Please take your time in reading this and earnestly pray for God’s truth regarding this still controversial subject. Do not rush. Block out all outside interference, and let the Holy Spirit teach you, via the word of God. May God bless this effort and fill me with his truth to impart on whomever desires a greater understanding. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
To fully grasp the “tongues” issue, one must focus on Chapters 12, 13 and 14 in 1 Corinthians. These chapters, along with a basic knowledge of the chronological events of the early church period, should clear up any confusion. An explanation of that history will serve as a foundation on which I’ll build.
When the Lord was on earth, his primary ministry was to the nation of Israel. He was Jewish, his disciples were Jewish, and the early church was Jewish. The Jewish people required a sign from God to believe: “For the Jews require a sign…” (1 Corinthians 1:22). The nation of Israel began thousands of years ago during their exodus from Egypt. That nation was formed with signs and wonders starting with the burning bush, the ten plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea right on through their 40 year trek in the wilderness. They needed signs – God said so. God gave them signs – they followed.
Outside of 1 Corinthians, “tongues” only show up in two other books: the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Acts. Let’s look at these references:
- In Mark 16:17-18, the Lord Jesus Christ makes a post-resurrection appearance to the eleven Apostles (twelve minus Judas). He imparts certain powers to them to continue the work already begun with the nation of Israel. (It’s absurd to believe that someone, in this age, has these powers available to them!) In the same passage which says they will “speak with new tongues,” it also says “if they drink any deadly thing, or “take up (handle) serpants (snakes)… it shall not hurt them” or “lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (and I don’t mean with the use of medicine!) Now, who wants to volunteer their apostolic powers and go drink some rat poison? Do you know anyone? Let’s be honest with each other… I think not. It was for the conversion of Israel; it was an Apostolic sign.
- The Book of Acts is the other book in which “tongues” appear. This book is not a letter or epistle as 1 Corinthians but, rather, a chronological account of the events of the Apostles from 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus until about 63 A.D. This period covers approximately 30+ years during which a tremendous transition (change) occurs. The believers of the Lord were no longer only going to be Jewish, but Gentiles also!
In Acts 2, Peter and the disciples preach to an exclusively Jewish audience. In Acts 8, the first non-Jew in the New Testament (an Ethiopian Eunuch) gets saved. In Acts 10, Peter opens the way to the Gentiles thru Cornelius the Roman Centurion. By the time Acts ends, Paul is preaching almost exclusively to the Gentiles. (Remember that Acts is a transitional book). What a turn of events! (See Acts 28:26-28) Notice the progression? You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with speaking in tongues?” It has everything to do with it! To understand what took place during this time is to understand how God uses “tongues” as well as other signs and wonders. As God’s dealings with Israel began to diminish, so too did the signs and wonders and miracles. “For the Jews require a sign…” (1 Cor. 1:22), but to the Christian he says, “for we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). A clear distinction between unbelieving Israel and the Christian will eliminate any questions as to whether God will continue to use a sign that was never intended for the edification of the church, but only to convince an unbelieving Jew of the Gospel!
Paul visits the Corinthians in Acts 18:1-11 (read it), which occurs in approximately 54 A.D. There was still a mix of Jew and Gentile within the synagogues throughout the region. This Jewish contingent explains the need for Paul to discuss the use and nature of “tongues.” Remember the translation? Please notice the last sentence in 18:6, “And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.”
Corinth was a large cosmopolitan city located in Greece with a strong Jewish population. The Corinthians were carnal babies (1 Cor. 3:1), not sound in their knowledge of God. Fornication among them was commonly reported (1 Cor. 5:1). They were puffed up, not separated (1 Cor.5:11), and unaware that their bodies were the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19). If that wasn’t bad enough, they would rather sue a Christian brother before a court of non- believers than settle the matter between themselves (1 Cor. 6:5-6). They were rebuked by Paul more than any other Church in the New Testament and were a spiritual mess. This was the Church that spoke with “tongues.” Discipline was not their strong suit! As we have already established, there was a need early on for this sign gift; however, they still misused their gift! Among the nine gifts he discusses in Chapter 12, Paul primarily focused on “tongues” because he was aware of the importance of the proper use of a gift. He gave instructions on how, and limitations on who and how many. Let’s examine:
- They were only to speak one at a time with no more than three people speaking in total.
- They were always to have someone interpret to edify the congregation.
- No women were allowed to speak with “tongues.” They were to be silent in church.
