(This document is intended as a supplement to the sermon that I gave at Woodland Park Community Church on July 7, 2013. The following convictions on the extraordinary / miraculous / sensational gifts are those of Stephen Denton. Any reproduction or other use of this document is prohibited without the express written consent of Major League Baseball).
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably interested in my persuasion on the more extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. Or you need to fall asleep. Or you’re picking this up off the floor in an effort to clean the church lobby. Anyway, here we go.
Within the category of “sign” gifts, arguably the most misunderstood / confusing gifts revolve around the issue of “tongues”, so this brief article is my attempt to show you how I came to my convictions regarding this enigma.
FIRST AND LAST
Within the scholarly, evangelical camp, this issue of the sign gifts is—controversial. There are men and women I admire across the whole Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, disciple-making spectrum who disagree with one another on the meaning, interpretation, and experience of these gifts today.
So if you disagree with where I land, let’s be friends anyway.
On one side of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the miraculous gifts died out, or “ceased”, with the apostles—those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 9:1, 15:8). On the other side, there are those who believe that these gifts continue on today and are not to be regarded with contempt, but rather desired.
At the end of the day, whatever you decide, remember: this topic is miniature in importance compared to the great commission of making disciples, preaching the Word, striving for holiness, and maintaining unity within the body. If the gifts that are meant to edify the church end up harming the church, we have become divisive—we have failed.
This phenomenon makes its entrance at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in Acts, chapter two:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.”
Now, a really good way to go about Bible Study is to begin with observation only. Not “what does it mean?” but simply “what does it say?” Here are a few things:
- Tongues showed up uninvited. Nobody was trying to speak in tongues.
- Tongues appears to be a real language, known to foreigners, because Luke finds it profitable to list out the regions. Additionally, he records the hearers of the respective languages understanding the tongues as “speaking of the mighty deeds of God”.
- Tongues are weird. Look at the adjectives: bewildered, amazed, astonished, with “great perplexity”. So much so, that the outsiders (who probably didn’t know the languages, or were further away) thought the participants were drunk.
Let’s warp to the next occasion we see tongues (Acts 10), where Peter had just finished a gospel-heavy sermon to a mixed crowd at Caesarea:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
OK, less information here about the nature of tongues, but what is the emphasis of this passage? There is amazement still—not so much at the phenomenon of tongues, but at the inclusion of the Gentile believers. The miracle here insists on unity between gentile and Jewish believers.
Last of all in the book of Acts, in Chapter 19—this time it’s Paul at Ephesus:
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.
This last example gives very little press at all to the occasion of tongues, and there are only twelve men involved.
Tongues then again appears in the book of 1 Corinthians (chapters 12-14), where Paul is writing the letter to the church at Corinth in response to a previous letter they had sent him, in which they asked a number of questions. One of these questions was on the issue of spiritual gifts and the use of tongues.
Now, before we look at snippets of Paul’s response to the Corinthians, let me zoom out again: Tongues does not appear in the rest of Paul’s letters to any churches, even the second letter to Corinth. Nor in Peter’s letters, nor in John’s. What should that communicate to us about the importance of tongues? About it’s essentiality in coming to faith and growing in Christ? About it’s prevalence in the Christian community?
Now, let’s pick back up with our observations out of 1 Corinthians, beginning with chapter 12:27-30:
God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?
What do you observe with respect to the gift of tongues?
- The “sign” gifts are subordinate in priority to the more “normal” gifts, evidenced by Paul’s use of the word “first” (πρωτον)
- The gift of tongues, like all other gifts, is not to be expected to be experienced by all believers.
The next chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is known for being the chapter read aloud at weddings. Wait, why does “the love chapter” get sandwiched in between two chapters dealing with spiritual gifts and tongues? Seems odd, but the answer is simple: the Corinthian church was out of whack—they were getting caught up in the “minors” (tongues, etc.) and neglecting the “majors” (love, unity, service, sacrifice, etc.). The observation: Paul writes this section of the letter not to be a manual on the use of tongues, but to correct the abuse of tongues. So what does Paul say?
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love…” (1 Cor 13:1)
Hold. on. “tongues…of angels?” Nobody really knows what this means (a wild guess is that there is an actual language angels speak to one another, which made it’s way into the gift of tongues). And a cardinal rule of interpreting Scripture is that you cannot build doctrine on such shaky ground. So we move on:
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
This passage indicates the miraculous nature of the gifts listed belong to this present age, and will “be done away” or “cease” with the coming of Christ in His kingdom. Gordon Fee, in his eminent commentary on 1 Corinthians, states “’knowledge’ In this passage does not mean ordinary human knowing or learning, but refers rather to that special manifestation of the spirit, the ‘utterance of knowledge’ (12:8), which understands revealed ‘mysteries’ (13:2)”
The extensive chapter on tongues is 1 Corinthians 14. I do not desire to reproduce a commentary here, but let me extract some relevant snippets:
- One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God (2)
- I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. (5)
- if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? (6)
- unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? (9)
- I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. (18-19)
- If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church (27-28)
Do you hear Paul constantly downplaying the use of tongues? Do you see his strong preference for rational, coherent, understandable preaching & teaching? Moving on:
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (14-15)
In context here, the “prayer” is a public prayer (16, 19), not a private prayer. Many in the charismatic tradition have used this verse as a bedrock to support the definition of tongues as a “private prayer language”, but this misses the context. I do not find support in Scripture for the use of tongues in private prayer, but rather Paul’s counter-insistence: “I will pray with the mind”. Remember: all spiritual gifts are for the edification of others. Lastly:
…desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner. (39-40)
This is the last thought in the chapter, and provides a fitting balance to Paul’s correction of the Corinthian church, who, having read Paul’s long rebuke of their misuse of the gifts, might be tempted to over-correct and outlaw tongues completely.
- Tongues are real languages, understood by men (and/or angels?) somewhere on earth or in heaven. Tongues are not gibberish. Tongues are not babbling.
- Tongues are not “on-call”, like the other gifts. If you have the gift of teaching, you use it when you teach, because you have what Darrell Bock calls the “consistent endowment” of the gift. But the sign gifts appear to be ad hoc, or one-off manifestations of the Spirit.
- If the Holy Spirit is still empowering tongues today, it is extremely rare (i.e. I’ve never seen it, and I’ve been in a lot of churches in a lot of countries, even among unreached peoples where tongues probably makes the most sense to show up). We have airplanes and Google Translate now. Tongues are not to be expected, and yet not absolutely prohibited, unless they fail the test of spirits (1 John 4:1).
- Tongues have been counterfeited everywhere, just like other gifts (e.g. false “teachers”, false “prophets”, etc.)
- I would classify myself as “almost a cessationist”. Meaning, I find compelling support in Scripture that the gift of tongues may have ended, but I am not convinced enough to guarantee it.
Now, go love each other.