The biblical gift of tongues is a major emphasis of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, but the Bible teaches that this was a temporary practice limited to the first churches. Following are six important lessons on the doctrine of tongues:
1. Biblical tongues were real earthly languages (Acts 2:4-11).
A foundational fact about biblical tongues is that they were real languages, not some sort of unintelligible mutterings. The law of first mention is an important rule of Bible interpretation, and the first time we see the exercise of tongues in the New Testament is in Acts 2:6-11. Here we see that the gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in a language that one had never learned. At least 14 or 15 different languages are mentioned here. These were normal earthly languages spoken by men in that day, and the Jewish disciples were able to speak in these languages even though they had never learned them. There is no reason to believe that the gift of tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is different from that mentioned in the book of Acts. In both places the tongues consisted of speaking in earthly languages that one had never learned. The same Greek word “glossa” is used for both. This word refers to the tongue itself (Mk. 7:33) or to a language spoken by the tongue.
2. Biblical tongues were a sign to unbelieving Israel regarding the founding of the church and they ceased when this purpose was completed (1 Corinthians 14:20-22).
Another foundational truth about biblical tongues is that they were chiefly a sign to Israel that God was extending the gospel to all nations. The Corinthians were abusing the spiritual gifts and were particularly enamored with tongues. As spiritual infants (1 Cor. 3:1), they were “showing off” to one another. Paul tells them to stop being children and to be men, by understanding the true purpose of tongues. It was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 28:11-12 that was directed to the Jews.
The miraculous tongues were a sign to the unbelieving Jews that God was speaking to all nations of men and calling them into one new spiritual body composed of both Jews and Gentiles. “This people” in Isaiah 28:11 refers to the Jewish nation to whom the prophet Isaiah was speaking.
Each time we see the gift of tongues exercised in the book of Acts Jews were present (Acts 2:6-11; 10:46; 19:6). On the day of Pentecost and in Acts 19 it was the Jews themselves that spoke in tongues. Fernand Legrand, a former Pentecostal, makes the following important observation:
“It is worth noting that wherever the sign appears, it is always in the presence of JEWS, and where we do not find Jews, as in Athens or in Malta, neither do we find the sign. ... It is in the very nature of the sign that we find the nature of their unbelief. ... The sign denounced or corrected their lack of faith concerning the salvation of those who spoke languages that were foreign to their own, that is, the Gentiles. .... But this was precisely what the Jews did not want to believe. In fact, they were ‘contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved’ (1 Thess. 2:15-16). ... The idea of now being made one with foreigners was more than the first-century Jews could stand. The thought alone was enough to fire up their Hebrew atavism. Yet that was the first thing they had to understand and finally admit. So God gave them the best sign possible to make them understand what they could not or would not believe; HE MIRACULOUSLY MADE JEWS SPEAK IN THE LANGUAGES OF FOREIGNERS. IN SO DOING, GOD PUT JEWISH PRAISE INTO THESE PAGAN TONGUES. ...
“A simple but attentive reading of the Bible reveals the scenario of fierce Jewish opposition towards everything that was not specifically Jewish. We see Jonah who hates the men of Nineveh to the point of disobeying God. ... In his frustration he goes as far as asking for his own death. If Nineveh lives, may Jonah die! ... This spirit of opposition and unbelief will only be reinforced over the centuries. The Jews belong to Yahveh and Yahveh to them, in a closed circle of bigotry; everyone else is cursed. ...
“Daring to suggest that people with a tongue different from their own could benefit from the goodness of God, was to risk one’s life. They led Jesus to the top of a hill to throw Him off because He had just said: ‘many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.’ Jesus added to their immense rage: ‘And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian’ (Luke 4:25-27). This was, in their eyes, more than enough to deserve death. ...
“What a narrative in Acts 22! The prisoner Paul stands on the steps of the fortress. He motions to the crowd with one hand and asks to speak. As he begins in Hebrew, silence falls upon the crowd. ... But at the very instant that he starts, ‘And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles,’ the sentence freezes in mid-air. They listened as far as that word Gentiles (or nations); and threw dust into the air, shouting, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.’ What made them explode like that? Simply the idea that God could also be the God of every man and every tongue.
