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Speaking in Tongues

Acts records the phenomenon of people speaking in languages foreign and unknown to the speakers till the moment described, yet these were identifiable languages which means they were understandable to those who knew those languages. These languages had not previously been learned by the speakers, but the ability to speak in those languages was given by the Lord from heaven as additional signs, like the miracles of healing, to authenticate the new testimony and spread the gospel.

Reasons for God-given Tongues

Four special occasions warranted this divine intervention of speaking in foreign languages to authenticate the new testimony:

1.      At the very beginning of the formation of the Church, God’s endorsement was given through His extraordinary intervention, emphasizing a new unity and a new testimony, as the Lord from heaven was speaking to His earthly people – though they had rejected Him – through these foreign languages (Mk. 16:19-20; 1 Cor. 14:21-22).

2.      With the extension of the testimony, this was now to include the Samaritans (Acts 8) who had formerly set up a rival temple-religion. However, the new Christian testimony was to join the Samaritans together with the Jewish believers, both on entirely new ground. The God-given tongues confirmed this new testimony.

3.      At the introduction of Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10:46), the Gentile believers were speaking in tongues, doing the same thing as some of the believers in Acts 2:11 had done, glorifying God. Paul obviously spoke in foreign languages as he traveled.

4.      Some of the former disciples of John the Baptist, who were living in Ephesus, had not yet heard the gospel of God’s grace, but were instructed by Paul (like Apollos earlier by Prisca and Aquila, Acts 18:25). Then they were baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus in whom they now believed. Paul identified himself with them through the laying on of hands, as they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5-6; 1 Cor. 12:13). Speaking in tongues, they “prophesied” as being God’s instruments.

Notice the order of events in all four cases was different, which demonstrates the transitional character of Acts. It should not be used to doctrinally establish one of the different sequences of events as the standard for all, nor to state that speaking in tongues is a sign of Spirit baptism and a requirement for all believers.

Some Problems with Today’s Tongues’ Movement

Today the issue of “speaking in tongues” plays an important role in many circles. We want to consider some of the reasons why Bible-believing Christians should not join popular movements in our days in which this phenomenon is being promoted and claimed as God-given. We will discuss briefly several points, which lead to the conclusion that the present-day tongues’ movement is not of God.

1.      1 Corinthians is the only Epistle that mentions the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This phenomenon, at the time given by God, has nothing in common with “praying in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:26; Eph. 6:18; Jude 20). Therefore, “speaking in tongues” is not essential, as some claim, for the life of faith of a Christian.

2.      In the Scriptures, “tongues” always mean languages that really exist (or existed). The Greek word “glossa” is also used in the phrase “tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:2) to indicate the tongue as a member of the human body. It is further used in Revelation 5:9 “every tribe, tongue, and people…” to represent the different populations on the earth with their diverse languages.

3.      Someone may speak in tongues (a foreign language he has learned), but this is never a proof that such a person is filled with or even indwelt by the Holy Spirit, let alone a spiritual believer (cf. 1 Cor. 1:5; 3:1).

4.      The gift of tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the sense He gives this gift through sovereign grace to some in the Assembly and He works in them (1 Cor. 12).

5.      As a gift of the Spirit, tongues receives the last place in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (which presents the order of importance from apostles and downwards) because its possibility to edify is very limited (1 Cor. 14) except in gospel work on the mission front. Paul, in his travels, spoke in foreign languages – certainly using his spiritual gifts – but not in his home assembly (1 Cor. 14:19).

6.      Only the apostles and some of those conver­ted by their ministry spoke in tongues. Generally speaking, the sign-gifts were limited to the apostles (Acts 2:43; 3:7-9; 5:12, 15; 9:40; 19:11).

7.      The signs are given as proofs and characteristics of the work of an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). Apostles must have been with the Lord during His earthly ministry or have seen the risen Lord, as happened to Paul (Acts 1:21-26; 9:3; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8).

8.      The signs and miracles, including tongues, were given by God to confirm His Word (Mk. 16:17; Heb. 2:3-4; Jn. 2:23-25). The passage in Hebrews 2 refers to sign-gifts as something of the past – already history when this Epistle was written a few years before the destruction of the temple in 70 a.d.

9.      Speaking in tongues, therefore, is a sign for the unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:19-25) so they could grasp what was being said (vv.22-23). The gift of healing in New Testament times was used for the benefit of unbelievers, especially among the Jews who looked for signs, to make them realize that God’s Word was being preached as He established a new testimony. We do not read about healing of believers, rather the contrary (see 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Tim. 5:23; 2 Tim. 4:20; Gal. 4:13-14; 2 Cor. 12:7).

10.  Speaking in tongues is only described in the book of Acts when new groups of believers were introduced into the Assembly (or Church) – Jews in Acts 2, Gentiles in Acts 10 and disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19:6. All spoke in different languages and that without having to ask for it or demand God to give them that gift!

