Tongue Twisting

Speaking in tongues has caused controversy for as long as I can remember. For those of you who may not have any idea of what I am talking about, let me explain. Speaking in tongues, as it is commonly understood, is a phenomenon by which people make ecstatic incomprehensible sounds. Some people consider it to be a form of worship, but others believe that is only an emotional release or something worth. But, what does the Bible say about it?

The division point of this controversy rests on the interpretation of the word tongues. If you believe the word refers to different languages then you are most likely to be against it, if you believe it is a form of ecstatic speech then you are probably for it. Personally, I do not support the modern tongues movement, because I believe the Bible teaches that it refers to different languages.

On the day of Pentecost we are told that the disciples began to speak in "tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4)." The interpretation of this phenomenon follows:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each one of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians - we hear telling them in our own language the mighty works of God (Acts 2:5-11)."
It is clear that on the day of Pentecost speaking tongues meant they were speaking in different languages. The disciples where given an extraordinary gift to be able to speak in languages they had never learned, and may not have even understood as we will see later. The rest of the teaching on tongues is given in the letter to Corinth. This letter is difficult to understand. I have to admit that I do not find it perspicuous, but I think it can be interpreted consistently.

Right from the start of chapter 14 the definition of tongues being languages is put to the test. It says, "for one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:2)." At first glance it seems that tongues can indeed be an ecstatic utterance, but it is difficult to maintain that definition throughout the chapter without doing interpretive yoga. It must also be pointed out that mysteries in the biblical sense does not mean mysterious (i.e. not being able to understand), it means a revelation of God. That being said, crucial to harmonizing the accounts in Acts and Corinthians is recognizing the audience of both events. The listeners in Acts where non-believers who spoke many different languages, the listeners in Corinthians where believers who spoke the same language. If a different language was spoken in the Corinthian church, it would not have been understood, at least by the majority. Speaking a different language to people who don't understand is like "speaking into the air (1 Cor. 14:9)." The point is not that tongues is a language that only God understands, but that it is a language that only people who know it can understand. God of course can understand all languages.
There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me (1 Cor. 14:10-11).
Just because someone speaks in tongues does not mean they understand what they are saying. Paul writes, "if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful (1 Cor. 14:14)." There is the gift of speaking different languages and there is the gift of understanding different languages (1 Cor. 12:10), but they are separate gifts. The person who speaks may not understand, and the person who understands may not speak.

We have talked a lot about about tongues, but what is the purpose of tongues? In Acts the purpose of tongues was to tell of the mighty acts of God to unbelievers in their own language, but in Corinthians there is a subtle shift because the audience is now believers who don't understand different languages. Tongues spoken to someone who understands is different then tongues spoken to somebody who does not understand. To the unbeliever who understands it is a sign of the mighty acts of God, but to the unbeliever who does not understand it is a sign of judgment. Paul explains this with a quotation from the Old Testament, when God used the Assyrians, a people of foreign speech, to judge the Israelites. "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord (1 Cor. 14:21)." If an unbeliever comes to church and does not understand what is being said, they will still be under the judgment of God. This is what Paul means when he says, "If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds (1 Cor. 14:23)?"

If you accept that tongues are different languages, which seems to be the most natural reading, then the rest falls into place. But, if you don't there are some difficulties that need to be properly explained. Why does it refer to the meaning of languages, if this "heavenly" language has no earthly meaning (1 Cor. 14:10-11)? After speaking about the purpose of tongues in the church, why does it refer to the real language of the Assyrians? I suppose it could be argued that these are just examples of languages, but then a reason would still be needed for a different explanation then what was given in Acts. If you don't have a clear line of reasoning then your bias will fill the gaps.

In summary, tongues are different languages. The gift of tongues is a speaking gift only, there is a separate gift of interpretation. Therefore, a person's mind may be unfruitful since he does not actually understand what he is saying. The purpose of tongues is to declare God's mighty acts to those who understand, but is a sign of judgment to those who don't understand and obey. There is still the question as to whether the gift of tongues is still given today, but that is another topic.


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