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A Closer Look at

Speaking in
TONGUES
■ A major segment of Christianity The seven sons of Sceva had to learn this les- clearly explain that these “tongues” (glossa in
believes that speaking in tongues son the hard way (Acts 19:12-16). Greek) refer to known languages. Verse 8 also
and other “spiritual gifts” are It is important to note that Jesus made this relates a lesser-mentioned fact—that everyone
necessary to validate the gift of statement in the context of the great commis- heard them speak in their own dialect (Greek
sion to preach the gospel. Even on their train- dialektos).
the Holy Spirit in the lives of ing tour, the disciples were given the power to This passage clarifies the meaning of “new
Christians. What can we learn anoint and heal the sick and to cast out demons tongues” in Mark 16:17. These languages
from a closer look at the scriptures (Mark 6:7-13). were not new in the sense of being unknown.
on this subject? In Luke’s account of the disciples’ amaze- Rather, they were new to those who spoke
ment over the results of their ministry (Luke them because they had never spoken these
by Larry J. Walker 10:17-20), Jesus had promised them “authority languages before. The range of meanings
to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over of kainos (translated “new” in Mark 16:17)
Speaking in tongues was one of the spiritual all the power of the enemy” and said, “Noth- includes “unused” and pertaining “to being
gifts that accompanied the coming of the Holy ing shall by any means hurt you.” The apostle not previously present” (A Greek-English
Spirit, marking the beginning of the New Tes- Paul was able to shake off with no harm a Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
tament Church on the Day of Pentecost after poisonous snake that had bitten him during his Christian Literature, Third Edition (BDAG),
Christ’s death and resurrection. ministry on the island of Malta (Acts 28:3-6). by Frederick William Danker, et. al., from
Surprisingly, the gift of tongues is men- Mark 16:17 relates primarily to promises for BibleWorks software, 2000).
tioned in only seven chapters in the New Tes- the apostles and elders in the line of duty. But Their ability to speak the language of anoth-
tament. Examining these passages will help us even for them, the promises were not auto- er nation had nothing to do with human train-
understand the Bible teaching on the subject matic, universal and for all time. The gift of ing or learning but was a miracle from God.
and its relevance for God’s Church today. healing is subject to God’s will (1 Corinthians “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
12:4-11). For example, the apostle Paul had and began to speak in other languages, as the
Mark 16:17 a gift of healing (Acts 19:11), yet later in his Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4, NRSV).
Mark 16:17 appears to support the teach- ministry we read that Paul left fellow laborer Peter quoted the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32
ing that speaking in tongues is necessary by Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). to explain this phenomenon as an initial fulfill-
including “they will speak with new tongues” One assumes that Paul anointed Trophimus ment of the dramatic signs and wonders that
with several “signs” that “will follow those and prayed for him, but he was not healed. would take place “before the coming of the
who believe.” Paul was also stricken with some malady and great and awesome day of the Lord” (Acts
Does this passage mean that everyone who besought the Lord three times, but he was not 2:14-21).
is baptized will always experience all of these healed (2 Corinthians 12:5-8). In addition to the impact of the miraculous
spiritual gifts? If so, it would mean that any So Mark 16:17 does not prove that speaking aspect of this event was the practical benefit
believer should be able to lay hands on the sick in tongues is necessary to validate the presence that everyone present was able to understand
and cast out demons. There are no New Testa- of the Holy Spirit. each other without interpretation. Some have
ment examples of anointing and laying on of pointed out that this was the opposite of what
hands for healing by anyone other than Jesus Acts 2:1-21 took place at the Tower of Babel.
Christ, the apostles and elders of the Church. When the Holy Spirit was first given, all
Although anyone can use the name of Christ present were “filled with the Holy Spirit and Acts 10:44-48
to rebuke evil spirits, casting out demons in began to speak with other tongues, as the Spir- The historical context of this passage is the
others is also primarily a ministerial function. it gave them utterance” (verse 4). Verses 7-11 beginning of salvation being made available

