A Study of Speaking in Tongues

A Study of Speaking in Tongues

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2001, 2010

Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

There is much confusion and controversy in our churches today about the phenomenon known as speaking in tongues. Some claim that the gift of speaking in tongues continues in our time as the Holy Spirit miraculously moves persons to speak in a language they had never learned. Other believers are convinced that the Scriptures leave no room for the continuation of that special gift beyond the founding era of the Apostolic church.

Ecstatic utterances as a phenomenon are not an uncommon human response to emotional events. They have been recorded throughout human history. In ancient Byblos (1100 BC) Amon is said to have possessed the supernatural ability to speak in ecstatic languages. Plato, several centuries before Christ, mentions pagans who spoke in ecstatic languages. Well known among them are those of the Dionysian cults, the Prophetess of Delphi, the maidens of Bacchus, and the Corybantines. Virgil mentions how the priestess on Delos became unified with the god Apollo and spoke with tongues. Many of the mystery cults and religions (the cults of Osiris, Mithra, Eleusian, Orphic, etc.) practiced ecstatic vocalizations claiming them to be, and believing them to be, supernaturally induced languages.

This practice is not only common among some groups claiming to be Christian such as the Jansenites, Quakers, Irvingites, Shakers, Mormons, and Charismatics. It is also practiced among Muslims, the Persian dervishes, certain Eskimos of Greenland, and has been reported among the pagan cultures of Tibet and China.

The Greek expression used in the New Testament for tongues speaking is glossa laleia. It was a well established Greek expression by the time it was employed by the New Testament writers. Kittel’s Theological Wordbook of the New Testament has over eight pages of detail about contemporary uses of this word at that time. This was not a new phenomenon.

There is no question that some type of tongues speaking was miraculously used by God at Pentecost and in the earliest churches in the Apostolic era. But there were distinguishing features that marked it out from the psychological phenomenon found among pagans. Someone’s experience of speaking in some ecstatic language does not in itself prove anything. If pagans abound in such things and are convinced they are from God, then the only way to test the source is by comparison with what God explains in his word about the purpose and occasion for the legitimate manifestation.

There are many questions related to this issue which would go beyond the intent of the particular purpose for which this paper was designed. This study will be limited to three primary issues.

1. The meaning and purpose of tongues in prophesy before the time of Christ
2. The fulfillment of the prophesy as expressed in the New Testament
3. The present situation relative to that ancient prophesy.

I. The meaning and purpose of tongues in prophesy before the time of Christ
The Bible mentions foreign languages in the context of God’s judgment on Israel. For example, as long ago as the time of Moses and on into the time of the prophet Isaiah God had warned Israel that he will use gentile nations to judge his people if they fall into apostasy. The following two verses are prime examples of this.

Deuteronomy 28:49 “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand’

Isaiah 28:11 “Indeed, He will speak to this people Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue’

God warned unbelieving Israel that she would be judged through the bringing of foreign nations speaking foreign tongues into the city of his rebellious covenant people. The hearing of foreign tongues spoken on the streets of Jerusalem should have been understood as the sign God had directly stated as the form his judgment would take upon his covenant nation. God was not angry with the believing remnant among them. This prophetic sign should assure those faithful ones that the unbelieving among them were about to experience God’s wrath for their hypocrisy and disobedience. The tongues of the New Testament were not unpredicted. They should have been understood in the context of this ancient warning.

II. The fulfillment of the prophesy as expressed in the New Testament
In the New Testament, when God was about to judge Israel for her unbelief. That nation’s leaders were not only violating his covenant, but they had also killed the Messiah who came to deliver them. Tongues were being manifest miraculously at that time, and explained in terms of these ancient words. The unbelieving among the Jews were being judged by God for their rejection of His ways, particularly shown by their failure to recognize the Messiah and their mistreatment of him. Therefore, the era of the Jews was ending and the era of a greater church (including gentiles) was about to begin. [see Acts 2 (Joel 2); Acts 10:46; Acts 19:6; 1 Corinthians 14].

The following chart compares some key passages to show those by whom God spoke (the source of the tongues speaking), and those to whom God spoke by tongues (the object of the tongues speaking).

