Updated: Jul 31
God is not ambiguous. The Scripture is clear that “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). God speaks clearly. When humans misunderstand the Bible, then, it is the fault of their hermeneutics, or Biblical interpretation. Speaking in tongues is a controversial issue in Christianity, but we know that God speaks plainly. Thus, the problem lies with those who do not align with the Holy Spirit to interpret the plain, exact meaning of the biblical text. Unfortunately, the Pentecostal-Charismatic belief that the sign-gifts persist, particularly the sign-gift of tongues, falls into this category of ignoring what is clear. Speaking in tongues is not dictated by Scripture, but by experience and “handling the word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
The word for “tongue” or “tongues” is found 50 times in the New Testament. This word, “glossa," is used four different ways:
- Thirteen times meaning the physical tongue (Mark 7:33, 35; Luke 1:64; 16:24; Romans 3:13; 14:11; Philippians 2:11; James 1:26; 3:5, 6, 8; Revelation 16:10);
- Once describing the tongues of fire that appeared at Pentecost (Acts 2:3);
- Once poetically referring to speaking (Acts 2:26);
- The other 35 times indicating normal human language.
The debate of tongue-speaking is located at these 35 places where a foreign language is spoken. One aspect of this debate is whether the tongues were real languages, or a spontaneous outburst of unintelligible words. Yet, in the three well-known accounts of tongue-speaking—Acts 2, 10, and 19—there is no indication that the tongues were anything other than real human languages. Acts 2:9-10, for example, provides a list of the languages in which the apostles spoke at Pentecost.
A second aspect of the debate is whether this Spirit-enabled gift of speaking unknown languages persists today. To this issue several points can be raised. One point is that the book of Acts is a transitional book, a bridge between the Old Testament era and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Church age. Certain things that happened in the first century, like the gift of tongues, were temporary works of God and were never intended to become permanent patterns. The sign-gift of speaking in tongues was the outward, visible evidence of the inauguration of the Spirit-empowered Church. Once the Church had been established, the signs of its establishment, including tongues, were no longer necessary. A careful study of the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians demonstrates that this is true: the miraculous gift of tongues cannot be repeated today. This is a reasonable sequence of events, for if the sign-gift of tongues were perpetual, it would cause curiosity, confusion, and controversy, distracting from the very thing God meant to draw attention to, His Church.
Another point about the persistence of tongues is a four-fold pattern that is found whenever tongues are referenced in the book of Acts. One, Jews are present; two, an apostle or apostles are present; three, foreign languages are spoken that are unknown to the speaker; four, Jews were saved. Those who believe tongue-speaking continues today must admit that it was not possible to meet all four of these conditions after the first century, when the apostles had died and the Church had become overwhelmingly Gentile.
Yet another point about the persistence of tongues is that the Bible declares that the sign-gifts were temporary and have ceased. In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul sets out to prove that love is the superior gift that lasts forever. To do this, he contrasts love with something temporary, the sign gifts. “Charity never faileth,” he says. “But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). In verse 10, grammar rules dictate that the word for “perfect” must refer to a thing or object. If what is permanent is love, what thing is contrastingly temporary? Spirit-enabled tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. With the completion of the New Testament canon, the apostolic, prophetic offices which spoke new revelation from God, and sign gifts that verified that God was speaking, are no longer needed.
To summarize, the sign-gift of speaking in tongues ceased at the end of the first century with the permanent and complete revelation of the Word of God. Why should we believe, then, that the sign-gifts, including the speaking of tongues, continued after the last book of the Bible was written?
The consensus among the early believers of church history was also that tongues had ceased. One such example from the fourth century was Chrysostom who, when referencing 1 Corinthians 14, agreed that “this whole passage is very obscure; but the obscurity arises from our ignorance of the facts described, which, though familiar with those to whom the apostle wrote, have ceased to occur.” The appearance of tongue-speaking is relatively recent. We find eighteen centuries of church history devoid of speaking in tongues. Has there been a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit in the twentieth century when none came before? Surely not.
The Pentecostal-Charismatic theology and practice of speaking in tongues is out of line with both Scripture and church history. Honest Pentecostals and Charismatics should acknowledge that what happened in the first century church is not the same as what is going on in their churches today. Instead, the ongoing “revelation” of heavenly utterances, prophecies, visions, and experiences undermines the authority of the complete revelation of Scripture.
The above article was written by Pastor Jim Larger. He is the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Farmersburg, IN. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email us at email@example.com.
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