Reprinted from Ministerial Quarterly, www.ucg.org © 2005


to gentiles. Luke mentions briefly that Jewish source of information on the subject. Testament times as well as throughout Greek
members were impressed by the fact that the However, the foundational passage for history.
gentiles spoke in tongues, and as a result rec- determining the method and meaning of The BDAG lexicon offers as one definition
ommended that they be baptized. The miracle speaking in tongues should be Acts 2 for of glossa, “an utterance outside the normal
of tongues was thus a “sign” of God’s pres- several reasons: patterns of intelligible speech and therefore
ence and power that proved to them that God • Pentecost was the first occurrence of this requiring special interpretation, ecstatic
had given the gentile believers the Holy Spirit gift. language, ecstatic speech, tongue,” and
as He had previously done for Jewish believ- • The text clearly states that the miracle was concludes, “There is no doubt about the thing
ers on Pentecost. from God. referred to, namely the strange speech of
• The text clearly explains that the gift of persons in religious ecstasy … as found in
Acts 19:1-7 tongues (glossa) refers to a supernatural ability Hellenistic religion” (BDAG lexicon from
This passage describes the baptism of 12 to speak in known languages. BibleWorks software).
men in Ephesus who “spoke with tongues What about Corinth? Have you ever Putting these two verses together suggests
and prophesied” after “the Holy Spirit came wondered why the Corinthians, with all of their that the Corinthian congregation’s lack
upon them” (verses 5-6). These men had not carnality and related problems, would be given of understanding regarding spiritual gifts
even heard of the Holy Spirit prior to meeting the gift of tongues? combined with the influence of their pagan
Paul. So when they were baptized, God chose We need to read very carefully what Paul past resulted in problems that Paul addresses
to confirm the existence and presence of the wrote to the Corinthians in order to assess their specifically in chapter 14. So Paul had to
Holy Spirit by means of the gift of tongues situation properly. explain how God works in regard to spiritual
and prophecy. This event marked the begin- gifts to correct the errors in their understanding
ning of the congregation in Ephesus, one of Background and context of 1 and practice resulting from their pagan past.
the major congregations in the early Church. Corinthians 14 It would be a mistake to think of the
Paul wrote this letter to the Church of God worship service in Corinth as being similar to
Historical summary at Corinth to deal with serious problems, an orderly, structured service with preassigned
So far, we have seen that Jesus promised including congregational rifts, intellectual sermonette and sermon. Rather, it was a
spiritual gifts to His disciples to help them vanity and overemphasis on knowledge, disorganized, disruptive, disorderly scene
fulfill their preaching ministry. All three serious misconduct relating to Passover with members clamoring to be heard with
passages in Acts chronicle milestone events in observance, involvement and participation either a “teaching” (didache), a “tongue,” a
the foundational history of the New Testament in pagan ceremonies, doctrinal heresies and “revelation” or an interpretation (14:26). These
Church. In all three cases, it is important disorder in church services. He also wrote to unregulated, spontaneous displays resulted in
to factor in the Jewish mind-set that Paul reply to these and other questions posed to him chaos and confusion in their worship services
explains in 1 Corinthians 1:22, “Jews demand by members of the congregation (7:1). (14:33, 40). The fact that Paul concludes the
miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom” Paul begins dealing with this problem by chapter with the admonition, “Let all things
(NIV). Or as the NLT puts it, “The Jews … explaining basic points about spiritual gifts be done decently and in order” tells us that
want a sign from heaven to prove it is true.” (12:1-30) on the heels of a lengthy discussion decency and order were not present in their
So God chose to confirm His presence in of idolatry. The contextual connection of these services.
these key events by means of the miracle of two topics suggests that the pagan, idolatrous The Corinthians were apparently making a
speaking in tongues, as promised by Jesus in past of many in the congregation had a direct false show of spirituality with their spiritual
Mark 16:17. bearing on their errors of belief and practice gifts. Their display of false spirituality
Unlike the other promises Jesus offered the regarding spiritual gifts, as well as affecting was causing division in the Church. John
disciples in Mark 16:17, the passages in Acts many of their other problems. MacArthur offers an excellent assessment
show that speaking in tongues and the gift of In chapter 12 Paul seeks to set the record of the charismatic chaos in Corinth, “The
prophecy were practiced by new believers, straight about spiritual gifts in response to desire to ‘look spiritual’ was why the gift of
not just by the apostles and elders. However, questions that they had asked in their letter languages was exploited and perverted to
the accounts indicate only that this was done to him. In verse 1 he begins the specific such a great degree” (The Charismatics: A
immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit. topic of spiritual gifts by expressing a desire Doctrinal Perspective, p. 108).
There is no indication that these new converts for the Corinthians to not be “ignorant” So Paul instructs them on the purpose of
continued to speak in tongues and prophesy on (“uninformed”—NRSV) on the subject of spiritual gifts. He shows them that one member
other occasions to prove that they had the Holy spiritual gifts. The implication is that they were of the Body of Christ is not superior to another
Spirit. uninformed about this at the time of writing. member of the Body of Christ just because he
In verse 2 he refers to their pagan has a gift that another person doesn’t possess.
Tongues in Corinth background, which involved counterfeits of In fact, the purpose of spiritual gifts is to edify
This brings us to the situation in Corinth. Far true spiritual gifts. Theological Dictionary of the whole Body of Christ.
more information on the subject of “tongues” the New Testament by Gerhard Kittel (Vol. 1, While some were flaunting what they
appears in 1 Corinthians than all of the p. 722) documents a number of extrabiblical claimed to be their spiritual gifts, especially
previous passages combined. Many consider references in which glossa refers to ecstatic speaking in tongues, others were not being
1 Corinthians 14, which has often been called utterances in pagan cults, documenting that edified (14:2-19). Paul puts this topic in proper
“the tongues chapter,” as the most definitive this was a common religious practice in New perspective by emphasizing that dramatic

