Is Speaking in Tongues for Today?

Title: Is Speaking in Tongues for Today?

Text: Acts 2:1-13, 1 Corinthians 13

Time: March 9, 2008

Two weeks ago I talked about the baptism and the filling of the Holy Spirit, as the topic came up in the Book of Acts. Last week I talked about speaking in tongues, what it is and what types of speaking in tongues are there. This week, I want to finish up on the topic of speaking in tongues as it relates to Acts 2 and Pentecost. If you remember last week, I said that there were two main type of speaking in tongues: public tongues, the one kind being different languages for the purpose of preaching the gospel like a missionary, the other kind for discipleship in the church when coupled with the gift of interpretation of tongues. That is public tongues. Then there are private tongues, that is, an individual believer’s private prayer language that the Apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14. I just heard a radio broadcast on Sunday as I was traveling to Michigan to visit my parents that taught that the Bible teaches nothing of any private prayer speaking in tongues, but only speaking in tongues for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship in public. But if that is the case, what does the Apostle Paul mean when he says in 1 Corinthians 14:2, 4 “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. . . . He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” And also, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. . . . I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you,” 1 Corinthians 14:14, 18. Clearly, the Apostle Paul is describing a private prayer language that individual believers use not for evangelism, not for discipleship, but for personal edification. So anyone who says that there is no private use for speaking in tongues isn’t reading the New Testament accurately. It’s there for all to see; it’s plain as day. But there are more questions concerning speaking in tongues that I didn’t answer last week which I want to cover this week before we finish up on this controversial topic. Speaking in tongues is something that has in the past divided churches and divided Christians because it’s so controversial. But it doesn’t have to be a source of division if everyone will just sit down with their Bibles and read and interpret the relevant passages accurately. That’s what I hope to do this morning. The big question for us today: is speaking in tongues for today? Or put differently, “Is speaking in tongues possible today or did speaking in tongues pass away with the early Christian church, or with the end of the apostolic era, or with the closing of the biblical canon of scripture?” There are many Christians, many churches, some entire denominations that consider speaking in tongues obsolete for today. They teach that it was an early manifestation of the early church that passed away when it was no longer needed. Today, they teach, we have the Bible as God’s Word and therefore we don’t need any tongues or prophecy or miraculous gifts of the Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians by the Apostle Paul. But is this what the Bible actually teaches? The main passage in the New Testament used to teach that speaking in tongues has passed away is 1 Corinthians 13, so let’s look at some key verses in this passage to determine if tongues have really passed away or if they are really possible for us today. 1 Corinthians 13 (read). Three questions arise out of this passage. 

First question: have speaking in tongues ceased? 1 Corinthians 13:8 (KJV), “Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” The NIV translation says, “Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.” Other translations use the words “disappear” and “not continue forever” and “become useless” to describe tongues. Now the argument goes that since in this passage the Apostle Paul says that tongues, and we assume he’s talking about speaking in tongues, will pass away or cease or disappear or not continue forever, then that’s what has in fact happened; tongues have ceased and are no longer available for use today. But the problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t fit the context of the passage and doesn’t really make sense when taken together with the other spiritual gifts of prophecy and knowledge. The entire verse reads, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” But clearly, all of these things haven’t ceased, or passed away, or disappeared. For example, knowledge, or even the gift of knowledge, surely hasn’t passed away or ceased yet. There are still gifted people in the Christian church that possess the gift of knowledge. There are still people in Christianity that exercise this gift today, people who possess extraordinary knowledge about many different things, either general knowledge or specific knowledge. What does it mean to possess knowledge? The verse doesn’t use the word “gift” before describing knowledge, but we presume it’s speaking about the gift of knowledge. What is this gift of knowledge that will “vanish away?” It could be describing what teachers and educators possess in Christian schools and colleges and universities and seminaries. People with great knowledge about many things, particularly theology and the Bible. Or it could mean the very specific spiritual gift of knowledge mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8 by the Apostle Paul. If this is what it means, then it’s describing individuals that possess knowledge through supernatural means, or through ways they themselves can’t fully understand, sort of like intuition. But again, clearly, people do possess such a gift today, gifted persons with extra-ordinary insight that benefits themselves and others and also the Christian church and even the wider community at-large. And if the gift of knowledge hasn’t stopped, why should we single out speaking in tongues to cease? It isn’t a proven fact that the gift of prophecy has ceased, so again, why should we pick on speaking in tongues to cease? No, it seems arbitrary to single out speaking in tongues for cessation, when there are other spiritual manifestations described in the New Testament that we acknowledge as still in existence. It looks like we have to read into this verse what we want to prove in order to show that tongues have ceased. But that isn’t a fair interpretation. So it doesn’t prove anything. Speaking in tongues can’t be disproved by quoting this verse. But what about other verses in this passage, might they show that tongues are no longer for today?