Text Covenant
Deuteronomy 28:49   object source
Isaiah 28   object source
Acts 2 source object  
Acts 10:46 object   source
Acts 19:6 object   source
1 Corinthians 14 source object  

Notice that there are three groups in this chart representing two overlapping categories. There are the covenant people, some believing and some not. And there are the unbelievers, some covenant people and some not.

So who are the people to whom God reveals his judgment? It’s always to God’s covenant people.

What is the purpose of revealing His judgment in tongues? It’s to show God’s rejection of Israel as a nation, to show his use of the gentiles in ending their era [which finally took place in 70 AD by Rome], to confirm that the era of this fulfillment had come, to affirm the inclusion of gentile believers as part of the new era of the church (Acts 10:46, 19:6).

He spoke to the believing covenant people to assure them of his covenant promises, and to stir them to renewed hope and obedience as the new era of the covenant begins.

He spoke to the unbelieving covenant people to affirm judgment to them, even though they would probably not comprehend his message. They will affirm their own deserved judgment because they will not heed his warning and they will demonstrate the depraved nature of their unregenerated hearts by not comprehending or believing God’s word.

In 1 Corinthians 14, though many topics are covered due to the abuses in Corinth, this distinction is clear. 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 shows the meaning of tongues in the church.

“Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe. If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”

Paul as telling the Jews to be mature in their thinking regarding this matter. It wasn’t like the ecstatic utterances of the pagans which was a claim to spiritual superiority and sacred knowledge. Instead it was to remind them of God’s warning and promise in Scripture, particularly in Isaiah 28:11 which is quoted in verse 21.

Contrast: Prophesy Tongues
exclusive sign to: believers unbelievers
response of observers: conviction say you are mad

1 Corinthians 14:26-33 states the outcome: Paul’s practical advice to the church.
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”

Notice the similarity between the gifts of prophesy and tongues: When you gather, each with his gift, the goal is always edification. When someone speaks in tongues, it must by only by two or three at most, and someone must interpret or all must keep silent. When prophesy is offered it must be only by two or three at the most, and the others must judge by the standards God had given [see Deuteronomy 18:18-22, Acts 17:11]. In verse 30 the word revelation is used as a synonym for both activities.

While the apostolic foundation was being laid (Ephesians 2:20), the New Testament writers were being moved to record God’s word by the special gift of inspiration (1 Corinthians 14:37-40, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 Peter 3:15-16). Until that work was completed, God spoke by special revelation through the Apostles and specially gifted individuals in each community. They were to judge all prophesy as if it was a direct revelation from God.

But what was God revealing (communicating infallibly) through each gift? Prophesy is a special revelatory gift by which God directed the early church during this apostolic period of transition from the Levitical rituals and symbols into the age of fulfillment in Christ. Tongues are different. Their content is not as clearly explained in this context. There are two ways of interpreting the message being spoken in the tongues:

View #1. The tongues were secret messages equivalent with prophesy when interpreted.
According to this view, God spoke directly to individuals using a foreign language that had to be translated into their language for understanding. According to this view “interpretation” really means “translation”.

There are some problems with this first view. Bible translators don’t use the word “translate” here. Yet that would be the best word if this meant to put the content of what was said into the language understood by the listeners.

The Greek term used is diermaeneuae from the Greek root hermaeneuo. This is the term used in verses 5, 13, 26 and 27.

The Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich Greek lexicon gives the following meanings:
1) to explain, interpret, proclaim, discourse on
2) to translate
But it’s primary meaning is “to explain” or “to interpret something”. That’s the English word our versions chose to use.

Its based upon the same root word from which we get the theological term “hermaneutics”, the science of interpreting Scripture. It’s interesting that no where is a translation gven for the content of the occurrences of tongues in the New Testament. But many times there is an explanation of the purpose given in the prophetic books to those who were observing it.

It is likely that the intent here is not that someone should translate what was said in the tongues. But more probably it means that God required that there should be an explanation in every case so that those hearing would understand the prophetic meaning of the miraculous event. This would differentiate it from the pagan variety and show the purpose for which God was employing it.

