this prophecy to a badly divided church. He claimed he knew nothing of their problems when later they accused him of rudeness. The truth always hurts.
No mention was made of tongues as such, although Iraneaus in the second century mentions those who, through the Spirit, "speak all kinds of languages". We certainly know that ecstatic prophecy, ecstasy, flourished from time to time. Montanus and his followers from 157 A.D. onward, were renowned for their ecstatic prophecy. "Moved by the spirit he suddenly fell into a state of possession, as it were, an abnormal ecstasy, in-so-much that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds, that is to say, prophesying contrary to the manner which the church had received." His followers called it "a prophetical gift of the Holy Spirit", or a "prophetical spirit". The following is an example of their ecstatic prophecy: "Behold a man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum. The man sleeps, and I remain awake. Behold it is the Lord that stirs the hearts of men, and gives them hearts." Eusebius H.E.V.
Through the Middle Ages ecstatic prophecy, ecstasy, was to be found in Christian Mysticism, while after the Reformation it flourished in small revival groups such as the Ranters and Shakers, Quakers and Anabaptists, and later the early Methodists.
So Biblical tongues is probably ecstatic prophecy. A word from the Lord, seen in visions or dreams, delivered in ecstasy and couched in visionary language.
Modern tongues are an extension of ecstatic prophecy. In Charismatic circles words of prophecy are delivered in tongues and declared to the congregation by interpretation. There have been occasions where the tongue-speaker has used a foreign language unknown to themselves, but interpreted by a church member who can speak the language.
Yet there are some differences which move modern tongues away from Biblical tongues (ecstatic prophecy).
1. The predominance of non-language
This is not in line with the New Testament where the evidence is that language was used, normally that of the tongue-speaker, although in a strange way (ecstatically). This has caused problems on public occasions where there are differences between interpretations of the same tongue.
2. Personal tongue-speaking
Again this does not line up with the New Testament where tongue speaking was a church activity. Tongues is a ministry for the church. Modern tongues can be provoked and learned quite predictably and is without meaning. It is therefore more religious enthusiasm than tongues/ecstatic prophecy. None-the-less it is possible that modern tongues align with the New Testament idea of praying in a tongue, 1Cor14:13-19. It may parallel praying with the Spirit, cf. Eph.6:15, Rom.8:26-27.
3. The tendency to expect all to have this gift
Again this does not line up with the New Testament where the gift is seen as one among many, and even then not an important one. Each member of Christ's Body has their role. We all can't be eyes. The confusion on this point comes from an incorrect understanding of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Tongues in the Bible is a gift of ecstatic prophecy. We may pray for it because as a gift it is good, yet it would be better to pray for a gift that edifies the congregation, especially prophecy.
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