Second question: have “imperfect” tongues disappeared when the “perfect” Bible was completed? 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” This passage is used by many to “prove” that speaking in tongues is no longer to be expected because we now have the complete New Testament and therefore we no longer need spontaneous spiritual revelations like speaking in tongues. The argument goes that during the early apostolic Christian church, there was no fixed canon of scripture; there was no complete New Testament yet, and therefore prophets and tongue speakers were needed to give revelation to the church. But gradually over time, as the different books of the New Testament were written and collected, the need for certain spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues disappeared. Once the church had the complete Bible, the partial or incomplete forms of revelation such as prophecy and speaking in tongues disappeared. Famous theologian of the 19th century B.B. Warfield popularized the interpretation that the supernatural spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues disappeared with the closing of the New Testament canon. The complete Bible represents the “perfect” mentioned in the verse, so that when we understand the verse it should really read something like, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part (or speak in tongues in part), but when the perfect (or complete biblical revelation with the collection and official recognition of all the New Testament books is completed), when the final and full revelation of God comes, the imperfect (spiritual revelation gifts, such as prophecy and tongues) disappears.” So many people see that the “perfect” in this verse refers to the complete New Testament which occurred around the middle of the 4th century. Now some people think it refers to the actual completion of the writings of the New Testament books, but not necessarily the collection of them later. Some people see the “perfect” as a reference to the close of the apostolic era, when the last of the official apostles died and the written revelation of the New Testament books began to be the fixed authority in the church. All of these possibilities are used to “prove” that speaking in tongues disappeared in past church history, and no longer available for today. But the answer to all of these arguments is: the perfect described in this verse doesn’t refer to the Bible or the New Testament, it refers to the Second Coming of Christ. In fact, if we examine church history, the classic and historical interpretation of the verse has always made reference to Christ’s Second Coming, not to the Bible or the close of the apostolic age. Yes, the Bible is “perfect” in the sense that it is without errors or mistakes and is totally trustworthy for faith and practice, but that doesn’t mean that the word “perfect” in this verse is talking about the Bible. It isn’t. It’s referring to the day when Christ appears, which is made plain later in the verse. So let’s turn now to the final argument from the passage against speaking in tongues today.

Question three: does “putting away childish ways” describe speaking in tongues passing away? 1 Corinthians 13:11-12, “When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The argument here is that the early church was immature, even childish in that it didn’t have a fixed and solid revelation foundation. There were prophets and speakers of tongues and teachers of all kinds operating in the early church. The Apostles taught true revelation from God but there were also independent prophets and revelation through others in addition to the Apostles. After the death of the Apostles there was clearly a need for a firm and fixed revelation from God in the form of written scriptures. That’s why the New Testament developed as an addition to the Old Testament scriptures. When the New Testament writings began to be circulated they brought maturity into the early church, and then finally in the 4th century, when the New Testament collection of books were officially collected, fixed and closed at 27 books, this last step brought about the final maturity of the Christian church. The earlier immaturity was done away with in order to now operate in mature way with the complete Bible, so the argument goes. Things like prophecy and speaking in tongues passed away as part of the immature beginnings of the church in order to make room for the mature and complete revelation of God through the finished New Testament. So then, goes the argument, tongues aren’t needed today nor to be sought after or expected, since they passed away when the final books of the Bible were recognized. But like the previous argument, this is wrong. The maturity didn’t happen when the New Testament was completed, it will happen when Christ returns. Paul is talking about a still future event, not a past event. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” is describing the very reality that even today, 2000 years later, as Christians we still know in part, we still are ignorant of spiritual truth to some degree. That’s why there are different interpretations of verses in the Bible. We know in part now, but when Christ returns, He will explain all things to us and make known mysteries to us that have been hidden. It isn’t describing the Bible, it’s describing Christ making all things known at His coming. The childish ways refers to the present state of Christianity now and the becoming a mature man or putting off childish ways refers to the state that Christians will be when Christ returns and makes us mature by His presence. So what we see is that there really are no strong arguments for saying that speaking in tongues has passed away. That doesn’t mean that everything that is called speaking in tongues really is speaking in tongues. But it does mean that speaking in tongues can really happen even today and there is nothing in the Bible that rules it out for today.

If you are interested in speaking in tongues and would like to learn more about it, I suggest that you re-read all the passages in the New Testament that mentions it and then ask God if this is something that He wants you to become involved with. Again, it isn’t something that everyone must do, it isn’t something that everyone even can do, but it is something that some can do based upon what God wants to do in their lives. I have cousin down in Costa Rica right now where she and her husband are learning to speak Spanish in order to become missionaries to the Spanish speaking people of Latin America. They have to go through hours and hours of language classes which will probably takes month and months. But even after all these classes, they still will struggle to learn to speak Spanish in real life. Wouldn’t it be nice if God assisted them in some way in some supernatural form, in some form of speaking in tongues? Sure it would. I don’t think we should rule that out from happening. I remember when I went down to Mexico and Central America during my seminary training. I had to learn Spanish also, and I really do believe that God assisted me, not in giving me the complete knowledge of Spanish, but in giving me a supernatural ability to learn it quickly and use key spiritual words to communicate while I was down there. That could have been some form of speaking in tongues. Why not? The New Testament doesn’t teach that speaking in tongues passed away, as we’ve just seen. There are also millions and millions of Christians all over the world, especially in Latin America, who claim to speak in tongues. There are also whole churches and entire Christian denominations that testify to the reality of speaking in tongues. Again, that doesn’t mean that everything they teach about speaking in tongues is 100% accurate, or that everything they practice is 100% biblically sound. But it does show that speaking in tongues isn’t some fringe activity carried out by a group of obscurantist believers. No. Speaking in tongues is a widely practiced spiritual activity, and it’s safe to say that it’s almost now nearly fully accepted in the wider Christian community. Again, that doesn’t mean that everything taught and everything that happens in Pentecostal and charismatic church is biblical. The reality is that today there are many unsound practices done in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, but that’s true in all Christian churches as well. No. The point is that the Bible describes a phenomenon called speaking in tongues and treats it as a legitimate spiritual expression. And so today, we too should recognize that speaking in tongues does occur and we should accept it as a legitimate Christian practice, all the while being cautious and careful to test all things by the Bible, including speaking in tongues, especially speaking in tongues.

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