If tongues were always to be “translated” when used in the church…
Why were they not beneficial in the church? (14:19,23)
Why does he say the mind remains unfruitful? (14:14)
Why couldn’t the ungifted also say “Amen”? (14:16)
What does it have to do with God’s judgment in Isaiah 28? (14:21)

Why use them in the church or in private where no unbeliever is present if in verse 22 it says that they are a sign to unbelievers?

View #2. The tongues were a sign of God’s coming judgment upon unbelieving Israel.
According to this view the interpretation of tongues was not that they be translated as to their content, but to be explained as to their prophetic meaning. This is what Peter did at Pentecost. Here Paul immediately links it with Isaiah 28 to show the meaning of the phenomena. He is not concerned with translating the content. He wants to be sure they understand the message of judgment upon apostate Israel which is communicated in this miracle.

If every time there was a manifestation of tongues the promise of God was remembered, it would edify the believers among the covenant people. It would stir hope in them that God was about to fulfill his promise of a new era for the church. This is exactly what happened at Pentecost and in the new churches as they were founded through out the Roman Empire.

III. The present situation relative to that ancient prophesy
If tongues speaking was a message to the covenant people of the first century to indicate that the time of the birth of the new era church was about to take place, that God would soon judge Israel for her unbelief and bring in an era of the Gentiles, then they could have no proper prophetic meaning in the church after the apostolic era. Once the great judgment of 70 AD when Jerusalem fell to Rome there would be no remaining purpose for this particular gift.

The tongues claimed by pagans, cultists and charismatics today could have nothing to do with the original purpose as stated in Deuteronomy 28 and Isaiah 28.

Some try to retain the gift in a manner totally alien to its use in the New Testament by claiming that they pray in tongues as a private prayer language. To support this practice they often quote the words of Paul in Romans 8:26. “… the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Charismatics often use this to argue that the Holy Spirit moves us to pray for things beyond our understanding in verbal sounds (groanings) rather than in our own language. They often call it praying in unknown spirit language. This is a serious abuse of this text.

There are three groanings in the context of Romans 8:
1. material creation :18-22
2. the believer :23-25
3. the indwelling Holy Spirit :26-27

Word used here for groaning does not mean a vocal “moaning”. It’s a straining of the emotions. The Greek term is ste-NA-tzo from ste-NOS. It’s something narrow or restricted. (The medical term “stenosis” is a restriction due to hardening of a passage way in the body, often of the heart valves or arteries.) Here it means the anguish of the soul, an inward sighing, due to painful limitations. This straining is like being forced to pass through a stiff or restricted opening. Its similar to our phrase, “being pulled through a key-hole” to show the stress of going through a difficult time.

It strains the context and grammar to make this a physical sound. Creation does not make a physical groaning sound. But it strains in its struggle awaiting the glorious consummation of God’s covenant promise to set it free from its curse. Neither does the Holy Spirit make groaning sounds within us that sound like languages. It is a reference to the Spirit’s agony concerning us as we struggle by the means of grace to be set free by the work of Christ. It’s the Spirit, not the believer that groans. And it’s not a sound. It’s an agony anticipating our promised redemption (Romans 8:23). The Spirit emotionally grieves for us and intercedes. The idea of prayer in a spirit language is totally foreign to this chapter.

1 Corinthians 14:14-15 mentions praying in a tongue. But Paul is not speaking of the practice of having a private prayer language here. That would have nothing to do with the message of Isaiah 28 as quoted in the same chapter (14:21). To make this a private use of prayer in tongues is totally contrary to the context. At the least Paul’s comment is unclear. Or he may have been enabled to manifest this miraculous sign of the soon coming of Christ’s judgment upon Israel as a personal confirmation from God of this great hope.

While we all must agree that a believer’s prayer must be “in the Spirit”, this is nowhere presented in Scripture as involving prayer that is in a foreign or spirit language.

There are many other issues related to the question of tongues. These basic principles presented here are established by the full context of Scripture. They set boundaries to keep us from the abuses so often seen in the church as it seeks assurances in ways other than those we are told to seek in the direct advice given in the many epistles written to the church by the varied authors of the New Testament.

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