11.  With the progression of the testimony in Acts, the number of signs and miracles gradually diminishes. Studying Acts more closely, we observe that signs and wonders are not repeated, but occur only when the gospel is presented for the first time. In fact, Jerusalem is the only place where multiple miracles are recorded.

12.  Scripture presents two scenarios when signs and wonders take place. Most commonly they are characteristic for the very beginning of a new dispensation. By way of exception they also occur as a unique and temporary testimony to warn God’s people of soon-coming judgments. Moses, Joshua, our Lord, the twelve apostles and the seventy that were sent out, were only sent to Israel and fit in the first category, whereas Elijah and Elisha are in the second. The past testimony of signs and wonders at the beginning of the Christian era, as well as a future testimony after the Rapture, take place within the borders of the Roman Empire and are specifically meant for Israel.

13.  The completion of the Word of God put an end to the special revelations, prophecies and sign-gifts, including speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 13:8-10). While we will not discuss 1 Corinthians 12-14 in detail, we notice that we should distinguish the gifts of prophecy and revelation (Eph. 2:20) when the Word of God was not yet completed, from the gift of prophecy for edification, which continues to the present time (1 Cor. 13:8). The Word was complete before the apostles passed from this scene, as God did away with the temporary gifts.[1]

14.  Speaking in tongues is linked in the New Testament with Joel 2 (quoted in Acts 2) and Isaiah 28 (quoted in 1 Cor. 14:21) and intimately related to Israel. In Acts 2 and 19, and in Corinth, the Jews are addressed by different tongues. Thus, they heard the Word of their God spoken to them with “pagan” languages, something very exceptional.

15.  After the introduction of believing Gentiles into the Church and after the formal closing of the Jewish dispensation,[2] we read no more of sign-gifts, at least not on behalf of God during the period of grace.[3] After the Rapture God will give signs again, once more in connection with Israel: by the two witnesses in Jerusalem during the Great Tribulation (Rev. 11) and at the beginning of the coming millennial reign (Isa. 32:4; 35:5-6; Ps. 103).

16.   Regarding speaking in tongues as well as any speaking, it is stated in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women should be silent in the local assembly. Therefore, besides the arguments already given, that speaking in tongues as a gift of God was limited to the beginning of the Church, we now come to a command of God, given at the beginning, yet still valid for today. However, when these so-called “gifts” are displayed today, it is mostly women who are involved.[4]

17.  In religious movements and cults, such as Christian Science so-called, Theosophy, Adventists, and all kinds of Pentecostals and Charis­matics, women play an important role, either in the start of such movements or in their emotional practices. The Holy Spirit should control emotions, which, unfortunately, is often not the case. Genesis 2-3 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 indicate the roles God has given to women. These passages also show how the enemy attacks God’s order.

18.  Wrong use of speaking in tongues even in the days of the apostles was caused either by ignorance (1 Cor. 14:38), by lack of experience (1 Cor. 12:1), because of spiritual imperfection or immaturity (1 Cor. 2:6-16) or even wilful abuse (1 Cor. 4:19).

19.  Unbelievers can do signs (Mt. 7:22; Rev. 13; 2 Th. 2:9; 2 Chron. 18:21; Acts 16:16). Furthermore, so-called speaking in tongues has been practised in the past – even before the early days of the Church – by unbelievers and false teachers, as in our days: Plato, Virgil, before the Christian era; Irving et al (19th century), Mormons, Buddhists, Spiritists, besides so-called Charis­matics, in past and present days.

20.  True believers can place themselves under wrong, even diabolical influences as happened to Peter (Mt. 16:21-23). Are we better than Peter?

21.  The tongues spoken at the beginning of the Christian era were real languages which could be verified. Today, those who pretend to speak in languages (tongues) often do not know what language they speak or even what they say. Sometimes they try to justify themselves by saying that they are speaking in the tongues of angels – because nobody can check this.

22.  Usually, no interpretation is given. This is in disobedience to Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14. In reality, uncontrolled expressions that no one can translate are pronounced. Sometimes even curses are uttered, though in a language none of those present understands.[5] If interpretations are given, one may contradict the other, or they are sometimes much longer than the tongue-spoken message, or they are very subjective, instead of glorifying Christ.

23.  Amidst this confusion, a key passage is 1 Corinthians 14:15. It shows that one praying, singing or speaking in tongues – in its context this refers to men in the public meetings of the local assembly – must himself understand what he says. To heed this principle would be very beneficial for many Christians today who are involved in all kinds of man-made systems and may be placing themselves – without realising it – under demonic influences. Even so-called “singing in ton­gues” is practised today.

Closing Remarks about Speaking in Tongues

When practised according to the Bible, speaking in tongues is a sign from God, given to warn unbelievers of impending judgment. Because of this point, Scripture provides limiting conditions for its use within the Church, including the requirement that an interpretation should be given, also in the case of a visitor speaking a foreign language.