“It is now easier to understand why speaking in tongues is the sign of this great truth and that for ‘this people’ it was the means of access to it. ...
“They alone had to be convinced to abandon this particular unbelief and to consider no longer impure the people and the languages that God considered pure, languages pure enough to be spoken by His Holy Spirit. ... This sign in foreign languages, like the triple vision of Peter, taught them that salvation was for ‘whosoever,’ for ‘all flesh,’ for ‘every tongue.’ ...
“But WHO in today’s Church composed of peoples, tribes, nations and languages, WHO still needs to be convinced by a repeated sign that the Spirit of God is poured out on all peoples, nations, tribes and languages?” (Legrand, All about Speaking in Tongues, pp. 24-27, 33).
It is impossible to have a correct doctrine of tongues without understanding that it was a sign to the nation Israel of the new thing that God was doing, which was extending the gospel to all men and bringing both Jews and Gentiles into a new spiritual body.
This clear biblical doctrine about tongues single-handedly refutes all modern tongues speaking. When Charles Parham’s Bible School students began speaking in “tongues” in Kansas in 1901 or when “tongues” broke out at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in 1906, what Jews were present? Had Jews been present, in what way could the tongues speaking have been a sign that God was extending the gospel to all nations and creating a new body through the Gospel? That sign had already been given 1,900 years earlier. In what way was that sign not entirely fulfilled in the first century? These are the hard questions that every Pentecostal and Charismatic must answer. If someone would reply that the Jews still need the sign of tongues, we would ask, “Why, then, has the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements almost entirely ignored this aspect of tongues?” Parham in Topeka and Seymour in Los Angeles did not seek for tongues as a sign to Israel but as a sign of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The same is true for the Assemblies of God and the Church of God of Prophecy and the Foursquare Pentecostal Churches and all the rest.
“Someone, after reading my book, said to me, ‘For you it all boils down to being a sign.’ Of course it does! Take a sign-post for instance; you may discourse at length on its height, its shape, the colour, the phosphorescence and size of its letters, but however accurate your remarks may be, it is impossible to get around the fact that its sole and ultimate purpose is to be a sign-post. And so is it with speaking in tongues. However you may look at it, the Holy Spirit said it was a SIGN for incredulous Israel. In this matter as in others, it can be seen that the rules of the game are not being followed” (Fernand Legrand, All about Speaking in Tongues, p. 67).
3. Biblical tongues ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The need for tongues as a sign to the Jews ceased entirely before the end of the first century. By 70 A.D. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman armies led by Titus and the Jews had been scattered to the nations. By then, Gentiles had come to Jesus Christ by the tens of thousands and Gentile churches had been established throughout the Roman Empire. The purpose for the gift of tongues as a sign to the nation Israel had ended. Israel had rejected the sign and she had been judged just as the prophet foretold. See Isaiah 28:11-13.
Isaiah not only prophesied that God would give the sign of tongues to Israel but he also prophesied that Israel would reject it and be judged, which is exactly what happened.
In 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 Paul taught that the gift of tongues would cease.
This passage is talking about the revelatory gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. It is not knowledge itself that will cease; it is the gift of knowledge. Likewise, it is not tongues that will cease; it is the gift of tongues.
When will these gifts cease? The passage indicates that they will cease in two stages. The gift of tongues is treated separately from the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. The gift of tongues is mentioned in verse 8 and then is not mentioned again, whereas the gifts of prophecy and knowledge are mentioned again in verses 9-10. I believe that this teaches that the gift of tongues would cease of its own accord prior to the cessation of the other two gifts. We can see this in the book of Acts. The final time that we see tongues speaking is in Acts 19. By that point in church history there was no question that God was calling the Gentiles by the gospel. That matter had been made crystal clear.
We know that tongues had long ceased to operate by the fourth century, because the preacher John Chrysostom made this comment on 1 Corinthians 12-14:
“This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to, and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place” (“Homilies on 1 Corinthians,” Vol. XII, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Hom. 29:2).
