Speaking in Tongues

In order to clearly understand this vital subject, we must go back to the time just before His crucifixion when Jesus first gave His disciples the promise of that most precious of all gifts.

Addressing them by the endearing term, “Little children,” He told them of His imminent departure. “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ “ John 13:33. He went on to tell them that, though He was to be gone, He would be working to prepare a place for them, and that, while He was going forward with this work for them, they were to continue preparing characters after the divine similitude. (See John 13:34.)

Jesus went on to tell His disciples that, contrary to appearances, His leaving would not result in a separation. Upon His departure they would receive the Comforter. In describing the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus sought to inspire His disciples with hope. He recognized that by imparting His Spirit, He was able to give to His people the highest gift it was possible to bestow. The Spirit was to be a regenerating power, making effective for them the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Given Only to the Obedient

In describing the office and work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus not only revealed the work that the Spirit was to do but laid out the truth regarding obedience: The Spirit was only to be given to the obedient. “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.” John 14:15–16. Inseparably bound up with love for Jesus is loyalty to His Law.

It is very important that we do not overlook or minimize the relationship between obedience and the gift of the Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” John 14:26. A part of this teaching done by the Holy Spirit is the reproving of sin. “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” John 16:8. And what is sin? “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” 1 John 3:4

“And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” Acts 5:32. God cannot minister to sin; He cannot cooperate with anyone who is not a doer of His Word.

The Gifts Counterfeited

In His sermon on the mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7, Jesus made a most startling announcement. “Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, `Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ " Matthew 7:21–23

Notice: The line of demarcation-the issue that divides between those whom Christ recognizes as His and those in whom a counterfeit spirit is working-is obedience.

Not all Receive the Same Gift

That the Holy Spirit is promised to all Christians does not imply that all will have the same gifts. The gift of tongues was not the only gift of the Spirit promised to the newly-founded church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul enumerates various gifts, including the gifts of teaching, church administration, prophecy, and the ability to work miracles. In giving the description of the gifts that were available, Paul is very specific that not all are to receive the same gift. “For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.” 1 Corinthians 12:8–11

After having likened the various gifts of the Spirit to the separate-and-yet-united body parts, Paul raises the questions: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:29–30. As all will agree, the obvious, though unstated answer is, No.

The Gift Abused

More is said about speaking in tongues in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth than in any other place. From the context, it is apparent that he was addressing a church that was abusing the gift. In addressing them, Paul sought to point out to them that in making this gift of such signal importance, they were reversing the gospel order, placing emphasis where God had not placed it. Consequently, after counseling them in the matter, he urged them to seek for the better gifts, most particularly the gift of prophecy. If, as many currently believe, the gift of speaking in tongues was a “sign” or “token” of having received the baptism of the Spirit, this counsel by the apostle would seem most inappropriate.

The True Gift of Tongues

In His parting words to His disciples, as recorded in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus told them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, “but to wait for the Promise of the Father.” Acts 1:4. And what was the Promise.for which they were to wait? The Holy Spirit. (See Acts 1:8.)

There is no intimation here that the coming of the Holy Spirit was for the purpose of giving them an unusual experience or as a sign of their acceptance and salvation or for any personal benefit to them as individuals. Rather, they were to receive this promised blessing as an aid to them in giving their witness.

There is no question that the disciples had a story to tell, but they were unqualified for the task that was before them. Before they could fulfill the commission of taking the gospel to the whole world, they were in need of the Spirit’s help.

In obedience to the final instructions of Jesus, the disciples waited for the promised blessing. As promised, a short time later as they were together in a certain place, suddenly there came a sound as of a rushing mighty wind. It seemed that it filled the whole house, and what appeared to be tongues of fire rested upon each of them.

At this time there was in Jerusalem a large gathering of pilgrims from all parts of the world, come to the temple to keep the feast. The disciples were now prepared to give their witness, and they immediately began to share with others the gospel of a crucified and risen Saviour. The next few verses identify more than a dozen different groups of people, all from different countries, each speaking a different language; but each could hear the apostles speaking in their own language. “And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language … Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” Acts 2:6, 41

A little later in the book of Acts, there is an occasion where the gift was manifested for an entirely different purpose. On this occasion Peter had been called to preach the gospel to an officer in the Roman army and his family. (See Acts 10:44–48.) From the experience that the apostle had just before his call to come and preach, it is apparent that he, as yet poorly understood the gospel commission; and the opposition called forth from the brethren in Jerusalem as a result of his having gone to a Gentile’s home confirms the fact that none of the believers clearly understood their responsibility to the Gentile world. While Peter was speaking, however, the Holy Spirit came upon his listeners with power; and they began to speak with tongues. It was only because of this evidence of acceptance by the Holy Spirit that Peter felt clear in baptizing them. (See Acts 11:15–18.)

When we examine the verses dealing with the misuse of tongues in the church at Corinth, we notice that Paul’s concern was that the gift be used to edify and teach. In fact, he pointed out that to speak in a language not commonly understood by those who were listening was a reproach to the gospel, something to be avoided. “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 out of your mind?”
1 Corinthians 14:23

Considering the counsel given, it is apparent that some of the believers at Corinth were creating much confusion by speaking in a tongue that others present could not understand. The burden of Paul’s entire discourse was that no one should speak in tongues except to minister to those who could not otherwise be reached. In conjunction with this counsel, the believers were told that translation of tongues was to find its place only as a means of instructing those who could not otherwise understand what was being communicated.

In summing up the counsel of Paul, it is very evident that the believers were using the gift of tongues in a way that was creating confusion and enlightening no one. This, he points out, is not the work of the Holy Spirit, for confusion has no place in the orderly manner of God’s working.

The modern tongues movement is similar to the ancient situation, though it perhaps creates even more confusion than that among the Corinthian believers. Instead of speaking in actual languages, those who profess to have the gift of tongues today fill the air with noise that cannot be identified as relating to any language on earth. This raises the question, Why would the Holy Spirit seek to speak through a person in sounds that are meaningless to all who listen? If the gift of tongues is to edify, why would it not manifest itself in the language of those present, that all might be enlightened and thereby benefited? Even when someone purports to be able to interpret these ecstatic utterances, there is no possible way to determine objectively the accuracy of the “interpretation.”

Gifts versus Fruits

In many minds there arises a confusion between the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. The “fruits” and “gifts” are two distinct manifestations of the Spirit. The fruits= “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22–23 KJV) are brought forth in the believer as the result of the work of the Spirit in his heart. These fruits develop as the result of a connection with Jesus and the surrender of the life to Him. This transformation of character is evidence of the work of the Spirit in the life and results in salvation.

The purpose of the gifts is altogether different. It is not their purpose to work a change in the person’s life. They are, rather, the work of the Spirit through him for the instruction and salvation of others. They provide power for witnessing. But for God to give the gifts of His Spirit to any but those who first have the fruits of the Spirit in their lives would be to place His approval on sin.

When Jesus sent His followers to the world with the commission of proclaiming the wonderful story of salvation, He marvelously equipped them to communicate that message through the gift of understandable tongues. Those who heard them speak took note of them that they had been with Jesus. (See Acts 4:13.)

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