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displays of faith are worthless if not based would result in edification of the congregation. statements. These could have been heretical
on love (12:31-13:13), which forms the Instead of several people talking at the same impostors infiltrating the services seeking to
springboard of his admonitions for restoring time, he instructs them to take turns speaking undermine the work of God and/or members
decency and order to their worship service and enjoins respectful silence upon the rest of of the congregation influenced and inspired
(14:1a). Love must be the motivating force the congregation so that they might learn and by the wrong spirit to utter this blasphemous
behind the proper use of spiritual gifts, and be edified (14:27-31). statement.
edification of the Church is the intended result In addition to this practical information, Another point to consider is that the
(14:1-19). Paul subtly and inductively explains how true “tongues” miracle on Pentecost resulted in
How, he asks, can anyone be edified by spiritual gifts are manifested in the hopes that people understanding what was said without
someone speaking in a tongue (language) that some would realize that these characteristics interpretation as they heard in their own
he or she doesn’t understand? He encourages do not match what was taking place in their dialect what was being spoken (Acts 2:8).
them to desire rather to “prophesy” (“to congregation. The “tongues” spoken in Corinth did not.
proclaim an inspired revelation”—BDAG In verse 32 he writes, “The spirits of So no one was edified because they did not
lexicon, from BibleWorks software). prophets are subject to [the control of] the understand what was being said (1 Corinthians
Paul explains that the gift of tongues is to be prophets,” hoping that some will recognize that 14:6-19).
a “sign” to unbelievers, not to fellow Church members exercising what they claimed as their Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians,
members (14:22). He emphasizes the priority spiritual gifts were out of control. it is obvious that members of the congregation
of “prophesying” within the congregation, In verse 33 he writes, “God is not the were uninformed on the subject of spiritual
because this results in edification of the body, author of confusion,” leading to the obvious gifts. This and the influence of their pagan past
whereas speaking in a different language conclusion that God is not the source of this resulted in the chaotic, disorderly displays that
(especially without interpretation) is, at best, chaos and pandemonium. The Expositor’s Paul sought to set straight. So the Corinthians
edifying only to the speaker (14:1-5). Bible Commentary notes, “The word do not provide a model for the proper practice
Although speaking in tongues is to be akatastasia is a strong one, indicating great of speaking in tongues.
a “sign” to unbelievers, if a nonmember disturbance, disorder, or even insurrection
happened to walk into their service, he or revolution (Luke 21:9). Paul is afraid Conclusions
would think they were “out of their minds” if of unregulated worship that might lead to Speaking in tongues is a supernatural gift that
everyone were speaking in tongues (14:23). On disorderly conduct and belie the God of peace God has given at times during the history of the
the other hand, if everyone were prophesying, who has called them to be orderly” (Vol. 10, Church to further the growth and development
the combined effect could result in the person p. 276). of His work. It is neither a guarantee nor a proof
worshipping God, with the conviction that God When we understand the chaotic, disorderly of conversion. It was certainly never intended to
was working through them (14:24-25). state of affairs that Paul addresses in 1 be used to try to show spiritual superiority as in
But regardless of what spiritual gift one may Corinthians 14, it is apparent that this chapter the manner of conduct that Paul encountered at
desire to express, it must be done in an orderly does not present a model for understanding Corinth. Nor was it meant to be practiced at all
fashion in order to achieve positive results speaking in tongues or exercising spiritual times by all believers as a proof of the presence
(14:26-33). He concludes this instruction gifts, but rather how not to. of the Holy Spirit.
by stating that “God is not the author of The true spiritual gift of speaking in tongues
confusion” (14:33), implying that God is Influence of Corinthians’ pagan had a strategic purpose in the plan of God in
neither pleased with, nor the source of, the past the early history of the Church. As Peter tells
disorderly condition of their alleged spiritual Is it possible that at least some of the us in Acts 2, the Bible prophesies a great time
conduct. Corinthians’ charismatic practices were satanic, of genuine charismatic revival, accompanied
After making these fundamental points, Paul pagan counterfeits? Consider Paul’s statement by heavenly signs “before the coming of the
gives specific instructions for correcting the in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “Therefore [in view of great and awesome day of the Lord” (Acts
problems that have resulted in chaos (14:26- their ignorance and pagan past] I want you to 2:14-21; Joel 2:28-32).
40). understand that no one speaking by the Spirit However dramatic, speaking in tongues is
If anyone speaks in a tongue, there must of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no only a temporary phenomenon with limited
be someone to interpret, for the sake of being one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy value. As Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians
understood by the rest of the congregation Spirit” (NRSV). 13:8 (NRSV), “But as for prophecies, they will
(14:6-17). Paul emphasizes this priority by Why would Paul make such a statement? come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease;
stating that he would rather utter only five Apparently because some, claiming to be as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” As
words that result in the audience understanding prophesying, did say “Let Jesus be cursed.” he advised the Corinthians, “Earnestly desire
than ten thousand words in a language that This statement reflects a Gnostic belief that the best gifts. And yet I show you a more
the audience would not understand (14:19). rejects the humanity of Jesus and is certainly excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). That
He emphasizes the motivation of love for not of God, as Paul plainly states. He does way is love, because “love never ends” (1
exercising spiritual gifts in a manner that not tell us who and how many made these Corinthians 13:8, NRSV).

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