Once a sign has been fulfilled it is foolish to continue with it. If I were to tell someone who is meeting me at the airport that he will know me because I will be wearing a red hat, the red hat is the sign. Once we meet and he recognizes me by the sign of the hat, the need for the sign has ceased. If I were to continue to wear a red hat for the rest of my life, that would be foolish.
Thus, the gift of tongues ceased even before the events recorded in the book of Acts concluded, but the gifts of prophecy and knowledge continued to operate until “that which is perfect is come,” which was the completed canon of Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says the Scripture is able to make the man of God “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” The gifts of prophecy and knowledge were used by the prophets and apostles for the completion of Scripture and then they vanished. The final book of Scripture to be written was Revelation. John wrote it in his old age on the Isle of Patmos, and it concluded with a solemn divine warning not to add to or to take away from “the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:18-19). This applies not only to the book of Revelation itself but also to the entire Book of which Revelation forms the final chapter.
4. Biblical tongues were bound by apostolic direction (1 Corinthians 14).
Paul said, “Forbid not to speak in tongues,” but he also gave many restrictions on how tongues could be used. I have never seen the practice of “tongues” in modern times restrained by the apostolic rules.
a. Tongues are to be spoken only by course, one by one (“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course...” 1 Cor. 14:27). In most of the Pentecostal-Charismatic meetings I have attended, the “tongues” were spoken by many people at once.
b. Tongues must be interpreted (“and let one interpret” 1 Cor. 14:27). Rarely are the tongues messages interpreted in modern Pentecostalism, and when they are it is often obvious that the “interpretation” is something different than the “tongue.”
c. There is to be no confusion (“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” 1 Cor. 14:33). Every time I have been in a Pentecostal-Charismatic service where “the Spirit was moving” I have thought to myself, “This is confusing.” Disorder reigns. The “tongues” cannot be understood. Things happen that make no sense and that are not found in the Bible. But we are told that God is not the author of confusion, and that covers a lot of territory.
d. Women are not allowed to speak in tongues (“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 Cor. 14:34). Paul refers to the Law of Moses, which also said the woman is under the man’s authority (Gen. 3:16; Num. 30:3-13). Women have been at the forefront of “tongues” speaking since the inception of Pentecostalism. A woman was the first to speak in tongues at Parham’s Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. A woman was the first to speak in tongues at Seymour’s Azusa Street Mission. A reporter with the Los Angeles Times who visited the Mission on April 17, 1906, observed, “The old exhorter [Seymour] urged the ‘sisters’ to let the ‘tongues come forth’ and the women gave themselves over to a riot of religious fervor.”
e. Everything is to be decent (“Let all things be done decently” 1 Cor. 14:40). The Greek word translated decent is “euschemonos,” which is also translated “honestly” (Rom. 13:13; 1 Thes. 4:12). It carries the idea of moral decency and sincerity and integrity, of adorning the gospel of Jesus Christ and the church of Jesus Christ in such a manner that no reproach is brought upon it by our actions. When we think about the deception and fraud that is so prevalent in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement and when we think about the many times that women are allegedly overcome by the Spirit and fall in an indecent manner and have to be covered, it is obvious that all things are not done decently.
f. Everything is to be orderly (“Let all things be done decently and in order” 1 Cor. 14:40). The God of creation is the God of order. George Gardiner was a Pentecostal for many years, and he said that his journey out of Pentecostalism “began with nagging questions about the gulf between Charismatic practices and Scriptural statements--a very wide gulf!” (Gardiner, The Corinthian Catastrophe, p. 8). He determined to study the book of Acts. “I reread the book of Acts, slowly and carefully, praying as I did, ‘Lord, let me see what it says, and only what the Word says. Give me grace to accept it if I have been wrong and grace to apologize if I have been unduly critical. The journey through Acts was an eye opener! The actions and experiences of the early churches were far removed from the actions and ‘experiences’ of the modern movement. In some ways they were completely opposite!” (The Corinthian Catastrophe). I discovered the same thing as a young Christian. One thing that convinced me that Pentecostalism is not scriptural was that their “tongues” were not practiced in a biblical manner. I have attended Pentecostal and Charismatic meetings dozens of times in various parts of the world and I have never witnessed tongues operated scripturally.