Now, an honest assessment of these rules on how to use “tongues” within the church probably knock’s out most of what passed for “speaking in tongues” in today’s churches! Again, keep in mind that there were still Jews present in Synagogues that needed signs during this transition. So with that in mind, consider every time “tongues” show up, it’s for the purpose of helping an unbelieving Jew understand or accept what God is doing.
In the Book of Acts, “tongues” first appear in Chapter 2 for the purpose of authenticating Peter’s, as well as the others,’ Apostleship. Their audience was exclusively Jewish. At that time, Jews from all over the known world were gathering at Jerusalem to celebrate Shavout (Pentecost) as was tradition. They had heard of the miraculous occurrences which had transpired (miracles, the resurrection, etc.). The “tongues” spoken were, in fact, foreign languages representing the various regions from where the Jews came. The gift was that everyone “heard them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:5) The result was 3,000 Jews getting saved by hearing Peter’s sermon in their own individual language, while the sermon was delivered in a separate language. A miracle! In both Acts 10 &19, it was God’s confirmation to the Jews who were present.
In the next example, after Peter preached to Cornelius, “…as many as came with Peter,” (the Jews) were astonished “because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (read 10:44-48!) Do you see what is happening? This transition, or change, is in full swing. The Jewish believers that came with Peter now understand it’s OK for the Gentiles to receive the gift of salvation. Got it?
And in the last case (Acts 19:1-6), it’s for the converts of John the Baptist to fully understand what has happened so they could then preach the Gospel of the Resurrection not just the Baptism of Repentance (John’s baptism). They were then sent to the Jews in the synagogue to help them believe. (Please read and familiarize yourself with these portions of scripture to fully understand this section.)
Although Paul did not forbid “tongues” to be used, he continually emphasized the better gift. The better gift, according to the God’s word, is prophesying, which means teaching. Teaching edifies the body… tongues don’t! I believe the single best verse to explain this is First Corinthians 14:22 which says, “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” Those “that believe not” are unbelieving Jews, and those “that believe” are Christians. Is that clear? In verse 19, Paul says he would “…rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Five versus 10,000 — what a comparison! Again, the emphasis is on teaching and understanding – not signs for an unbelieving Israel!
In I Corinthians 14:4, 5 (read) the same refrain, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues…” Again verse 12, “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.” The message is clear; downplay tongues, uplift teaching.
Another prominent point is the completion of the New Testament. In light of this, the focus was moved from an Old Testament manifestation of God through signs and wonders to a written revelation. Nothing, today, takes the place of the word of God in matters of faith and practice and, most importantly, in final authority. When it comes to honoring God and understanding what he expects from us, we must turn to His book, the Holy Bible. To do otherwise leads to spiritual deception. One’s intentions may be sincere, but again, sincerity by itself cannot override God’s truth.
For example, much like Catholics, Orthodox Jews, or devout Muslims seeking approval from God by a system of religious words, so too are sincere works void of Bible truth. Sincerity is not the issue! John 4:24 says, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit (right attitude) and in truth.” What is truth? “…thy word is truth” said our Lord Jesus Christ in John 17:17b. The Bible has the answers, not our feelings or opinions which, more often than not, run contrary to the word of God.
Although we often try to figure out God with natural understanding; it simply doesn’t work. The Bible tells us that man looks upon the outward, but God sees the heart. We can only see physically with the natural eye, but spiritually (by the word of God), the thoughts and intents are made manifest (read Hebrews 4:12). Remember, “…we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Eph. 6:12). Our battle is spiritual, not physical. The Enemy of our Soul can’t stop a Christian from getting to Heaven. It’s a gift… not an earned reward! However, he can sure hinder, neutralize, or even kill one’s growth! Satan operates in the spirit realm; he loves misguided sincerity but hates dogmatic Bible truth that’s properly discerned and expressed through a believer. The Bible commands us to “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)
In conclusion, the sign gift of “tongues” is not for Christians today. It’s no longer in operation during this dispensation of the Church Age, or at least not since the Apostles died off. Again, they were a sign used at the beginning of the Church Period for a short time and for a specific purpose….to convert unbelieving Israel to faith in Jesus Christ. But remembering the promise our Lord left his disciples in John 20:29 “…blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Thank the Lord for his written revelation to guide and direct Christians properly. Read, pray and ask for understanding with a pure heart and the God of the universe, The Lord Jesus Christ, will answer accordingly.
Written by Dr. Joseph Costa, Pastor