Furthermore, tongues were a characteristic of apostolic ministry to confirm the Word of God in a time when the Church was not yet established in all its diversity and when the revealed Word of God was not yet completed. The destruction of the temple temporarily closed the days of the Jewish era. With the establishment of the new Christian testimony, which included Jewish Christians, the exercise of the sign-gifts, including speaking in tongues, simply stopped.[6]

Though it includes many well-meaning believers, the modern-day tongues’ movement should be rejected, for in it demonic influences are at work, serving several purposes:

1.      To keep believers in ignorance and spiritual immaturity (Eph. 4:14);
2.      To make people believe that we can have the same “great things of God” (Acts 2:11) as in the early days of the Church, though we are in a day of small things (Zech. 4:10);
3.      To suggest that we are not subject to God’s dealings in discipline because of decline and disobedience, but should boast in man’s abilities and achievements;
4.      To sow discord among Christians while creating outward unity;
5.      To mobilize emotions, which are not controlled by the Spirit of God or His Word.

Several Errors Accompany Today’s Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues today is often accompanied by wrong doctrine and/or practice:

1.      Introducing, defending or propagating erroneous teachings concerning the Person and Work of Christ;

2.      Women playing a dominating role, forsaking the role assigned to them in the Word of God;

3.      A lack of true spiritual growth, in contrast to gaining from Paul’s ministry (Col. 1:28);

4.      Ignorance or lack of care with regard to doctrinal or moral evil, leading to a mixture of good and evil which can be observed in many different settings, including the integration of the Charismatic movement with Catholicism;

5.      Pretentious claims, a spirit of pride and disobedience, causing conflicts and dissensions as in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:3; 4:18; 11:16-18) because of a carnal condition.

The Lord has given His people the ability to understand His thoughts (1 Cor. 2:15) if they have the right spiritual attitude (1 Cor. 2:6). A Christian “speaking in tongues,” not knowing what he is saying, is inconsistent with his Christian position. Furthermore, in the days of ruin of the Christian profession, one’s duty is to make sure from which source – Christ or Satan – one receives instructions, influences or directives. James 3 is quite clear about the possibility of two different sources or fountains (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1-3).

Finally, the instructions given in 2 Timothy 2 provide much needed help for our days. Are we going to be true servants of the Lord? Are we willing to maintain His rights in the midst of the Christian profession where His authority has been rejected – not necessarily doctrinally, but often practically – by human arrangements or religious inventions in which Christ is not honoured as Lord? If we reject His authority and rights, we place ourselves under God’s governmental dealings of discipline as a consequence of our disobedience (Gal. 6:7; cf. Rom. 1:24-32). Ultimately, for some parts of the so-called charismatic movement, this discipline will be sent under the form of energy of error (lit. translation; others translate: a working of error or strong delusion). 2 Thessalonians 2:9 describes this event as a fulfilment of OT prophecy after the Rapture. However, the principle that such a phenomenon represents something that God is sending in His governmental dealings because of hardening and self-will in the Christian profession is applicable for today as well. It is our duty to keep His word and not deny His name (Rev. 3:8). May it please the Lord to keep us for His own glory, because of His name!

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© Alfred E. Bouter 2004 (Printed/Updated October 15, 2004)

[1] Remarkably Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, used two different verbs in the Greek text to differentiate between prophecy and know­ledge on the one hand, which “shall be done away with,” and speaking in tongues on the other, of which he says, “they shall cease” (of themselves, middle voice, 1 Cor. 13:8). This verb means “to pause” because the tongues will function again at the introduction of the millennial reign, but then in the opposite way: all will speak the same language (Isa. 19:18; Zeph. 3:9). However, before that time the different languages are for Israel a sign of judgment, whether in past (Jer. 5:15) or in future judgments (Isa. 28:11). Paul applies those warnings to the beginning of the new Christian testimony: that the Jews should listen (1 Cor. 14:21).

[2] Illustrated at the end of Acts 28 and implemented in the year 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple.

[3] The enemy will fool people through an energy of error, allowed by God, in the coming days of apostasy (2 Th. 2:8-12); however, a similar spirit of error is already at work, referred to as the mystery of iniquity.

[4] This is not said to discriminate against wo­men! It is a matter of obedience to the Lord Jesus and of submission to the authority of His Word. We should distinguish between the gift of speaking in tongues and the command of God that women should be silent in the meetings of the local assembly. It is certainly not our intention to try to limit the liberty and power of the Holy Spirit, but simply to show God’s thoughts for our days.

[5] If they really understood, they would be horrified and run away, as in fact sometimes has happened. Several verbal testimonies can be given as to this point from brothers who have passed away, but also written reports in books by Kurt Koch, Dave Hunt, Wolfgang Bühne, Fernand Legrand and others.

[6] As part of the foundation of the apostles and prophets of the New Testament (Eph. 2:20) Paul’s ministry completed God’s Word (Col. 1:25), closing the period God gave new revelations. For further study I suggest: All About Speaking in Tongues, by Fernand Legrand (available from Believers’ Bookshelf or Chapter Two).

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