5. The Pentecostal-Charismatic method of “speaking in tongues” is unscriptural and dangerous.
If we were to agree that there is such a thing today as “tongues speaking” or a “private prayer language” and that it would help us to live better Christian lives and if we were to accept the Pentecostal-Charismatic’s challenge to “try it,” the next question is, “How do I begin to speak in this ‘tongue’ or ‘prayer language’?” The following is a typical reply:
Step Number One. The first step, we are told, is to stop analyzing things and to open up to new experiences. A chapter in the book These Wonderful Gifts by Michael Harper is entitled “Letting Go and Letting God,” in which the believer is instructed to stop analyzing experiences so carefully and strictly, to stop “setting up alarm systems” and “squatting nervously behind protective walls.” He says the believer should step out from behind his “walls and infallible systems” and just open up to God. That is a necessary but unscriptural and exceedingly dangerous step toward receiving the Charismatic experiences. The Bible warns the believer to be sober and vigilant at all times (1 Peter 5:8). This means we are to be in control of our minds so as not to allow any harmful foreign influence. This is the exact opposite of “letting go” and ceasing to test things.
Step Number Two. Having stopped analyzing with Scripture, the standard method of experiencing the “gift of tongues” or a “private prayer language” is to open one’s mouth and to start speaking words but not words that one understands and allegedly “God will take control.”
This is so grossly unscriptural and nonsensical it would seem unnecessary to refute it. There is absolutely nothing like this in the New Testament. To ignore the Bible and to seek something that the Bible never says to seek in ways the Bible does not support and to open oneself uncritically to religious experiences like this puts one in danger of receiving “another spirit” (2 Cor. 11:4). The Bible warns Christians that there are deceiving spirits that attempt to influence Christians and that can appear as angels of light and ministers of God (2 Cor. 11:13-15; Mat. 24:24). Paul warned the Corinthians that they were in danger of receiving false spirits because of their carnal, tolerant, undiscerning condition (2 Cor. 11:3-4). The true Christian cannot be possessed by evil spirits, but he can certainly be influenced by them.
The Bible plainly teaches that tongues speaking was a divine miracle and that it was sovereignly given. “But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will” (1 Cor. 12:11). The disciples did not seek to speak in tongues on the day of Pentecost nor did they take a class on “letting go and letting God.” There is no evidence, in fact, that they even expected to speak in tongues. In every instance in which Christians spoke in tongues in the book of Acts the tongues were sovereignly given. In no instance were the recipients trying to speak in tongues.
6. Biblical tongues were not spoken by all Christians even in the first century (1 Corinthians 12:7-10, 28-30).
Paul asks, “Do all speak with tongues?” The question is rhetorical and the answer is no.
A simple survey of the book of Acts proves conclusively that not all believers in the early churches spoke in tongues. Even on the day of Pentecost, while the disciples that were in the upper room spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4), those that were saved that day through Peter’s preaching did not speak in tongues (Acts 2:40-42). The Jews that believed in Acts 4:4 and 6:7 did not speak in tongues. The Ethiopian Eunuch that was saved in Acts 8:35-39 did not speak in tongues. The first people who were saved at Antioch in Acts 11:20-21 did not speak in tongues. Lydia and her household who were saved in Acts 16:13-15 and the Philippian jailer and his family who were saved in Acts 16:30-33 did not speak in tongues. Those who were saved in Thessalonica and Berea and Athens in Acts 17:4, 12, 34 did not speak in tongues. Crispus and others who were saved at Corinth in Acts 18:8 did not speak in tongues. Those who believed in Ephesus in Acts 19:17-19 did not speak in tongues.
There is no emphasis whatsoever on tongues speaking in the New Testament. It was exercised only three times in all the book of Acts and the vast majority of the believers did not use it. To create the sort of emphasis upon tongues speaking that one finds in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement one must read many things into the Bible that are not there, and this is not the way that honest brethren use the Scriptures.
For a much more extensive study on tongues speaking, see The Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements, available from Way of Life Literature. In this book we deal with the so-called “private prayer language,” the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the filling of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of fire, tongues as a sign to believers, the interpretation of tongues, tongues speaking in the Roman Catholic Church and in the cults, and many other things.
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